German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Hungary's President Janos Ader, Poland's President Andrzej Duda, Slovakia's President Zuzana Caputova and Czech Republic's President Milos Zeman place roses into a gap at the Wall memorial during a ceremony markin

How a mistake at a press conference helped topple the Berlin Wall

Many steps led to German reunification, but perhaps none more dramatic and pivotal than the night the Berlin Wall fell, Nov. 9, 1989. Peter Brinkmann, a West German newspaper journalist based in Hamburg at the time, was there. 

The World

This Oct. 3 marks the 30th anniversary of when East Germany, or the GDR, ceased to exist and its territories joined with the Federal Republic of Germany.

Many steps led to German reunification in 1990, but perhaps none more dramatic and pivotal than the night of Nov. 9, 1989when the Berlin Wall fell. The restrictions, which for decades had prevented most East Germans from legally leaving the country, suddenly vanished.

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A rare GDR press conference that evening had a lot to do with the wall coming down. Peter Brinkmann, a West German newspaper journalist based in Hamburg at the time, was there. He recounted his tale of the night’s events to The World:

The West Berlin government learned that the GDR planned on loosening their travel laws, they just didn’t know when. Brinkmann had a friend who worked for the West Berlin government who tipped him off: “So, he phoned me and he said, ‘Peter, come to Berlin. Something is going on. I have no idea what, but I think something important will happen. So, come to Berlin, just be here!’”   

Throughout the summer and fall of 1989, pressure on the socialist GDR government was building. Demonstrations were growing in force and size as people called for radical change. And maybe most troubling for the government was that suddenly, citizens were finding ways out of East Germany.

“Hungary opened their borders with Austria, and thousands of East Germans used the opportunity to flee to the West,” Brinkmann said.

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Meanwhile, thousands more escaped by reaching the West German Embassy in Czechoslovakia. So, to placate its citizens and stem the tide of people fleeing the GDR through neighboring countries, East Germany leaders talked about opening up more travel freedoms.

Egon Krenz, the general secretary of the socialist party, said to the minister of interior, ‘Give me some proposals, we don’t want to destroy the wall but we will give more rights to travel to the West. So, how can we do this?’” Brinkmann said.

GDR’s hand was forced by its neighbor and ally Czechoslovakia, which was being inundated with East German refugees.

Miloš Jakeš, the general secretary of the Czech communisty party phoned Krenz and said, ‘If you don’t open your borders now, we will close our borders now’,” Brinkmann recounted.

In other words, something had to be done — and fast.

A new draft regulation was hastily written up by a team of four in the interior ministry. They decided that anyone with a passport could leave the country. Those without — most citizens — could go to the police the following day and be granted one immediately. By that afternoon, Krenz had the draft.

“It was 4 p.m. and Krenz in the conference of the central committee, said, ‘Comrades, this is a very difficult situation. Whatever we do is wrong. But we have to do something’,” Brinkmann said.

The committee agreed on the new travel regulations and typed up a press release. It would be up to the newly minted public relations minister Gunter Schabowski to share this bombshell news with the world at the press conference.

“Krenz said, ‘Come on. Here, I give you a paper. Please tell the journalists what we are going to do.’ But he didn’t explain it,” Brinkmann said.

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The press conference started at 6 p.m. At first, “Schabowski was only talking about what we have to do as [a] party, and what we do if we have a conference,” Brinkmann said. “Most of my journalistic colleagues were sleeping. It was totally boring.”

Finally, toward the end, an Italian journalist asked about proposed changes to the travel regulations. Schabowski talked in vague terms about the need for reform. But then he remembered the paper he had been handed.

Schabowski, reading the statement for the first time, delivered the incredible news that East Germans would be able to leave the GDR without preconditions at all border crossings with West Germany. 

“And then all of us started asking, ‘When, when, when, when, when?’” Brinkmann said.

Schabowski responded with: “as far as I know, it’s effective immediately, unverzuglich.”

He missed the part about the passports and the fact that that process was to begin the next morning, a seemingly small blunder.

The press conference was broadcast live on East German TV. Some East Germans headed to Berlin to see if they could cross the border. But the guards had received no special instructions and didn’t let people through. As crowds gathered, in an attempt to control the chaos, they started letting some people through.

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The nightly Western German news programs reported the news that the borders were open, and things escalated.

“And now, the GDR citizens woke up, telephoned each other and said, ‘On television, now we see that the wall is open. Let’s come, let’s go. Let’s go! Maybe tomorrow it’s closed again!’” Brinkmann said.

What started as a trickle became a wave of people, and between 10 p.m. and midnight, thousands rushed to the border.

“Everyone was crying. Everyone was screaming,” he said. “Everyone was shouting the same words, ‘Wahnsinn!’Wahnsinn!’” — meaning “madness.”

And then, there was the sense that the GDR was over: “Now, the people saw the West and said, why do we need the wall anymore? And without the wall, why do we need a GDR?”

In March, free elections were held. By June, the East adopted the West German currency, and on Oct. 3, 1990, East Germany ceased to exist.

Thirty years on, some echoes of differences remain between the former East and West territories. But as time moves on, they continue to fade. And it was that press conference, and a hastily read paper, which sealed the fate that night — that the two Germanys would finally again become one.

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