Schabowski Shrugged

The unanswered phone calls and misunderstood memos that helped bring down the Berlin Wall.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

Too often, we see history as inevitable. What was had to be, the culmination of seemingly tectonic forces. We tend to forget that history is also defined by the logic of human messiness. Happenstance, chance, even accident always loom large in grand events.

Consider the iconic image that will play and replay on our TV screens over the coming weeks: Berliners dancing atop the fallen wall, marking the end of the Cold War 20 years ago. I was there, that night to remember: Nov. 9, 1989.

The scene was Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing in the heart of divided Berlin. A heaving crowd of East Germans faced a thin line of Volkspolitzei, nervously fingering their weapons. The standoff had just entered its fourth hour. “Open up! Open up!” the people cried out. Past the police and their guard dogs, past the watchtower and barbed wire of the infamous death strip, on the other side of the grim-gray Berlin Wall, came the answering call from an equally boisterous mob of West Germans: “Come over! Come over!”

Blazing TV lights suddenly flipped on from the West, silhouetting the wall and the guards, intensifying the eerie scene. Inside his lighted, glassed-in command post, the captain of the East German border guard, a beefy guy with a square jaw and the dark bristly air of a Doberman, stood dialing and redialing his telephone. For hours he vainly sought instructions. Certainly he was confused. Most likely he was frightened. The crowds before him had broiled out of nowhere, grown so fast, unlike anything he had ever seen, and now they pushed so close that their breath, frosting in the night, mingled with that of his increasingly anxious men.

Similarly panicky calls flew from checkpoints up and down the wall. What was happening? What should be done? But there were no answers. No instructions came back from the Interior Ministry. Top officials had gone to the opera or to the bowers of their mistresses. As Communist East Germany entered the final, existential crisis, its leadership was AWOL.

In his glass booth, the captain of the border guard once again put down his phone. He stood rock-still. Perhaps he had just been informed that the Bornholmerstrasse crossing to the north had moments earlier opened its barriers, besieged by some 20,000 people. Perhaps he came to his own decision. Maybe he was simply fed up. Whatever the case, at 11:17 p.m. precisely, he shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “Why not?”

Alles auf!” he ordered. “Open up,” and the gates swung wide. With a great roar the crowds surged forward. Among the first to cross to freedom was a woman I’d watched for hours, bobbing up and down to keep warm in a baby-blue nightgown and hair curlers. There she was one moment. The next, history literally swept her up. Carried aloft by the human tide, she turned her head and shouted to a friend, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes. I just want to see if it’s real!”

Earlier that evening, just before 7 p.m., another man had shrugged. Gunter Schabowski, the portly spokesman for the ruling Politburo, installed just weeks earlier, stopped by the offices of the Communist Party boss, Egon Krenz, en route to his daily press briefing. “Anything to announce?” he asked casually. Krenz shuffled through the papers on his desk, then passed Schabowski a two-page memo. “Take this,” he said with a grin. “It will do us a power of good.” Schabowski scanned the memo while being driven from party headquarters. It was a short press release having to do with passports. From now on, every East German would have the right to have one—and to travel freely.

For a nation locked so long behind the Iron Curtain, this was tremendous news. At the press conference, there was a sudden hush as Schabowski read from the memo, then a hubbub of shouting reporters. From the back of the room, as the cameras rolled, broadcasting live to the nation, the fatal question rang out: “When does it take effect?”

Schabowski paused, looked up. “What?” he said, confused. The chorus of questions rang out again, seeking clarification. Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to aides on either side, perched his glasses on the end of his nose, and scanned his notes, then once again he looked up … and shrugged. “Ab Sofort,” he read aloud from what he saw written on the press release. Immediately. Without delay.

At this, the room—and the world—erupted. Schabowski, we now know, didn’t appreciate the full significance of his announcement. On vacation when the decision was made, he was not aware that the plans were to take effect the next day, Nov. 10, subject to all sorts of fine print. Neither were East Germans. They knew only what they had heard on radio and television. They thought they were free to go. Sofort. Right now. By the hundreds of thousands they descended on the crossings to West Berlin. Overwhelmed, receiving no instructions, East German police acted on their own. Like Schabowski, like the border guard at Checkpoint Charlie, they shrugged.

And so the wall came down.