BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday an irrepressible yearning for freedom brought the Berlin Wall tumbling down 25 years ago and called it a "miracle" that the Cold War barrier was breached without a shot being fired.
Speaking on the eve of Sunday's celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's collapse, Merkel said Germany would always be grateful for the courage of East Germans who took to the streets to protest the Communist dictatorship.
"It was a day that showed us the yearning for freedom cannot be forever suppressed," Merkel said in a speech in Berlin.
"During the course of 1989 more and more East Germans lost their fears of the state's repression and chicanery, and went out on the streets. There was no turning back then. It is thanks to their courage the Wall was opened."In a country with few cheerful anniversaries to celebrate after its belligerent 20th century history, Germans have latched onto memories of the peaceful East German revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall on a joyful Nov. 9, 1989.
More than 100,000 Berliners and tourists wandered along a 15-km route in the city center on Saturday where the Berlin Wall once stood, and 7,000 illuminated balloons are now perched 3.6-metres high on poles - matching the height of the Wall.
The artistic display of balloons, which dramatically illustrate how the Wall snaked through the heart of the city, is also porous to enable people to easily move back and forth between the former East and West Berlin. The balloons will be released on Sunday to symbolize the Wall's disappearance.
Merkel, who was a 35-year-old scientist in Communist East Berlin at the time, told German television earlier on Saturday that she remembered tension, fear and excitement in the air in the weeks and days leading up to the opening of the Wall.
"It was a miracle that everything happened peacefully," said Merkel, who was on her way home from a visit to the sauna when she saw crowds of people heading west and joined them. "There had been a lot of excitement for weeks. There were tanks that had been on my street since October 7."
Merkel, chancellor since 2005, began her career in politics months later as a deputy party spokeswoman. Usually guarded about her life in East Germany, Merkel had until recently been circumspect about revealing details of what she did on the evening the wall opened.
But in recent weeks she has spoken more openly and on Saturday said: "After I left the sauna on the evening of November 9, I went over the Bornholmer Street crossing to the other side and celebrated there with total strangers.
"There was just this incredible feeling of happiness," she said. "It was a night I'll never forget."
The Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to stop East Germans fleeing to the West. It began as a brick wall and was then fortified as heavily guarded 160 km (100 mile) double white concrete screen that encircled West Berlin, cutting across streets, between families, and through graveyards.
At least 136 people were killed trying to flee to West Berlin and many ended up in jail for their attempts to escape.
Communist regimes across Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, heralding the end of the Cold War, of which the Berlin Wall had become a potent symbol.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet leader who is credited with forging a rapprochement the West that led to the opening, warned in a speech in Berlin on Saturday that East-West tensions over the Ukraine crisis recalled the era before the Wall fell.
"The world is on the brink of a new Cold War." 83-year-old Gorbachev said. "Some say that it has already begun."
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Rosalind Russell