, BERLIN, Nov 9 – World leaders past and present on Monday gathered for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, with 100,000 people expected at celebrations to toast a free and united Europe.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is hosting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French and Russian presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev and representatives from across the European Union as well as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, ex-Polish president Lech Walesa and dissidents who helped bring down the Wall and end European communism would also be on hand at the former "death strip" between East and West Berlin.
At a ceremony late Sunday kicking off the official festivities, Clinton issued a call for a new transatlantic push to free those still oppressed.
"Our history did not end the night the Wall came down," she said.
"To expand freedom to more people, we cannot accept that freedom does not belong to all people. We cannot allow oppression defined and justified by religion or tribe to replace that of (communist) ideology."
On the night of November 9, 1989, following weeks of pro-democracy protests, East Germany’s Stalinist authorities suddenly opened the border.
After 28 years as prisoners of their own country, euphoric East Germans streamed to checkpoints and rushed past bewildered guards, many falling tearfully into the arms of West Germans welcoming them on the other side.
"Even in the 1980s, I never would have believed that the Wall would fall in my lifetime," Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, told Monday’s Bild newspaper.
"The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall should remind us all what incredible luck we had with the reunification of Europe and Germany."
Brown called the unity of Berlin, Germany and Europe "majestic" achievements, in remarks to be delivered at the Brandenburg Gate.
The Wall "was swept away by the greatest force of all — the unbreakable spirit of men and women who dared to dream in the darkness," he said.
Sarkozy shared his own memories of November 9 on his Facebook page, saying he had been in Berlin and was among the first to chip away at the Wall’s concrete slabs.
"We then headed for Checkpoint Charlie (border crossing) to see the eastern side of the city and finally confront this Wall and I was able to take a pickaxe to it," he wrote.
Meanwhile Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was posted as a KGB agent in Dresden under communism, said he had fond memories of East Germany including learning German, mountain excursions and contacts with local agents. Related article: Putin feels ‘nostalgia’ for East Germany
"But we see how the Federal Republic (united Germany) is developing and we are happy that we have good relations on a new basis," he said. "This of course makes any nostalgia secondary."
Merkel, Walesa and Gorbachev, who remains a revered figure here, will join former dissidents in crossing the former checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse, where hundreds of East Germans had their first taste of freedom.
The celebrations will later move to the Brandenburg Gate for an open-air concert and the symbolic toppling of 1,000 giant styrofoam dominoes along a two kilometres (1.2 mile) stretch of the former Wall’s path.
The daily Berliner Zeitung said such anniversaries would ensure that younger Europeans never forgot the courage of those behind the Iron Curtain who dared to challenge authority imposed by the barrel of a gun.
"A whole generation is unaware of the madness and will, in the best case, smile in pity when veterans of November 9 tell of that night," it said.
An overwhelming majority of Germans are still grateful for the Wall’s fall, according to a poll in the regional daily Leipziger Volkszeitung, with 79 percent of those surveyed calling November 9, 1989 a joyous day.
But sociologist Frithjof Hager of Berlin’s Free University said national unification, sealed in 1990, was still a work in progress.
"I believe the authoritarian mindset is still an issue (in the east) — such things only change very slowly. But I think simply pointing the finger at easterners would be deeply unfair," he told AFP.