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Germany: The Nudge That Toppled The Berlin Wall

  • Don Hill

Of all the jobs that Guenter Schabowski held in his successful career with the East German communists, he may have regarded his last one -- Politburo spokesman -- as the highest. Unfortunately, it led to his post-communism manslaughter conviction for involvement in border-crossing slayings at the Berlin Wall. But RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill says it also led to his being in position to help provide -- by an accident of history -- the nudge that toppled the Berlin Wall.

Prague, 6 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One of the ways the Berlin authorities celebrated the 10th anniversary of the reunification of Germany this week was by the early release from jail of Guenter Schabowski.

This act of mercy reminded insiders of another bit player in the history of a decade ago, Italian reporter Ricardo Ehrmann.

Schabowski was the last Politburo spokesman before the collapse of the government of the German Democratic Republic -- the GDR, or East Germany. Later, a German court was to sentence him to prison for manslaughter in connection with police killings of East Berliners trying to cross the Berlin Wall to freedom.

Early that day, Schabowski stood high on a wooden dais in East Berlin's press center on Mohrenstrasse, passing on authorized statements, statistics, and propaganda to a room full of journalists. He took no evident notice of the hurried, exasperated entrance of Italian correspondent Ricardo Ehrmann.

In the next few minutes, Schabowski and Ehrmann, like flint and steel, accidentally struck a spark that ignited history.

Ehrmann had gotten a late start that day -- unusual for the experienced East Berlin correspondent of ANSA, the Italian press agency. The Politburo was in the second day of a conference trying to save what it could of the moribund GDR, and East German patrol cars were everywhere, snarling traffic. When Ehrmann decided he was as close to the press center as he could get and looked for parking, there was none.

These details took on importance later. Had he been early, he might have sat in one of the comfortable cushioned chairs. As it was, the chairs all were occupied, so he squatted by the dais directly in front of the spokesman.

Schabowski droned on. In the red-cushioned chairs, correspondents looked sleepy.

Finally, it was question and answer time. In the past, the Italian newsman often had failed to capture Schabowski's attention. This time, perhaps because he was so visible in front, the press spokesman called on him near the end of the briefing.

Ehrmann had a routine question. Wasn't a new liberalized travel law under consideration by the Politburo likely to turn out to be a mistake?

Exactly what Schabowski was thinking at that moment, the world may never know. Like all the Politburo members and staff, he must have been under tremendous pressure. He referred to a copy of the law, part of which read, "Private foreign travel may be applied for without preconditions." He then said:

"We have today passed a new rule that will allow every citizen of the GDR -- through the GDR's border points -- to leave."

It seemed too casual to be true. In fact, it was not true. Schabowski had made an error rare for a trained press spokesman. Ehrmann learned only later that the Politburo had not yet approved the law. But immediately after Schabowski's response, Ehrmann left the room and telephoned a report to his news agency in Italy.

"This evening," he reported, "Guenter Schabowski, spokesman of the GDR Politburo, made a statement that amounts to the fall of the Berlin Wall."

When he returned to the press center, Ehrmann found his colleagues still in their seats listening to the briefing's last moments. "I think they did not realize at first what had happened," he recalled years later in an interview.

But Ehrmann's report took on a life of its own. The press briefing had been broadcast live to the East German populace. Later that afternoon, Ehrmann chanced upon some neighbors he hardly knew, bare acquaintances. They encircled him, congratulated him, embraced him.

Still later, he ventured to the Friedrichstrasse U-Bahn station, the last stop before West Berlin. He found hundreds of East Germans massing, waiting for the route to the West to open. People stopped him. "Are you the reporter we saw on TV?" they asked.

The crowd grew, deepened, grew increasingly impatient and excited.

East German officials conferred hurriedly by telephone. To head off violence, the Politburo decided to turn Schabowski's premature announcement into accomplished fact. They put the new travel policy into immediate effect.

That night, crowds surged across barriers that for 28 years had been known, simply, as The Wall.

(Die Welt's Sandra Garbers provided information for this report)

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