Schabowski sparks the fall of the Wall

Guenter Schabowski was a former official of the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED). In 1989, his name became a worldwide household word when he committed a colossal blunder during an international press conference. His faux pas sparked the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

Guenter Schabowski in a Nutshell

Born in 1929 in Pomerania, Schabowski studied journalism in Leipzig, became editor of a trade union magazine, joined the SED and became chief editor of former East Germany’s leading newspaper, Neues Deutschland. In 1981, he became a member of the SED Central Committee. Four years later, he became the First Secretary of the party’s East Berlin chapter and member of the SED Politburo. In an effort to improve the regime’s image, Schabowski and several other members of the Politburo forced party leader, Erich Honecker, to step down in October 1989 in favor of Egon Krenz. Schabowski became the regime’s spokesman and held daily press conferences to announce changes in the system.

9 November 1989

Live press conferences were a novelty in communist days. Shortly before the 9 November 1989 meeting with the press, Schabowski was handed a note that stated that East Germans would forthwith be allowed to cross the borders to the West with proper permission. No one told him that the new rules were to be phased in the following morning to allow time for informing the border guards.

The following is an excerpt of the pertinent section of the announcement:

(“Guenter Schabowski’s Press Conference in the GDR International Press Center,” Making the History of 1989, Item #449, accessed June 14 2015, 6:36 pm).

  • Schabowski: A recommendation from the Politburo was taken up that we take a passage from the [draft of] travel regulation and put it into effect, that, (um)—as it is called, for better or worse—that regulates permanent exit, leaving the Republic. Since we find it (um) unacceptable that this movement is taking place (um) across the territory of an allied state, (um) which is not an easy burden for that country to bear. Therefore (um), we have decided today (um) to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic (um) to (um) leave the GDR through any of the border crossings.
  • Reporter: At once? When? When does it come into effect?
  • Schabowski: That comes into effect, according to my information… immediately, without delay.

West German television broadcast Schabowski’s announcement as the lead story at 8:00 p.m. Within minutes a trickle of East Berliners arrived at the border crossings. The guards had been given no instructions on how to handle the situation. Their standing orders were to stop anyone from crossing. They called their headquarters for orders, but the government officials had gone home already, unaware of the situation. Their standing orders were to stop anyone crossing. By 9:20 p.m. the border guards at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing yielded to the pressure from the crowd and let the most belligerent people leave for West Berlin. Soon the numbers of people wanting to take advantage of their new travel right grew into thousands. By 11:30 p.m. the crowd was so unwieldy that the guards – still without orders – finally raised the barrier. Over the next hour, around 20,000 people crossed the Boesebruecke into West Berlin.

The Boesebruecke, Berlin, seen from the East (2015) Photo © J. Elke Ertle

The Boesebruecke, Berlin, seen from the East (2015)
Photo © J. Elke Ertle

Schabowski Today

After German Reunification in 1990, Schabowski became highly critical of Soviet-style socialism and his own role in it. He was charged with the murders of East Germans attempting to flee and was convicted in 1997. After serving less than one year in prison, he was pardoned and released in December 2000. He says that he does not consider himself a hero for having helped to open the border. He was still a committed communist at the time, he says. But he is glad now that he helped – even if unintentionally – to bring the confrontation between east and west to an end.


For a sneak peek at the first 20+ pages of my memoir, Walled-In: A West Berlin Girl’s Journey to Freedom, click “Download a free excerpt” on the home page of Walled-In is a story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

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