Günter Schabowski: Political spokesman whose 1989 press conference hastened the fall of the Berlin Wall

As Communist Party chief in East Berlin, he became the first Politburo member to talk to opposition leaders

Geir Moulson
Monday 02 November 2015 19:56 GMT
Schabowski at his fateful meeting with journalists in 1989; people began crossing the border a few hours later
Schabowski at his fateful meeting with journalists in 1989; people began crossing the border a few hours later (EPA)

Günter Schabowski was the East German official whose cryptic announcement that the communist country was opening its fortified border precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Politburo spokesman's halting words at the conclusion of a plodding evening news conference on 9 November 1989 put an end to Berlin's 28 years of division.

Schabowski remarked casually that East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its border with West Germany. Pressed on when the epochal regulation would take effect, he looked down at his notes and stammered: “As far as I know, this enters into force ... this is immediately, without delay.” Soon after, Western media reported that East Germany was opening its borders and East Berliners were jamming the first crossing. Border guards had received no orders to let anyone across, but gave up trying to hold back the crowds.

The East German leader Egon Krenz later insisted that he had told Schabowski to ask reporters to withhold news about the new travel regulation until 4am so citizens could line up properly to receive exit visas. Schabowski, who had trained as a journalist, said he had not heard Krenz say that, and that it would have been unrealistic anyway.

“It was one of many foul-ups in those days,” he said. “We were acting under the pressure of events. I'm just happy that it went off without bloodshed.” At the time, East German leaders saw opening the Berlin Wall as a relief valve amid the huge pro-democracy protests and a flight of citizens to the West via other countries. Instead, it set in motion events that led quickly to German reunification on 3 October 1990.

Schabowski was born in 1929, in the northern town of Anklam, and rose through the ranks of East Germany's media after the Second World War, becoming chief editor of Neues Deutschland, the main communist party-controlled newspaper, in 1978. He became a member of the ruling Politburo in 1984.

In October 1989, Schabowski, at that time the Communist Party chief in East Berlin, became the first Politburo member to talk to opposition leaders. In another turnaround for East Germany, he also voiced support for “approved and well-ordered” demonstrations. But amid mounting pressure from the pro-democracy movement he resigned along with the rest of the Politburo weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

He later became one of the most senior East German leaders, along with Krenz to be convicted of manslaughter and jailed for the deaths of East Germans shot while attempting to flee to the West.

He served nine months of a three-year sentence before being pardoned by Berlin's mayor in 2000. He turned firmly against communism, publicly backing Germany's main conservative party, the Christian Democrats, in a 2001 Berlin election.

Günter Schabowski, politician: born Anklam, Pomerania 4 January 1929; married Irina (two children); died Berlin 1 November 2015.

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