Günter Schabowski
Günter Schabowski is a former official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Socialist Unity Party of Germany
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was the governing party of the German Democratic Republic from its formation on 7 October 1949 until the elections of March 1990. The SED was a communist political party with a Marxist-Leninist ideology...

 (SED), the ruling party during most of the existence of the German Democratic Republic
German Democratic Republic
The German Democratic Republic , informally called East Germany by West Germany and other countries, was a socialist state established in 1949 in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany, including East Berlin of the Allied-occupied capital city...

. Schabowski gained worldwide fame in November 1989 when he improvised a slightly mistaken answer to a press conference question, raising popular expectations so rapidly that massive crowds gathered the same night at the Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was a barrier constructed by the German Democratic Republic starting on 13 August 1961, that completely cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin...

, forcing its opening after 28 years; soon after, the entire inner German border was opened.


Schabowski was born in Anklam
Anklam is a town in the Western Pomerania region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. It is situated on the banks of the Peene river, just 8 km from its mouth in the Kleines Haff, the western part of the Stettin Lagoon. Anklam has a population of 14,603 and was the capital of the former...

, Pomerania
Pomerania is a historical region on the south shore of the Baltic Sea. Divided between Germany and Poland, it stretches roughly from the Recknitz River near Stralsund in the West, via the Oder River delta near Szczecin, to the mouth of the Vistula River near Gdańsk in the East...

 (now part of the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern). He studied journalism at the Karl Marx University, Leipzig
University of Leipzig
The University of Leipzig , located in Leipzig in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, is one of the oldest universities in the world and the second-oldest university in Germany...

, after which he became editor of the trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

 magazine, Tribüne. In 1952, he became a member of the SED. In 1978, he became the chief editor of the newspaper Neues Deutschland
Neues Deutschland
Neues Deutschland is a national German daily newspaper. It was the official party newspaper of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany , which governed the German Democratic Republic , and as such served as one of the party's most important organs...

(“New Germany”), which as the official organ of the SED was considered to be the leading newspaper in the GDR. In 1981 he became a member of the SED Central Committee. In 1985, he became the First Secretary
General Secretary
The office of general secretary is staffed by the chief officer of:*The General Secretariat for Macedonia and Thrace, a government agency for the Greek regions of Macedonia and Thrace...

 of the East Berlin
East Berlin
East Berlin was the name given to the eastern part of Berlin between 1949 and 1990. It consisted of the Soviet sector of Berlin that was established in 1945. The American, British and French sectors became West Berlin, a part strongly associated with West Germany but a free city...

 chapter of the SED and a member of the SED Politbüro
Politburo , literally "Political Bureau [of the Central Committee]," is the executive committee for a number of communist political parties.-Marxist-Leninist states:...


Tearing down the Berlin Wall

In October 1989, Schabowski, along with several other members of the Politburo, turned on longtime SED leader Erich Honecker
Erich Honecker
Erich Honecker was a German communist politician who led the German Democratic Republic as General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party from 1971 until 1989, serving as Head of State as well from Willi Stoph's relinquishment of that post in 1976....

 and forced him to step down in favour of Egon Krenz
Egon Krenz
Egon Krenz is a former politician from East Germany , and that country's last Communist leader...

. As part of the effort to change the regime's image, Schabowski was named the regime's unofficial spokesman, and held several daily press conferences to announce changes.

On 9 November 1989, shortly before that day's press conference, Schabowski was handed a note that said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following afternoon, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. Additionally, the news was to be embargoed until then. However, nobody had informed Schabowski.

He read the note aloud at the end of the press conference. One of the reporters asked when the regulations would come into effect. After a few seconds' pause, Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied: “As far as I know effective immediately, without delay (sofort, unverzüglich)”. After further questions from journalists, he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings into West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then. Accounts differ on who asked that question. Both Riccardo Ehrman
Riccardo Ehrman
Riccardo Ehrmann is a retired Italian journalist whose question at a government press conference in the former East Germany is said to have precipitated the end of the Berlin Wall.-References:, By MARCUS WALKER, wsj.com, 10/21/09....

, the Berlin correspondent of the ANSA
ANSA may refer to:* ANSA, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs , also sometimes abbreviated NSA*Armed non-state actors, a term used in political science*Ansa *Artists for a new South AfricaTechnology:...

 news agency, and German tabloid reporter Peter Brinkmann, were sitting on the front row at the press conference, and claimed to have asked when the regulations would come into force. However, most of the attendees agree that it was actually NBC
The National Broadcasting Company is an American commercial broadcasting television network and former radio network headquartered in the GE Building in New York City's Rockefeller Center with additional major offices near Los Angeles and in Chicago...

's Tom Brokaw
Tom Brokaw
Thomas John "Tom" Brokaw is an American television journalist and author best known as the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News from 1982 to 2004. He is the author of The Greatest Generation and other books and the recipient of numerous awards and honors...

 who asked the question. Later, Schabowski agreed to a live interview with Brokaw. Clearly flustered, he asked his assistant to reread the note. However, when Brokaw pressed him, Schabowski repeated that the regulations were to take effect "immediately."

The West German public national television channels showed parts of Schabowski's press conference in their main evening news reports at 7:17 PM on ZDF
Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen , ZDF, is a public-service German television broadcaster based in Mainz . It is run as an independent non-profit institution, which was founded by the German federal states . The ZDF is financed by television licence fees called GEZ and advertising revenues...

's heute
heute is a news show on the German television channel ZDF. The main show is broadcast at 7 PM, or 19:00, consisting of news of the day, weather forecasts and sport...

and at 8 PM on ARD
ARD (broadcaster)
ARD is a joint organization of Germany's regional public-service broadcasters...

's Tagesschau; this of course meant that the news was broadcast to nearly all of East Germany as well. The news then spread like wildfire with news reports continuing to repeat the news throughout the night.

As the night progressed thousands of East Berliners began proceeding to the six border crossings along the Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was a barrier constructed by the German Democratic Republic starting on 13 August 1961, that completely cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and from East Berlin...

. They demanded to be let through. Live TV reported on the gathering people which only increased the numbers of East Berliners coming to the gates. The crowds vastly outnumbered the border guard
Border guard
The border guard, frontier guard, border patrol, border police, or frontier police of a country is a national security agency that performs border control, i.e., enforces the security of the country's national borders....

s who initially tried to stall for time. However, no one was willing to order deadly force. Finally, at 10:45 pm, the guards decided to open the gates and allow people into West Berlin.

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end of the East German regime. Indeed, author and historian Victor Sebestyen later wrote that when the gates were opened, for all intents and purposes East Germany "ceased to exist." He also wrote that many of Schabowski's colleagues suspected he was either an American or West German agent, and couldn't believe that he'd made "a simple cock-up."

In the following purges of the “Party old guard”, Schabowski was quickly expelled from the SED (which then morphed into the Party of Democratic Socialism, the PDS), even though just months earlier in 1989 he had been awarded the country's prestigious Order of Karl Marx
Order of Karl Marx
The Order of Karl Marx was the most important order in the German Democratic Republic . Award of the order also included a prize of 20,000 East German marks....


Political life after reunification

After German Reunification
German reunification
German reunification was the process in 1990 in which the German Democratic Republic joined the Federal Republic of Germany , and when Berlin reunited into a single city, as provided by its then Grundgesetz constitution Article 23. The start of this process is commonly referred by Germans as die...

, Schabowski became highly critical of his own actions in the GDR and those of his fellow Politburo members, as well as of Soviet-style socialism in general. , he remains the only high-ranking GDR official to have renounced the GDR as fatally flawed. He worked again as a journalist and editor for a small local paper between 1992 and 1999. His campaign help for the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) prompted some of his former comrades to call him a Wryneck
The wrynecks are a small but distinctive group of small Old World woodpeckers.Like the true woodpeckers, wrynecks have large heads, long tongues which they use to extract their insect prey and zygodactyl feet, with two toes pointing forward, and two backwards...

 (a bird that can turn its head 180 degrees; popular term used to mock Communists who have turned capitalist).

Together with other leading figures of the GDR regime, he was charged with the murders of refugees. In August 1997, Schabowski was convicted along with Egon Krenz
Egon Krenz
Egon Krenz is a former politician from East Germany , and that country's last Communist leader...

 and Günther Kleiber
Günther Kleiber
Günther Kleiber is a former communist politician from the German Democratic Republic . He was a member of the politburo of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany from 1984 to 1989, and a member of the GDR government as minister for machinery, agricultural machinery and vehicle construction from...

. Because he accepted his moral guilt and renounced the GDR he was sentenced to only 3 years in prison
A prison is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms. Imprisonment or incarceration is a legal penalty that may be imposed by the state for the commission of a crime...

. In December 1999 he began serving his sentence in Hakenfelde Prison in Spandau
Spandau is the fifth of the twelve boroughs of Berlin. It is the fourth largest and westernmost borough, situated at the confluence of the Havel and Spree rivers and along the western bank of the Havel, but the least populated.-Overview:...

. However, in September 2000 he was pardoned by Governing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen
Eberhard Diepgen
Eberhard Diepgen is a German politician of the CDU. He studied law at the Free University of Berlin. He was mayor of West Berlin from 1984 to 1989 and a reunited Berlin from 1991 to 2001.-References:...

 and released in December 2000, having served only a year. He is critical of the PDS/Left Party (i.e., successor of the Socialist Unity Party); in 2001, he collaborated with Bärbel Bohley
Bärbel Bohley
Bärbel Bohley was an East German opposition figure and artist. In 1983 she was expelled from the GDR artists federation and was banned from travelling abroad or exhibiting her work in East Germany. She was accused of having contacts to the West German Green Party.In 1985 she was one of the...

 as advisor of Frank Steffel (CDU).
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