Remembering people, places and myths surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall

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The crucial scene before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Günter Schabowski's press conference in the International Press Centre on 9 November 1989. [Bundesarchiv]

The crucial scene before the fall of the Berlin Wall: Günter Schabowski's press conference in the International Press Centre on 9 November, 1989. [Bundesarchiv]

25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Austrian correspondent Ewald König returns to the place where Günter Schabowski mistakenly ordered the opening of the Wall, where myths live on and where König met the young Angela Merkel.

Ewald König is former editor-in-chief and publisher of euractiv.de, was a correspondent for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse and the only journalist who was accredited in both West and East Germany.

It only takes a short stroll through Berlin’s city centre (Mitte) to visit several of the sites where I witnessed the fall of the Wall, a quarter of a century ago. One look inside the building that housed East Germany’s International Press Centre (IPZ), a glimpse of the former location of the GDR news agency ADN, a visit to my former East German apartment with the peculiar neighbour, and a look at significant actors at the time and where they are now.  

Berlin’s central district used to be on the GDR side. Nowhere else is the change so apparent. Simply the people themselves: 90% of its residents have been replaced since the Wall fell. No street, no house, looks as it did back then.

But the most important minutes of Germany’s post-war history transpired here, in Mohrenstraße 36/37. The International Press Centre was just around the corner from my Leipziger Straße apartment at the time. There, I lived with the Stasi on one side, and on the other the Palestinian Abdel Majid Y., who conducted weapons deals and money laundering on behalf of the GDR’s Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Here in the IPZ, today the location of the Federal Justice Ministry, member of the Politburo Günter Schabowski answered journalist questions in a press conference on 9 November 1989 at 18:53. This was the moment when he famously responded to a question regarding the travel regime with the words: “As far as I know – effective immediately, without delay.” These words led to the fall of the Wall the very same night.

Where is Schabowski today? He is no longer approachable. Dementia. The press room? Torn down. The building has been gutted. An important site in German history, eliminated, thrown out. Floor-to-ceiling windows display an art installation intended to remind passersby of the press conference: a slightly sloped floor with a few stacking chairs, a flat-screen on the wall showing uninterrupted ocean waves as a symbol for freedom. No one connects the scene with the former press conference. No one stops to look at the exhibit. No pictures show the situation at the time; no headphones transmit Schabowski’s words. It misses the point, like other sites where more of a culture of memory could help to make the images of Berlin after division more real.

Now, on the 25th anniversary of the Schabowski press conference, and the fall of the Wall, the smoke has cleared over a myth of that time. It has to do with the journalist Riccardo Ehrman, then a correspondent for the Italian news agency ANSA. The fact that he was the one who asked Schabowski about the travel regime during the 53 minute press conference is undisputed. But the crucial questions – when the Wall would be opened and whether this applied to West Berlin as well – did not come from him but from Peter Brinkmann, a correspondent for Bild. These were the questions that got Schabowski to make the pivotal statement.

But five years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, Ehrman revealed a momentous development in the story that seemed to suggest a new interpretation of history. The story suggests Ehrman was approached by Günter Pötschke, chief of the GDR’s news agency ADN, shortly before the press conference. Pötschke had allegedly pressured him into asking a question about the travel regime, saying it was extremely important. This new version of the day’s events only unearths more riddles: Did the GDR regime simply stage the whole thing because it saw no more escape?

But nowadays the issue has been cleared up. Stefan May, an Austrian journalist in Berlin, received an assignment from Deutschlandradio to interview Riccardo Ehrman in his retirement home in Madrid. May confronts Ehrman with many of the inconsistencies, also included in my book, Menschen, Mauer, Mythen. One of these was the less-than-credible Pötschke story. Speaking on the radio, Ehrman suddenly backed down, saying Pötschke actually only asked him if he expected to attend the press conference. Nothing else. “It was actually a mistake of mine. I wanted to make it a little more interesting for listeners,” he said. “I inflated it a bit. It was not entirely like that.”

The IPZ was also where I met an East German woman around my age at a reception for journalists, shortly after Minister President Lothar de Maizière took office. The young woman had just been appointed deputy government spokesperson – although she had no previous experience with the media but, instead, had been conducting research in physical chemistry.

At the reception, she stood off to the side at a wood-paneled wall and observed the journalists at the buffet. Her reserve, her hairstyle and her outfit suggested she did not feel particularly at ease among the many politicians, diplomats or people from the media. Out of curiosity, I struck up a conversation with her, also partially out of pity because no one was talking with her. After I introduced myself as a correspondent from Austria, she described her first experience with West German journalists: she considered them quite arrogant.

Until the end of the GDR, she had reported information on the government’s decisions as its vice spokeswoman. Or not. She said she quickly gained an acute sense for the fact that not every controversial issue is suitable for the public.

This young woman has now served as German Chancellor for a total of nine years. The name Angela Merkel represents one of the most important politicians of our time in Europe, and the rest of the world.

Many “Ossis” (“Easties”) complained about the way accession was carried out, and about its negative effects. But at the time, no one could have guessed that a quarter of a century later, the highest posts in Germany would be occupied by two “Ossis”: Angela Merkel as Chancellor, and Joachim Gauck as President.

A short walk southward to Checkpoint Charlie, a border crossing was reserved for foreign or Allied nationals, including myself as an Austrian. At the time there was a restaurant called “Athena II” but it does not exist anymore. Back then, I happened to be a regular there because I used their telephone connection to convey my reports on the GDR to the Die Presse newspaper. The pre-WWII cables made the connection from my East Berlin office apartment abysmal. Instead of transmitting my stories from there, I would often cross to West Berlin where the Greek waitresses were happy to let me use their phone and offered me an ouzo. Whenever the foreign policy secretary in the receiver booth at Die Presse could hear Bouzouki background music in her headset, she knew it was going to be a report on the GDR.

Checkpoint Charlie was also where Helmut Kohl rushed to the scene on the evening of 10 November 1989.  At that point, he had just been through a rough several hours. The day before, he joined half of the federal cabinet in making a “historic” visit to Poland. But on the evening of the official reception in Warsaw, Berliners stormed the Wall. Of all people, the history major Helmut Kohl was in the wrong place at the wrong time. History did not choose Warsaw to be its stage that night, but Berlin. When Kohl broke off his Poland visit and made an adventurous journey to Berlin to speak before the Schöneberg city hall, he was mercilessly booed and shouted down. In the evening, he sent his bodyguards away and, together with his foreign policy adviser Horst Teltschik and one chauffeur, drove to the Checkpoint. Here, he was able to personally enjoy the excitement over the open border for the first time and shake many hands – before flying to Bonn the same night and back to Warsaw the next day.

Further in the direction of Alexanderplatz, Mollstraße 1, there used to be the offices of the General German News Service (ADN). Today, the building houses the internet fashion retailer Zalando. This was where the news agency monopoly supplied the GDR with its media – except on the night from 9-10 November 1989. After the Schabowski press conference the GDR agency, with 1,400 employees of which 750 were journalists, did not release anything! A total failure!

Peter Heimann, a young news editor, watched live coverage of the Schabowski press conference and rushed straight to his large office to support his colleagues at ADN. But he found no one in need of his support. Heimann caught the last people on duty locking the door, with the remark: “This is all unlawful…”

On this crazy night, Heimann was the only journalist in the ADN editorial office. On Western television, he watched as the entire world reported on the events – and not a single word came from ADN! The next day, the GDR media’s lead story reported on the anticipated party convention, as if the Wall had not fallen at all. Long past midnight, Heimann, drenched in sweat, released a three-sentence dispatch. He was afraid he would get picked up any minute. He was actually not allowed to transmit anything on his own. All of his superiors had pleaded ignorance. No one wanted to take responsibility. I later got one of the ADN‘s directors to admit he made a huge mistake: “Of course we, as the GDR’s news agency, should have pulled out all the stops.”

Ewald König's books, published by the Mitteldeutscher Verlag, include:

  • Menschen, Mauer, Mythen –Deutsch-deutsche Notizen eines Wiener Korrespondenten (November 2013)
  • Kohls Einheit unter drei – Weitere deutsch-deutsche Notizen eines Wiener Korrespondenten (August 2014)
  • Merkels Welt zur WendezeitWeitere deutsch-deutsche Notizen eines Wiener Korrespondenten (to be released in March 2015)

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