Guenter Schabowski's Press Conference in the GDR International Press Center
Günther Schabowski, the spokesman for the East German Communist Party Politburo, played a vital role in the toppling of the East German Communist government in the fall of 1989. During a press conference on November 9, 1989, a reporter asked him about new travel regulations issued by the government that seemed to indicate the possibility of easier travel into West Berlin through the Berlin Wall. Schabowski had only recently received a copy of the new regulations and had not yet read them carefully. The reporter asked when, exactly, East German citizens could begin to take advantage of these new travel rules. Schabowski shrugged and responded, "from now.”
The result of this mis-statement was the ensuing flood of East Germans into West Berlin. That evening Reuters reported (incorrectly) that East German citizens could cross into West Germany by any border crossing and West German television news programs reported that the Berlin Wall was opening. Within minutes, thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Berliners, both East and West, began converging on the Berlin Wall. Without orders for how to handle the surging crowds, the East German border guards simply opened the gates. Crowds poured through in both directions and within minutes began tearing down the wall that had for so long symbolized the division of Europe into a Communist East and a non-Communist West.
To view the video coverage of the press conference, click here.
Guenter Schabowski, Press Conference in the GDR International Press Center, 9 November 1989, trans. Howard Sargeant, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).
Schabowski: ... So, we want... through a number of changes, including the travel law, to [create] the chance, the sovereign decision of the citizens to travel wherever they want. (um) We are naturally (um) concerned that the possibilities of this travel regulation—it is still not in effect, it's only a draft.
A decision was made today, as far as I know (looking toward Labs and Banaschak in hope of confirmation). A recommendation from the Politburo was taken up that we take a passage from the [draft of] travel regulation and put it into effect, that, (um)—as it is called, for better or worse—that regulates permanent exit, leaving the Republic. Since we find it (um) unacceptable that this movement is taking place (um) across the territory of an allied state, (um) which is not an easy burden for that country to bear. Therefore (um), we have decided today (um) to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic (um) to (um) leave the GDR through any of the border crossings.
Question: At once? When...
Schabowski: (... scratches his head) You see, comrades, I was informed today (puts on his glasses as he speaks further), that such an announcement had been (um) distributed earlier today. You should actually have it already. So, (reading very quickly from the paper): 1) "Applications for travel abroad by private individuals can now be made without the previously existing requirements (of demonstrating a need to travel or proving familial relationships). The travel authorizations will be issued within a short time. Grounds for denial will only be applied in particular exceptional cases. The responsible departments of passport and registration control in the People's Police district offices in the GDR are instructed to issue visas for permanent exit without delays and without presentation of the existing requirements for permanent exit."
Question: When does it come into effect?
Schabowski: (Looks through his papers...) That comes into effect, according to my information, immediately, without delay (looking through his papers further).
Labs: (quietly) ...without delay.
Beil: (quietly) That has to be decided by the Council of Ministers.
Question: Does this also apply for West Berlin? You only mentioned the FRG.
Schabowski: (shrugs his shoulders, frowns, looks at his papers) So ... (pause), um hmmm (reads aloud): "Permanent exit can take place via all border crossings from theGDR to the FRG and West Berlin, respectively."