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By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl paid their respects to the ordinary people who were behind the peaceful revolution of 1989 that brought down the Berlin Wall at an emotional ceremony in Berlin Saturday.
The three statesmen from the United States, Soviet Union and West Germany -- whose steady-handed leadership paved the way for the Wall's opening on November 9, 1989 -- recalled the heady events that led to the end of the Cold War at a ceremony attended by 1,800 people.
"We Germans don't have very much in our history to be proud of," said Kohl, 79, who was chancellor of West Germany and then united Germany from 1982-98. "But we've got every reason to be proud about German reunification."
The reunion in Berlin of the three leaders at the centre of the whirlwind of events kicked off a week of celebrations in the German capital marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9.
Bush, U.S. president from 1989-93, paid tribute in his speech to the countless thousands of courageous East Germans who risked persecution by attending mass protests to demand reform in the months leading up to the Wall's peaceful collapse.
"It's a joy to be here with my former colleagues," said Bush, who repeatedly put his arm around both Gorbachev and Kohl during the two-hour long ceremony in a theatre on Friedrichstrasse just east of where the Berlin Wall stood until 1989.
"The point needs to be made that the historic events we are gathered to celebrate were set in motion not in Bonn, or Moscow or Washington but rather in the hearts and minds of the people who had too long been deprived of their God-given rights.
"The Wall could never erase your dream, our dream of one Germany, a free Germany, a proud Germany," said Bush, 85.
The three former leaders clearly enjoyed each other's company at their first reunion in many years -- even though Kohl was in a wheelchair and had difficulty speaking while Bush relied on the help of a cane to move about.
BUSH PRAISES GORBACHEV
The Berlin Wall, a symbol of the Cold War that split the city and Germany, opened in November 1989 and the two Germanys reunited 11 months later. Researchers said at least 136 people were killed trying to cross to the West.
Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union at the time who was later awarded the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize, said the opening of the Wall and end of the Cold War was the culmination of a long process of post-World War Two rapprochement.
"The people were the heroes," said Gorbachev, 78, who remains hugely popular in Germany for his pivotal role in the autumn of 1989. "The three of us don't want to take credit for the accomplishments of the previous generations."
Gorbachev, who went out of his way to say he thought "it's a good thing he (Barack Obama) won the Nobel Peace Prize" this year despite misgivings in the United States, also offered his unsolicited thoughts on Bush's predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
Bush had initially been criticised in some U.S. circles in 1989 for not rushing to Berlin to celebrate the opening of the Wall. By contrast, Reagan had delivered a hard-hitting speech just west of the Berlin Wall two years earlier in 1987.
"Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall," Reagan had said.
Saturday Gorbachev brought that up and said: "We knew the first specialty of a president is that he has to be an actor."
Gorbachev added: "We've got to understand that the European project cannot be completed, that there won't be any triumph if it's built upon an anti-Russian or anti-American sentiment."
Bush was full of praise for Gorbachev Saturday.
"I have no doubt, zero, that historians will recognise Mikhail for his rare vision and unfailing commitment to reform and openness despite the efforts of those who would resist change and ignore the call of history," he said.
"Today we have a fuller appreciation of the tremendous pressure Mikhail faced in that pivotal time. And through it all he stood firm, which is why he'll also stand tall when the history of our time in office is finally written."
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Richard Williams)