Chapter Five

Failure to Communicate on November 9, 1989

EARLY ON NOVEMBER 9, Egon Krenz sought an update on the status of the hole variant. Of the men whom the Politburo had by now tasked with implementing it—the East German foreign minister, Oskar Fischer, charged with informing the Soviets and requesting their approval; the interior and Stasi ministers, charged with devising its wording; and the head of the council of ministers, charged with issuing it formally—only the first, Fischer, had made progress. Fischer had asked the Soviet ambassador for permission. Now all he could do was wait for a reply.

To find out where matters stood with everyone else, Krenz had his trusted comrade, Wolfgang Herger, start making calls about 8:00 a.m. on November 9 in an effort to prod everyone into producing results that same day. Herger made clear to the interior minister, Friedrich Dickel, that by the close of business he should complete his task to select some part of Gerhard Lauter’s previous draft that could be enacted immediately by fiat in order to mollify the Czech leaders.1

It was clear to East Berlin party leaders that the patience of their Czech comrades was at an end. Huge numbers of GDR refugees were once again swarming through their country. More than thirty thousand East Germans made it to Bavaria in the beginning of November by way of Czechoslovakia. The Czechs kept repeating to the SED that these developments were unendurable, because they were inspiring the Czech opposition. If the comrades in East Berlin did not find some other solution soon, the Czechs would take independent action.2 Hence there was an urgency to Herger’s phone calls on the morning of November 9. In reply, Dickel indicated that he had already assigned the thankless task to Lauter, the princeling, once again.3

Lauter and his colleagues thereby received an impossible challenge: mollify both the Czech Politburo and the wider East German population by opening the border a little bit, but only to those willing to leave forever, not to those wishing to take a short trip. And Lauter and company had to do so immediately, under the threat that Czechoslovakia might close the border from its side. Helping Lauter were three of his colleagues: Gotthard Hubrich of the Interior Ministry, and Hans-Joachim Krüger and Udo Lemme of the Ministry for State Security. Hubrich headed the Department of Internal Affairs at the Interior Ministry and therefore had the job of processing emigration applications.4 Krüger was deputy leader of the Stasi department that enforced party discipline on the Interior Ministry, and Lemme served as head of the Stasi legal office. This group of four had collaborated previously on many occasions. As a result, the atmosphere in Lauter’s office, where they met, was collegial, despite the stressfulness of the situation.5Although they were in the Interior Ministry building, the men all had strong Stasi affiliations: two were full-time staff members, and Lauter and Hubrich were or had been “unofficial co-workers” of Krüger’s Stasi department.6

They commenced work at 9:00 a.m. on November 9 by checking that they had all received the same orders.7 They agreed that they had. Lauter then boldly stated what he really thought of their orders: they were schizophrenic. They would increase, rather than decrease, emigration problems. As he put it to the group, “Everyone who wants to stay in the West is allowed to leave immediately? But the person who wants to come back to his work and his home is not allowed to go?” Lauter was certain that such a plan simply would not work. Even worse, he believed that it would achieve exactly what they were trying to avoid, namely, the depopulation of East Germany: “We will drive people out of the country.”8 Not everyone wanted to leave for good, after all. Reports were already coming in from border regions of East German citizens who had fled, seemingly permanently, but now wanted to return. On top of these considerations, Lauter also worried that issuing another unworkable regulation right after the fiasco of his November 6 draft would further inflame public hostility toward the ruling regime.9

These doubts had not just occurred to Lauter that very moment. It appears that he and Hubrich had discussed these worries between themselves and with their superiors before the start of the meeting, and that Lauter had come away feeling emboldened, although his instructions had not formally changed. His decision to risk criticizing his own orders in front of Stasi officers presumably arose from that previous conversation with his bosses. The Stasi officers do seem to have placed a call to their headquarters during the meeting, perhaps to check on the acceptability of what was being discussed, but they did not contradict Lauter, and their willingness to hear him out apparently emboldened him even more.10

Lauter then ventured into what was for him uncharted territory. He decided to exceed his orders, a step “that you got to take only once in your career,” as he later put it. Lauter convinced the other three men that following the letter of their task would contradict its spirit, so they should go beyond their instructions. His motivation arose, he later claimed, not from clandestine opposition to his beleaguered socialist state but rather from his loyalty to it. As Lauter would explain afterward, “I did not want a coup.” Rather, what he and his three colleagues did on November 9 “was in my view, and in the view of my three colleagues, meant to be stabilizing.” At least, he conceded, that was what it was “supposed to be.”11

The instructions given to this group were so specific that they even included a header for the document the four men were supposed to produce, namely, a text on “the permanent emigration of GDR citizens to the FRG via CSSR [Czechoslovak Socialist Republic].”12 The four men kept the header, although it would not match the content of their text. Rather than simply take language concerning emigration out of the draft, as they were charged with doing, Lauter and the others decided instead to write a brand-new text that addressed both permanent emigration andtemporary travel. Lauter and Hubrich had even apparently prepared some suggestions about wording.13 By late morning, drawing on this wording and on some paperwork brought to the meeting by the Stasi comrades, the four produced the new text that would unexpectedly open the Wall that night.

The text stated that “the following temporary transitional rules for travel and emigration out of the GDR into foreign countries will be valid,” pending a new law at some unknown date in the future. They also added that these temporary rules would be valid “right away,” a phrase that would have fateful consequences. With the stroke of a pen, the four midlevel bureaucrats thus declared the current rules to be suddenly null and void. The crises of the day demanded drastic measures, they concluded. According to these transitional rules, citizens could apply for permission to take “private trips to foreign countries” without needing to meet previously required conditions for those trips. Applications and approvals remained necessary, however.14

Remarkably, the group’s text then included this statement: “Permanent emigration may take place over all border crossings between the GDR and FRG and Berlin (West).”15 Their addition of divided Berlin to the text was the single most momentous component of their collective decision to exceed their own authority.16 Lauter later explained it by saying that the four men did not worry about the approval of the four powers—who still held ultimate control in Berlin—because they assumed that such considerations were being handled by Fischer and others responsible for foreign policy. The diplomats at the Soviet embassy would be consumed with fury later that day when they heard that their authority in divided Berlin had simply been disregarded.17

That the four men were trying to shore up, rather than undermine, the state’s control was apparent in their text’s repeated insistence that applications remained necessary. The state, and by extension the party, still had to give permission for whatever border crossing was to take place. Regardless of whether an East German wanted to leave the country for good or just for a cup of coffee in the West, he or she would still need to apply and, as Lauter put it, “get at least some kind of stamp” before departing.18 The group of four figured that by managing such applications, the regime could limit the flow of travel. Indeed, both the Stasi and the Interior Ministry would spend the rest of the afternoon working on guidelines for issuing such stamps.

The four men thought they had thereby succeeded at the impossible task given to them. Their text sounded as though it was promoting freedom of travel, but it contained enough caveats—it was only temporary, still required multiple forms of permission, and granted no foreign currency—to maintain control and to prevent the depopulation of East Germany. None of them would realize just how wrong they had been, and how far-reaching the unintended consequences of their actions would be, until it was too late.19

The group of four drafted a press release as well, and placed an embargo on the announcement of their text until the next morning, November 10, at 4:00 a.m. By midday they were done. They forwarded the paperwork to their superiors for approval and for transmission to the members of the Politburo in the central committee meeting.20 Lauter kept waiting for a superior to berate him about what was, in essence, an unapproved effort by four second-tier bureaucrats to stabilize the GDR, but such a call never came. As far as he could tell, no superior noticed the discrepancy between the header of the text and its contents. Or if his bosses had noticed, they evidently agreed that the key element—control—was still provided for. One senior Stasi officer, General Gerhard Niebling, later recalled how he had scanned the result of their work and thought, “This is a significant easing of the rules,” but “of course, naturally, permission still remains necessary.” As he put it, the four men were clearly “not tearing down the Wall.”21

Lauter also attributed the lack of a reaction to the intense pressure on party leaders on that day, November 9. He guessed that no one had time to read, let alone concentrate on, the fine print of a regulation, especially when everyone thought that they knew what it was: an excerpt from the already familiar draft. The only objection came from deputy officials at the Justice Ministry, who opposed the fact that the text simply declared the existing laws null and void, but Lauter was able to convince them of the necessity of doing so.22

At the end of the business day, Lauter felt comfortable leaving his office more or less on time. He and his wife had tickets to a theater performance that evening, and he wanted to keep his word to arrive on time for the start of the show. He had embargoed announcement of his text until 4:00 a.m. the next morning, and he planned to be back at work by then anyway. Once Lauter handled the objection from the Justice Ministry, he left the office, disappeared into a theater, and remained incommunicado for the rest of the evening. He would first hear of the scenes of chaos at the Wall upon returning home late that night from the theater with his wife. Their son would greet them at the door of their home, tell them that the interior minister had called repeatedly, and add, “Oh, and by the way, the Wall is open.”23

ACROSS EAST BERLIN at the Soviet embassy, the deputy ambassador, Igor Maximychev, had a busy November 9 as well. He fielded repeated calls from East Berlin party leaders, who were anxious because there was still no reply from Moscow to Fischer’s November 7 request for approval for the hole variant, and the Czechs were irate about the delay.24 As far as anyone in the Soviet embassy knew, the plan remained the same as described to the Soviet ambassador and Maximychev two days earlier, namely, to open a hole for emigration at a distant point on the German-German border. Had anyone mentioned divided Berlin as well, Soviet alarm bells would have sounded loudly. But the Soviet embassy did not know that anything of the kind was under consideration. According to Maximychev, the question of “opening the borders” never came up.25 Thanks to the embassy’s ignorance of what Lauter and his colleagues had done, Moscow would eventually give approval to a plan that had long since been superseded.

In their ignorance, Ambassador Vyacheslav Kochemasov, Maximychev, and their subordinates tried time and time again to reach superiors in Moscow about the hole variant. The Soviet holiday was still making their job nearly impossible, however. Officially, the holiday was over—Thursday, November 9, was a business day in both East Berlin and Moscow—but since senior Soviet leaders had by that point endured a two-day marathon that included a parade on Red Square, an enormous reception at the Kremlin, and numerous smaller events, many of them were nowhere to be found. A Soviet Politburo meeting took place on November 9, but there was no sign that the attendees discussed any issues related to divided Germany at all, despite the outstanding urgent request from East Berlin.26

Since neither Kochemasov nor Soviet deputy foreign minister Ivan Aboimov had any luck in tracking down the foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, despite repeated attempts, Aboimov finally advised Kochemasov to tell the East Berlin Politburo to go ahead with the hole variant.27Aboimov was exceeding his authority, but he had given up hope of reaching anyone more senior in time to respond before the Czechs did something rash. Kochemasov accordingly let the SED leadership know that Moscow had no objections, so the plan could proceed.28 No one informed Kochemasov in response that the hole variant was obsolete and that an entirely different text now existed. It was a significant failure to communicate and to keep an ally up-to-date on developments. Years later, the former Soviet ambassador still could not understand the lapse: “In those days, I met Krenz almost daily, and he said nothing to me,” which might have been a sign that Krenz himself did not know what was happening.29

Another failure to communicate then occurred, one involving the onward transmission of accurate information about the Soviet approval. It happened after couriers delivered copies of the group of four’s text to the party’s ongoing, contentious central committee meeting in the early afternoon of November 9. Emotions were running high on the second day of the three-day session. The central committee was officially an important decision-making body in the party, but due to its relatively rare meetings and large membership—more than 160 full members, plus another fifty candidates—it had always been the much smaller Politburo, with roughly two dozen members under the leadership of the general secretary, that actually ran the party and the country.30 Now, however, the central committee was showing signs of independence, not least in its partial rejection of Krenz’s Politburo resignation plan. It was a frightening development for those Politburo members now remaining.31 As one observer later described the situation, “to call the top of the party chaotic, headless, and incapable of action” would be to flatter it too much.32

The group of four’s text made it to Krenz’s hands during what was supposed to be a break, but he decided to begin discussing the text immediately with the distracted and rattled members of the Politburo who were standing around him. Only about half of the members of the Politburo, most with cigarettes dangling from their lips or fingers, appear to have been standing near enough to Krenz to hear him; the rest were using the break to take a breather elsewhere. The Politburo member responsible for media who would end up announcing the text, Günter Schabowski, was not even present. Indeed, Schabowski had been absent for much of the formal central committee meeting altogether, for unclear reasons.

Krenz’s words during the break seem to have provoked almost no reaction. Perhaps upon hearing the text’s misleading title, the Politburo members tuned out, since they thought they already knew what it said, or perhaps they were simply too stressed to pay full attention during what was supposed to be a break. They may also have assumed that there would be a fuller discussion once the formal central committee session resumed after the break. In any event, no one seems to have pointed out the gap between the original Politburo instructions and the text Krenz held in his hands.

Someone did apparently ask Krenz the only truly significant question: whether what he was reading aloud had been cleared with the Soviets. The correct answer was no. Moscow, through its ambassador, Kochemasov, had approved only the hole variant. Krenz created a new misunderstanding, however, when he replied in the affirmative: yes, he said, he had heard from the Soviets, and the text had Moscow’s approval.33 Those words alone were probably good enough for many members of the Politburo to consider the matter closed. This failure of communication was a particularly significant one, since it implied top-level approval that did not in fact exist.

Yet another failure took place when Krenz decided to read the group of four’s text to the full central committee meeting later that afternoon. In theory, he thereby created another window of opportunity for someone to question the wisdom of the text’s wording. This window opened at 3:47 p.m., when Krenz interrupted the scheduled events, saying, “It is known to you that there is a problem that burdens us all: the issue of emigration.” The “Czech comrades” were complaining bitterly, he went on, just as the Hungarian comrades had done earlier, about the baleful impact of the waves of East German émigrés flooding across their borders. Krenz added, “Whatever we do in this situation, we will be taking a wrong step.” There were no good options. “If we close the borders to the CSSR, we thereby punish the decent citizens of the GDR, who then cannot travel and then . . . will try to influence us.” Presumably he meant they would try to exert influence by protesting at home.

Krenz announced that, as a result of the Czech pressure, the council of ministers would be proposing a text. In effect, he was putting words in the mouths of the ministers sitting in front of him. That the general secretary of the SED could dictate to ministers of state what they were to say was standard practice, and even though the central committee had started to deviate from its scripted role, it had not yet gone so far as to challenge this practice, or Krenz directly. Krenz then indicated that the text he was about to read had been approved by the Politburo, without mentioning that the Politburo had “approved” it during the previous smoking break. This was another significant failure in communication, since Politburo approval signaled to the audience that the text was already a done deal. Krenz added that, since the matter was important, he would now read the precise wording aloud for “consultation” anyway, perhaps to mollify the newly tempestuous central committee, and proceeded to do so.34

This international press conference, held in East Berlin and televised live from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. on November 9, 1989, became a crucial link in the unexpected chain of events that culminated in the opening of the Berlin Wall later that same night. Günter Schabowski (shown in bottom photo, and seated second from right on panel in top photo), a member of the East German Politburo, directed the conference, which took place before a large crowd of domestic and foreign journalists (shown in the foreground of the top photo). (RHG Fo AnKae 485, 487; photo by Andreas Kämper)

Presented in this way by their political leader, and with many in the room apparently eager to get back to internal bloodletting and finger-pointing, the text elicited no serious challenges. No one used this window of opportunity to challenge the wisdom of its wording. The culture minister, Hans-Joachim Hoffman, did suggest a minor alteration: changing the phrase “the following temporary, transitional rules” to “the following rules,” since he thought the implication that this latest concession was only temporary and could be revoked might inflame the opposition.35 Krenz agreed, noting that since the text also stated elsewhere that it would be in effect only until a new law was passed, references to its temporary nature were redundant. Another central committee member asked how the text would be publicized. Krenz replied that a government spokesman named Wolfgang Meyer would issue it—as opposed to the politically much more significant Schabowski, who had started holding Western-style press conferences the day before to report on the results from the three-day central committee meeting.36 But there were no criticisms or even attempts at sustained discussion. After calling, “All comrades agree?” and hearing no contradiction, Krenz was able to move on to another item only eight minutes later, at 3:55 p.m.37

No one in the room realized that they were approving a text that would open the Wall that night. No one mentioned, for example, the need to inform border guards.38 Despite the devastating effects that emigration was having on the economy, no one questioned the idea of announcing this text on a business day.39 The East German leaders in 1961, in contrast, had intentionally chosen a Saturday night for construction of the Wall in order to trap the maximum number of people of working age at home. Nor does anyone seem to have considered some of the tragic historical associations of November 9 in German history: it was the anniversary, among other things, of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch and of a major Nazi attack on Jews, the so-called Kristallnacht. In short, there were no signs that party leaders realized that they were essentially approving their own political death warrant. It was a remarkable lapse of attention, one that opened a different window of opportunity—but for the peaceful revolution, not the ruling regime. Unlike the SED, the protestors would seize their opportunity later that night.40

Shortly after the central committee’s brief discussion ended, party and Stasi offices began distributing the text, with the minor amendments from the central committee meeting inserted, to district and other subordinate offices.41 When, at about 5:45 p.m., the office of the justice minister registered its objections with Lauter, they were too late to have any real consequences, even if Lauter had taken them seriously.42 And as part of the notification process, the government press spokesman, Meyer, did in fact receive an assignment to announce the text at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, November 10.43 Krenz, however, would soon forget his own statement that the government spokesman, not the party spokesman, should announce it, or perhaps he had a sudden change of heart. Either way, his last-minute change turned out to be a fateful switch, resulting in the final and most significant communication failure: Schabowski’s press conference that night.

SCHABOWSKI PUT IN a brief appearance at the central committee about 5:00 p.m. Exactly where he had been for most of the day, instead of at the meeting where he was about to summarize for the world media live on television at his 6:00 p.m. press conference, was not clear; he would later say that he had been advising journalists.44 Schabowski had not spent much time learning how to conduct a Western-style live broadcast. His primary experience was with East German–style journalism, in which party leaders simply dictated to media outlets what to report after events were already over, so familiarity with actual events as they unfolded was not a high priority.45 Given this background, it was not surprising that he thought he could handle the world press without actually attending the central committee meeting.

When Schabowski stopped by, asking what he should tell reporters, Krenz suddenly pressed the group of four’s text into his hand, seemingly forgetting that the government spokesman, Meyer, had already been charged with announcing it. Krenz would later say that in handing over the text, he told Schabowski it would be “world news.” This seems unlikely, as Schabowski did not bother to look at the text until he was live on air.46 As he remarked afterward, why should he have done so? Even though Schabowski had not been present either for the smoking-break reading of the text or for the brief discussion in the full meeting, he felt comfortable accepting the paper from Krenz.47 As he later put it, “I can speak German and I can read a text out loud without mistakes,” so no preparation was necessary.48 Although he still had a short drive over to the International Press Center on Mohren Street ahead of him and could have looked at the text in the car, he did not.49 His cavalier attitude meant that his live press conference would become the emblematic moment of the ruling regime’s collapsing ability to govern.

Indeed, Schabowski almost forgot to announce the text on air at all. He instead opened his press conference by reading long-winded lists of names of speakers at the day’s meeting. It was a disappointment for the journalists from around the country and the world who had traveled to East Berlin to hear him speak. Peter Brinkmann, a Hamburg-based writer for the West German Bild newspaper, had arrived hours early to drape a jacket protectively over a seat in the front row. No one moved it, despite an enormous crush of observers that forced late arrivals to perch on the edge of the stage where Schabowski and his aides sat, so Brinkmann kept his spot. As soon as the press conference started, however, Brinkmann wondered why he had bothered to arrive so early, or even to attend at all. Schabowski, accompanied on the stage at the front of the auditorium by the largely silent minister of trade, Gerhard Beil, and central committee members Helga Labs and Manfred Banaschak, provided only vacuous summaries of recent party debates, not news. It was all “blah blah blah,” Brinkmann remembered. “It was deadly boring.”50

Tom Brokaw, the US anchor who had traveled much farther than Brinkmann to be present at the press conference, recalled having a similar reaction. A couple of days earlier, he, Jerry Lamprecht, the network’s head of foreign news coverage, and Bill Wheatley, the executive producer of NBC Nightly News, had agreed that the recent events in East Germany seemed potentially interesting enough to merit a live broadcast. NBC had already covered a number of developments in Europe closely, most notably the successes of Solidarity, and a focus on East Germany after the recent large demonstrations in Leipzig and East Berlin seemed to be an obvious next step. Brokaw and his producers decided that the anchor would head for divided Germany but that they would reserve the final decision on whether to broadcast live until they saw what Brokaw could uncover.51

None of the reporting that he had been able to do since arriving, however, had turned out to be interesting enough for a live broadcast on NBC back in the United States. Brokaw could tell that Schabowski’s remarks were not worthy of a live broadcast either, in part because the anchorman could hear a translation through an earpiece, and in part because he could see other journalists in the overheated room, including the Associated Press correspondent next to him, falling asleep.52 It was because of his producer Michele Neubert, a German-speaking British citizen and an employee of NBC’s Frankfurt bureau, that Brokaw and his team were even at the interminable press conference. She had the job of organizing interviews for Brokaw when he was on the road in Europe and had booked one with Schabowski because the East German could speak broken English. It had taken some effort. She had spent days tracking down Schabowski, and it had seemed like a success when he agreed to give NBC an exclusive interview immediately following his November 9 press conference. Thus the reason that she, Brokaw, Brokaw’s right-hand man Marc Kusnetz, and NBC’s audio and video technicians were there was not so much to listen to the press conference itself as to be ready to talk to Schabowski immediately afterward. She already had another crew of camera and audio technicians set up in a side room, ready to begin taping the interview. But now that they were enduring the boring press conference as a prelude to the one-on-one conversation, Neubert began to wonder whether they would get anything usable out of Schabowski.53

Suddenly Neubert went on high alert. An Italian journalist, Riccardo Ehrman, had asked Schabowski a question about travel possibilities for East Germans. Schabowski’s long-winded, German-language answer was not what Neubert had expected. Schabowski had started by replying in the same vague way in which he had answered all of the questions until then, with frequent pauses and abundant use of the German-language equivalent of “uh”: “We know about this tendency in the population, about this need of the population, to travel or to leave. . . . And . . . uh . . . we have the intent . . . to implement a complex renewal of society . . . uh . . . in that way to achieve, through many of these elements . . . uh . . . that people do not see themselves obliged to master their personal problems in this way.” Vague elaborations on the theme of societal renewal and many, many more “uhs” followed. Then, however, Schabowski added, “Anyway, today, as far as I know . . . a decision has been made.” He glanced sideways at the subordinates sitting with him on the stage as if looking for confirmation, but nothing was forthcoming.

Schabowski pressed ahead, saying, in between pauses and “uhs,” that the party had decided “to issue a regulation that will make it possible for every citizen . . . to emigrate.” He would now read a text of the new rules, he said, as soon as he could find it. He began digging through his thick stack of papers.54 Now not just Neubert but also the German-speaking NBC sound technician, Heinrich Walling, seemed visibly shocked. Brokaw looked at Walling questioningly. Walling whispered to Brokaw in English, “It’s the end of the Cold War.” In an op-ed in the New York Times ten days later, Brokaw would recount his amazement at that moment. It was as surprising as if “an alien force” from outer space had just invaded the room, he wrote.55

A frenzy of questions erupted in German. “Without a passport, without a passport?” shouted one reporter. “When does that go into force?” shouted another. The chaotic outburst visibly irritated and disoriented Schabowski. Trying to regain control, he distractedly started saying, “So, comrades!” to the crowd, but “comrades” was a term of address only for fellow party members, not the world media. Stalling while he kept searching through his papers for the text, he stated, wrongly, that the journalists had already received copies.56

Schabowski became even more visibly rattled as he continued to fumble with his papers, and it was only with help from an aide that he finally found the group of four’s text. As if to make up for the time lost, he began reading the text aloud very quickly. Startled journalists heard him say the following words so rapidly as to be nearly incomprehensible: “Private trips to foreign countries may, without presenting justifications—reasons for trip, connections to relatives—be applied for. Approvals will be distributed in a short time frame.” In other words, the text, contrary to his introduction of it, concerned not just emigration but private travel and short trips as well. Some of the reporters in the room interrupted Schabowski, unable to restrain themselves. One asked once more if a passport was needed. Schabowski, once more, did not answer. Other queries followed insistently. Brinkmann shouted the truly crucial question: “When does that go into force?” Schabowski scanned the unfamiliar text in his hands again and picked out some of the words that he saw printed on it: “right away.”57

Brokaw, his crew, and everyone else in the room were now paying full attention. The wire journalists in particular, such as the Associated Press correspondent next to Brokaw, were under pressure to be the first to report any big news, and this seemed to be very big news indeed. Some wire reporters even left the room while Schabowski was still speaking. Journalists without early prototypes of cell phones or nearby offices wanted to be the first to get into the East Berlin press center’s phone booths. These were scarce commodities guarded by an overseer who, everyone knew, had to signal the Stasi before letting correspondents use the phone lines. The wait for the Stasi to prepare to monitor a call could be of indeterminate length and could cost crucial time.58 Brokaw and his crew, however, had the luxury of a vehicle waiting outside with a car phone that, unlike a lot of the handheld prototypes, actually worked. The NBC team had suddenly switched from dreading their pre-booked interview with Schabowski to eagerly anticipating it. It was now the exclusive that everyone wanted. Neubert began mentally planning an exit strategy for getting out of the auditorium and ready for the interview as quickly as possible.59

There were more shouted questions, such as “Is that also valid for West Berlin?” Schabowski did not answer. The query came again. Reluctantly he looked at the text once more and, to his own surprise, saw that it included the words “Berlin (West).” Flustered and surprised, he confirmed that the announcement applied to West Berlin. This confirmation generated yet more questions, all shouted on top of each other.

Finally, Daniel Johnson, a foreign correspondent for Britain’s Daily Telegraph, stood up and asked loudly, “What will happen with the Berlin Wall now?”60 The room suddenly became quiet as everyone waited expectantly for the answer, but only a long, fraught silence followed. It seemed as though Schabowski had suddenly lost the power of speech. Finally the East German Politburo member ended the excruciating pause with the following words: “It has been drawn to my attention that it is 7:00 p.m. This is the last question, yes, please understand!” Then Schabowski suddenly tried to link the status of the Wall to the painfully slow process of disarmament, saying that the questions about the border “would definitely be positively influenced if the FRG and if NATO would commit themselves to and carry out disarmament, just as the GDR and other socialist states have already completed certain preliminary steps.” With that confusing statement hanging in the air, and with Johnson and everyone else still waiting for a response to the question of what would happen to the Wall, Schabowski abruptly said, “Thank you very much!” and ended the press conference. It was 7:00:54 p.m. He had intentionally closed the conference without determining the fate of the Wall.61 That task would, as a result, be left to the participants in the peaceful revolution later that night.

AT THAT VERY same moment, the mayor of West Berlin, Walter Momper, found himself on his Berlin’s side of the Wall. He was on the eighteenth floor of the Springer Building, a tall structure built by anti-Communist publisher Axel Springer to loom over the Wall. Momper was there to attend the Golden Steering Wheel Award ceremony for automotive design, which was hosted by the Springer publishing group. Earlier that day, he had heard a rumor that something about travel was being discussed at the central committee meeting in East Berlin. However, there had been a number of such rumors recently and all of them had been false, so the mayor would later recall that he doubted this new rumor as well. In fact, he was so skeptical that, after mentioning the new rumor briefly to the transport senator for West Berlin, he forgot about it entirely. It suddenly came back to him when both his driver and Bruno Waltert, the editor of the Springer group’s Berliner Morgenpost newspaper, simultaneously burst into the awards ceremony and ran up to him. The driver told Momper that his car phone was ringing constantly; the editor, who had skipped the ceremony to watch Schabowski’s press conference live on a television in his office downstairs, told the mayor what he thought he had heard.62

Momper decided to go first to Waltert’s office to watch a video replay of the press conference. Afterward, the mayor could not help walking over to the window of the Springer Building and staring down at the Wall. The evening mist reflected its harsh lighting. It was about 7:15 p.m. on November 9, and it was clear to Momper that “everything looked the same as ever.” He later remembered thinking about “this cold strip, the source of our German unhappiness,” and how it showed no sign of change whatsoever. Momper felt fairly certain that at that very moment, “an attempt to flee” across the Wall “would still be suicidal.”

Considering his options, the mayor soon decided on a course of action. It was still not entirely clear to him what Schabowski’s press conference had meant, but he told himself that his motto for the rest of the night would be “as if.” Act as if the Wall were open. Act as if it would be the most natural thing in the world for Berliners to celebrate a reunion. Act as if the main concerns, such as the form of transport that East Berliners would use once they arrived in the West, were now all mundane. The mayor also realized just how useful it was that he and his colleagues had started thinking about exactly such practicalities as part of their speculation on what Schabowski’s stray remarks of October 29 had meant, and whether a “Day X” was coming. Now, such preliminary speculation would help inform, and lend credence to, what he intended to say to the mass media. In short, Momper’s plan was to act as if he were certain that the border was open and only questions about practicalities remained, thus making it as difficult as possible for the East German ruling regime to revoke Schabowski’s statements.63

To put his plan into effect, Momper headed directly for the studio of SFB, the West Berlin television broadcaster where Jahn worked. The mayor had a police car accompany him with sirens and lights blaring. Once Momper got to the studio and on air, he announced, with a calm he did not actually feel, that the night divided Berlin had desired for twenty-eight years had arrived. Without mentioning any particulars, since he did not know them himself, he spoke in dry terms about public transport options. He encouraged East Germans to leave their cars at home and instead take the buses and trains. Momper figured that his comments would reach an unusually large audience in both the East and the West that night because, thanks to a major soccer match, television viewership would be exceptionally high. He kept talking in this manner for a while, thinking, “Just keep acting ‘as if,’ and it will build pressure” on the East German regime.64

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Wall, listening to Schabowski speak on a television in the Soviet embassy, Maximychev felt as if the East Germans had stabbed him and his colleagues in the back. He had his own “as if.” As if the East Berliners had the authority to decide on the Berlin Wall, he thought indignantly; they most certainly did not. “Earlier, no one said a single word about West Berlin,” Maximychev would later complain.65 He began to feel a sense of fury.66 How could Schabowski dare to say that his text applied to the borders of West Berlin without Soviet permission? What was his embassy going to do? What would the Western allies think?

The other three occupying powers in divided Germany—the British, the French, and the United States—were as surprised as the Soviets. The news reached Robert Corbett, the British commandant, at an extravagant fiftieth-birthday party for the head of a West Berlin radio station.67 The prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, would not be pleased. She had reportedly confided her concern about developments in divided Germany to Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish president, in the autumn of 1989, adding that “reunification would be absolutely unacceptable. One could not allow an Anschluss, otherwise the FRG would swallow Austria too.”68

In Washington, James Baker, the secretary of state, was lunching with the Philippine president, Corazon Aquino, at the State Department when an aide handed him a slip of paper with surprising news on it: “The East German Government has just announced that it is fully opening its borders to the West. The implication from the announcement is full freedom of travel via current East German/West German links between borders.”69 Baker offered a spontaneous toast and, as soon as he could politely extract himself from the lunch, went to the White House to discuss the situation with President George H. W. Bush.

The president, busy preparing for the state dinner with Aquino that evening and a departure to Texas to commemorate the upcoming Veterans Day holiday there, made time to speak with journalists.70 He issued a prepared statement saying that he welcomed “the decision by the East German leadership to open its borders” but stressed that it was important to keep a cool head.71 As Lesley Stahl of the CBS Evening News reported afterward, “President Bush walked a delicate line today between his own policy of prudence toward Eastern Europe” and triumphalism. “The last thing he wants is to ignite an explosion of change and declaring victory.” Bush made clear that “there will be no gloating from the White House over the developments in East Germany. Mr. Bush went so far as to suggest that East Germans not leave their country.” The network broadcast Stahl saying to Bush, “You don’t seem elated and I’m wondering if you’re thinking of the problems.” Bush agreed: “I’m not an emotional kind of guy.” By coincidence, that day the president had received advance word from journalist Tim Russert that NBC would shortly be airing the results of a poll on presidential popularity. This poll showed that, as of November 1989, Bush was enjoying higher approval ratings than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. It must have seemed to Bush like validation for his more cautious approach to foreign policy.72

Perhaps the world leader put in the most awkward position by Schabowski’s surprising announcement, however, was Helmut Kohl. Had anyone in Bonn known the significance of what was happening in East Berlin, Kohl and the bulk of chancellery officials would not have departed for Poland on November 9 for a major, extended visit to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening months of the Second World War. But they did not know, so the West German chancellor and his enormous entourage arrived in Poland as planned at 3:00 p.m. for the start of a visit scheduled to last until November 14. The top tier of West German correspondents had accompanied the chancellor as well, meaning that they were also badly located to cover the unexpected story back in divided Berlin.73

Kohl’s schedule for this trip included not only a state dinner and multiple events in Warsaw but also trips to a number of other locations in the country in the upcoming days.74 Kohl wanted to show by the length of his visit that Germans and Poles had moved beyond their tragic past and that Bonn would support Warsaw as it moved forward into a new, more democratic future. As Kohl had explained to French president François Mitterrand three days before his departure, he planned to give Poland a “significant economic and financial program of help.”75

Upon arriving, the chancellor spoke with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the former Solidarity activist and new prime minister. Kohl also had a meeting with the Solidarity leader and Nobel laureate Lech Wałęsa at 6:05 p.m.76 Since Poland and both East and West Germany shared a time zone, Kohl and Wałęsa met as Schabowski’s press conference was unfolding in East Berlin. Wałęsa surprised Kohl by asking what it might mean for Poland if the Wall opened. It was a purely speculative question, as they did not receive news about the press conference during their meeting. Kohl dismissed the idea that the Wall might open, but remarked that the East German ruling regime was clearly on its way out, and added that Honecker’s violent, hard-line course had been self-defeating. If Honecker had allowed free elections two years previously, Kohl speculated, his party might have survived; now it was too late. Still, Wałęsa would not be deterred. The Nobel laureate expressed concern over both the potential for “revolutionary chaos” in East Germany and the chance that it would push Polish concerns to the back burner. Kohl remained unperturbed. He responded by praising the peaceful nature of the protest in East Germany, saying that even though recent demonstrations in the GDR were topping half a million participants, “not a single window pane had been broken. That was indeed worthy of note.”77 But Wałęsa was prescient in his questions and concerns. By the time the two men ended their conversation and Kohl left to prepare for the state dinner at 8:30 p.m., reports about Schabowski’s remarks had started circulating in Poland as well as in divided Germany.

Kohl and most of his advisors were attending meetings in Warsaw, not watching Schabowski on television. Eduard Ackermann, the chancellor’s media advisor, and Joachim Bitterlich, an advisor on Western Europe, were two of the few who had remained in Bonn. Unlike Kohl and his aides in Warsaw, Ackermann and Bitterlich were able to watch television coverage of Schabowski.78 Ackermann called Warsaw and said that he needed to speak to the chancellor himself as soon as the state dinner would allow.79

At the dinner, Mazowiecki gave a speech in which he uttered the oddly appropriate words “We live in a time of breakthroughs.”80 Once the meal was over, Kohl finally had a chance to speak to Bonn. “Mr. Chancellor, as we speak the Wall is falling!” Ackermann announced as Bitterlich listened. Kohl reacted with skepticism: “Are you sure?” The aide responded that yes, he was sure, because he had already heard reports of East Berliners getting out. Kohl was still uncertain, asking who else was there with Ackermann and whether they were taking advantage of the empty office to enjoy drinks on the job. His aides assured him that they were not, and agreed to keep Kohl updated.81 It was not possible to get Western television channels in Warsaw, even in the West German embassy, so the chancellor would have to rely on their phone calls from Bonn for his information that night, but even that source of information would be problematic. The fixed phone lines in the guesthouse where they were staying were presumably under surveillance. Kohl’s foreign policy advisor, Horst Teltschik, who was in Warsaw as well, remembered that other than the landline, they had only an old-fashioned field telephone of the type used by the military, but that it was antiquated and barely usable.82

What they did have, however, was a bottle of Crimean sparkling wine, the Soviet version of champagne. It had been a welcoming gift from the Poles, placed in the guesthouse upon their arrival. Teltschik and Kohl’s assistant Juliane Weber decided to treat themselves to glasses in honor of the news, but Kohl refrained. Teltschik recalled that the chancellor felt very out of the loop. Kohl soon decided to take the dramatic step of interrupting the state visit for a brief return trip to the West. He initially intended to go only to his office in Bonn, where he would have access to secure means of communication, but it soon became apparent that he would have to stop in West Berlin as well, because the city’s politicians were organizing a public event for November 10, and it would look as if Kohl were not in charge if it went ahead without him.83

Teltschik was hardly the only one to reach for a bottle in celebration. Back in divided Berlin, a little before 8:00 p.m., Albrecht Rau, the owner of a West Berlin café directly opposite the Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, carried a tray with a bottle of sparkling wine, glasses, and steaming cups of coffee over to the East German guards at Checkpoint Charlie. They had long been his unapproachable neighbors. Now, escorted by customers from his café, Rau figured it was time to get to know them. The guards were amazed and nervous. Saying they could not drink on duty, they refused Rau’s offer. The café owner and his companions then said “bottoms up” to each other anyway, but the guards insisted that they should finish their drinks back at the café, not at the checkpoint. As the group turned around and exited Checkpoint Charlie, still carrying drinks, flashbulbs suddenly blinded them. Journalists who had only just arrived on the western side of the checkpoint mistook the glasses of bubbly in the hands of the café owner and his Western customers as signs that they were in fact East Germans, celebrating their newfound ability to cross to the West. One photographer, working for the wire service DPA, sent a picture of the “East Germans” out on the wire service not long after 8:00 p.m., giving the false impression that East Berliners were already leaving, perhaps the source of Ackermann’s misinformation.84

In fact, for hours after Schabowski’s press conference ended, there would be no unapproved exits from East Berlin. It was not at all clear what would happen next. The regime still had its final barricade, the Berlin Wall, with all of its fortifications and manpower. It would take more than just a bungled press conference to open it. For that, the certainty of journalists who thought they knew what they had heard, the courage of dissidents willing to believe them, and the confusion of border guards would all be necessary. It would be as the culmination of decisions made on the spot, by individuals in a tense and dramatic situation, that the final act of November 9 would unfold.

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