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When the ‘Winds of Change’ swept the world

Published on 10/11/2009

Berlin -- In the end, the rain flowed as freely as the tears as over 100,000 Germans marked the anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall Monday with music, fireworks and a giant domino display amid emotional scenes.

But undaunted by the unfavourable weather, the enthusiastic crowds soaked up a charged atmosphere topped off by a surprise video message from US President Barack Obama, who received one of the biggest cheers of the night.

"There could be no clearer rebuke of tyranny. There could be no stronger affirmation of freedom," Obama said, referring to the night 20 years ago when the hated concrete barrier was pulled down in a peaceful revolution.

Ordinary Germans too, many of whom had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain for nearly one third of a century, recalled the ecstasy of that historic November night.

"It was an immense joy," said Thekla Koehler, who was spirited through Checkpoint Charlie to West Berlin 25 years ago hidden in a car.

"I fled out of love. I met my future husband who lived in West Berlin when he came to visit his family in Dessau (in East Germany)," she told AFP, ambling near the Brandenburg Gate with the same man she escaped to marry.

"We fell in love and so I prepared my escape all by myself," she said.

But her euphoria was tempered by the fact that her daring escape from communist East Germany — dozens of others were shot dead attempting to do the same — meant she could no longer see her family.

For 15 years, her only contact with her brothers and parents on the other side of the Iron Curtain was "a few letters."

The enthusiastic crowd also listened to the city’s renowned State Opera orchestra play pieces by Wagner and Beethoven.

Later, the unmistakable strains of Scorpions hit "Wind of Change", which became the unofficial theme tune of the fall of the Berlin Wall, rang out through the drizzle.

Umbrella-bearing throngs then lined the former route of the Wall to watch the toppling of immense styrofoam dominoes representing the fall of what East German authorities had once called the "antifascist barrier."

Christel Schneider, a 62-year-old bank employee, recalled the heftier crowds on that fateful night 20 years ago.

"That night, I crossed the border into the west. It was madness. There were so many people that we were driving at a snail’s pace," she told AFP.

Others who crossed from the East were stunned at the different quality of life enjoyed by those on the free side of the Iron Curtain.

Former "Ossi" ("Easterner") Karl-Heinz Buchholz said he had spent a year in a prison run by the hated East German secret police, the Stasi, and was part of a 30,000-strong demonstration on the night of November 9.

Forbidden to hold an ID card or to travel to see his relatives, Buchholz crossed the border in 1989.

"I went to Lower Saxony (in West Germany). I was shocked because the economic gap was even worse than I had thought, although I knew that in the East, we were really on the brink," he said.

Judith Kaehn, 30, a puppeteer, remembers as a child being bowled over by the amount of goods on offer in the west, but said that since then, the system "has shown its limits."

Two decades later, and despite an estimated 1.3 trillion euros (1.9 trillion dollars) pouring eastwards since unification in 1990, eastern Germany remains poorer than the west. Unemployment is twice as high.

As a result, the mood in Germany is not entirely one of unbridled satisfaction.

Thekla Koehler, for instance, told AFP that many in the former east remained "disappointed with the economic gap."

Earlier in the day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev Monday on the bridge where many East Germans had their first taste of freedom, as tens of thousands toasted the Berlin Wall’s fall 20 years ago.

Merkel, who grew up in the communist state, Gorbachev and ex-Polish president Lech Walesa passed through what used to be the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing, where euphoric easterners first went to the West that night.

"It is not only a day of celebration for Germans. It is a day of celebration for the whole of Europe," she said.

And Merkel attended a "very moving" memorial service at a church where pro-democracy rallies were held in the weeks before the Wall was opened, and lamented the enduring scars of the country’s postwar division.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, admitted as much on Monday: "German unity is still incomplete. We must tackle this problem if we want to achieve equal quality of life."

But Karl-Heinz Buchholz said he simply could not understand those who still pine for the days of the East German regime — so called "Ostalgie," a combination of the German words for "east" and nostalgia".

"I can’t imagine one thing I would want to have back from the GDR times," he said.