Man whose blunder toppled Berlin Wall dies

East German official Guenter Schabowski had mistakenly said in 1989 that travel restrictions on the state's citizens would be immediately lifted.
East German official Guenter Schabowski had mistakenly said in 1989 that travel restrictions on the state's citizens would be immediately lifted.

BERLIN • Guenter Schabowski, the former senior East German communist official who accidentally announced the opening of the Berlin Wall, has died aged 86.

Mr Schabowski, a member of the Soviet bloc state's ruling Politburo and its spokesman, was speaking at an otherwise dull news conference on Nov 9, 1989, when asked by a journalist about current travel rules.

Pressure had been building on the East German government for months to grant its citizens the freedom to travel to the West.

A clearly underprepared Schabowski stunned journalists with his answer.

"Therefore... um... we have decided today... um... to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic... um... to... um... leave East Germany through any of the border crossings," he said.

He was then asked when the new rule would take effect.

"According to my information... immediately, without delay," he stammered.

It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4am the next day.

Mr Schabowski was also meant to say that East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency.

Journalists immediately reported that the Wall, long the most potent symbol of the Iron Curtain and Cold War dividing East and West, was open, spurring a mad dash by East Germans for the border.

East Germany's communist regime swiftly collapsed, free elections followed and the state itself vanished with German reunification in October 1990.

Mr Schabowski and two other Politburo members were later sentenced to jail terms for their role in the shootings of people who tried to escape over the Wall.

Schabowski, who died on Sunday, accepted his "moral" responsibility and expressed remorse.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 03, 2015, with the headline 'Man whose blunder toppled Berlin Wall dies'. Print Edition | Subscribe