NPR logo Berlin Marks 20th Anniversary Of Wall's Fall

Berlin Marks 20th Anniversary Of Wall's Fall

Fireworks explode over Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Monday as part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wolfgang Rattay/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Wolfgang Rattay/AFP/Getty Images

Fireworks explode over Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Monday as part of the celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Wolfgang Rattay/AFP/Getty Images

World leaders, dignitaries and ordinary Germans gathered Monday in Berlin to celebrate the night 20 years ago that the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, an iconic moment that marked the collapse of communism in Europe.

In a symbolic gesture, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former Polish labor leader and president Lech Walesa crossed a Berlin bridge on the former path of the wall as a steady drizzle fell. Thousands of Germans and foreign visitors to Berlin cheered "Gorby! Gorby!" to the former Soviet leader who pushed reforms in the Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Merkel grew up in East Germany and was one of thousands to cross into the West on Nov, 9, 1989. "Before the joy of freedom came, many people suffered," she said Monday.

In a videotaped message, President Obama said: "Nov. 9, 1989, will always be remembered and cherished in the United States. This anniversary is a reminder that human destiny will be what we make of it."

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Giant hand-painted and decorated dominoes lined a portion of the route once occupied by the wall. The 1,000 dominoes were toppled to symbolize fall of the communist regimes and iron curtain in Eastern Europe. The wall stood for almost three decades, dividing the city into East and West, as was the country following World War II.

In the throng of celebrants, 83-year-old Otto Meier recalled the night 20 years ago.

"It was the most beautiful moment in my life I suddenly jumped up and went up to my wife and daughter, who were in the kitchen. And I told them 'come in front of the TV, this is a second in life you are not going to experience again.' It was incredible," Meier said.

Seventeen-year-old Dominic Schwarz was not yet born when the wall fell, but he came to Berlin to celebrate the anniversary.

"We didn't have this experience like other people who are older, but I think it's important for us to know about our history," he said.

At a press conference on Nov. 9, 1989, an official of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, announced — prematurely and mistakenly — that visa restrictions would be eased effective immediately. The announcement came after weeks of massive protests had put pressure on the communist regime in East Germany to ease travel restrictions and offer political reforms.

(From left) Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Polish president Lech Walesa hold a signed print of people crossing the Boesbrucke border bridge as they cross the same bridge during a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall in Berlin on Monday. Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

(From left) Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Polish president Lech Walesa hold a signed print of people crossing the Boesbrucke border bridge as they cross the same bridge during a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall in Berlin on Monday.

Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

The events caused thousands of East Germans to stream into the West and in the following months democracy movements gained momentum across eastern Europe.

A university student in Berlin, Julia Knut, 29, recalled seeing the celebrations on television when she was a child and urging her parents, who were crying with joy, to take her to the wall as people tore down sections of the barrier.

They didn't take her. But she turned out Monday to watch the anniversary celebrations, along with classmates she might never have met had the wall not fallen. "My friend, she is from East Berlin and I am from the western part of Germany, so we couldn't be together if it hadn't happened in 1989," she said.

Concerts, fireworks and memorial services for those killed attempting to cross the wall were also part of the 20th anniversary celebrations.

American rocker Jon Bon Jovi and band played We Weren't Born To Follow on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate as a rain-soaked crowd of thousands danced and sang.

"Today marks a truly happy moment of the German and the European history," Merkel said. "Twenty years ago the door to freedom opened up and a seemingly invincible wall that divided a people and an entire continent suddenly became permeable. For me, it was one of the happiest moments of my life."