20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall

Neither rainstorms nor traffic jams dented the good mood of both the locals and prominent guests last Monday in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. The rows of VIPs, had they been quizzed, would all -- like the hallowed JFK -- have called themselves Berliners.

Twenty years ago I was also standing at the window of the Adlon Hotel near the Brandenburg Gate, watching there and on television the crumbling of the wall. I was fascinated to listen to what tunes the young people near and on the wall sang and danced: sentimental favorites of the past, tangos and American pop. The orchestras near the VIP grandstand played no military marches, not even classics by Haydn or Handel; no trace of triumph -- on the contrary, triste tones of Verdi's Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. Nowhere else in the world would such a potpourri be thinkable on such a day.

Berlin 2009 was a bivouac of peace. From numerous conversations, table talk and podium discussions there sprang a feeling of relief -- relief at being able to leave a period of history behind. As for the future: the Germans are not aware that the Federal Republic, whether they want it or not, is today the most important power (the word the new generation hates) in Europe and will remain so for quite a while. The 'count me out' mentality of the last two generations is still strongly rooted in the German popular soul. In a country in which words such as Power, Volk and Fuhrer are taboo, although in every other language they are in daily use, it is difficult to enunciate and spell words even if the meaning may have changed.

Nor do people think too much about the great threats and perils from powerful hostile forces, whether they be Iran, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda or religious fanaticism, and above all they don't want to think about these menaces to the very logical end.

The leading figure of contemporary Germany is a woman well aware of all these perils and also prepared to spell them out. Her appearance before the U.S. Congress ushered in a new phase of American policy towards Europe and caused Germany to become, even though Washington elegantly avoids rubbing it in, the most important partner of the United States in Europe.

Who else could fulfill this role for Washington? At present Great Britain seems politically lame because Gordon Brown's Labour Government fights a tough battle for survival and the Tory Opposition pursues an absurd European policy which makes them everywhere unpopular or at best incomprehensible. France's president, in his thoughts and actions, is jumpily unpredictable, playing opera seria and opera buffa in turn. Italy's Berlusconi is a mixture of Borgia Pope and Frank Sinatra. The new Merkel Government has proven men of talent and force such as Wolfgang Schäuble, the brilliant Karl-Theodor Guttenberg and the coalition partner's leader Guido Westerwelle.

Two Russians representing very different, though not unrelated, versions of her post-Communist regime sat in the first row of the grandstand. Gorbachev, to whom one justly ascribes the main role in the drama of communism's overthrow, is the typical 'prophet abroad'; in truth he wanted to save the original Communist idea by sweeping reforms, and yet the system collapsed before his eyes. Medvedev, the current president, is still regarded as a moderate reformer although he can revert to threatening tones.

In the next weeks and days we'll see what sort of team of leaders in the spirit of the Lisbon Treaty will direct the Brussels power machine. But one thing is certain: in the future much of the power -- however uncomfortable the word may still sound for Germans -- will emanate from Germany, where it is strongly rooted. By the way, the only moment in all the ceremonies where any sort of patriotic pride was discernible was when the orchestra intoned the old music hall ditty praising the fresh and healthy 'Berlin Air.'