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Bureaucrat Whose Blunder Brought Berlin Wall Down Dead at 86

Guenter Schabowski, the bureaucrat who accidentally ‘brought down the Berlin Wall’ dies at 86.

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 An East German bulldozer and crane knock down the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz to make way for a new border crossing in the divided city in this November 12, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)

Former East German bureaucrat Guenter Schabowski, who died today aged 86, went down in history for a slip of the tongue in 1989 that inadvertently brought down the Berlin Wall.

The former spokesman of the Politburo central committee of East Germany’s ruling communist party died in the reunified capital, his widow Irina told news agency DPA.

After months of mass protests against regime and East Germans fleeing in their droves via Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the Politburo asked the government in 1989 to prepare a law loosening restrictions on travel outside the country.

It was at the end of an evening press conference on 9 November, 1989 when Schabowski pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and read out a decree stating that visas would be freely granted to those wanting to travel outside or leave the Stalinist state.

“As of when?” asked an Italian journalist.

Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: “As far as I know... as of now.”

The press conference was carried live by television networks and within minutes news bulletins were proclaiming that “The Wall has fallen”.

File Photo of newly elected Politburo member Guenter Schabowski (R) stands beside East German leader Egon Krenz as Krenz addresses more than 10,000 demonstrators in front of the East German Central Committee on November 8, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)
File Photo of newly elected Politburo member Guenter Schabowski (R) stands beside East German leader Egon Krenz as Krenz addresses more than 10,000 demonstrators in front of the East German Central Committee on November 8, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)
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Thousands of East Berliners started streaming towards checkpoints leading to West Berlin, where baffled East German border guards, unsure what to do, kept phoning for instructions.

Eventually as the crowds grew ever larger, one barrier went up and bewildered East Berliners, who had been unable to cross freely for 28 years, staggered into the West.

Less than one year later, on October 3, 1990, East and West Germany would reunite as one country, ending four decades of Cold War division.

File photo of East Berlin border guards standing atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandeburg Gate on November 11, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)
File photo of East Berlin border guards standing atop the Berlin Wall in front of the Brandeburg Gate on November 11, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)

I wouldn’t say I was a hero who opened the border — truth be told, I acted to try to save the GDR

Guenter Schabowski, former East German bureaucrat

Schabowski made the statement on front of the media in 2009, referring to the German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was officially known.

On November 9, I was still a committed communist.

Guenter Schabowski, former East German bureaucrat

Former East German politburo Guenter Schabowski (R) talks with his lawyer Peter Dancker (L) prior to the trial against him and five other members of the last “Politburo” in Berlin. (Photo: Reuters)
Former East German politburo Guenter Schabowski (R) talks with his lawyer Peter Dancker (L) prior to the trial against him and five other members of the last “Politburo” in Berlin. (Photo: Reuters)
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Schabowski was expelled from the party early in 1990 for bringing down the Wall, and then sentenced to prison in 1997 for his earlier complicity in the shoot-to-kill policy enforced by border guards against those trying to flee to the West.

He was pardoned in 2000.

Since then he was one of the very few senior East German officials to condemn the regime.

President Joachim Gauck, who was a dissident pastor in East Germany, said Schabowski had gone from the circle of his “oppressors” to become a man who reflected on his mistakes.

East Berliners cross and meet West Berliners at Potsdamer Platz after the Berlin Wall was torn down here making way for a new border crossing November 12, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)
East Berliners cross and meet West Berliners at Potsdamer Platz after the Berlin Wall was torn down here making way for a new border crossing November 12, 1989. (Photo: Reuters)

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