Skip to content

The mistake that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall

November 8, 2019

BERLIN, Nov. 8 (DPA / EP) –

They were only a few words, pronounced rather hastily and still meant the end of the division of Germany: “As far as I know … it is effective immediately … without delay,” said Guenter Schabowski, a member of the Politburo of East Germany

Pronounced the night of November 9, 1989 in front of international reporters in East Berlin, the now infamous Schabowski phrase made history.

Shortly before, the authorities of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) had drafted a travel law that stipulated who could enter and leave between East Berlin and West Berlin, a key border in the Iron Curtain and which was closed to most of the largest part of the time

When asked about the new measure, Schabowski told the press, almost casually, that private visits abroad would be possible in the future without special conditions. His comrades did not know yet: the press release was scheduled to be published the next day.

When asked to clarify when the new law would take effect, an insecure Schabowski began to review his papers and responded with the previous words, which was already effective. He had announced, albeit unintentionally, the opening of the borders of East Germany.

GDR media spread the news almost immediately. At the border checkpoints in East Berlin, tumultuous scenes were soon lived, with family and friends coming to cross the border. No one knew for sure if it was a rumor, a slip or a valid decision, but in a few hours it didn't matter.

The first step in opening was that of the Bornholmer Strasse checkpoint in Berlin, followed by others. Thousands of GDR citizens crossed west, walking ahead of completely surprised soldiers.

The news also surprised West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was in Warsaw at the time. The Bundestag closed its session and the parliamentarians began to sing the national anthem.

But Schabowski's words were only the trigger for something that had been brewing in previous weeks with mass demonstrations in the GDR and a massive emigration to the west.

Since mid-1989, thousands of East Germans began fleeing to Austria illegally through Hungary, many of them seeking refuge at the RFA embassy in Budapest and Prague. The situation intensified in autumn.

This is the chronology of the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall:

– September 4: About 1,000 protesters gather in front of the church of St. Nicholas, in Leipzig, to claim freedom of travel. This gives rise to the celebration of the 'Monday demonstrations', a series of peaceful protests against the GDR Government.

– September 10: Hungary announces the opening of its borders with Austria for the East Germans, some of whom have been waiting on them for weeks. By the end of October, about 50,000 people had arrived in West Germany.

– September 30: Speaking from the balcony of the German Embassy in Prague, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announces to thousands of East Germans in front of the building: “We have come to you to tell you today your emigration. .. ”

The rest of the sentence was drowned by the shouts of joy. The pressure on the embassy continues. Trains leave one after another with about 17,000 fugitives leaving Prague, via East Germany, to West Germany.

– October 7: Protests take place in several cities of the GDR on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the founding of the country and there is a violent response from the security forces in some of the cases.

– October 9: During the biggest 'Monday Demonstration' in Leipzig to date, with some 70,000 participants, the message is: “We are the people, not the violence.”

– October 18: The leader of the Communist Party and the GDR, Erich Honecker, is removed from his posts to be succeeded by Egon Krenz.

– November 3 and 4: Another 5,000 fugitives enter the embassy in Prague. Under pressure from the Government of Czechoslovakia, the GDR leaders allow their citizens to march towards the RFA. In four days, some 62,500 people leave for West Germany, according to the Interior Ministry in Prague.

– November 4: A demonstration with between 500,000 and one million people takes place at Alexanderplatz Square in East Berlin.

– November 7: The GDR Government resigns and in a few days the Politburo, the central committee of the Communist Party, is restructured.

– November 9: During a press conference, the Politburo member Guenter Schabowski announces that in the future East Germans will be allowed to travel with greater freedom to, subsequently, clarify that the measure will take effect “without delay” .