The fall of the Berlin Wall also made it clear to the whole world that by now the communist regimes of Eastern Europe had their days numbered. That day, for the first time since 1961, when the Wall was built, tens of thousands of inhabitants of the eastern part of the city poured into the west. The incredible events of November 9, 1989 were caused by two almost fortuitous and unpredictable events: the error of an East German official during a press conference and the common sense of a border guard.
The Berlin Wall in 20 photos
The press conference
The Wall Street Journal wrote that the fall of the Berlin Wall is perhaps one of the few events in history that were not only told, but to some extent caused by journalists. Four journalists, in fact, put an important East German official on the table. Their questions put him under so much pressure and sent him into such confusion that the official made a historic announcement, and completely wrong.
At that moment the situation for the government of East Germany (the so-called German Democratic Republic or GDR) was not at all easy: for months there had been great protests against the communist regime. In eastern Germany, at the time, there was no democracy or freedom of speech. The economy was stagnant and in difficulty for decades now. In October 1989, in Leipzig, East Germany, about 250,000 people took to the streets: it was a major event, given that in practice in the previous forty years there had been no demonstrations with more than a dozen people .
East German leader Erich Honecker, in office since 1971, resigned on 18 October. His successors, frightened by the protests, tried to grant something to the protesters in an attempt to keep the regime alive.
The Politburo – as the GDR leadership group called it – decided to organize a press conference to announce a series of new reforms and openings towards the West. Robert McCartney, then correspondent for Washington Post, recalled that, along with dozens of other journalists, he was trying to keep track of all the small changes and openings that government spokesman Gunter Schabowski was listing on his notebook. The style of the GDR was slow and pompous, and McCartney remembers how all those present at the press conference were bored. Nobody thought to be one step away from one of the most important moments in the history of the twentieth century.
Suddenly, in the middle of one of these lists, Schabowski made an incredible and unexpected statement. The correspondent of the Italian press agency HANDLE, Riccardo Ehrman, asked Schabowski if the government had not regretted a series of travel restrictions to some communist countries that the government had recently imposed. Schabowski replied that no, the government was not sorry. Then, reading confusedly among his papers, he added: "Ah … today we have decided on a new regulation that makes it possible for every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to … go out through the border posts … of the … German Democratic Republic".
In other words, without any warning and much uncertainty, the German government spokesman seemed to be telling dozens of journalists around the world that the Berlin Wall had fallen. Immediately Schabowski was put under pressure by everyone present. The Wall Street Journal recalled the four journalists who were at the center of the following minutes.
The first was the Italian Ehrman, who had asked Schabowski the first question. The second was Peter Brinkmann, a journalist for the German newspaper Bild, who for the next few minutes continued shouting questions to Schabowski, helping to keep him under pressure. The third was Krzysztof Janowski's Voice of America, the American public broadcasting network.
Janowski asked a question that would prove to be fundamental in the following hours: he asked Schabowski if the new rules that made travel between east and west possible also applied to Berlin. He had to repeat it a couple of times before the increasingly confused Schabowski answered: "Yes, yes …" while trying to read the papers in front of him. The most important of the four journalists, however, was a man whose identity was not known until last October: for 25 years he was only a voice in the recording of the press conference (it would be a former journalist and now a man of business by the name of Ralph T. Niemeyer, who was twenty at the time).
Niemeyer asked Schabowski a fundamental question: "Since when will these new measures take effect?" Schabowski, more and more confused, went back to reading his papers again and replied: "As far as I know … they should … be effective immediately. From now". Those words became the evening news headlines throughout western Germany. In short the news spread also to the east. By evening a gigantic crowd had gathered quietly and fearfully outside the Berlin Wall checkpoints. The question that circulated was whether the Wall had finally fallen.
But what had happened with Schabowski? The leadership of East Germany, in reality, had no intention of allowing free passage to West Germany and less than ever to break down the Wall. At a meeting that had taken place that same afternoon it was decided that only those who had obtained a series of documents would be allowed to pass through (Schabowski tried to underline it during the press conference, but without much conviction). This decision should have come into effect from the morning of 10 November.
In other words, to get out of East Berlin the Germans would have to wait for the morning of November 10th, reach a police office, get transit permits and (if they could) only then could they reach the border crossings. But Schabowski had not attended the meeting and all he had to answer to journalists were a few sheets that contained only the incomplete official press release. The journalists did not give him time to reason or to leave to ask his superiors for further clarifications. So when Schabowski said the new rules applied right away, there was nothing that could keep the Berliners from reaching the border.
On the evening of November 9, Lieutenant Colonel of border guard Harald Jager was eating officers in front of the television in a canteen. When he heard Schabowski contradict himself on the news, announcing earlier that it would be possible to travel west after obtaining appropriate documents and then it would be possible to do so immediately, Jager reached his border post at Bornholmer Strasse. Along the way he looked worriedly at the small groups of people who were forming in the meantime and who were heading towards his own border post. Jager, who a few years ago told his story to the British newspaper Independent, he entered the building where his men were waiting for him. They were all armed with guns and there were ready assault rifles in the armory.
The crowd did not seem threatening. Some of the people present, braver than the others, approached the guard post and asked if it was possible to cross the border.
Jager called his superiors and asked for explanations. He was ordered to send back anyone who did not have the travel documents in order to cross the border. At 8 pm, when West German newscasts (which were also shown in the East) were broadcast, with titles all dedicated to the opening of the borders, the crowd in front of Bornholmer Strasse grew bigger and bigger. And more and more noisy. At 9 pm there were so many people that panic began to spread among the border guards. Jager called his superiors again: "We have to do something!" Now his commanders were also in a panic. No one knew what to do and no orders or instructions came from the government.
At that time, in the halls of the Politburo, East German leaders were discussing what to do. There was only one possible solution: to authorize the police to disperse the crowd, with weapons if necessary. But none of those present accepted the responsibility of giving the order to open fire. Jager was left without orders to face a crowd that grew larger and louder every minute.
The only solution that came to mind was to try to separate the noisiest and get them across the Wall. But when those present realized what was happening, the screams doubled and the Berliners began to get closer and closer to the checkpoint. At 11.30 pm the crowd was uncontrollable and Jager took the only decision that seemed possible at that point. Without instructions from his superiors, he gave orders to his men to open the gates between East Berlin and West Berlin.
Immediately a crowd of tens of thousands flocked to the other side, welcomed by the inhabitants of West Berlin who had gathered since eight o'clock in the evening awaiting the arrival of their eastern neighbors. Jager said that the first moments after the opening of the border for him and his men were terrible. It was as if at that precise moment they had witnessed the ruin and fall of their world. For the first few minutes, Jager felt almost paralyzed by a feeling of humiliation and defeat. But after half an hour – after seeing the inhabitants of West Berlin welcome their fellow citizens with bottles of champagne, flowers and welcome posters, after having seen them go up and dance on the Wall, after seeing strangers hugging, kissing and crying with joy – Jager and his men also became euphoric. "Our tears of frustration became tears of joy," said Jager.