Berlin Wall anniversary

How a mistake in a press statement led to the fall of the Berlin Wall

What it was like growing up in the volatile nation? William Cook revisits old family haunts and talks to Germans about the changes that have taken place in the past three decades

Saturday 19 October 2019 18:07
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11 November 1989: East German border guards demolish a section of the wall to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin
11 November 1989: East German border guards demolish a section of the wall to open a new crossing point between East and West Berlin
I

n a conference room in Berlin, around the corner from Potsdamer Platz, a German journalist called Peter Brinkmann is telling me how he helped bring down the Berlin Wall. It’s a story I’ve heard before, but never from the horse’s mouth, and it’s thrilling to hear it from the man himself, 30 years on. Brinkmann, a West German, was working in East Berlin for the West German newspaper Bild when, on 9 November 1989, he was summoned to a press conference by East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED). He sensed something special was afoot. That summer Austria and Hungary had opened the border between their countries, giving East Germans an escape route – via Czechoslovakia into Hungary, and on into Western Europe. Now that the Czech government had closed their border, in a bid to block this route, East Germans were taking to the streets, demanding the right to travel.

To quell these growing protests, the SED decided to announce that East Germans would henceforth be allowed to travel directly to West Germany provided they had a passport, something very few East Germans possessed. On paper, it seemed a clever plan. By giving East Germans the right to travel, the SED would take the heat out of the demonstrations, safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of citizens would have to apply for passports, a lengthy bureaucratic process which the government could control.

There was only one problem: the man they chose to make the announcement, Günter Schabowksi, hadn’t been at the relevant meeting. He hadn’t even read the press release. And so when he read it out, at the press conference, he was just as surprised as the attendant journalists. In the resulting pandemonium, the crucial detail about passports was forgotten. When Brinkmann asked when East Germans could travel, Schabowksi replied: “Immediately, I suppose.”

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