BERLIN – Guenther Schabowski, the former senior East German Communist Party official who accidentally announced the opening of the Berlin Wall, has died at the age of 86, German media reported Sunday.
Schabowski, a member of and spokesman for the Soviet bloc state’s ruling Politburo, was speaking at an otherwise dull news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, when he was asked by a journalist about current travel rules.
Pressure had been building on the East German government for months to grant its citizens the freedom to travel to the West and a clearly underprepared Schabowski stunned the journalists present with his answer.
“Therefore … um… we have decided today … um… to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic … um … to … um … leave East Germany through any of the border crossings,” Schabowski said.
He was then asked when the new rule would take effect. “According to my information … immediately, without delay,” he stammered, shuffling through the papers spread in front of him as he searched in vain for clarifying information.
It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4 a.m. the next morning. Schabowski also meant to say East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency.
But his confused utterances, cast almost like an afterthought, became a political bombshell for the ages.
Journalists immediately began reporting that the wall, long the most potent symbol of the Iron Curtain and Cold War dividing East and West, was open, spurring a mad dash by joyful East Germans for the border.
East Germany’s communist regime swiftly collapsed, free elections followed and the state itself vanished with German reunification in October 1990.
The news of Schabowski’s death in a Berlin care home Sunday morning was announced by his widow, Irina, to the German news agency DPA.
After reunification, Schabowski and two other Politburo members were sentenced to jail terms for their role in the shootings of people who tried to escape over the wall.
Schabowski accepted his “moral” responsibility and expressed remorse.