Thousands of people lined the streets of Berlin and crowded around the Brandenburg Gate as world leaders, shielding from the rain under large white umbrellas, congregated around German Chancellor Angela Merkel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, considered by many to be the principal behind-the-scenes actor in the drama that led to the ultimate dismantling of the Soviet empire, walked halfway across the Bornholmer Street bridge, the first checkpoint to be opened along the Berlin Wall to meet his former arch rival, leader of the Solidarity trade union Lech Walesa, who later became President of Poland, for a historic and symbolic handshake.

Thousands shouted “Gorby, Gorby”, the same chant that had rent the air 20 years ago as thousands of people stormed the Wall for a taste of Western freedom. Ms. Merkel paid homage to Mr. Gorbachev saying: “You made this possible. You courageously let things happen, and that was much more than we could expect.”

Britain’s Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were among the leaders who took part in the ceremony, the highlight of which was the symbolic toppling of a km-long row of giant foam plastic dominoes that traced the path of the now dismantled Wall in the centre of Berlin. U.S. President Barack Obama sent a surprise video message from Washington.

Most experts agree that it was Mr. Gorbachev’s restraint and far-sightedness that allowed a bloodless, peaceful transition from Communism to Capitalism and the re-unification of Germany. The Wall was stormed on November 9, 1989 after a member of the East German Communist politburo announced that the government was lifting travel restrictions to West Germany “with immediate effect”.

The press conference, telecast live on East German television, had an electrifying effect with thousands of East Berliners immediately heading for the Wall.

Ms. Merkel, who was one of thousands to cross that night, said many people had to suffer “before we could claim the joy of freedom”. Mr. Medvedev said: “This wall divided not only a single country but, as we realise today, all of Europe.”

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