The ordinary recall the extraordinary

As fireworks erupted above the Brandenburg Gate on Monday night tens of thousands of Berliners and visitors recalled the moment 20 years ago when a wall was breached and a people set free.

Dozens of international dignitaries were in the German capital to mark the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the day belonged to ordinary Germans, whose individual tales of the struggle for freedom and elation on that epic night were worth a thousand political speeches.

Paying heed to the ordinary that enabled the extraordinary, Angela Merkel, Germany’s first East German chancellor, on Monday retraced the steps she took as a 35-year-old physicist on 9 November 1989, across a border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse in north-eastern Berlin.

The chaotic scenes on the steel bridge echoed the confusion 20 years ago when East Berliners rushed to the border after hearing that travel restrictions had been lifted.

The chancellor dispensed with a heavy security detail and mixed freely with the crowd, signing autographs and shaking hands.

She shared the limelight with East German civil rights activists, whose efforts to resist a stultifying communist regime ultimately brought the East German government to its knees.

Some members of the crowd had brought their former East German passports and displayed proudly the stamp marking their first visit to the West.

“Sometimes people forget today how many could not leave [the country] for years, how many sat in prisons ... before the joy of freedom came, many people suffered,” Ms Merkel said.

Accompanied by dignitaries including Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, and Lech Walesa, co-leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement, Ms Merkel was also careful to pay tribute to those outside Germany without whom the Iron Curtain could not have been toppled.

Turning to Mr Gorbachev, she said: “We knew something had to happen [in the USSR] before anything could happen here. You let things run their course and it was a lot more than we could have hoped for at the time.”

The crowd greeted the former Soviet leader with affectionate cries of “Gorby, Gorby!”. Mr Gorbachev commented later that he had not thought “the wall would fall so fast”.

At the Brandenburg Gate where Berliners once danced on top of the wall, visitors gazed with curiosity at the row of a thousand brightly coloured “domino” stones – reproduction pieces of the wall – which had briefly re-divided the city into East and West and whose toppling symbolised the political chain reaction that swept away the Iron Curtain.

“I can’t believe that it’s been 20 years [since the fall of the wall]” said Raimund Schneider from Trier in western Germany.

“I remember watching the images on television of East Berliners crossing over the border with tears in their eyes. It was very moving. I didn’t think I would live to see the reunification [of Germany].”

Anne, a local resident who declined to give her full name, recalled coming to the same spot in January 1990 to chip away part of the “anti-fascist barrier”. “I had to hide the hammer in my coat as the police were confiscating them.”

The celebrations have particular resonance for her as she had managed to escape from East Germany in 1971.

On the night of 9 November 1989 she was working in Hamburg, assisting refugees who had left East Germany via Hungary, when she heard the news that border crossings in Berlin had been opened. “It showed what can be achieved through peaceful protest,” she says.

“I remember thinking, now we’re watching history live,” her husband added.

Camera crews almost outnumbered tourists at a packed Checkpoint Charlie, site of one of the 14 border crossings between West Berlin and the former German Democratic Republic.

But the crossing, now dominated by souvenir stalls, has become a favourite spot for foreign visitors to the city – a fitting transformation for a place once reserved for diplomats and foreign visitors.

“I think the most exciting aspect is to see how much the city has changed in a relatively short time,” said Michel Petre, from Brussels.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.