Gerhard Beil: Politician who helped bring down the Berlin Wall

Gerhard Beil appeared to be as calm as he sat, with two others, at the historic press conference on 9 November 1989 at which their senior colleague, Günter Schabowski, answered a question about when the Berlin Wall and the GDR's frontiers would be opened.

Ill-prepared, Schabowski answered, "immediately, without delay." But speaking quietly, Beil said, "That has to be decided by the Council of Ministers", of which he was a member. He was heard by very few as in the excitement all the journalists started speaking at once. Without apparently intending to do, he and the others had opened the Berlin Wall. Just why Beil and his two colleagues joined Schabowski to face the international media remains a mystery.

The son of a carpenter, Beil was born in Leipzig in 1926. After completing elementary school he trained as a commercial traveller. Between 1943 and 1945 he completed the compulsory labour service, achieving the rank of foreman. In 1944 he joined the Nazi party. When the war ended he "got on his bike", working in the sales department of the chemical giant IG Farben in Frankfurt/Main. As that firm was being dismantled by the Allies, he returned to Leipzig, working as a machinist and for a few months as a worker in the Soviet-controlled Wismut uranium mines. Between 1950 and 1952 he worked in the steel industry in his home town.

Beil joined the re-established Social Democratic party, SPD, in 1945, which was merged with the Communist, KPD, in 1946 to form the ruling SED. In 1949 he joined the Communist-run Free German Youth (FDJ), where he met Erich Honecker. Honecker encouraged young, nominal ex-Nazis to help "build Socialism" in the new East German state, and Beil was given the chance to study between 1952 and 1957, culminating with a degree in economics from Berlin's Humboldt University. This led to a position in the ministry for local industry. In 1957 he was considered reliable enough to join the GDR's trade mission to Austria. He remained there until 1961, when he was called to the Ministry of Foreign Trade's west European division.

In 1965, during the economic "thaw" period when the SED leader Walter Ulbricht was attempting to modernise the economy, Beil was sent to the prestigious academy for politics and law in Potsdam, graduating with a doctorate in 1968. From 1969 and he worked in the Ministry for Foreign Trade, being promoted to first deputy minister in 1976. He was also chairman of the GDR-France trade commission. In 1974 he was authorised to sign a trade treaty with Australia. Honecker had replaced Ulbricht in 1971 and this change helped Beil. Having been "elected" candidate member of the central committee of the SED, in 1976, full membership followed in 1981.

In the 1980s Beil was responsible for building up trade not only with West Germany but also Japan, the US and other Western states. He helped to pave the way for Honecker's first official visit outside the Soviet bloc, to Vienna in 1980. Beil also played his part in negotiating visits for Honecker to Japan (1981), Mexico (1981), West Germany (1987) and France (1988), all of far greater political significance for Honecker than they were for his hosts. He was rewarded for his efforts by being promoted to minister for foreign trade in 1986.

Although he often appeared in photographs with Honecker and foreign politicians and businessmen, he was little known in the GDR; he also had to share his power with the undercover Stasi colonel Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, who carried on informal negotiations with West Germany, and the Politburo member Günter Mittag.

When the Wall came down, in 1989, Beil held on to his position as most of his colleagues fell. He finally lost his ministry after the free elections of March 1990. Even then, he was still retained, albeit briefly, as an adviser to the new East German first minister, Lothar de Maizière, and he worked as adviser to Krupp on the firm's trade with the Soviet Union.

Beil intended to live in Austria after German reunification. However, the German tax authorities investigated his activities after he paid for his future home in Swiss francs. The investigations were later suspended.

Beil spent his retirement in Treptow, East Berlin. He remained active both mentally and physically, and his memoirs appeared this year, Außenhandel und Politik: Ein Minister erinnert sich ("Foreign Trade and Politics: A Minister Remembers"). Beil was a member of the Left party which evolved from the SED and its successor, PDS.

Gerhard Beil, politician: born Leipzig 28 May 1926; married (four sons, one daughter); died Berlin 19 August 2010.