|Guenter Schabowski announced the immediate opening of the Berlin Wall [EPA]|
“It was a fatal mistake to think that we could reorganise the GDR by opening the wall after 28 years. On August 13, 1961, we had erected the wall, this piece of dull political architecture, to protect the GDR. On November 9, 1989, we started knocking the wall down to rescue the GDR. It was two contrary propositions, but for the same purpose. Both failed.”
It was 6.53pm on November 9, 1989, when Guenter Schabowski, the then spokesman of the central committee of the SED party, pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and read out a note stating that the travel restrictions on East Germans were to be lifted and visas would be freely granted to those wanting to travel outside or leave the country.
“As of when?” asked Enrico Ehrmann, an Italian journalist who attended the press conference.
Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: “As far as I know … as of now, immediately.”
‘The wall has fallen’
He had not been prepared for the question. He had received the note just before the press conference started, and Egon Krenz, the then leader of the GDR, had not mentioned anything about a specific timeframe.
“I had rushed to the press conference, presuming that everybody was informed and prepared for the opening of the border,” Schabowski said.
The news conference was covered live by television networks and within minutes news stations were proclaiming that “the wall has fallen”.
Thousands of East Berliners wanted to check whether this was true and started streaming towards the checkpoints, where overwhelmed East German border guards, not sure what to do, kept asking for instructions while the crowds grew larger.
“It was bizarre: Within less than 30 minutes the message about my announcement had reached Canberra, but it didn’t reach the border guards who were just a few kilometres away from where the press conference took place.
“I couldn’t imagine that the border guards didn’t know anything about it. It was a very critical situation. Until today it seems unbelievable that no violent turmoil broke out. Luckily, the border guards reacted self-dependent and undramatic and the people were euphoric and peaceful.”
Eventually as the crowds grew larger, one barrier was removed and East Berliners, who had been unable to cross freely for 28 years, staggered into the West.
|After the announcement people began to tear down the wall [EPA]|
But that had not been Schabowski’s intention.
“At that time, I was still a committed Communist. The opening of the Wall was a tactical decision taken because of popular pressure to stabilise the GDR. The existence of the GDR was at stake because some 400 people were escaping each day by way of Czechoslovakia and Hungary.
“People went to the streets to protest against the regime. We had to do something to regain popularity.”
The decision to lift the travel restrictions on East Germans followed an October 17 decision by the Politburo to oust Erich Honnecker, the GDR’s ageing leader, Schabowski remembers.
“That was quite an unusual move because in a Communist party a secretary-general leaves office or dies, but he isn’t toppled.”
Officially Honnecker asked the central committee to relieve him of his duty as secretary-general because of his poor health, and he suggested Egon Krenz as his successor.
Because of pressure created by mass public demonstrations, where people asked for democracy, free elections and freedom of speech, the Politburo then asked the government to prepare a law allowing for freedom to travel.
Within weeks a draft for a new law was ready and news of it was announced on November 6, 1989. The draft was supposed to be discussed in public, to adjust it according to the citizen’s ideas. It was not expected to be finalised until December.
“We had this idea that East and West Germans should unify under the Christmas trees and pull the GDR system out of depression. For us it seemed to be a democratic non-plus-ultra for the GDR,” Schabowski said.
But it did not take the critical citizens long to discover the bill’s insufficiencies. One sentence was badly phrased and suggested that a new authority would be set up to deliver the visas and foreign currency needed to travel to the West was not mentioned, prompting new protests.
“We couldn’t believe it. We’d taken the most incredible decision to lift the travel restrictions and to open the border and it was greeted by mass demonstrations.”
Reforming the GDR
That same evening, after watching the news, Schabowski and Krenz were talking on the phone and decided that they had to fix that straight away with a ‘governmental decree’ that would not have to pass the people’s parliament in December like a bill and could be implemented soon.
The text of the decree was agreed by the council of ministers on the morning of November 9, the central committee was briefly informed and Krenz gave it to Schabowski, who grabbed the text, looked at it, and put it in his pocket.
“We had agreed on telling the journalists about the decree and I had figured out that I would inform the journalists about the new travel regulation right at the end of the one-hour press conference, to avoid too many questions.”
It turned out it was a misunderstanding or inaccuracy, and the opening of the borders should have been handled differently, but there was no holding back once the news broke.
After the press conference Schabowski says he felt relieved and sort of satisfied.
He was confident that their tactic would be successful, that less people would escape the GDR if the border was open and people were free to go to the West.
He thought they would notice that it was not easy to get jobs and apartments, so they would come back to the GDR sooner or later. He believed that people would perceive them as reformers and slowly the GDR would gain stability.
‘Desire for freedom’
“While I was indulging in this vision, that turned out to be more of a reassuring illusion, my phone rang. I was told that something strange was happening at the border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse. Many people had accumulated and the border guards wouldn’t let them pass. I couldn’t believe it and wondered who was responsible for this lack of information.
“I decided to go there myself and if needed to open the border myself. I could see from a distance that the roads were blocked by cars trying to get to the border crossing. I noticed that we had highly underestimated the strong desire for freedom.”
|Crowds gathered at the borders [EPA]|
He went to another border crossing to inform the guards at the Bornholmer Strasse.
He was still convinced that it was an exception and that the guards at the other border crossings had been informed and acted accordingly.
But it was the same situation everywhere and he tried to get though the masses waiting for the border to open.
“I remember that right at this moment, when I was on my way to the guards, a member of the Stasi, the GDR’s secret police, came over to me and said: ‘Comrade Schabowski, the guards have just started to let people cross the border. Nothing to report’.”
Schabowski was still very concerned that the situation might escalate but when he asked one of the border guards at the Heinrich-Heine-Strasse he said: “No, everything is fine. People are in a fantastic mood and what I find very reassuring is that they show me their IDs”.
When Schabowski heard that people crossing the border voluntarily provided their identity he believed the GDR was saved.
“People respected the border and didn’t just break through it.
“At first we didn’t feel the glory of that historical moment, we were just hoping that we had found a solution to save the GDR’s system.”
“The opening of the wall turned out to be the only measure to raise a cheer by the citizen’s majority for us. People were happy because the invidious restriction was lifted. Again, it could have ended in a bloodbath. We were very lucky.”
Schabowski was expelled from the SED party early in 1990 for tearing down the wall. In 1997, he was sentenced to prison for his earlier complicity in the shoot-to-kill policy enforced by border guards against those attempting to escape the GDR, but did not serve his term until 1998.
After one year in prison he was pardoned in 2000.
Since then he is one of the very few senior East German officials to have condemned the regime as unjust.
After he had dealt with his past – recognising that his mindset and beliefs were a product of the GDR ideology – he apologised in public for his failures, dissociated himself from the GDR system, and was criticised by some of his former SED comrades as a traitor.
“The wall had become a symbol of the conflict of the 20th century. The wall was an acknowledgement of the system’s weakness, that could only keep its citizens within its borders by using guns or regulations.
“The wall has shown that Communist world improvement theories are in reality a despotic, misanthropic illusion. The events of November 9 answered the question about the viability of a Socialist ideology-society.”