With concerts, speeches and a torchlight military parade through the richly symbolic Brandenburg Gate, the people of Berlin said a long, ornate goodby Thursday to the American, British and French troops who have occupied much of this city since the end of the Second World War.
The Western Allies came as conquerors in the early summer of 1945, but they quickly came to be seen as vital protectors by Germans living outside the areas administered by the fourth World War II Ally, the Soviet Union--zones that would in 1949 become East Germany. The departure of the Western soldiers Thursday was seen by many here as closing the final, triumphant chapter in the history of the Cold War.
The last Russian troops left one week ago.
"We thank our American, British and French friends," said German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in one of many speeches by him, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, British Prime Minister John Major and French Defense Minister Francois Leotard.
"We will always remember that it was the presence of your soldiers that made it possible to breathe freely in Berlin," said Kohl. "They paid for the freedom of Berlin, and thus for the freedom of the whole of Germany. For this, they deserve our lasting gratitude. Today, as you leave Berlin, we can definitely say: Freedom has won."
Although virtually all the Western Allied troops are now gone from Berlin, Germany will continue to host North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, including about 100,000 American soldiers stationed in Germany as a sign of Washington's ongoing commitment to NATO and as a base for U.S. operations elsewhere in the world.
In 1990, when the Eastern Bloc collapsed, there were about 250,000 American troops stationed in what was then West Germany.
Special tribute was paid Thursday to the American and British airmen who supplied Berlin with fuel and food in 1948 and 1949, when the Soviet Union blockaded the city in an attempt to force it into submission to communist rule.
"The (Berlin) airlift became a symbol of the steadfastness and solidarity of the Western democracies," Kohl told a crowd of guests in front of Tempelhof Airport, one of several Berlin airfields used for the lift; today it is a commuter airport. "The entire world witnessed the Western Allies' determination not to give way to the communist threat under any circumstances."
In another speech at Tempelhof, Secretary of State Christopher briefly retold the history of the airlift, which began in June, 1948, after Josef Stalin, responding to U.S. attempts to contain communist aggression with massive economic aid to western Germany, blockaded all the land routes into Hitler's former capital, leaving the city isolated deep inside the Soviet zone.
President Harry S. Truman then proposed feeding the entire population of Berlin--about 1.5 million at the time--by air, a daring and unconventional idea, which some of his top advisers said wouldn't work because there weren't enough suitable aircraft in Europe.
"Within days, new planes were arriving from Alaska, Hawaii and the Caribbean to join in the epic endeavor," said Christopher. "The technical achievement of the airlift was stupendous. . . . Over the course of its duration, the airlift delivered more than 2 million tons of supplies to Berlin."
The emphasis throughout the day on the Western Allies' role as Cold War guards against communist expansionism differed sharply from the tone of the ceremonies held here last week to honor the departing Russian troops. In those farewell tributes, Kohl and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin focused mainly on the Russians' heroic capture of Berlin from Hitler's fascists, at a cost of thousands of lives.
Protocol for the departures of the four World War II Allies from Germany led to controversy here earlier this summer, because the German government did not want to let the Russians take part in the same ceremonies as the Western Allies. Many Berliners--particularly easterners, who knew firsthand just how impoverished and forlorn the Russian soldiers really were--thought the Red Army was shortchanged, and should have been more warmly thanked for its role in capturing Berlin. A top German television commentator remarked Thursday evening that the day's pageantry would have had more "luster" had the Russians been there.
Ordinary Germans watching Thursday's festivities from behind police cordons set up around downtown Berlin spoke with a mixture of friendliness and gratitude toward the Western Allies and annoyance that the farewell party was only for invited, VIP guests.
"It's outrageous, especially for us Berliners!" exclaimed Inge Bjelic, 70, who, like other citizens, was trying to have a look at the Tempelhof airlift commemoration, but could see nothing except trees and hear nothing but a little band music from time to time. "More than 3 million Berliners are closed out--although this city has an extraordinarily friendly attitude toward Americans. We have to be grateful for so much."
The day's ceremonies culminated in a solemn and symbolic torchlight parade through the Brandenburg Gate, the pillared symbol of Berlin, which was closed to all traffic from 1961 to 1989 by the Berlin Wall. Bands played the hymn "I Pray for the Power of Love" as German soldiers joined the American, French and British troops parading beneath flags of the four nations.
It was the first time the German army had paraded through the gate since World War II. The German news agency DPA estimated the crowd at 20,000, despite an evening of cold and rain. Several hundred left-wing demonstrators tried to protest the German army's participation in the events, and 66 were arrested.
"The departure of the Allies doesn't make me sad," said an onlooker in her late 40s, who would give her name only as Elke. "You simply can't stop time. There's no reason for them to stay anymore."
Andreas Scharpf of The Times' Berlin Bureau contributed to this report.