Thirty years ago today, Günter Schabowski fumbled an answer at a press conference and changed the world.
Earlier in the day Egon Krentz, East Germany’s new leader, handed Schabowski the text of new travel regulations. He hadn’t been present when Krentz had discussed it with other Politburo members or for the full discussion. It was to be released the next morning.
That was critical. Schabowski read the text that evening at the end of his press conference. When asked when the regulations would come into effect, he said immediately. When he reiterated during a live interview after the press conference that East Germans could travel west without having to go through a third country, chaos broke out.
Residents of East Berlin gathered at the crossings on the Berlin Wall. Border guards didn’t know what to do — the government had no intention of changing anything, after all, so they hadn’t been informed. But people across the country had already seen Schabowski’s statements, and they were acting on them.
Let’s step back for a moment and put this in context. The situation in East Germany was already dire. Longtime leader Erich Honecker had been forced out less than a month before as East Germany endured massive protests. The protests, which began about six weeks earlier were peaceful. Demonstrators carefully avoided offering any pretext for a crackdown.
Solidarity had been in power in Poland since August. Other countries in the Warsaw Pact loosened border controls, resulting in a flood of East Germans using Hungary or Czechoslovakia as a way to leave for the west. East Germany actually closed its border with Czechoslovakia in October in a futile attempt to slow the tide.
The system, in short, was already broken. The question was whether violence would be used to keep it in place, as had happened in June at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. That question was answered when Stasi officers opened the gates and allowed people through. Other gates followed. The wall came down.
The Berlin Wall has now been down for longer than it was in place. That still seems remarkable somehow. When I was young, the wall seemed an immutable fact, something that would endure indefinitely. It seemed permanent until suddenly, shockingly, it wasn’t.
East Germany stumbled along for another year or so, but that was largely taken up by working through the details of reunification. The Soviet Union itself had only another two years to go before dissolving on Dec. 25, 1991, its demise helped along by a botched coup in August of that year.
There are hundreds, thousands of things that could have gone disastrously wrong in eastern Europe in 1989. There was no guarantee the communist governments would go quietly, that there would not be bloodshed and civil war. One rock thrown, one nervous guard, that’s all it really would have taken at times.
Only in Romania was there significant violence. That changed later, of course, as tensions in the former Yugoslavia erupted. But Romania was the only east bloc nation in which violence played a pivotal role in the government’s fall.
It’s not just that this all happened within living memory. Some of the key figures are still alive.
But not Schabowski. He died in 2015, just eight days short of the 26th anniversary of his press conference.