Guenter Schabowski opens the Wall

Some said the fall of the Berlin Wall was inevitable, but its peaceful and sudden dismantling on November 11, 1989 owed as much to a blunder by an East German politician as to the people power movement.

The protests caused the East German communist leader Egon Krenz — an uncharismatic and pale successor of larger-than-life Eric Hoenecker — to quickly introduce a new set of regulations, which eased the travel restrictions for East Germans. His true intention was to announce the changes overnight to avert a looming clash between the military and the protesters. Krenz, always a hardliner, planned to phase in the new rules slowly — if at all.

The changes were announced in an impromptu live press conference (above) by one of the more charismatic Politburo members, Guenter Schabowski. He haven’t thoroughly read the minutes of the meeting and his announcement was lengthy, complicated and bureaucratic; at its end, many were left unclear whether it signalled free travel. Pressured to clarify, he blundered by saying the new rules would come into force “Starting immediately, I think.” It took a moment to register, but then everyone realized what this meant: the wall had fallen.

Instead of returning to their homes as Krenz wished, tens of thousands of East Berliners turned up at the border. The guards who hadn’t been told of the changes had the standing orders to stop anyone from crossing. On that fateful November night, when they failed to turn people back and when the government ministries in charge of security failed to update them, the guards made a critical decision to open the border.

East German leaders, as well as the rest of the world were left offguard. In Washington, Secretary of State Jim Baker was hauled off to the White House from his lunch with the Filipino president. In London Douglas Hurd, who had been foreign secretary for just 15 days, was at a lost to persuade the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to consider the idea of a united Germany. In the Kremlin, however, Chairman Gorbachev slept through it. He woke up to a changed, chaotic world. For a moment, the Kremlin considered restoring the old normal by force: four of his closest advisors urged Gorbachev to send in the Soviet Army. Gorbachev, however, understood that any attempt to turn back would lead to a conflict with the West. In the end, he refused to send troops and the communist regimes fell like dominoes.

The Iconic Half-Second: Schabowski answers, “Ist das sofort, unverzüglich!”

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