Posts Tagged ‘Guenter Schabowski’

5 February 2018 – half-life of the Berlin Wall

Monday, February 5th, 2018

Half-life is the time required for half of something to undergo a process. Today, on February 5, 2018, Berliners celebrate the halfway point between the Berlin-Wall-era and the post-Berlin-Wall-era. In other words, today the Berlin Wall will have been down for exactly the same number of days that it once stood, namely 10,315.

The Day the Berlin Wall went up

The Berlin Wall went up on 13 August 1961 and divided the city for the next 28 years. The purpose of the monstrosity was to stop the massive exodus of East Germans who were seeking a less controlled and more prosperous life in the West. Prior to the construction of the Wall, an estimated 3.5 million people had defected from East Germany.

The East German government called the barrier an “Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart”, necessary to protect East German citizens from western fascist elements who supposedly were intent on undermining East Germany’s efforts of building a utopian socialist state. The West German government called the barrier the “Wall of Shame.” During its 28-year existence, the Berlin Wall was continually fortified with guard towers, anti-vehicles trenches, beds of nails, dog runs, a death strip and shoot-to-kill orders.

Berlin Wall. Photo © J. Elke Ertle.

Berlin Wall. Photo © J. Elke Ertle.

The Day the Berlin Wall came down

The Berlin Wall stood until 9 November 1989 when it unexpectedly fell in the wake of a misunderstanding. At an East Berlin press conference, Guenter Schabowski, an East German government official misread a new policy that was intended to allow select East Germans to visit the West with proper approval. Instead, Schabowski mistakenly announced that visits to the West would be permitted “immediately.” Within minutes, masses of East Germans headed for the Berlin Wall crossings points. Without specific orders and quickly overwhelmed by the crowds, East German border guards opened the checkpoints. Following that initial border opening on 9 November 1989, there was no going back. Within days, the Berlin Wall began to be dismantled for good.


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 my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.


Who really opened the Berlin Wall?

Monday, August 31st, 2015

On 9 November 1989, East German Politburo member, Guenter Schabowski, stated during press conference televised from Berlin that a new travel law was going into effect. The new law was to remove a longstanding restriction to travel West. The Central Committee’s intention had been to announce the change overnight and phase in the new ruling the following morning. Instead, Schabowski, blurted out the plans prematurely. When journalists Peter Brinkmann of the German Bild Zeitung and Riccardo Ehrman of the Italian news agency ANSA asked for an effective date, Schabowski compounded his error by adding that the new rules would go into effect “unverzueglich – immediately.”

Schaboswki’s statement together with Brinkmann and Ehrman’s queries changed history. They sparked the opening of the Berlin Wall. But it was a border guard who actually opened it.

Harald Jaeger opens the Berlin Wall

Upon hearing the news, people headed for the border. Quickly, their numbers grew to several hundred. Demands to open the gate became louder. The crowd continued to grow. Soon, several thousand people had amassed. The guards, under order to stop anyone from crossing the border, called headquarters for direction. Nothing. The standoff between armed guards and the people grew tenser by the minute. The tide  seemed unstoppable. Twenty thousand people were demanding to cross checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse to the West.

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger, in charge of passport control at checkpoint Bornholmer Strasse that night, recalls almost choking on his dinner when he heard Schabowski’s statement on the guard’s cafeteria TV set. He was that surprised. He immediately rushed to his office to get clarification on what his border guards were supposed to do. To ease the tension, he was told to let some of the rowdier people through, but to stamp their passports invalid so that they could not return. But the departure of the few only fired up the crowd even more. Pressure from both sides mounted on Jaeger.

At 11:30 p.m., Jaeger ordered his men, “Macht den Schlagbaum auf – Raise the barrier,” despite the strict orders from his superiors not to let more people through. With that command, Jaeger allowed East Germans to cross to the West. With that command, he opened the Berlin Wall that had been impervious for 28 years.

Disobedience can be a good thing

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger disobeyed his orders during those dramatic hours. That disobedience could have had serious consequences for him and for his family. We have to thank him, his men and also the people waiting at the border for their levelheadedness. Had just one shot been fired, the outcome might have been very different. By breaking all the rules, a potential bloodbath could be avoided.

Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jaeger apparently was not the only guard who had the presence of mind to make the critical decision to disobey orders. In 2009, a former East German Stasi officer, Heinz Schaefer, came forward and claimed to have ordered the opening of the Waltersdorf-Rudow border crossing hours before Jaeger opened the Bornholmer Strasse crossing. Schaefer stated that he began to allow crossings at 8:30 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. Since the Waltersdorf-Rudow crossing was only a small checkpoint without television coverage, Schaefer’s account cannot be verified. However, it would explain reports of the presence of East Berliners in West Berlin hours before the opening of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint by Harald Jaeger.


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 my story of growing up in Berlin during the Cold War.

Brinkmann or Ehrman – the crucial question

Monday, August 24th, 2015

To this day, two men claim to have asked the crucial question that led to the opening of the Berlin Wall: Peter Brinkmann and Riccardo Ehrman. Brinkmann represented the German tabloid, Bild Zeitung; Ehrman worked for the Italian news agency ANSA. In 2008, German President Horst Koehler awarded Ehrman the Federal Cross of Merit for having asked the question that tore down the Iron Curtain. But was it really Ehrman? Brinkmann says he asked the decisive question. 

What happened on 9 November 1989

On that day, Guenter Schabowski, spokesman for the East German Communist Party Politburo, gave a press confererence in East Berlin. It covered many agenda items. The last was the East German travel law. The room was jam-packed with journalists representing domestic and International news services. Television covered the event. Schabowski was supposed to announce a temporary bureaucratic procedure that would make it easier for East Germans to travel abroad. In the face of mass demonstrations, the East German government was trying to appease its people with the new law.

An hour after the press conference had started journalists were given the opportunity to ask questions about the new travel law. Of course, they wanted to know when the law would go into effect and whether it would cover West Berlin. Schabowski looked through his notes and hesitantly replied, “Unverzueglich (Immediately).”

Schabowski’s answer spread like wildfire among the populace. The law was not supposed to become effective until the following morning – November 10 – to give border guards, police and security time to set up a system. But Schabowski hadn’t caught that. Within minutes of hearing the news that the new travel law was effective immediately, people raced to the border crossings. But the guards had no orders to let them cross to West Berlin. Soon, thousands had amassed at the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, the most popular checkpoint, ready to visit West Berlin. Unable to get hold of their superiors, the guards surrendered to the pressure from the crowd. Bornholmer was the first border checkpoint to open. The others followed. Unintentionally, the wall opened up for good.

So who asked the crucial question?

Ehrmann says it was he who brought up the subject of travel restrictions, and it was he who followed up by asking the crucial question as to when the new rule would become effective. Brinkmann agrees that Ehrman brought up the subject of the new travel law but insists that he, Brinkmann, asked the defining question. Who is right? According to Guenter Schabowski the crucial question came from Peter Brinkmann. As he puts it, “It’s like playing football. The one – here Riccardo Ehrman – shooting the ball from the side of the penalty area, and the other – Peter Brinkmann – then shooting the ball into the goal.” To watch an excerpt from the press conference, click 

Summing it up

On 13 August 1961 the Berlin Wall was raised to stabilize East Germany. On November 9, the unintentional demolition of the wall was meant to save East Germany. In the end, it was a communication error that tore the Iron Curtain apart. There is no doubt that the question, “as of when?” changed the course of history. But only one man asked it. Was it Brinkmann or was it Ehrman?


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.

Schabowski sparks the fall of the Wall

Monday, August 10th, 2015

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.

The day the Berlin Wall fell

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

9 November 1989 will be remembered as the day the Berlin Wall fell. The Berlin Wall became the hated symbol of the Cold War. It had stood for twenty-eight years and fell unexpectedly within a few short hours. Not one shot was fired.

What caused the Berlin Wall to fall

In the wake of glasnost and perestroika, Hungary had opened its borders to Austria on 19 August 1989. The following month, thousands of East Germans raced to Hungary to flee to free Austria. Hungary’s border opening created a chain reaction. Demonstrations for increased freedoms broke out all over East Germany. Two months later, in October, East German leaders forced longtime Head of State, Erich Honecker, to resign and installed the moderate, Egon Krenz. With this action they hoped to appease the public. But the protests and the exodus continued. When Hungary tightened its new border crossing policies again, East Germans begged the West German embassy in Prague for help. The situation was quickly becoming a public relations disaster for East Germany.

What was supposed to happen

To release some of the pressure that had built-up, Egon Krenz decided on 9 November 1989 to allow East German refugees to exit legally through the crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. Furthermore, his government intended to also ease private travel restrictions. These new regulations were to take effect the following day to allow time to inform the border guards. In other words, the East German government intended to relax the regulations for travel abroad. It did not mean to open the borders completely.

What happened instead

Shortly before giving a live evening press conference on 9 November 1989, party spokesman Guenter Schabowski was handed a note announcing the planned travel restriction changes. The regulations had only been written a few hours earlier. Schabowski had not been made privy to their content. Instead, he read at 6:53 p.m. the press release handed to him, “…Und deshalb haben wir uns entschlossen, heute eine Regelung zu treffen, die es jedem Buerger der DDR moeglich macht, ueber Grenzuebergangspunkte der DDR auszureisen – …And that is why we decided, to introduce a new regulation which will make it possible for every citizen of the GDR (East Germany) to legally exit the GDR through existing border crossings.”

When a reporter asked when the new regulations would go into effect, Schabowski shrugged his shoulders and guessed, “Sofort – Immediately.” His offhand answer brought about dramatic consequences.

The beginning of the end of the Berlin Wall

The press conference was aired on East German television and news agencies around the world. Shortly after hearing the broadcast around 7 p.m., East Berliners began gathering at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that the border guards open the gates to the West. The surprised guards frantically called their superiors but received no clear instructions. By 8 p.m. hundreds of people had reached the border crossings. Soon thousands. The crowds failed to disperse. The situation was rapidly deteriorating. The vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way of holding back the huge crowds of East German citizens. By 9 p.m. the guards began to open the checkpoints. By midnight, all of Berlin’s border crossings were open. One hour later, West Germany’s checkpoints were open as well. They never closed again. 9 November 1989 will be remembered as the day the Berlin Wall fell.

East and West Berliners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the early morning of 10 November 1989. AP Photo - Jockel Finck

East and West Berliners celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate in the early morning of 10 November 1989.
AP Photo – Jockel Finck


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.