Official who accidentally opened the Berlin Wall dies
Günter Schabowski, who accidentally announced the opening of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989, died in Berlin yesterday at the age of 86. Schabowski's wife, Irina, announced his death to a German news agency, the Deutsche Presse-Agentur on Sunday. No cause of death was provided, but Schabowski had been diabetic and had suffered several strokes. He has two sons - Jan and Alexander.
Born on 4 January 1929, Günter Schabowski joined the ruling party of East Germany, the Social Unity Party (SED) in 1952. A journalist by profession, he became the chief editor of the SED's primary newspaper, Neues Deutschland in 1978. In 1985, he was appointed to the SED's highest echelon, the Politburo. After his November 1989 announcement, he resigned from his party position.
In 1997, a Berlin court sentenced Günter Schabowski to three-and-a-half years in prison for involvement in the East German government's policy of shooting people who tried to cross the border into West Germany. He was pardoned in 2000.
In 1988, Miklos Nemeth became the new Prime Minister of Hungary. On 19 August 1989, a small group of local activists in Sopron, Hungary, to celebrate Gorbachev-like changes brought by Nemeth, decided to briefly open a gate through the barbed-wire frontier to Austria. Called the "Pan-European Picnic", it paved way for Nemeth's decision to allow East Germans to escape to freedom via Hungary.
Following Hungary's effective dismantling of physical border defences with Austria on 19 August 1989, over 13,000 East German tourists escaped into Austria via Hungary. East Germany disallowed further travel to Hungary, sparking mass protests in East Germany which reached their peak in November 1989. To appease the masses, the government issued travel restriction reforms which led to the events of 9 November 1989.
The construction of the Berlin Wall was started by East Germany on 13 August 1961. The Wall completely cut off West Germany from East Germany for 28 years until it was opened in 1989. Its demolition went on from 1990-1992.
The new travel reforms which would allow East Germans "to leave East Germany through any of the border crossings", was announced by SED spokesperson, Günter Schabowski. Asked when the changes would come into effect, Schabowski mistakenly said, "This occurs, to my knowledge...immediately...without delay." Within hours, thousands of East Germans started heading to West Germany, sparking the eventual collapse of the Berlin Wall.
As the night grew after Schabowski's announcement on 9th November 1989, thousands of East Germans thronged to the six border checkpoints in the Berlin Wall. The Bornholmerstrasse checkpoint was the first to open its gates at 11.30 pm local time. The other checkpoints followed suit as thousands of East Germans crossed into West Germany, marking the collapse of East Germany. No shots were fired.
Harald Jäger, of the Bornholmerstrasse checkpoint, was instrumental in ensuring there was no bloodshed on 9 November 1989. Abandoned by his superiors, he first gave the order to lift the boom gate, thus ensuring safe passage of the crowd.