Foreword By Eric Tallant
The following is taken from the German Embassy to the United States’ website. This story is the amazing story of how a simple question, and a bumbled response can change the course of history. This is also an example of how the media can help drive home an idea that’s time has come. I love this story, and I hope you do too!
“Words heard round the world
It was a relatively ordinary press conference on the evening of November 9, 1989, in East Berlin with a number of western journalists, including NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, in attendance.
When Schabowski read off new rules allowing foreign travel without the usual preconditions and with rapid issuing of visas, Italian journalist Riccardo Ehrman asked when these new rules would go into effect. That’s when Schabowski appeared caught off guard and stumbled through his answer: “this is immediately, without delay.”
But his announcement had been premature; GDR officials had wanted to wait until they could be ready for what would surely be a flood of people wanting to travel (or just plain leave East Germany). Nevertheless, Schabowski’s announcement was carried live on East German television and reported almost immediately by Brokaw, Ehrman, and other western journalists there that night. The news traveled around the world, but most importantly it reached East Berliners and East Germans.
Within hours, East German citizens were gathering at border crossings in Berlin and elsewhere, demanding peacefully that guards open the gates and let them through. Eventually the guards did, and after months of regular demonstrations and demands for reforms, East Germans were free to go West and the Berlin Wall simply fell.
“An historic moment tonight as the Berlin Wall can no longer contain the East German people,” Brokaw opened his live news broadcast from West Berlin that night.
Within 10 months, East Germany would no longer exist and united Germany would raise its flag for the first time on October 3, 1990.
Journalist to party official
As a journalist and communist party member, Schabowski worked first for a workers union newspaper and then for the communist party’s own newspaper, lastly as editor-in-chief. In 1986 he became one of the secretaries of the party’s central committee and a member of the Politbüro, which ran the party day to day. He assumed the position of central committee spokesman only on November 6, 1989. After German unification, Schabowski was one of three Politbüro members who were convicted in 1997 by a Berlin court of murder for their role in the order to shoot issued to East German border guards. He was the only one, however, who acknowledged his responsibility for the deaths of East German citizens who were shot while trying to flee and asked their families for forgiveness. He served one year in jail of a three-year sentence before being pardoned by Berlin’s mayor.”
By Tanya Jones, Senior Editor, German Embassy Washington