BERLIN -- East and West Germany became a single, sovereign nation last night, as East Germany effectively went out of existence to become part of a new, united Germany.
At precisely midnight, a red, black and gold tricolor, 20 feet by 33 feet -- until now the West German flag -- was hoisted before the Reichstag, marking the rebirth of the German nation from the same spot where the first German republic was declared in 1918.
"In free self-determination, we want to accomplish the freedom and unity of Germany," the voice of Richard von Weizsaecker, first president of the reunited Germany, boomed over loudspeakers moments after the flag went up.
"We are aware of our responsibility to people in a united Europe. We want to live in peace and serve the cause of peace in the world," he told the hundreds of thousands gathered here, speaking over the boom and whistle of fireworks and the sound of thousands of corks popping from bottles of sparkling wine. German flags waved over the crowd.
A moment later, the Berlin Concert Choir broke out in the German national anthem, "Deutschland ueber Alles."
As the fireworks and laser beams blazed across the night sky, an orchestra played Handel, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven.
"Terrific. Really terrific," said one German woman, watching the fireworks and hearing the music.
Helmut Kohl, who last night realized his dream of becoming the first chancellor of a united Germany, spoke to the emerging nation in a television address a few hours before reunification.
"After more than 40 bitter years of division, Germany, our fatherland, will be united again. For me, this is one of the happiest moments of my life," he said.
Mr. Kohl promised that Germans "have learned from history."
"We are a people loving peace and freedom, and never again shall we leave our democracy without protection to the enemies of peace and freedom. For us, love of the fatherland, love of freedom and the spirit of good neighborliness belong together," the chancellor said.
Though last night's celebration had many of the trappings of last fall's spectacular parties as East German communism collapsed, there was none of the euphoria that marked the opening of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, the opening of the Brandenburg Gate on Dec. 22 or New Year's Eve. For if Nov. 9 was unexpected, last night was inevitable.
"We are deeply moved. Truly," said Herbert Hegewald, an East Berliner, who silently watched the fireworks with his wife, Anne Marie.
Keenly aware of the economic problems of mass unemployment involved in the sudden shift from a command economy to the market, Mr. Hegewald said he nevertheless looked to the future with hope and optimism.
Stefan Hofsaess, 25, a student, said he was happy to witness German unity, though the sight of all the German flags and the economic problems of East Germany left him feeling "unsure about the future."
Despite the politicians' words last night, potential problems that may come with unity did not appear to have been completely laid to rest.
Two huge banners in front of the Reichstag reminded the crowd of Danzig, now the Polish city of Gdansk, and Eastern Pomerania, former German territory that is now also part of Poland.
There were also threats of rioting and scattered clashes between the heavy assembly of police and demonstrators, though no injuries or vandalism had been reported as of midnight.
A gala concert at the East Berlin Schauspielhaus amounted to an elegant and moving farewell to the German Democratic Republic, preceded by a speech by outgoing East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere.
dTC East Germany folded up its existence with none of the confusion and awkwardness of its brief run at democracy these last few months.
Mr. de Maiziere, in his farewell remarks, said the Berlin Wall that effectively imprisoned East Germany's 16 million citizens for 28 years would go down in history as "one of the most inhuman constructions."
"For almost 30 years it robbed people of their right of free movement and prevented families, friends and compatriots from meeting," he said.
It was with a deep regret that Mr. de Maiziere said he looked at East Germany's former Communist rulers, who relied on political repression to impose their system.
"They also destroyed the hopes of those who believed that socialism could lead to a better world," he said.
Kurt Masur, the director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra who is counted among those most responsible for avoiding a violent assault on demonstrators by East German authorities last autumn, conducted the full orchestra in a breathtaking performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which concludes with the choral "Ode to Joy."
A few hours before the performance, after rehearsing the orchestra, Mr. Masur said that he chose the Ninth Symphony because of its complexity and beauty.
"Beethoven was suffering when he wrote it. He was depressed and sick; he was losing his hearing. It's really the document of one man who overcame the personal difficulties of his life to bring people joy," the conductor said.
Germany, as it emerges from 45 years of postwar division that followed a heavily mottled record as a united nation from 1871 to 1945, is pledging itself to high goals of world peace and European unity.
The East German army folded up its flag yesterday as the country's last minister of defense and disarmament, a pastor named Rainer Eppelmann, bid farewell to the troops.
"Today, an army that has never fought or lost a battle is surrendering its arms according to the will of the people," Mr. Eppelmann said.
The Allied military commanders formally gave up their rights over Berlin yesterday morning, leaving the reborn country with the task of forging its new identity, free of past barriers to its sovereignty.