One Year after the Wall's Fall

November 09, 1990

His name is Gunter Schabowski. On this day one year ago, at around 6 p.m. Berlin time, he gave history one of those crazy, unplanned, pivotal pushes that changed the world.

A middle-aged apparatchik newly appointed as press spokesman for the East German government, Mr. Schabowski's splendid blunder was in trying to bluff his way through an announcement he had just been handed.

The situation was this: For two months, tens of thousands of East Germans had escaped their caged country through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Hundreds of thousands more had demonstrated for freedom in Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin itself. The Politburo was desperate. When the hardline Czechoslovak government threatened to close the escape valve, the Egon Krenz regime decided to permit controlled emigration through selected points upon receipt of visas. It never contemplated the Wall's fall, or its own.

Mr. Schabowski, however, had not been adequately briefed. Asked at his press conference about travel restrictions, he prematurely disclosed that "today the decision was taken to make it possible for all citizens to leave the country through border crossing points." After a stunned reporter asked when, the press spokesman improvised: "Er, as far as I know it's now, immediately."

There's hardly a German alive who does not remember what he was doing when the electric news flashed. By mid-evening, thousands were crowding frontier points and by midnight they were strolling along West Berlin's Ku'damm. Decades of frustration and denial were at an end.

Today, Germans will remember the ecstatic, euphoric, bubbly joy of that unbelievable moment of release. But in a more sober mood, they will think upon the mighty events that have happened since:

The Brandenburg Gate open by Christmas, the first-ever free elections in East Germany in March, monetary union in July, Soviet acceptance of united Germany's membership in NATO in the same month, the end of wartime occupation in September, proclamation of a unified state in October. The first anniversary of the Wall's fall thus becomes just another milestone on a road to a 35-nation CSCE meeting in Paris Nov. 19 to mark Europe's accommodation to new German realities.

While the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Iraqi crisis have distracted world attention from the remarkably peaceful German experiment, historians will not underestimate its importance. Its cardinal feature has been a generosity, both internal and external, that should be comforting even to those with long memories.

Mr. Schabowski is today a disillusioned husk of a Communist, sucked dry as a bone (as he puts it) by his moment in the limelight. He has yet to realize how marvelous a gift was his mistake that led to the fall of the Wall.

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