Why you should care
It can take just a few snap decisions to make history.
On Nov. 9, 1989, citizens of the German Democratic Republic were allowed to freely cross the border into the West, signaling the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a moment to celebrate freedom not seen since the wall went up in 1961.
It was also a moment that had been one giant mistake, effectively brought about by two men: an unprepared spokesman and a career soldier who’d had enough of his boss.
The autumn of 1989 was a crisis point for the GDR. The USSR had begun to open itself up more to the West, and satellite states like Poland and Hungary were following suit. Under the leadership of General Secretary Erich Honecker, the GDR was maintaining an iron grip on its citizens.
“We thought that the GDR would be the one Soviet satellite that would remain untouched because Honecker was the hard-man who just wouldn’t follow Gorbachev,” explains journalist Peter Millar, author of 1989 The Berlin Wall: My Part in Its Downfall.
But on Oct. 18, Honecker was forced to step down over the GDR’s 40th anniversary celebrations, which turned violent when police and troops were sent in to quash peaceful protesters. Egon Krenz took over as head of state, and former journalist Günter Schabowski became the unofficial spokesperson for the Politburo. By Nov. 9, the government was two days into a three-day Central Committee meeting.
As part of that meeting, the Politburo reviewed a new set of travel regulations for East Germans, drafted by four officers from the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry for State Security. The goal was to appear liberal on travel freedoms (in keeping with other Soviet satellite states), while still maintaining control over where GDR citizens went. The policy changes were discussed in the meeting in draft form at the end of the day, with a plan to announce on Nov. 10.
For reasons that remain unclear, Schabowski, then 60 years old, had missed most of the Central Committee meeting. He walked in shortly after 5 pm, one hour before a Western-style press conference. When Krenz handed him a draft of the resolution and an accompanying press release, Schabowski took it with him to the conference but didn’t look at it beforehand. As he would later explain to Deutsche Welle, “I can speak German and I can read a text out loud without mistakes.”
This would have likely been fine if Schabowski had been speaking with members of the Soviet press. He was used to dictating the news to reporters after it had happened, controlling the message down to the last semicolon. Western press conferences were a whole new ball game, and near the end of the allotted hour, Italian journalist Riccardo Ehrman questioned Schabowski about travel legislation for East Germans. Schabowski delivered an “um”-laden three minutes of rambling, trailing off sentences.
And then he said it: “Therefore, we have decided today to enact legislation that will make it possible for every GDR citizen to emigrate through all GDR border crossings.” As the press shouted questions, Schabowski searched for the document that Krenz had handed him two hours earlier. When another reporter asked when the new legislation would take effect, Schabowski scanned the legislative draft. “As far as I know … immediate effect!”
Millar heard all of this while in his car, returning from an assignment in Rostock. He had suspected that the Central Committee meeting would lead to something, but “I had no idea quite what a significant thing it was.” Once the news broke, he “drove like hell” to get to the border crossing at Checkpoint Charlie. But it would still be a few hours before anything happened, as none of the checkpoints had been made aware of the changes in travel policy (planned or otherwise).
At Berlin’s largest border crossing on Bornholmer Strasse, Lt. Col. Harald Jäger was the senior officer on duty that night. At 46, Jäger had served his country for 28 years. He was almost halfway through a 24-hour shift when, shortly after 7 pm, a group of curious citizens had gathered at the checkpoint demanding to be let through.
The crowds only grew as media reports began to circulate. Soon there were nearly 1,000 people at Bornholmer. Unsure of what to do, Jäger called his supervisor and was told to hold the line. As the crowds grew, Jäger called his supervisor back upward of 30 times. Finally, his supervisor called the Ministry for State Security and instructed Jäger to listen in.
That’s when the border guard heard an exasperated minister wonder “whether Comrade Jäger was in a position to assess the situation properly.” For Jäger, after over a quarter of a century’s worth of unflinching service, this was his breaking point. He shouted into the phone, “If you don’t believe me, then just listen!” and held the phone to the open window. After hanging up, Jäger turned to his men: “Open the barrier!”
The borders had been opened at Checkpoint Charlie by the time Millar arrived. He had known the checkpoint’s guard by sight, though he didn’t know their names. One recognized him, and warned the journalist that driving across the border was “going to be dreadful.” He gamely offered to watch his car while he walked across.
Even amid all of the celebrations, however, the thousands of East Germans living it up in West Berlin that night didn’t think it would last. When Millar finally went home at 5 am, he thought, “I’m going to get some sleep, and by the time I wake up again, the border’s going to be closed.”
But it wasn’t. Schabowski would soon find himself expelled from the party and later briefly imprisoned. Jäger, once the wall came down, was out of a job. Still, the cracks in the wall made by these two men proved to be beyond repair.