Gunter Schabowski on Nov. 9, 1989: A bumbling apparatchik who accidentally opened the Berlin Wall, or a shrewd malcontent who knew exactly what he was doing? (Click for source.)
It is not a particularly long walk from the German Bundestag, or parliament, to the former site of the now-demolished Palace of the Republic, as the former East German seat of power was called: a little over 20 minutes on foot. In Winnipeg terms, it would be akin to walking from the University of Winnipeg to the Concert Hall, or from the Manitoba Legislature to the bars and restaurants on the Corydon Strip.
But from Aug. 13, 1961 to Nov. 9, 1989, to walk that short distance in Berlin was to cross the boundary between two completely different societies: a free and democratic West Berlin, representing the areas of the German capital captured by the U.S., British and French militaries at the end of World War II, and Communist-ruled East Berlin in the areas captured by the Soviet military.
In fact, it was impossible without passing through East German border controls — which included detailed questioning, careful examination of travel documents and thorough searches — or climbing over the Berlin Wall and risking being shot by border guards.
In 1949, when it became clear that a jointly U.S., British, French and Soviet-ruled occupied Germany was not going to be practical, the two sides each set up rival German states based on their own occupational zones: the western-backed Federal Republic of Germany was the first to emerge from the U.S., British and French-occupied zones on May 23, followed by the German Democratic Republic in the Soviet-occupied zone on Oct. 7.
They respectively came to be known by the monikers “West Germany” and “East Germany”.
Berlin remained an unresolved matter: by mutual agreement, Berlin had been carved up into occupational zones much like the rest of Germany. But while it was relatively easy to turn an arbitrary line across the German countryside into a heavily patrolled international boundary between West Germany and East Germany, enforcing an international boundary running right through the middle of a city was a more difficult matter after a Soviet blockade of Berlin failed to dislodge the western powers in 1948-49.
The austerity and constant surveillance that came with life in East Germany didn’t prove itself popular. As the gap in quality of life between East and West continued to widen in the late ’50s and the beginning of the ’60s, thousands of East Germans fled across the relatively open urban border to West Berlin, and from there to West Germany, where they were entitled to automatic citizenship.
East German leaders were becoming desperate to do something — anything — to prevent either their own loss of power or East Germany becoming an economic basket case as its own citizens voted with their feet for a better life in the west.
On Aug. 13, 1961, in a carefully planned move, the Soviets and East Germans began sealing this urban border in the middle of the night, first with armed guards and barbed wire — and then with a wall and a “death strip” straight through the city.
The East Germans would spend much of the rest of the next 28 years defending the Berlin Wall as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”, protecting the Workers’ Paradise from the corrupting, fascist influences of the West — but even few East Germans were fooled. The wall, and the rest of the heavily militarized border, was there to prevent East Germans from leaving.
Things began to change in October 1989.
Days after presiding over East Germany’s 40th anniversary celebrations, and threatening to use force against East Germans who were now protesting for the same kinds of democratic reforms they saw happening in the Soviet Union and other communist countries, the 77-year-old Erich Honecker was deposed by the East German Politburo as the country’s leader after 18 years in office. Fifty-two year old Egon Krenz, Honecker’s long-time heir apparent, was installed in his place.
Attempting to convey a softer image in contrast to Honecker’s hardline reputation, Krenz instructed Gunter Schabowski, a member of the ruling Politburo, to start holding regular media conferences to tell the world’s media about all the changes that were going on in post-Honecker East Germany.
On Nov. 9, three weeks after Krenz came to power, the Politburo approved a new policy that would provide East Germans with a limited right to travel to the west, subject to government approval on a case-by-case basis.
As legend long had it, nobody had bothered to tell Schabowski that the policy wasn’t supposed to come into effect until the next day, and he had carelessly gone into the press conference without reading or fully understanding the changes. The result was summed up by Michael Meyer in his book 1989, The Year that Changed the World:
Schabowski scanned the memo while being driven from party headquarters. It seemed innocuous enough — just a short press release. At the news conference, he read it out as item four or five from a list of the various announcements. It had to do with passports. Every East German would now, for the first time, have a right to one.
For a nation locked so long behind the Iron Curtain, it was tremendous news. At the press conference, there was a sudden hush, followed by a ripple of whispers. Schabowski droned on. Then, from the back of the room, as the cameras rolled, broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter shouted out a fateful question: “When does it take effect?”
Schabowski paused, looked up, suddenly confused. “What?”
The reporter repeated the question, his voice almost lost in a cacophony of shouts from others seeking similar clarification.
Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to aides on either side. “Um, that’s a technical question. I’m not sure.” He perched his glasses on the end of his nose, shuffled through his papers, then looked up again . . . and shrugged.
“Ab Sofort,” he read aloud from what he saw written on the press release. Immediately. Without delay.
At this, the room erupted. Schabowski, we now know, didn’t appreciate the full significance of his announcement.
In the hours that followed, both West and East Berliners descended on the border crossing, demanding that the confused border guards — informed of nothing and unable to confirm what they heard from the crowd to be true — let the Easterners cross freely into the West.
At about 11:30 p.m. local time, about four and a half hours after Schabowski’s surprise announcement, an East German border guard named Harald Jäger at Berlin’s Bornholmerstrasse crossing made the decision to open the border.
It was effectively the end of East Germany, which no longer had the will — and without Soviet support, the means — to secure its own borders. With its citizens still entitled to automatic West German citizenship after fleeing through the once again open Berlin border, from that night East Germany had little choice but to seek reunification on the west’s terms.
That duly followed on Oct. 3, 1990, officially known as The Day of German Unity, when East Germany officially ceased to exist and the divided country became a single polity again for the first time in more than 40 years.
For the past 25 years, the legend has held that it was all the result of a bumbling Schabowski who accidentally inflicted the fatal wound to a corrupt and ailing regime in a final fit of incompetence.
Schabowski did little over the years to dispel that story, though he has long since renounced the former East German regime (his role in which briefly landed him in prison) and embraced reunification.
Now elderly, in poor health and living in a Berlin care home, his wife Irina has taken to speaking for him. In her own bombshell announcement this past week, she told a reporter that her husband’s “bumbling” was, in fact, no accident; that he was “very aware” of what he was doing.
“As he read the note, he wanted the wall opened immediately,” Irina Schabowski apparently told a reporter from Germany’s Bild newspaper. “You can not say, in a few hours, the border is open,” she continued, suggesting her husband feared that the delayed relaxation of border controls envisaged by the Politburo would lead to chaos and violence.
“The border had to be opened immediately.”
Gunter Schabowski is, as noted, no longer able to speak for himself. But if his wife’s comments are true, the long-standing image of the bumbling communist apparatchik might actually have been a mask for a more shrewd and calculating politician who spotted an opportunity to make history and seized upon it — but who left himself room to backtrack as having misspoken in case he found himself in trouble with his superiors.