Markus Schreiber  /  AP
Achim von Almrich lights a candle at the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin on Saturday. Germany marks the 50th anniversary of the day, communist East Germany sealed itself off behind the Berlin Wall.
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updated 8/13/2011 10:58:59 AM ET 2011-08-13T14:58:59

The Berlin Wall's construction 50 years ago must be a constant reminder to citizens today to stand up for freedom and democracy, the city's mayor said Saturday as a united Germany commemorated the bitter anniversary.

Seeing Berlin divided by the wall tore apart the country as well as separating the city's streets, neighbors and families, mayor Klaus Wowereit said at a televised ceremony.

"It is our shared responsibility to keep the memory alive and to pass it on to the coming generations as a reminder to stand up for freedom and democracy to ensure that such injustice may never happen again," Wowereit said.

Story: 50 years ago, the Berlin Wall arose to divide

German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who grew up behind the wall in Germany's communist eastern part — also attended the commemoration in Berlin, where parts of the wall and an attached surveillance tower now form a museum.

The road where the museum is located was divided in two on August 13, 1961, and some 2,000 east German residents were expelled from their houses to allow the communist authorities to secure the new border.

The country was then divided for 28 years. Hundreds of east Germans were arrested while trying to flee to democratic Western Germany and at least 136 were killed trying to cross the wall.

German President Christian Wulff said the "life-asphyxiating wall" must be a reminder to appreciate and preserve the "openness of today's world."

Germany had been divided into capitalist western and communist eastern sectors after the end of World War II. At the height of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, the East German regime started building the wall through the capital.

East Germany's entire border was soon fortified, making West Berlin an island of democracy and freedom behind the communist bloc's iron curtain.

"But it has been shown once again: Freedom is invincible at the end. No wall can permanently withstand the desire for freedom," Wulff said.

"The violence of the few does not withstand the quest for freedom of the many," he added. "The wall didn't just come down — it was toppled."

Story: Escape from East Berlin, wedding dress in hand

The division ended on Nov. 9, 1989 — after communist East Germany opened the Berlin Wall amid pressure from massive demonstrations and a softening of the Soviet Union's political stance championed by then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Str  /  AP
In this Aug. 13, 1961 file photo a worker builds parts of the a wall between the eastern and the western part of Berlin.

"When I was seven years old, I still went with my grandmother — just a few days before the construction of the Wall — from East Berlin's Pankow (neighborhood) to West Berlin, and for me as a child it was totally inconceivable that Berlin was suddenly divided," Merkel has said ahead of Saturday's ceremony.

"From that moment on, I couldn't go to visit my grandmother in Hamburg anymore (...) I couldn't see my aunt or my cousins anymore. That of course marked my entire life," Merkel said in unusually personal remarks.

Today, only a few of the wall's roughly 12-foot (3 1/2-meter) high concrete slabs remain standing — haunting reminders of the city's decades of division.

Part of the nearly 25-mile (40-kilometer) path that the wall wound through the heart of the city is marked today by a cobblestone strip, which stretches down streets and across sidewalks to remind passers-by where the wall once stood.

When the wall was first built, nobody knew what was going to happen next. Many people were afraid that it would serve as a provocation and turn the Cold War into a hot one.

Wowereit emphatically thanked all those who stood up for Berlin's freedom throughout the Wall's existence, singling out former U.S. President John F. Kennedy "who gave us courage" by visiting the divided city.

On his trip in 1963, Kennedy declared "Ich bin ein Berliner (I am a citizen of Berlin)", expressing his solidarity with West Germany.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall

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  1. A city divided

    The Berlin Wall was erected to separate East and West Berlin following the wider partition of Germany after the Second World War. Standing from 1961 to 1989, it became a symbol of the broader Cold War conflict. Half-controlled by Western forces, the city was geographically in the middle of the Soviet Occupation Zone of Germany and became a focal point for tensions between the NATO allies and the communist Eastern Bloc. In this image, the Brandenburg Gate is seen behind barbed wire in 1962. (John Waterman / Fox Photos via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Big Three

    The leaders of the Big Three meet at the Potsdam Conference on Aug. 2, 1945. Left to right: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman and Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The Potsdam Agreement divided Germany into four occupation zones: British, French, American and Soviet, setting policy for the reconstruction of Germany following its surrender on May 8, 1945. (MPI via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Berlin Airlift

    A U.S. C-47 cargo plane carrying food and other relief supplies approaches Tempelhof Airport amid the ruins of a shattered Berlin in 1948. The Berlin Airlift was in response to the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Disagreements regarding reconstruction and a new German currency led to the conflict. The allies responded with a massive effort to supply the 2 million inhabitants of West Berlin with food and fuel. The airlift began on June 26, 1948 and ended 14 months later on August 27, 1949. More than 277,000 flights involving 300 aircraft took part in the operation. At its busiest, planes were taking off and landing at 90-second intervals. More than two million tons of supplies were airlifted before the operation came to a close. (Walter Sanders / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Thin white line

    Police officers from West and East Berlin meet at a line marking the the border in 1955. As the Cold War continued, West Berlin prospered while East Berlin did not. Many residents of the East grew disillusioned with the oppressive economic and political situation and started to defect to the West. Millions had fled East Germany by 1955 and restrictions of movement between the two gradually increased. The inner border was officially closed in 1952 but initially there was no physical barrier. (Three Lions / Hulton Archive via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Krushchev gets involved

    Left to right: Walter Ulbricht, Nikita Khrushchev and Otto Grotewohl arrive in East Berlin on May 1, 1960. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev became increasingly distressed by U.S. spy planes flying reconnaissance missions over Berlin. On May 1, 1960, the Soviets shot down an American U-2 plane and called for an end to the provocations and disarmament. Although Walter Ulbricht, chairman of the East Germany's state council, stated in 1961 there would be no wall erected, Khrushchev saw a need to contain the flight to the West. By 1960, the loss of working professionals to the West was profound. The East German brain drain had become so damaging to the country's economic viability that the securing the border became imperative. (Robert Lackenbach / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Building the barrier

    In August 1961, a barbed-wire barrier was erected between East and West Berlin. A few days later, workers started building a concrete block wall. Residents of East were no longer allowed to enter the West. The "Iron Curtain" that Winston Churchill had spoken about in a 1946 speech had now come to fruition. "The working class of Germany has erected a wall so that no wolf can break into the (communist) German Democratic Republic again." – Nikita Khrushchev (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Separated

    Two mothers wave to their children and grandchildren from across the wall in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Many families were split by the border's closure. Some Berliners were also cut off from their jobs. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Homes razed

    The Berlin Wall grew increasingly formidable and eventually stretched more than 96 miles. Houses in its path were knocked down as it expanded. (Robert Lackenbach / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Escape bid

    A man attempts to flee East Germany by climbing over the Berlin Wall on Oct. 16, 1961. Although 'shoot-to-kill' orders were in effect, many still attempted to escape. It is estimated that approximately 5,000 people successfully made it to the West. However, up to 75,000 others were caught and imprisoned. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Standoff at the border

    Soviet tanks are seen at Checkpoint Charlie on Oct. 28, 1961. The standoff began on Oct. 22 as a dispute over whether East German guards were authorized to examine the travel documents of a U.S. diplomat. By Oct. 27, ten Soviet and an equal number of American tanks stood 100 yards apart on either side of the crossing. The standoff ended peacefully on Oct. 28 (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Death at the wall

    A dying Peter Fechter is carried away by East German border guards who shot him when he tried to flee to the West on Aug. 17, 1962. Fechter jumped the barbed wire fence near Checkpoint Charlie and was wounded. He was left in 'no-man's land' for about 50 minutes before being taken to hospital where he died a short time later. Fechter’s death, in full view of the Western media, sparked negative publicity worldwide. According to the August 13 Association, which specializes in the history of the Berlin Wall, at least 938 people were killed by East German border guards as they attempted to flee to West Berlin or West Germany. The last person to be shot while trying to cross the border was Chris Gueffroy on Feb. 6, 1989. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Ich bin ein Berliner'

    Striding past a cordon of saluting servicemen at Checkpoint Charlie, President John F. Kennedy arrives in Berlin on June 26, 1963. Kennedy delivered one of his most famous speeches, declaring, "Ich bin ein Berliner" - or "I am a Berliner" - to a cheering crowd of thousands. The much-needed morale boost for West Berliners also sent a strong message to the Soviets. Two months later, Kennedy negotiated the first nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Adapting to life

    A family uses the Berlin Wall as a windbreak on a sunny day in West Berlin on May 27, 1964. While East Germany stagnated under Soviet domination, West Berlin received millions of dollars in American aid. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Ingenious escape

    Stanislaus Gefroerer hides in the back of a truck after crossing the Berlin Wall by ladder on Sept. 20, 1965. As border defenses tightened, would-be escapees were forced to become more creative. One woman hid under the hood of a car while two families floated over the wall in a hot-air balloon. (Express Newspapers via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. 'Golden Tank'

    Erich Honecker, the president of East Germany, presents a 'Golden Tank' award following Warsaw Pact military exercises in 1980. After fleeing to the Soviet Union, Honecker would later be extradited back to a unified Germany to stand trial for high treason and other crimes allegedly committed during the Cold War. Honecker was released after being diagnosed with cancer during his trial in 1993. He died in exile in Chile about 18 months later. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Death strip'

    This image shows the 'death strip' which stretched like a barren moat around West Berlin. The top of the wall was lined with a smooth pipe, intended to make scaling it more difficult. It was reinforced by mesh fencing, anti-vehicle trenches, obstacles and barbed wire. (KEENPRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. American presence

    U.S. troops on a Jeep patrol in West Berlin's American sector stop near graffiti reading "Give peace a chance". (Sahm Doherty / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. 'Tear down this wall'

    President Ronald Reagan delivers one of his most famous speeches in front of the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987. About 25.000 Berliners cheered as he said, "General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Reagan's visit coincided with celebrations marking the city's 750th anniversary. (Michael Probst / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Warm welcome

    A West German border guard is given flowers as he welcomes East Germans to Rudolphstein, Bavaria, the day the Berlin Wall collapsed on Nov. 9, 1989. (Sven Creutzmann / Mambo photo via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Chipping away

    A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickaxe on Nov. 9, 1989 after news spread rapidly that the East German government would start granting exit visas to anyone who wanted to go to the West. The announcement was misinterpreted as meaning the border was now open and East German border guards were unable to stop the rush of people to the wall. Within hours, Germans were smashing sections of the iconic barrier with their own tools. (Robert Wallis / CORBIS) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Packed perch

    Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on Nov. 11, 1989. One day earlier, an official had declared that starting from midnight East Germans would be free to leave the country, without permission, at any point along the border. (Gerard Malie / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Cry freedom

    A German youth waves victoriously from the top of the Berlin Wall on the morning of Nov.12, 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall led the way to German reunification, which was formally concluded on Oct. 3, 1990. (Peter Turnley / CORBIS) Back to slideshow navigation
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