The mistake that toppled the Berlin Wall

If you know one thing about the fall of the
Berlin Wall, it might be this. REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. Or this. Or maybe… HASSELHOFF: I’ve been looking for freedom! These moments were huge in unifying Berlin
and undermining the physical symbol of a divided Europe during the Cold War. But they don’t top this one. The last few
minutes of an otherwise uneventful press conference on November 9th, 1989: It might not look like it, but this is the
moment the Berlin Wall became obsolete – completely by mistake. After the allied powers defeated Nazi Germany
in World War II, they divided the country into four parts, each controlled by a separate
power. These formed into two new countries in 1949. Democratic West Germany and Soviet-controlled
communist East Germany, officially named the German Democratic Republic, or GDR. Through the 1950s, West Germany prospered
as a free society and industrious member of Europe, and hundreds of thousands of East
Germans began emigrating west, in search of new opportunities. To stem the tide, the GDR erected a barrier
along the Inner German Border. Separating the two countries with barbed wire,
guarded checkpoints, and, in many places, defensive measures like land mines. But there was a loophole – in Berlin. And it goes back to when the 4 allied powers
controlled Germany. See, even though the German capital was well
inside the Soviet zone, the allies divided control of it equally to match the rest of
the country. And when East and West Germany formed, so
did East and West Berlin. Even as the Inner German Border fortified,
Berlin had no physical barrier dividing it. East Germans could simply walk or take public
transportation to the Western part of the city and travel freely from there. ARCHIVE: The island of West Berlin had become
the staging point for the free road to the West. This “brain drain” took a huge toll on
East Germany’s labor force. By 1961, more than 3.5 million East Germans,
approximately 20% of the population, had fled to the West – the majority of which were
young and well-educated. But the Berlin loophole closed on Aug 13th,
1961, when the city woke up to East German soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder along
the invisible line dividing East and West Berlin. Unannounced, they began unrolling kilometers
of barbed wire through the middle of the city. They were building the Berlin Wall. ARCHIVE: Brick by brick, until no contact
but a friendly wave. Travel out of East Berlin became strictly
regulated. No one could leave unless they met strict
requirements. And those who didn’t faced a nearly impassable
barrier, complete with floodlights and guard towers. Where armed border guards patrolled day and
night, with orders to shoot and kill anyone trying to cross illegally. And that’s how it remained for 28 years. But change came in late 1989. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced
social reforms meant to relax oppressive practices and open up discourse between people and government. These changes sparked massive peaceful uprisings
throughout Eastern Bloc countries, including East Germany. BAUMBACH: Things had kind of heated up all
summer. In 1989, Catherine Baumbach was a young translator
working for the East German news agency. BAUMBACH: And there were the famous Monday
demonstrations in Leipzig, actually my college town. Initially thousands, then tens of thousands,
then hundreds of thousands. Freedom of expression and freedom to travel
were key demands. And pressure on the GDR to loosen travel restrictions
only grew as neighboring countries, particularly Hungary and Czechoslovakia, relaxed their
border laws, prompting a mass southward exodus of East Germans. By early November 1989, more than 40,000 East
German refugees had arrived at the West German embassy in Prague, hoping to travel to the
West. The GDR was facing a crisis. BAUMBACH: There were forces in the government
that realized something had to be done. This was not sustainable. So lifting the travel
ban was one way that they thought they could quell the protests and make people happy. On November 8th, 1989, GDR official Gerhard
Lauter was tasked with drafting looser travel regulations, meant to be a temporary pressure
release. The new rules were finalized less than a day
later, and read: “Private trips abroad can be applied for
without conditions. Permits are issued on short notice.” “Without conditions.” That’s the key
phrase here. This meant the strict application requirements
were eliminated, and anyone who wanted could leave East Germany and come back. That afternoon, the updated regulations were
handed to government spokesman Günter Schabowski, just as he was about to begin a routine press
conference. BAUMBACH: And as we all know, something kind
of didn’t go quite right there. He had no time to review them before sitting
in front of cameras. And as you can see from his handwritten “roadmap”
of the press conference, he scribbled in a reminder to announce them at the very end. And on live TV at 6:53 PM on November 9th,
he read the relaxed travel laws, for the first time, out loud. BAUMBACH: It seemed totally unreal. But it
was Schabowski saying it and it was broadcast on official television so it had to be true.
There were people around me, older colleagues, who immediately said, “this is the beginning
of the end.” Watch a confused Schabowski shuffle his papers
when a journalist asks a simple follow-up question. The thing is, if Schabowski had had time to
read the new rules, he might have seen this on the final page: The new regulations were meant to go into
effect the following day, in an orderly manner, when the passport offices were open. What happened next can only be described as
a chain reaction. By 7:05 PM, the AP wire had already gone out:
GDR opens borders. And both East and West German nightly news
reports announced the stunning policy reversal. East Berliners began gathering at the wall,
and security officers tried to let them through slowly. But the final nail in the coffin came at 10:42
pm, when this broadcast triggered a mass rush: They actually weren’t yet. But by this point,
there was no going back. Tens of thousands of Berliners stormed the
Wall, saying they heard on the news that they could cross. The outnumbered East German border guards
were completely overwhelmed. BAUMBACH: Somehow they hadn’t gotten the
message, or they didn’t know what to do, or they were afraid, who knows. But they basically
opened the border and thousands of people streamed into West Berlin. Over its 28-year history, at least 140 people
died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. BAUMBACH: November 9th, plus unification a
year later, was the most decisive event in my life. I basically went from one political
system to another, and changes happened very quickly. And it happened unintentionally. The result of a rushed plan and a botched
announcement, delivered in a small room at the end of a boring press conference.

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