BERLIN | Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev crossed a formerly fortified border on Monday to cheers of “Gorby, Gorby,” as a throng of grateful Germans recalled the night 20 years ago that the Berlin Wall gave way to their desire for freedom and unity.
Within hours of a confused announcement on Nov. 9, 1989, that East Germany was lifting travel restrictions, hundreds of people streamed into the enclave that was West Berlin, marking a pivotal moment in the collapse of communism in Europe.
Mrs. Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and was one of thousands to cross that night, recalled that “before the joy of freedom came, many people suffered.”
She lauded Mr. Gorbachev, with whom she shared an umbrella amid a crush of hundreds of people eager for a glimpse of the man whom many still consider a hero for his role.
“We always knew that something had to happen there so that more could change here,” she said.
“You made this possible. You courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect,” she told Mr. Gorbachev in front of several hundred people gathered in light drizzle on the bridge over railway lines.
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Hours later in a symbolic gesture, 1980s pro-democracy leader Lech Walesa of Poland helped initiate a chain reaction that led to the toppling of 1,000 massive foam dominoes placed along the route of the now vanished wall. With Mr. Walesa was Miklos Meneth, Hungary’s last prime minister before communism collapsed.
The organizer of the dominoes, Moritz van Duelmen, director of Kulturprojekte Berlin, said the idea was to “make history according to the domino theory.”
Despite the passage of two decades, the day was filled with emotion.
Tears sprang to the eyes of Uwe Kross, a 65-year-old retiree who recalled seeing the start of the drama on Nov. 9, 1989, from his home a block away from the bridge.
“That night, you couldn’t stop people,” Mr. Kross said. “They lifted the barrier and everyone poured through.
“We saw it first on TV. Normally, it was very quiet up here, but that night we could hear the footsteps of those crossing - tap, tap, tap.”
Mrs. Merkel and other leaders were joined by prominent former East Germans such as Joachim Gauck, an ex-pastor who later oversaw the archives of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.
“Those in government thought they were opening a valve, but once it was open much more happened,” Mr. Gauck said of the border opening. “A collapse followed.”
Several other events helped mark Monday’s anniversary.
Music from Bon Jovi and Beethoven was to recall the joy of the border’s opening, which led to German reunification less than a year later and the swift demolition of most of the wall, which snaked for 96 miles around West Berlin, a capitalist enclave deep inside East Germany.
Memorials were held for the 136 people killed trying to cross the border.
The leaders of all 27 countries in the European Union and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were in Berlin for the ceremonies.
The wall’s opening in 1989 came hours after a botched announcement by a senior communist official on a cold, wet night.
At the end of a plodding news conference, Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski offhandedly said East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its border with West Germany.
Pressed on when the regulation would take effect, he looked down at his notes and stammered: “As far as I know, this enters into force … this is immediately, without delay.”
Mr. Schabowski said later he didn’t know that the change wasn’t supposed to be announced until the next morning.