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Gunter Schabowski: How One Man's Mistake Brought Down The Berlin Wall

Culture | September 4, 2019

Left: Gunter Schabowski at a press conference on November 9. 1989. Right: Citizens demolishing the Berli Wall. Sources: DPA/AFP/Getty Images; theimaginativeconservative.org

On November 9, 1989, Günter Schabowski brought down the Berlin Wall. Schabowski was East Germany's press spokesman, and although he did not personally destroy the infamous Cold-War barrier that split the city, he flubbed a statement in a press conference that caused mobs of East Germany's long-oppressed citizens to crash the checkpoints, and the East German authorities' tenuous control over the populace was done for.

At 7 PM on that fateful day, the nervous or inexperienced Günter Schabowski was set to announce that East Berliners, after qualifying through the lengthy paperwork process, would be permitted to travel abroad. But that's not the message he conveyed to the public. 

Good Help Is Hard To Find

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November 1989. The text on the sign "Achtung! Sie verlassen jetzt West-Berlin" ("Notice! You are now leaving West Berlin") has been modified with an additional text "Wie denn?" ("How?"). Source: W

Günter Schabowski got the East German politburo spokesman job because the previous man, Erich Honecker, was deposed due to his horrible public image. Naturally, at the time, many East Germans were displeased with the East German politburo and hiring Günter Schabowski was an attempt to minimize the oppressive image of the regime. The hiring of Schabowski along with allowing limited visitation was something of an olive branch to the East German people.

Schabowski was no reformer, though -- he had been a lifelong socialist party member, and there's no evidence that he sought to bring down the wall or the East German government. Unfortunately for Schabowski -- but not for the East German people -- he wasn't experienced with dealing with the western press. East German press conferences consisted of reading prepared statements and essentially telling reporters what to write.

What I Meant To Say Was

A photo of Gunter Schabowski issued by the East German government in 1987. Source: Wikimedia Commons

So when Günter Schabowski arrived at the podium, instead of announcing that visitation would be allowed with the proper visas, he simply said East Germans would be permitted to visit the west.

When an astute reporter asked when the policy change would take place, Günter Schabowski should have said the next day, and also asked reporters to hold the information until 4 AM so people could line up for visas in an orderly fashion.” Instead he stammered the words that changed history: "Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich." Or:

As far as I know, this enters into force . . . this is immediately, without delay.

When asked whether the new travel rules would apply to the Berlin Wall, Schabowski consulted his paperwork and replied that yes, they would.

The Chaos That Followed

Berlin 1989; picture taken soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Those fateful words were broadcast all across East German television. Within minutes, people began pouring toward the checkpoints, demanding the guards let them cross. After initially attempting to stem the tide of people, the secret police ordered the checkpoints opened. They held little choice, as every checkpoint became overwhelmed by thousands of boisterous East Germans seeking passage. Eventually, people began chipping pieces off the wall as souvenirs. That weekend East German politburo bulldozed another section creating another large checkpoint. By the following summer, the fall of the wall began in earnest. 

An Ulterior Motive?

Everything Changed in the Blink of a Press Conference (History.com)

Günter Schabowski received three years in prison for his role in the manslaughter of East Germans trying to escape. However, many of his compatriots believed him to be an agent of the West and his actions were the work of an operative. However, in the intervening years, it was proven that Günter Schabowski truly made an innocent mistake, “It was one of many foul-ups in those days,’’ said Günter Schabowski. ‘We were acting under the pressure of events. I’m just happy that it went off without bloodshed.’’

After nine and a half months in prison, the rest of his sentence was pardoned by Berlin’s mayor. Interestingly, until his death in November of 2015, Günter Schabowski fervently backed the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and pro-capitalist politics, and shouted down communism.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Berlin Wall | Gunter Schabowski | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Cold War

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!