Chancellor Angela Merkel led a series of commemorations Saturday in the German capital to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided the city during the Cold War until it was breached and torn down on November 9, 1989.
Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, said, “The Berlin Wall is gone and that teaches us that no wall that excludes people and restricts freedom is so high or so wide that it cannot be broken through.”
November 9 also is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Jews were attacked across Nazi Germany in 1938 — a foretaste of the horrors that would follow in the Holocaust.
“The 9th of November, which reflects in a special way both the horrible and the happy moments of our history, makes us aware that we have to face hatred, racism and anti-Semitism resolutely,” Merkel said in a speech at the Chapel of Reconciliation, located where the Berlin Wall once stood. “It urges us to do everything in our power to defend freedom and democracy, human dignity and the rule of law.”
Leaders from Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic also attended a ceremony at Bernauer Strasse, site of one of the last remaining sections of the Berlin Wall. They placed roses between gaps in the barrier that divided the city for 28 years.
Germany President Frank-Walter Steinmeier paid tribute to the pro-democracy protesters in the former Soviet bloc countries.
“In gratitude, we remember today with our friends the historical events of 30 years ago,” Steinmeier said. “Without the courage, without the will for freedom of the Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs and the Slovaks, the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, and German unity, would not have been possible.”
A weeklong series of events in Berlin was capped off Saturday night with a concert at the famous Brandenburg Gate, involving several German and international performers.
Then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously gave a speech in front of the landmark in 1987, demanding of his Soviet counterpart: “Mr. [Mikhail] Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” A statue of Reagan, who died in 2004, was unveiled Friday next to the Brandenburg Gate.
The wall was constructed in 1961 to stop the flood of East Germans fleeing to capitalist West Berlin to escape communist rule. It was officially called the “anti-fascist protection rampart” by the East German government. Hundreds of people were shot dead trying to cross it.
Following growing pressure across the Warsaw Pact countries in 1989, pro-democracy protests spread to East Germany.
On November 4, 1989, a half-million demonstrators gathered in Alexanderplatz in East Berlin. Five days later, a government spokesperson mistakenly said the East Germans were now free to travel to the West, prompting tens of thousands to rush to crossing points along the 43-kilometer barrier.
In the confusion, border guards opened the gates and thousands of people surged across the frontier, cheered by crowds on both sides of the wall. Within hours, Berlin residents were taking pickaxes to the concrete wall, as the city erupted in wild celebrations.
The fall of the wall is seen as a key moment in the collapse of communism. Just two years later, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War was declared over.
Tensions between East-West
However, tensions between East and West have resurfaced. Relations between Russia and the West plummeted following Moscow’s forceful annexation of Crimea and support for rebel fighters in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Arms control treaties have been ditched, and many world leaders have warned of a new Cold War.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also attended the ceremonies to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a speech on the eve of the anniversary, Pompeo warned that “the West lost our way in the afterglow of that proud moment,” adding that the U.S. and its allies should “defend what was so hard won.”
“We thought we could divert our resources away from alliances, and our militaries. We were wrong,” Pompeo said. “Today, Russia — led by a former KGB officer once stationed in Dresden [President Vladimir Putin] — invades its neighbors and slays political opponents.”
Pompeo also criticized Russia’s treatment of the political opposition. He said China was now using methods of oppression against its own people that would be “horrifyingly familiar to former East Germans.”
Beijing labeled Pompeo’s comments as “extremely dangerous” and said they exposed his “sinister intentions.”
Pompeo also warned that NATO needed to evolve as the alliance approaches its 70th anniversary. His comments followed sharp criticism from French President Emmanuel Macron, who warned this week in an interview with The Economist that NATO was becoming “brain-dead” in the absence of U.S. leadership.
Washington has repeatedly called on European NATO members to meet the bloc’s military spending target of 2% of gross domestic product, warning it will no longer shoulder the burden of European defense.