The German Unity Day (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) will be celebrated on October 3, 2021 to mark the 31st Anniversary of the reunification of Germany. But did you know that the “fall of the wall” happened by accident thanks to a viral press conference held in 1989?
A Little Background
After World War II, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation under the control of the USA, Britain, France and the Soviet Union at the Potsdam Conference held between July 17 and August 2. Berlin was also divided into four zones.
The three zones controlled by the Western Countries became the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin, while the zone controlled by the Soviet Union became the German Democratic Republic and East Berlin on May 23, 1949.
The borders between East and West Germany were closed in 1952, but the border between East and Western Berlin was still open until 1961. In the night of August 12 to 13, 1961, East German leader Walter Ulbricht had a wire barrier constructed around West Berlin that divided neighbourhoods and separated families overnight.
Eventually the barrier became two concrete walls that measured 155 km long and four metres tall and were separated by a corridor that was heavily guarded and known as the “death strip”. More than 100 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, and hundreds more were killed trying to cross other border points guarded by armed East German border guards who were authorised to shoot anyone attempting to escape.
The “Accidental” Road to Freedom
In 1989, political changes and civil unrest put pressure on the East German government to update some of its travel regulations. When East German Günter Schabowski, a member of the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), former editor of the newspaper “Neues Deutschland” and current spokesperson for the Politbüro, was handed a paper by SED leader Egon Krenz at a live televised international press conference held on November 9, 1989, he obediently read the note out loud. The pertinent part can be seen below.
“Applications for travel abroad by private individuals can now be made without the previously existing requirements (of demonstrating a need to travel or proving familial relationships). The travel authorizations will be issued within a short time. Grounds for denial will only be applied in particularly exceptional cases. The responsible departments of passport and registration control in the People’s Police district offices in the GDR are instructed to issue visas for permanent exit without delays and without presentation of the existing requirements for permanent exit.”
When a reporter asked him when these new regulations would come in effect, Schabowski mistakenly answered “As far as I know… effective immediately, without delay.”
Western media outlets, such as the Daily Telegraph, NBC, ZDF heute and ARD broadcast this news and soon thousands of East Berliners began making their way to the six border crossings along the Berlin Wall and demanded to be let through. The crowds outnumbered the border guards by far and around 11:30 pm, Harold Jäger, a Statsi Officer, opened the gates at the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing and let people into West Berlin.
Thus, the fall of the wall, happened by a mistake that went “viral” and literally changed the world overnight.
The former “Day of German Unity” was celebrated from June 17, 1954 to June 17, 1990 in West Germany and was celebrated twice in 1990.
East Germany’s National Day was October 7 known as “Tag der Republik”
Whatever Happened to Günter Schabowski and Egon Krenz?
On October 18, 1989, Schabowski, who had been a member of the SED since 1952, and others in the Politbüro voted to remove leader Erich Honecker and forced him to step down. Along with a few others in the Politbüro, they elected Egon Krenz, who had been in charge of media affairs and second man in the SED, as General Secretary of the SED Central Committee.
Krenz was the one who handed the “travel text” that changed the world to Schabowski and he was also the one who forgot to brief him that the regulations were meant to come into effect the following afternoon. Krenz resigned on December 3, 1989, from the Politbüro and the Central Committee, and on December 6, from all his remaining leadership posts. He was expelled from the SED in 1990 and worked in a variety of odd jobs after leaving politics altogether.
After the German Reunification, Schabowski worked as a journalist between 1992 and 1999, as an editor for Heimat-Nachrichten, a weekly local paper that he co-founded with a West German journalist.
Schabowski and Krenz, among others were charged with murders of East German citizens attempting to flee to the GRD in 1995, were convicted in 1997. Schabowski was given a 3-year prison sentence and Krenz was sentenced to 6.5 years in 1999. After serving only one year, the current mayor of Berlin, Eberhard Diepgen, pardoned Schabowski and he was released from prison October 2, 2000. He became an advisor to CDU Frank Steffel. Krenz was released from prison in December 2003 and retired to Dierhagen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern with his wife.
The Topography of Terror (German: Topographie des Terrors) is an outdoor and indoor history museum in Berlin, Germany. It is located on Niederkirchnerstrasse, formerly Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, on the site of buildings, which during the Nazi regime from 1933 to 1945 was the SS Reich Security Main Office, the headquarters of the Sicherheitspolizei, SD, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo.