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03 Nov 2015
Günter Schabowski: The Man Credited With Fall Of The Berlin Wall - Roger Moorhouse

Günter Schabowski: The Man Credited With Fall Of The Berlin Wall - Roger Moorhouse

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Günter Schabowski died on 1 November. Now, unless you happen to have been a watcher of the central European revolutions of 1989, you probably won’t have heard of him. Indeed, were it not for the extraordinary events in Berlin in November of that year, Schabowski would almost certainly have lived his life in almost total obscurity; unknown beyond the confines of the communist GDR. But, fate wanted it otherwise.

Günter Schabowski was a member of the ruling East German communist party in 1989. A journalist by training, he had worked his way up the greasy pole of Soviet-era politics, becoming a member of the East German parliament, and a member of the Politburo. He was a loyal and convinced communist, but in that tumultuous autumn of 1989, he would unwittingly become an accomplice in communism’s spectacular demise.

In November 1989, communism in central and eastern Europe was in crisis. After Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s east European satellites were informed that they would no longer be able to rely on Soviet muscle to keep them afloat – they too were obliged to reform to survive.

The results were not slow in appearing. In Poland, Solidarity had undermined the Soviet system so completely that semi-free elections had been held earlier that year in which a majority for the trade union movement had been returned. In Hungary, meanwhile, a reformist government had dismantled the border fence to Austria in the summer, prompting a migration crisis as the hard-pressed citizens of more hard-line regimes – such as the GDR – rushed for the exit.

The GDR was obliged to act, not least before the majority of its citizens upped and left. Hard-line leader Erich Honecker was removed in October, and other cosmetic changes were planned to ease the domestic discontent and stem the flow of emigrants. Change was certainly in the air, but crucially no-one in the GDR was planning to abolish their state, or demolish their wall – they were adapting in order to survive.

Günter Schabowski was given the important task of selling these changes to the world’s press – he was appointed the GDR’s press spokesman on 6 November 1989. On only his second outing in this role, on the evening of 9 November, he appeared before the press on live television and radio.

Earlier that day, the Politburo had met and approved a crucial change to the GDR’s exit regulations. As a way of easing the popular pressure for emigration, it was decided to temporarily lift the travel restrictions. However, to ease the transition, the announcement was to be held back until the following day.

But, Schabowski was out of the loop. He had not been present at the Politburo meeting and had merely been handed the text of the announcement as he entered his press conference, with no explanation of what it all meant or when it was due to come in to force. It was all rather chaotic.

For most of his presentation, Schabowski droned on in time-worn Soviet fashion, explaining the latest statistics and the latest regulations. However, at the very end of it – close to 7 o’clock that evening – he got around to the question of exit regulations and announced, in a rather incoherent, hesitant babble, that the travel rules had been changed and that the previous restrictions on travel for GDR citizens were to be lifted. One of the journalists present then asked when this new regime would come into force, and Schabowski desperately thumbed through his papers to find the right document before extemporising – “straight away” he said “without delay”.

It took a moment for the journalists in the room to realise what had just happened; that 28 years of political division had suddenly been healed, that the Berlin Wall had been rendered obsolete. But the East Germans at home, huddled around their TV sets and radios, were not so slow on the uptake – they were already packing their bags. That very evening, they would descend en masse to the border crossing points – the oppositional jostling alongside the plain curious – clamouring to leave the GDR. It was a human tide that would not be halted and that would ultimately sweep away Communist East Germany and with it give the most visible proof of the wholesale collapse of Communism in Europe.

And what of Schabowski? He was bewildered by the events of that night, and returned home unaware that he had dropped the ball so spectacularly. In the aftermath, he was prosecuted for his role in the GDR and briefly imprisoned, but to his credit was one of the few communist apparatchiks who expressed their moral guilt and regret for their earlier careers.

With that, Günter Schabowski disappeared once again into obscurity. His most famous moment has become legendary – a shining exemplar of communist hubris, the benefits of thorough preparation before a public appearance, and of course of the vital role played in history by chance.

Roger Moorhouse is a historian and co-founder of Historical Trips, and will be leading our Cold War Berlin tour 'City of Spies' in September 2016.