East German official behind fall of Berlin Wall dies

Guenter Schabowski, whose statement led to reunification, has died at the age of 86

 Former Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski during a press conference in 1989. Mr Schabowski has died at the age of 86. File  photograph: DPA/AFP/Getty Images

Former Politburo spokesman Guenter Schabowski during a press conference in 1989. Mr Schabowski has died at the age of 86. File photograph: DPA/AFP/Getty Images

 

Guenter Schabowski, the senior East German official whose cryptic announcement that the communist country was opening its fortified border precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has died aged 86.

His widow, Irina Schabowski, told the German news agency DPA that he died in a Berlin nursing home.

Politburo spokesman Mr Schabowski’s halting words at the conclusion of an evening news conference on November 9th, 1989, put an end to Berlin’s 28 years of division.

Mr Schabowski offhandedly said East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its border with West Germany.

When pressed on when the regulation would take effect, he looked down at his notes and stammered: “As far as I know, this enters into force . . . this is immediately, without delay.”

East German leader Egon Krenz later insisted he told Mr Schabowski to tell reporters to withhold news of the new travel regulation until 4am the next morning, so citizens could line up properly to get exit visas.

Mr Schabowski, a trained journalist, said he never heard Mr Krenz say that and it would have been unrealistic anyway.

“It was one of many foul-ups in those days,” he said. “We were acting under the pressure of events. I’m just happy that it went off without bloodshed.”

At the time, East German leaders saw opening the Berlin Wall as a relief valve amid huge pro-democracy protests and a flight of citizens to the West via other countries.

Instead, it set in motion events that led quickly to German reunification on October 3rd, 1990.

Early life

Born on January 4th, 1929, in the northern town of Anklam, Mr Schabowski rose through the ranks of East Germany’s media after the second World War and became the chief editor of Neues Deutschland, the main communist party-controlled newspaper, in 1978.

He became a member of the ruling Politburo in 1984.

In October 1989, Mr Schabowski, the then communist party chief in East Berlin, became the first Politburo member to talk to opposition leaders.

In another turnaround for East Germany, he also voiced support for “approved and well-ordered” demonstrations.

However, amid mounting pressure from the emboldened pro-democracy movement, he resigned along with the rest of the Politburo weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

Mr Schabowski later became one of the most senior East German leaders to be convicted of manslaughter and was jailed for the deaths of East Germans trying to flee to the West.

He served nine-and-a-half months of a three-year sentence before being pardoned by Berlin’s mayor in 2000.

He turned firmly against communism, publicly backing Germany’s main conservative party in a 2001 Berlin election.

PA