In late 1989, history took a sharp, unplanned turn. By most accounts, it happened because of Guenter Schabowski.
Meeting the media after weeks of pro-democracy protests, the spokesman for the repressive East German state was asked about rumors of a new travel law. Were the restrictions that had trapped most East Germans behind the Berlin Wall since 1961 being eased?
Schabowski searched his notes, finally finding the one he had been given just before the briefing started.
Yes, he said, the government had adopted a new regulation permitting East Germans to leave the country at border crossing points. No, he didn’t know if passports would be required. But the change, he said, would take effect “immediately. Without delay.”
His last statement was wrong, but it was too late. His stunning announcement was quickly broadcast across the country and around the world. Within a few hours, thousands of East Berliners were swarming the wall, demanding their freedom.
Schabowski, whose blunder hastened the wall’s collapse and Germany’s reunification, died Sunday in a Berlin nursing home, according to German news media. He was 86.
Conflicting accounts emerged as to who bore responsibility for the bungled announcement, which officials had intended for the following morning after making arrangements for orderly border crossings.
“It was one of many foul-ups in those days,” Schabowski told the Associated Press 10 years later. “We were acting under the pressure of events. I’m just happy that it went off without bloodshed.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9. 1989, had been preceded by weeks of mounting chaos. Erich Honecker had been ousted as head of the ruling Socialist Unity Party. Demonstrators filled East Berlin streets, agitating for free elections. Tens of thousands were fleeing the country through Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
Against this backdrop of continual crisis, German officials sought a relief valve. On Nov. 9, the Politburo adopted a vaguely worded order allowing citizens to travel abroad. By most accounts, few Politburo members understood its importance.
Egon Krenz, who had succeeded Honecker, handed Schabowski a note on the new law at the start of that evening’s news conference. The spokesman did not mention it until close to 7 p.m., when the largely dull briefing was winding down.
“Private trips abroad can be applied for,” he said, reading Krenz’s note. “Permits will be granted promptly.”
Schabowski’s words caused “head-shaking confusing among the reporters,” NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, who was covering the news conference, wrote later in his memoir, “A Lucky Life Interrupted.” Did Schabowski’s statement mean the wall was coming down?
As Brokaw recalled in his book, he sought confirmation from Schabowski immediately after the briefing and got it. He ran from the interview shouting to colleagues, “It’s down, the wall!”
As the news spread, East Germans flocked to the crossing points. Border guards, who had not been notified of the new policy, ultimately yielded to the crowds’ demands and began letting people pass through.
On the other side, West Berliners offered jubilant hugs and champagne. Some brought hammers and chisels to begin dismantling the bitter Cold War symbol.
Schabowski resigned a few weeks later. Krenz, who insisted that the spokesman had ignored an embargo on the momentous announcement, was also ousted.
Schabowski was born Jan. 4, 1929, in the northern town of Anklam, and trained as a journalist. He rose through the ranks of German media after World War II, becoming the chief editor of Neues Deutschland, the main Communist Party-controlled newspaper, in 1978. He became a member of the ruling Politburo in 1984.
In October 1989, Schabowski, then the Communist Party chief in East Berlin, became the first Politburo member to talk to opposition leaders. In another turnaround for East Germany, he also voiced support for “approved and well-ordered” demonstrations.
By mid-November, he was the spokesman for a government under siege.
With the ruling party in meltdown, “it was obvious that we couldn’t stay,” he recalled in a 1990 Chicago Tribune interview. “We hadn’t understood at the time that demands had gone much further than the changes we proposed. Our time had passed. The whole system had proved insufficient, and the people threw it away.”
His survivors include his wife, Irina.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.