Error that opened the Berlin Wall early

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

Five years after dropping the bombshell news that the Berlin Wall was to open, Gunter Schabowski admits that it was a mistake. The error was not that East Germans were to be allowed to travel freely - that, he insists, was the firm intention of the Politburo, of which he was a member.

It was a question of timing. According to the piece of paper thrust into his hand just before the all-important press conference, the new freedom was to go into effect immediately. What he had not realised was that he was reading from a draft proposal that had yet to be ratified by the government - and that none of the guards on the border had been told.

It all worked out for the best. After Mr Schabowski's announcement at 6.51pm, incredulous East Berliners began to head for the border. The guards, utterly confused, did not prevent them. By midnight, many had crossed, and Berlin was celebrating. ``There was a certain bafflement at the border that night, but it was definitely our intention to open the Wall,'' Mr Schabowski said. ``We thought through this action we would win back some trust among the people.''

The breaching of the Wall fuelled East Germans' appetite for reform. In less than a month, Egon Krenz, the successor to Erich Honecker, had been forced to resign as East German leader, along with the entire central committee, including Mr Schabowski.

Looking back on it now, he does not regret what happened that night - even though it led directly to his own fall and the collapse of the state to which he had devoted his life. ``Ours was an utterly bankrupt system which could no longer be reformed,'' he conceded. ``As far as I was concerned, it was a case of `Better a painful end than a never-ending pain.' ``

Leading article, page 17

Timothy Garton Ash, page 19

Beyond the wall, pages 20-24