BERLIN (AFP) - Germany kicked off celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the epochal fall of the Berlin Wall on Friday, set to culminate in rock stars and freedom icons joining millions at an open-air party.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, was leading three days of commemorations for those killed trying to flee the repressive state, ahead of a giant festival on Sunday marking the joyous breach of Europe's Cold War division on Nov 9, 1989.
"I think you never forget how you felt that day - at least I will never forget it," Merkel, 60, said in a recent podcast.
"I had to wait 35 years for that feeling of liberty. It changed my life."
The festivities under the banner "Courage for Freedom" are remembering the peaceful revolution that led communist authorities to finally open the border after 28 years in which Easterners were prisoners of their own country.
Germany would reunite within the year, on Oct 3, 1990.
The city set up an ambitious installation featuring nearly 7,000 white balloons pegged to the ground along a 15km stretch of the Wall's former 155km path and dramatically illuminated them at dusk.
The glowing orbs, which from above look like a long string of pearls, are to be released on Sunday from their ropes and set free into the night sky, to the stirring strains of Beethoven's Ode To Joy.
Mayor Klaus Wowereit said the world's eyes would once again be trained on the now reunified German capital this weekend "with joy, goodwill and the knowledge that Berlin today is an open, tolerant and globally recognised metropolis in the heart of Europe".
Earlier on Friday, dissident singer Wolf Biermann, who was kicked out of East Germany in 1976, performed his protest song Ermutigung (Encouragement) in the Bundestag lower house of parliament, in a tribute to those who resisted the regime.
He used the opportunity to take a swipe at the far-left Linke, which has roots in East Germany's ruling party and had criticised Biermann's invitation to appear at the session.
"Your punishment is to have to listen to me here - enjoy," he called out to heckling Linke deputies, calling them "the wretched remains of what has fortunately been surmounted".
The last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose "perestroika" and "glasnost" reforms helped pave the way for the Wall's fall, greeted crowds at the former Checkpoint Charlie border crossing.
Gorbachev, 83, who is revered here for having refrained from a bloody crackdown on protesters in 1989, will on Saturday join former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher for a debate about the legacy of those heady days, and the resurgence of tensions between Russia and the West.
That evening, Merkel will attend a memorial concert at Bertolt Brecht's historic Berliner Ensemble theatre opposite the former "Palace of Tears", where Easterners said goodbye to visitors returning to West Germany.
And on Sunday she will open a major exhibition on Bernauer Strasse, a street divided by the Wall that saw harrowing scenes of families and neighbours ripped apart overnight when the Wall went up in 1961.
Following a ceremony at the elegant Gendarmenmarkt square, at least two million people are expected to gather for an outdoor "citizens' festival" at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unity.
There, Gorbachev and former Polish president and freedom icon Lech Walesa, 71, will join German head of state Joachim Gauck, 74, a former pastor and rights activist in the East, and Hungarian ex-premier Miklos Nemeth, 66.
Entertainment will range from the Berlin State Orchestra under the baton of Daniel Barenboim to a fireworks display and performances by East German rock band Silly and techno musician Paul Kalkbrenner.
British singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel will perform the Wall anthem Heroes, which David Bowie recorded when he lived in then West Berlin.
The East German authorities built the Wall, which they called an "Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart", in August 1961 to halt a mass exodus to the West.
On Nov 9, 1989, East German border guards, overwhelmed by large crowds, threw open the gates to West Berlin, allowing free passage for the first time since it was built.
At least 389 people lost their lives trying to escape communist East Germany, according to an official toll, although victims groups put the figure much higher.