BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the courage of East Germans who helped topple the Berlin Wall as leaders converged on the German capital to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an event which marked the end of the Cold War.

Images of the historic night when East Berliners trapped behind the 3.6 meter (12 feet) high concrete barrier rushed checkpoints to force it open, have dominated German television and newspaper coverage for the past week.

Merkel, the first German leader to have grown up in the communist GDR, is hosting dozens of world leaders to commemorate the Wall's fall, which brought about the unification of Germany and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.

The night of November 9, 1989 was the fulfillment of a dream, Merkel said in a speech in Berlin. Many played a role. But it would not have been possible without the courage of the people in the former East Germany.

As part of Monday's celebrations, 1,000 giant painted dominoes have been set up along a 1.5 km (0.9 mile) stretch of the Wall's original path next to the Brandenburg Gate.

They will be toppled on Monday evening in the presence of visiting leaders from Britain, France and Russia, in a symbolic re-enactment of the day 20 years ago that shook the world.

Backed by the Soviet Union, the East German government began erecting its anti-fascist protection barrier in the early hours of August 13, 1961 to end a mass flight of its citizens into capitalist West Berlin.

Initially a make-shift fence of barbed wire, it was gradually built up into an imposing barrier that encircled the three western sectors of the city and was patrolled by border guards who were ordered to shoot anyone who tried to escape.

According to a study published this year, at least 136 people were killed at the Berlin Wall between 1961 and 1989 while trying to flee.

Thousands of others managed to evade the minefields, guard dogs and watchtowers, using schemes including tunnels, aerial wires and hidden compartments in cars to make it to the West.


The Wall fell after Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski told a news conference that East German citizens could leave through border crossings, effective immediately.

He was unaware the decision was not supposed to be announced until 4 a.m. the next morning. Watched by thousands on television, it prompted a rush to the border that unprepared, overwhelmed eastern guards were unable to contain.

Thousands of tourists have poured into Berlin to mark the event.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- representing the World War Two allies -- are also in town.

Brown, in pre-released excerpts of his Monday evening speech, hailed the unbreakable spirit of men and women who dared to dream in the darkness.
Sarkozy put a picture of himself on his Facebook profile hammering away at the Wall on the fateful night.

It was a night full of enthusiasm: the German people reuniting marked the end of the Cold War and the start of a period of great freedom in Europe, he wrote.

Figures from the era that ushered in the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, including ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Polish Solidarity trade union leader Lech Walesa, will also take part in the commemorations.

Still, with some people in Germany, reunification in 1990 remains a sore point. A poll of over 1,000 Germans for the Leipziger Volkszeitung daily showed one in eight wanted the Wall rebuilt -- with the numbers nearly equal in East and West.

(Writing by Noah Barkin; Editing by Angus MacSwan)