It is exactly 30 years ago that the Berlin Wall fell, the 43 kilometer long separation of concrete and barbed wire that divided the German capital in two. The West had been part of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) for more than 28 years, the East of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where the Soviet Union continued to play its part. On the evening of November 9, 1989, everything would change from one moment to the next. And at the base was the mistake of one man.
In August 1961, it took just one night to build the Wall. No less than 20,000 East German agents thus separated the western part of Berlin – a western enclave deep in the GDR – from the rest of East Germany. The aim was to prevent East Germans from trying to flee to the west in search of freedom.
Anyone who tried to cross the Todes streak risked being shot without mercy by one of the border guards or getting into the mine-stricken no man’s land around the Wall. Nearly 140 of the citizens who dared to do so over the years, came to an end.
But the protest against the communist government in East Berlin grew, fueled by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the power of the Soviet empire. The residents of East Berlin were tired of limiting their freedom of movement and freedom of expression and being constantly monitored by the spies of the Stasi security service. On November 9, 1989 they would finally get what they wanted.
Gunther Schabowski: the spokesman for the ruling East German Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (SED), who had absolute power and could not tolerate any opposition throughout the GDR’s existence, was the man who ignited the fire . Schabowski was in charge of East Berlin at that time.
At a weekly press conference, he announced a series of new border rules to make traveling to the west easier. With this, the SED hoped to counter the massive protests against the government in East Germany. When a journalist asked him when the measures would take effect, Schabowski answered – clearly surprised – by mistake: “with immediate effect”. That blew the lid off the box.
The East Germans immediately went in large numbers to the Wall. The border guards saw the swirling crowds of people coming and were completely overwhelmed. They did not stop the masses, though they had not received orders to open the borders.
And so it was that same night thousands of reunited East and West Germans celebrated the end of the Todes streaks. It would eventually take another year before East and West Germany were officially reunited. But the first important step was taken.
And Gunther Schabowski? He resigned from the central committee of the SED a month later. Another month later – in January 1990 – he was kicked out of the party. For his participation in the GDR regime, he was thrown into prison in 1999, but in 2000 he received an amnesty. He was one of the few SED leaders who openly admitted their responsibility afterwards.
Schabowski died in 2015 in a care home in Berlin. He was 86.