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Thank you, Günter Schabowski! July 25, 2006

Posted by earthlingconcerned in Uncategorized.

By 1989, the Cold War was approaching its last hurrah, its death rattle if you will. However, you’d be hard pressed to convince the then newly elected Bush administration that anything was going to be drastically different than it was since the stalemate began nearly half a century before. Even though the Soviet economy had been in decline for well over a decade. Their newest leader Mikhail Gorbachev genuinely committed to bringing the major players closer together. And the Brezhnev Doctrine, one which demanded immediate Soviet involvement if another communist country was showing signs of defecting towards capitalism, was a non-factor since the mid-80s. These were still times of great mistrust. And with enough nukes in place to destroy most of the civilized world, there remained a great difficulty in easing these tensions. But that was then, the cold war did indeed end in the years that followed, the camels back had been broken. Günter Schabowski, was the straw that broke it.

As a member of the SED (the ruling communist party in East Germany), Schabowski was given the rather straight forward task of being the administrative spokesperson to the media for a day. On that day, November 5th 1989, the message to be delivered was one that was to relax the rules restricting travel to the West. Something that had already been taking place, albeit accidentally, after Hungary began dismantling their barbed wire fences along its western border because of the outdated nature of the blockade. Several thousand East Germans would travel to the, then, communist country on their vacations and flee to the west. And with the Brezhnev Doctrine already being a relic of the past, there was little anybody was going to do about it. SED officials knew they had to ease travel restrictions or this back door exit would continue to be exploited. To do this, Egon Krenz (the new leader of the SED) had a hurried meeting with others high on the political step ladder and rushed a out a decree of compromise. This decree was given to Schabowski, who was not at the meeting, so that he could present it to the waiting press.

The announcement he made however, did not relax border restrictions like the decree demanded. What it did was denounce them altogether. After hastily announcing that the citizens of East Germany were indeed allowed to leave “through any of the border crossings,” the astonished media personnel asked when this might take place. As the enormity of what he had just announced took hold, he quickly and confusingly looked down at his papers again and stated, “According to my information, immediately.” So it was said, and so it was done. The news spread like wildfire and thousands of ecstatic Germans rushed to the border so they could enter the west. For many, for the first time in their lives. The guards on duty, with no instructions on what to do considering the events that had, and were continuing to unfold, opened the gates and the rest is history.

To say that Günter Schabowski ended the Cold War would be a colossal error on my behalf. The reunification of Germany was barely guaranteed, the Soviet Union wasn’t dissolved as a governing entity until Christmas day two years later, and the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries were still intact (albeit with several surface cracks beginning to show). Regardless, If there was indeed a single piece of straw that caused a heavily strained ideal to collapse, Schabowski and his public statement was that straw. The statement was supposed to allow for order to continue, a compromise if you will, but the unintended statements resulted with the people finally having it their way. And so in the centre of a divided Berlin, in the centre of a divided Germany, in the centre of a divided Europe and ultimately, in a divided world, one persons error helped  correct another that had been terrorizing the world for so long. Terrorizing, how quaint.



1. Cold War hero Günter Schabowski « Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub - September 24, 2006

[…] This snapshot of his role in the unwinding of the Berlin Wall story is the sort of thing we need to preserve, as historians, I think. It shows how large organizations tend to foul things up. And it shows how one person can influence history, even with error. It demonstrates how history does not consist of foregone conclusions, but is instead a long string of serendipitous events. […]

2. Joe - June 23, 2007

I absolutely agree. Günther Schabowski is one of the very few (if not the only) high-ranking GDR government official who is now apologetic for the regime, and doesn’t try to justify the corrupt system. (See his entry on Wikipedia for some interesting quotes.)

3. Fred McColly - July 13, 2009

surely the berlin wall fell on november 9, 1989…anneversary of the fall of the hohenzollerens, the beer hall putsch, krystall nacht…a nervous day in germany

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