On November 9th, 1989, Gunter Schabowski was in a press conference. He was the unofficial press officer for the new East German Government led by Egon Krenz, who had replaced the ailing tyrant, Erich Honecker. Reading from a note that he had not long received, and did not fully understand, Schabowski announced that GDR citizens could now leave the country via East Berlin, provided they had official permission. A Journalist asked when this was going into effect, and Schabowski incorrectly replied, “effective immediately.” This was shown on West German news, which many East Germans watched. Illegal consumption of Western media was widespread in the GDR. The Elbe valley was nicknamed “Valley of the Clueless,” because its residents were too far east to tune into Western broadcasts.
That night, thousands gathered around the Berlin Walls 6 official crossings and demanded to be let through. Nobody in the East German Government wanted to be responsible for a repeat of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The overwhelmed Guards, who had not been informed of the policy change prior to Schabowski’s announcement, were told to step down. A jubilant crowd crossed into West Berlin. The Demolition of the Wall began that night.
For 28 years, this 155-metre barrier had divided Berlin. The “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall” had been constructed in August 1961 to halt the deluge of people fleeing west. Over the course of its lifetime, 136 people were killed attempting to cross. All it took to bring it down was one mishandled press conference.
In the Kremlin, Mikhail Gorbachev was powerless to stop this. There was a time when the Red Army would have crushed any threat to the integrity of the Eastern Bloc, as it had done in East Berlin in 1953. However, Gorbachev’s liberal foreign policy had given up policing Eastern Europe. The War in Afghanistan, an inflated military budget, and a hollowed-out economy had degraded the power of Europe’s last continental Empire.
Therein lies the true significance of this event. It was not a cause of the end of the Cold War, but a symptom of a shifting world order. The decline of the Soviet Union in the 1980s left Eastern European Governments free to bring radical change to their countries. The initial decision to open the Wall had been prompted by Hungary being able to open its borders, allowing thousands of East Germans into West Germany via Austria. The GDR was already facing a leadership crisis, large protests, and a haemorrhaging population. It would probably have fallen anyway, along with its wall, without Schabowski’s misstep. Although part of this wider narrative, the destruction of the Berlin Wall remains the symbolic event of the winter of 1989.