In November 1989 a mere six weeks after cutting loose from the family home to discover student life I already had somewhat of a routine. Around one o’clock I would wander into the TV room off the JCR to find my friends if I hadn’t had classes with them. We would chat quite a bit and then around one thirty a kind of hush would settle as the familiar first bars of Neighbours filled the room. On this particular day the TV room was unusually full and kept filling up and what made it even stranger is that all heads were turned to the TV screen and we were silent, dead silent. I don’t know what was going through everyone’s heads as we watched the scenes of East Germans and West Germans partying in front of the Brandenburg Gate, but I had a lump in my throat and I knew I had just watched the tide of history change: I had just watched the Berlin Wall came down. Seventeen and a half years later I would discover what actually happened on that day.
We were wandering towards Gendarmenmarkt when a red woolly hat attached to a rather elfin figure bounced by braying “Free English Tour” at the top of her voice. We looked at each other wearily and kept up our pace of gentle amble when she turned back again: “I’m not kidding, it’s a free tour, in English, come and join us.” We still wondered what the catch was, but we were now in Gendarmenmarkt and she had launched into an explanation of this church and that church and why church and what church and she was kind of amusing and I was the only person in the whole group who had seen “Run Lola Run” (apparently there are many scenes filmed there), plus the crowning glory of this whole tour was ‘How the Berlin Wall came down by mistake.’ “That’s what it said at Checkpoint Charlie.” I mused. So we decided to tag along and hear the whole story.
Tucked up in corner of the Alte National Museum opposite the old Parliament building that is now being torn down because it’s full of asbestos, our red hatted guide from New Berlin tours began. She gave us some background, how Hungary had opened up its borders earlier in the year, how the Monday night protests began in Leipzig, how the East Berliners were waiting for some momentous change, but instead all they got was Erich Honecker vowing that the wall would stay up for another hundred years. As opposition grew and Honecker was replaced by Krenz, the state became aware that they had to do something and that’s where Günter Schabowski comes into the picture.
Our guide’s story went something along these lines: apparently Schabowski had run some newspaper back in the day and he was chosen to host the GDR’s second only Press conference. The problem with Schabowski was that he was a bit fond of a tipple or two and come the morning of the press conference when he was due to meet with the other officials where they would discuss freedom to travel, Schabowski was nursing a momentous hangover instead. During the meeting SED officials discussed relaxing freedom to travel, discussion being the operative word. When Schabowski turned up for the otherwise rehearsed and prepped Press Conference he had no idea what had been discussed that morning. As he went into the press conference he was handed a paper that (so the story goes) he shoved into this pocket.
And so begins that historic press conference. Schabowski reads for two hours or so about sock production going up here and bolt production going down here and the East German journalists ask their well rehearsed questions and apparently everything is fantastic in East Germany. That is until one foreign journalist gets a bit bored and sticks his hand up and asks: “What about freedom to travel?”
Mistake number two takes place right then, Schabowski reaches into his pocket and pulls out that document, he misses the great big red TOP SECRET letters and answers. “Yep, East Germans have freedom to travel.” Apparently it didn’t quite say that, it said that the state would discuss freedom to travel everyday ad infinitum.
Next journalist sticks his hand up (they are now well off the script) and asks: “Including East Berliners?” Schabowski can’t find any reference to East Berliners in his TOP SECRET document, so he just says: “Yes.”
Journalist number three sticks his hand up and asks: “When?”
Schabowski’s skim reading skills are thrown into turmoil as he searches vainly for a date, but the only date he can find is the date the meeting took place at the top of the document. He may have also noticed TOP SECRET at this stage, but we will never know. “Effective immediately.”
And the rest as they say is history, or rather it was her story (with a fair amount of poetic license on my part).
And that’s the thing about History; historical knowledge is gleaned from what is written, what is said and what is preserved. I enjoyed the New Berlin version of events and although half the tour group appeared to be asleep, I’m not sure any of us walked away thinking it was gospel truth (at least I hope not). We read The Story of Berlin version of events (see photo below) and I found some articles on wikipedia and answers.com. I also found this article on Earthling Concerned here and a transcript of the November 9th Press conference here. I think in the end that it’s pretty clear that Schabowski didn’t quite know what he was saying on the day; whether he alone can be credited with causing the fall of the wall is questionable. What is interesting though, is that Schabowski later heavily criticized East Germany.