Sunday, 1 November 2015

Guenter Schabowski, who ended the Cold War by mistake, has died

It was announced today that Mr. Guenter Schabowski, who by mistake opened the Berlin Wall and ended the Cold War, has died at 86. It seems very recent to me. 

Schabowski, a member of and spokesman for East Germany's Politburo, was speaking at a routine news conference on November 9, 1989, when he was asked about travel rules. Pressure had been building on the East German government for months to let its citizens travel to the West. The clearly under-prepared Schabowski stunned the journalists 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."
He was then asked when the new rule would take effect. He shuffled through the papers spread in front of him as he searched in vain for the answer to the question. So he extemporised.
"According to my information... immediately, without delay."
It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4 a.m. the next morning and he was meant to say that East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency. Instead ecstatic East Berliners flocked to the Brandenburg Gate, where border guards did not know what to do. The officer in charge at the gate decided that using bullets to stop the crowd would be disastrous and so allowed them to go through. The rest, as they say, is history.

Schabowski wasn't making an artful mistake. He was not very bright.Some of the high-ranking Communists were very clever men but most (think of Ceausescu) were anything but. Imagine an army of John Prescotts.

Early in 1990 Schabowski was excluded from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the renamed Communist Party. In 1997 Schabowski and two other Politburo members were gaoled on charges of tolerating the former regime's fatal shootings of escaping East Germans along the border. Unlike six other accused former Politiburo members, Schabowski said during the trial that nothing could justify that "even a single person" had had to pay for trying to flee with his or her life. He was pardoned in 2000.

Thus ended the German Democratic Republic. 25 years later another East German, Angela Merkel, has made a very much greater mistake, also without consultation or careful thought, by allowing what will turn out to be up to four or even six million Arabs into Germany.


  1. Ah yes, Guenter Schabowski and the power of words. Is this in (ironic) contrast to Angela Merkel, who threw open Germany's borders and thereby ended the nation-state (as we know it) by mistake?

    1. That is an absolutely brilliant observation that I have shamelessly plagiarised.

  2. Schabowski did exactly the right thing, even if by accident. Merkel’s action, by contrast, must be one of the most irresponsible things done by any postwar European politician. Derek