Poor Guenter Schabowski. He didn’t know no better, as a friend of mine from the Ozarks used to say. Instead of being the Little Dutch Boy who saved the dyke by plugging the leaking hole with his finger, he unintentionally trumpeted down the East German wall of Jericho with his leaking mouth. It’s been twenty years now since the fall of the Berlin Wall and it’s time, I find, that the comical misunderstanding that led to its demise be honored accordingly.
That something peculiar was in the air in November 1989 was certainly clear to anyone who was living in Berlin at that time. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s emotional appearance on the balcony of Prague’s German Embassy announcing the agreement to allow thousands of East Germans taking refuge there safe passage to West Germany was still in everybody’s mind. Communist boss Erich Honecker, a bizarrely comical figure himself, had just been driven from power. Alexanderplatz could have been renamed Alexanderplatzt (Alexanderplatz exploding), million-strong street protests were demanding real political reform in East Germany and were clearly being heard.
But despite these tangible and dramatic changes, nobody for a moment expected what was about to happen next. No political expert, East or West, ever thought it possible that the Berlin Wall could virtually disappear within a manner of minutes. Yet this is precisely what happened. History, it seems, marches to a different piper. And the piper in this particular case was poor East German Politburo member and spokesman Guenter Schabowski.
The tension had continued to rise on the days leading up to November 9th. The communist leaders now in charge after Honecker’s departure, intent as they were on appeasing the masses on the streets by trying to present themselves as the true reformers, turned attack into what they hoped would be the best defense and announced “new” travel regulations. This too, had a comic touch to it. There was nothing new about these travel regulations, of course, because no one had been allowed to travel in the first place (see Berlin Wall).
But now the leadership would graciously modify the regulations (that didn’t exist) by allowing citizens of the GDR – under certain very well-regulated conditions that had yet to be determined in detail – to travel to the West. No practical preparations had been made, however. The authorities on the border had not been informed and were not ready. After all, one doesn’t just open up a lethal concrete monstrosity that has stood so ominously since 1961 like that overnight. Not intentionally, anyway.
Just before he opened a news conference on the evening of 9 November, Schabowski had been handed an update from his Politburo colleagues detailing the new travel regulations. Fortunately, for the further course of history, he did not have the time to read this information carefully. And fortunately, again, he had also not been directly involved in the travel regulation discussion process which had taken place.
And then, at the end of an otherwise very boring news conference, an Italian journalist asked a simple question about the matter. Confused and under time pressure, Schabowski tried to describe what he believed to be the new regulations as best he could and then announced that “as far as I know, immediately, right now,” a decision had been made allowing “exit via border crossings… for every citizen.” The sad fact however, quite happy for the rest of us, was that the new travel regulations were not to take effect until the following day, and then only after all the responsible authorities and border guards had been properly informed.
Journalists being what they are, and generally quite excitable, this information was immediately broadcast in the West. East Germans, who regularly watched western broadcasts of course, quickly began to gather on their side of the wall. It wasn’t long before guards at several crossing points were outnumbered by countless thousands. Unsure what was really going on and unable to locate an authority who would take a clear stand on “the issue,” communication soon broke down completely.
And then, in a futile attempt to placate the ever-growing crowd, guards began making “executive decisions” and let a few select through at around 9 pm. This only increased the crowd’s determination and with the pressure growing unbearable and the guards exhausted and desperate, the rest was history – as another friend of mine from the Ozarks used to say. At 11:30 pm. the remaining crossings were opened the gates were flooded for good.
That the Berlin Wall would have eventually fallen in some other way, without this misunderstanding, seems quite self-evident right now. But it certainly did not seem that way at the time.
And one man’s poison is another man’s meat, as the saying goes, sort of. Because what certainly turned out to be a tragedy for Guenter Schabowski at the time was not just merely a lower form of high comedy for some of those watching, it led to a world-shattering and epically joyous event for us all. So Happy Anniversary in Berlin – to all of us, Guenter!