Witness: The news conference that toppled the Wall

Wed Nov 4, 2009 9:33pm GMT

1 of 3. People hold a German flag with the word reading 'Unity' as they cross the newly opened checkpoint between East and West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate, December 22, 1989.

Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

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Volker Warkentin, a correspondent for the German language service in Berlin, has worked for Reuters for 31 years. In the following story, he describes the East German government news conference on travel freedom that unexpectedly led to the opening of the Berlin Wall.

By Volker Warkentin

BERLIN (Reuters) - It's not often that a historic announcement comes, as an afterthought, almost by accident, at the end of an otherwise stultifying tedious press conference.

But that's how the Communist East German government told an incredulous world that the Berlin Wall, that most potent symbol of the Cold War, would be thrown open after three decades.

I was fortunate enough to witness that most famous news conference of modern German history on November 9, called with no great fanfare by Politburo member and spokesman Guenter Schabowski.

For an hour he had rambled through the dull deliberations of a meeting of the Communist Party's ruling Central Committee.

Many journalists had already left the small, stuffy windowless room on the first floor of the International Press Center where news conferences were held. Some had headed home, some drifted to the restaurant where the Stasi security police routinely observed foreign reporters by hidden camera.

Even though pressure had been building on the East German government for months to grant "Reisefreiheit" -- or freedom to travel -- Schabowski had nothing to say about that until near the end of his presentation when he was asked about travel rules by Riccardo Ehrman of the Italian news agency ANSA at 6:53 p.m.

"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," said Schabowski.

He appeared scarcely to believe his own words and we were all dumbfounded. What did he just say?

Schabowski was asked when the new rule would take effect.

"That comes into effect...according to my information.... immediately, without delay," Schabowski stammered, shuffling through the papers spread in front of him as he sought in vain for more information.

It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4 a.m. the next morning. He also meant to say East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency. The sudden rush to the border that so overwhelmed the guards there was the last thing he had in mind.

TEARS OF JOY

My colleague Herbert Rossler-Kreuzer and I looked at each other in disbelief. "That's a snap," we said in unison, already writing the top-priority report in our heads.

I sprinted up three flights of stairs to the Reuters office with the biggest piece of news in my life. Years of heavy smoking didn't seem to matter.

I was gasping for breath but managed to blurt out the news to colleagues sitting at computers. The headline alert read:

"EAST GERMANS ALLLOWED TO LEAVE TO WEST GERMANY EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY - SCHABOWSKI SAYS."

We were two minutes ahead of the competition.

Our East Berlin office had been reinforced in the stormy weeks of protest leading up to that. The six of us fanned out across East Berlin to watch the opening of a Wall that for three decades had divided families, a barrier that had claimed the lives of over a hundred shot in escape attempts.

It was a chilly November night and Berliners are rarely a friendly species -- even when the sun is shining. But on that night they were the happiest, friendliest people on the planet. "Wahnsinn!" (Crazy!) was the word you heard everywhere.

I'll never forget the chill that ran down my spine when I walked through the Brandenburg Gate -- which until that evening had been trapped in a no-man's land behind the Wall for 28 years. It really was Wahnsinn!

Long after midnight I finished my last story and headed home, a few kilometers west of the border in West Berlin.

Normally, it was easy to pass quickly through the closely guarded border crossing when I showed my press pass and West German passport. But on this night the crossings were jam-packed with East Berliners driving over to have a look at the West.

I don't usually get emotional -- about anything. But the sight of these usually vacant border crossings filled with hordes of people celebrating the end of the Cold War got to me.

I pulled over to the side of the road and started crying.

(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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