The journalist question that fractured the Berlin Wall

A driver of a Trabant from East Germany passes a border checking point in Berlin, Germany, on the night of 9 November 1989. People on the side along the road cheer him and wave a German flag. [Sven Simon/EPA]

This article was originally published in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall

Our distinguished colleague Ewald König, who served as editor-in-chief of EURACTIV Germany, attended the historic press conference in East Berlin, where a blunder by East German official Günter Schabowski triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This is his account of this incredible episode.

“I was so tired. I had spent the night before at the Czechoslovakian border where I spontaneously wanted to do some research for a feature about a new phenomenon. In Schirnding, a small town in Bavaria with a border checkpoint to CSSR [the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic], there was a never-ending queue of Trabant cars with GDR-refugees, all of them between 20 and 30 years old, 24 hours a day, coming from the GDR via a small deviation on CSSR territory to the Federal Republic. They were not allowed to cross the German-German border directly.

It was an extremely ghostlike atmosphere at the border, exactly the opposite of the summer before when the first refugees coming via Hungary and Austria had been warmly welcomed with sparkling wine, press photographers and television teams.

Thousands of cars chugging with their two-stroke engines coming all day and all night, nearly 50,000 people within five days: Schirnding was the place where the GDR was bleeding out and losing so many of her young population.

A file picture dated 05 November 1989 shows a long line of GDR cars at the German-Czechoslovakian border near Schirnding, Germany. Only five days later, on 9 November 1989, the GDR opened its borders. [Klaus Feix/EPA]

I was on my way from Bonn, the capital of West Germany at that time, to Berlin, when I decided to take the indirect route via Schirnding. I wanted to make a very quick local inspection about the situation and a short flashlight research. But it took me much more time than I had expected.

It was just impossible for me to leave the place, when you hear all these stories about young people escaping the communist part of Germany, leaving even their family at home without telling them their plans, leaving their late shift in their working clothes, some even with the dentist’s suture in their palate which should have been removed that same day.

So I was full of new quotes and stories at that exciting time, after having written a lot of other stories on refugee camps in Germany before. That night, I slept just one single hour in a rental car in the forests of the Fichtelgebirge mountains on my way from Schirnding to Frankfurt. It was very cold. I then took the first plane to Berlin.

When I finally arrived at the International Press Center (IPZ) of the GDR-government, in Mohrenstrasse, Eastern Berlin, I was really exhausted. I chatted with some colleagues, heard some new rumours and learned about new press appointments. That’s enough, I thought, and I wanted to leave the IPZ some minutes before 6 pm.

I was definitely not convinced that I should cover the press conference with Günter Schabowski, which was scheduled for 6 pm. He was scheduled to report some results of the meeting of the central committee of the Socialist Unity Party (SED). I thought this was so boring that I preferred to take a nap and catch up on some sleep after this one-hour-night.

Little did I imagine that the next night would be without sleep, and even the following night too!

So I turned to leave the IPZ and went down the stairs from the first floor, where the press room was, to the ground floor. But at that moment I had to give way to a group of men walking upstairs – it was Schabowski and his entourage. So I changed my mind. If he is already coming for the press conference, it would be silly of me to leave the press centre and risk missing something.

So I ran back into the press conference room, which was packed with people and no seats could be found. So I stayed at the back – good enough to follow the announcements from Schabowski’s podium and very close to the exit so that I could leave at any time if I started falling asleep during the bureaucratic communist monologue.

Schabowski started the press event exactly the way I had feared. In the central committee, participants were invited to comment the reforms of the politics of the Socialist Unity Party. They had asked to take responsibility for some of the failures, he said, and so on. Nothing really worth writing about.

But there were some interesting questions from GDR journalists. It was the very first time that they asked some critical questions.

Schabowski was asked by GDR editors what he personally had done against the personality cult. For instance, Erich Honecker, the leader of the party and the state, was pictured 43 times in one single edition of the most important daily, ‘Neues Deutschland’ (“New Germany”).

Schabowski, who was the ND’s editor-in-chief, answered he had absolutely no influence on the selection of the illustration of his newspaper. He even admitted that being an editor-in-chief, he was “subject as well as object of the policy that we deny today”. Today, he stated, we are all cleverer than before.

The 53-minute press conference ended without any highlight. It was the Italian ANSA correspondent Riccardo Ehrman, sitting on the edge of the podium who asked Schabowski something about some reforms of travelling freedoms.

At 6.53 p.m., Ehrman asked in his typical Italian accent: “You have mentioned some mistakes. Don’t you think it was a big mistake to make this draft of the travelling regulations which you had presented some days ago?”

Schabowski had not mentioned a single word about the travelling regulation until now. He looked for a sheet of paper in his bag and in his jacket. He seemed to be undecided and unconfident. He was unable to complete his sentences correctly and started to read something of the draft of the new travel regulations about leaving the German Democratic Republic without explanation as they had been required before.

The atmosphere in the press room became electric. Schabowski realised the amazement among the journalists. They had no idea of a new draft of the travel regulations. He told them: “I am not quite sure but I was told that this information was forwarded to you already. I suppose you have got this release already.”

But nobody had got one because there was simply no press release.

Then he said with a lot of hesitation: “I am expressing myself very cautiously because I am not quite up to date. I just got the information some minutes before coming here.”

We all had the impression that Schabowski might have forgotten to mention the new travel regulation unless Riccardo Ehrman had asked him.

But the decisive question after that was not Ehrman’s. It came from Peter Brinkmann, who was a correspondent for the ‘Bild’ at the time.

Brinkmann was sitting exactly in front of Schabowski in the first row. He asked: “When does it come into effect? Immediately?”

This is the big and historical moment when Schabowski answered: “This comes into effect – up to my opinion – at once, instantly.”

Brinkmann’s next question: “Also for West Berlin?”

Schabowski’s answer: “Yes, people can leave the GDR also directly in West Berlin.”

The moment Schabowski finished his sentence, the press conference got out of control. He himself did not realise the full consequences of his announcement. He went back to his home in Wandlitz, a suburb outside Berlin where all the political VIPs lived in a closed area.

Nineteen years later, Riccardo Ehrman got an award by the German Federal President Horst Koehler for asking the decisive question and for opening the Wall. Koehler did not know that Ehrman used to tell many stories all the time which were a mixture of facts and myths. So the really decisive question did not come from Ehrman but was asked by the German journalist Peter Brinkmann.

Dr. Peter Brinkmann, a former journalist, attends a panel discussion on the historic press conference which sparked the fall of the Berlin Wall at the ‘Asisi Panorama Berlin’ exhibition venue, in Berlin, Germany, 7 November 2019. {Omer Messinger/EPA/EFE] [Omer Messinger/EPA/EFE]

I tried to phone my newspaper quickly to announce my article about the new regulations. But as usual, there was no chance to get through. I left the press centre and walked to Checkpoint Charlie, which was a ten-minute walk from the IPZ.

Despite the controls at the border, the most efficient way to make a phone call was still from the West side of Berlin to Vienna. The very first restaurant was the Greek tavern ‘Athena II’ , where the waitresses allowed me to use their telephone any time because they knew my communication problems on the East side very well. And they gave me some ouzo.

Every time the secretary in my newspaper headquarters heard some Greek background music in her headphones, she knew it would be the next article about GDR. I dictated my article to her in a few minutes.

A few hours later, the Wall was opened. The first border checkpoint that was opened was the one in Bornholmer Strasse at 11.29 p.m. It was the craziest and luckiest night in German history.”

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