History

The Berlin Wall fell because of one East German bureaucrat’s press conference

In 1961, the Soviet-backed government did the only thing it could think of to prevent East Germans from escaping: it built the Berlin Wall.
berlin wall
West Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall early 11 November 1989 as they watch East German border guards demolishing a section of the wall in order to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin, near the Potsdamer Square. (GERARD MALIE/AFP via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of World War II, Germany was divided by the Allied powers. The Western Allies created West Germany, a federal constitutional republic with a capital in Bonn, borne with the values of Western democracy. The Soviet Union created the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, a Marxist government headquartered in East Berlin, a city also divided between east and west.

Where West Germany flourished economically (and would later become the German state we know today), East Germany floundered. It was deeply in debt, suffered from labor shortages and endured rationing and food shortages until the 1980s. Most importantly, it was repressive. It was not only the most repressive regime on the Eastern Bloc, it might have been the most repressive regime ever.

With that in mind, it’s only natural that people would want to escape to the freedom of the West, which, in Berlin, could be seen from many residential windows. Although Berlin was deep inside East Germany, the Berlin Airlift of 1948 had proven that restricting travel to and from the rest of West Germany was fruitless for the communists.

In 1961, the Soviet-backed government did the only thing it could think of to prevent East Germans from escaping: it built a wall around West Berlin. The wall featured guard towers, concertina wire, a wide-open area called the “death strip,” and East German troops with machine guns to enforce the borders. Before the wall was built, 3.5 million Germans escaped. After its construction, only 5,000 made – though 100,000 made the attempt.

Gunther Schabowski berlin wall
Gunther Schabowski in his office at the Heimat Zeitung (Photo by Régis BOSSU/Sygma via Getty Images)

In 1989, it all came to a head. A wave of small reforms had begun around the entire Eastern Bloc. Hungary opened a border crossing with Austria, through which East Germans began escaping West. When East Germany stopped allowing people to visit Hungary, the people responded with mass protests, which led to a “Peaceful Revolution.” East Germany’s longtime leader Erich Honecker resigned and Egon Krenz took his place. But the mass migrations continued.

East Germans just began migrating en masse to Hungary through Czechoslovakia, through which they could move freely. There were so many people moving it became a burden on all governments involved. Then, Demonstrations started taking place in many East German cities. Something had to be done, so Krenz began to allow them to leave directly through the East Germany-West Germany crossing points and allowed all citizens to have a passport and obtain visas.

But a communist government is bound to have a lot of fine print – and it did. The new East German law was intended to be confusing and misleading. The process of getting the required visas was supposed to be so mired in bureaucracy that it would keep East Germans in place for months waiting for the paperwork to process if it did at all. Most importantly, the law was supposed to go into effect on Nov. 10, 1989.

An East German bureaucrat named Gunther Schabowski was called into Krenz’s office. It would be up to him to announce the new rule changes to the press and to East Germans. Schabowski had just returned from a vacation that day, Nov. 9, 1989. He received a brief, two-page summary of the new law that he read in the car on his way to a press conference. When he took the podium, he was met with a barrage of questions, under which he became confused.

When the press asked when the law would take effect, Schabowski began to fumble with his words. Still confused, he told the country it was in effect immediately. He was wrong, but the law was so new neither the people nor the guards at the wall knew it. All the country had to go on was what Schabowski was telling them. When he doubled down on the explanation with journalist Tom Brokaw, the dam burst.

Tens of thousands of East Germans poured toward the Berlin Wall, and since the Guards couldn’t get anyone in leadership on the phone, they acted on what they’d heard at the press conference and opened the gates. East Berliners walked through the gates to find West Berliners waiting with flowers and champagne on the other side.