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Nov. 9 (Bloomberg) — Chancellor Angela Merkel said the dismantling of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago showed that dreams of living in peace and freedom can come true as anniversary celebrations culminated at the city’s Brandenburg Gate.
Merkel cited conflicts in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq while championing the expansion of the European Union’s “common foundation of values” to 28 countries. More than half of them joined after the Wall’s fall set Europe on track to ending its east-west division and the Cold War that followed World War II.
“The collapse of the wall showed us that dreams can come true, that nothing has to remain as it is,” Merkel said in her speech at the Berlin Wall Memorial today. “It’s a message of encouragement to tear down other walls, walls of dictatorship, violence, ideologies and enmity.”
Merkel, 60, who grew up under communism in former East Germany, combined her jab at Russia and allusion to the advances of Islamic militants in the Middle East with a reminder that “human rights are threatened or trampled upon” in many places as she recalled the joy of Nov. 9, 1989.
Symbolizing the lifting of the barrier, about 8,000 white balloons rose into the air starting at 7:20 p.m. along a 15- kilometer (9.4-mile) stretch of the former wall as Daniel Barenboim conducted the BerlinPhilharmonic in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Cheers went up from tens of thousands of revelers at the Brandenburg Gate as the first balloons soared into the nighttime sky, with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former Polish President Lech Walesa among the guests of honor.
The festivities coincided roughly with the time on Nov. 9, 1989 when Guenter Schabowski, a senior communist party official, fumbled remarks at an East Berlin news conference that the regime was easing travel restrictions as pro-democracy protests swept the country.
As the news spread, crowds gathered at border crossings to West Berlin. Guards eventually opened the gates without firing a shot, Soviet tanks and troops stayed in their barracks, and East and West Germany reunited as one nation 11 months later.
Merkel’s remarks today followed heavy shelling overnight in Donetsk, the Ukrainian city where government forces are fighting Russian-backed separatists, and criticism by Gorbachev that Europe risks stoking a “new Cold War.”
“Instead of becoming a leader of change in a global world, Europe has turned into an arena of political upheaval, competition for spheres of influence and, finally, of military conflict,” Gorbachev said yesterday at a Wall event in Berlin.
Merkel, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter, spoke at the main Berlin memorial to the wall that East Germany built in 1961 to seal the border and halt an exodus of its citizens to the west. At a preserved portion, she lit a candle to commemorate at least 138 people who died trying to cross the fortified border into West Berlin.
At least 872 people died trying to flee East Germany, including at the intra-Berlin border, according to the archive of the Stasi, the Soviet-backed regime’s former secret police.
Merkel cited Ida Siekmann, a 58-year-old East Berlin woman who became the Wall’s first fatality after jumping from her apartment window on Aug. 22, 1961. Authorities had sealed off the front door of her building on Berlin’s Bernauer Strasse.
Merkel, Germany’s first female chancellor and the first from the east, was the most prominent beneficiary of the Wall’s collapse. A 35-year-old scientist at an East German physics lab at the time, she was championed by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl who gave her a post in his first post-unity cabinet, setting her on the path to power.
Twenty-five years later, the globalized economy has boosted German exports and Merkel has consolidated her position as Europe’s pivotal leader, shaping the response to the euro-area debt crisis and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s encroachment on Ukraine.
Reunification in 1990 was a new attempt by Germany to find its role at Europe’s center at the end of a century in which it fought two world wars and perpetrated the Holocaust. Merkel recalled Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9, 1938 smashing of synagogues and shops as Nazi Germany stepped up its persecution of Jews, calling it “a day of shame.”
“This is the best Germany we’ve ever seen in history,” Jan Techau, head of the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels, said by phone. “Germany doesn’t want to be a hegemon. The EU wouldn’t allow this, and on things like the euro Germany is not acting alone.”
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