Günter Schabowski (4 January 1929 – 1 November 2015) was an official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), the ruling party during most of the existence of the German Democratic Republic. Schabowski gained worldwide fame in November 1989 when he improvised a slightly mistaken answer to a press conference question, raising popular expectations so rapidly that massive crowds gathered the same night at the Berlin Wall, forcing its opening after 28 years; soon after, the entire inner German border was opened.
Schabowski was born in Anklam, Pomerania (now part of the federal state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern). He studied journalism at the Karl Marx University, Leipzig, after which he became editor of the trade union magazine, Tribüne. In 1952, he became a member of the SED. From 1967 to 1968, he visited the party academy of the CPSU. In 1978, he became the chief editor of the newspaper Neues Deutschland (“New Germany”), which as the official organ of the SED was considered to be the leading newspaper in the GDR. In 1981 he became a member of the SED Central Committee. In 1985, he became the First Secretary of the East Berlin chapter of the SED and a member of the SED Politbüro. He also served as member of the Volkskammer from 1981 to 1990. In 2009, famous writer Christa Wolf called Schabowski "one of the worst" East German politicians before the Wende, saying: "I remember a few appearances of him in front of the writer's guild. You were scared of him."
Tearing down the Berlin Wall
In October 1989, Schabowski, along with several other members of the Politburo, turned on longtime SED leader Erich Honecker and forced him to step down in favor of Egon Krenz. As part of the effort to change the regime's image, Schabowski was named the regime's unofficial spokesman, and he held several daily press conferences to announce changes.
On 9 November 1989, shortly before that day's press conference, Schabowski was handed a note that said East Germans would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following afternoon, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. However, nobody had informed Schabowski of this.
Schabowski read the note aloud at the end of the press conference. One of the reporters asked when the regulations would come into effect. After a few seconds' pause, Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied: "As far as I know—effective immediately, without delay (German: sofort, unverzüglich)." After further questions from journalists, he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings into West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then. Accounts differ on who asked that question. Both Riccardo Ehrman, the Berlin correspondent of the ANSA news agency, and German tabloid reporter Peter Brinkmann, were sitting on the front row at the press conference, and claimed to have asked when the regulations would come into force. However, according to author and historian Victor Sebestyen, most of the surviving attendees agree that it was actually NBC's Tom Brokaw who asked the question. Later, Schabowski agreed to a live interview with Brokaw. Clearly flustered, he asked his assistant to reread the note. However, when Brokaw pressed him, Schabowski repeated that the regulations were to take effect "immediately."
The West German public national television channels showed parts of Schabowski's press conference in their main evening news reports at 7:17 PM on ZDF's heute and at 8 PM on ARD's Tagesschau; this meant that the news was broadcast to nearly all of East Germany, where West German television was widely watched, as well. The news then spread like wildfire with news reports continuing to repeat the news throughout the night.
As the night progressed thousands of East Berliners began proceeding to the six border crossings along the Berlin Wall. They demanded to be let through. Live TV reported on the gathering people which only increased the numbers of East Berliners coming to the gates. The crowds vastly outnumbered the border guards who initially tried to stall for time. However, no one was willing to order deadly force. Finally, at 11:30 pm, Stasi officer Harald Jäger decided to open the gates at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing and allow people into West Berlin.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the beginning of the end of the East German regime. Indeed, Sebestyen later wrote that when the gates were opened, for all intents and purposes East Germany "ceased to exist." He also wrote that many of Schabowski's colleagues suspected he was either an American or West German agent, and couldn't believe that he'd made "a simple cock-up." In 2014, his wife claimed that Schabowski had been well aware of the possible consequences of what he said in the press conference.
In the following purges of the "party's old guard", Schabowski was quickly expelled from the Party of Democratic Socialism successor to the SED, in an attempt to improve the party's image. Just months earlier, he had been awarded the country's prestigious Order of Karl Marx.
Political life after reunification
After German Reunification, Schabowski became highly critical of his own actions in the GDR and those of his fellow Politburo members, as well as of Soviet-style socialism in general. He worked again as a journalist and, between 1992 and 1999, as editor for Heimat-Nachrichten, a weekly local paper that he co-founded with a West German journalist in Rotenburg an der Fulda.
His campaign help for the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) prompted some of his former comrades to call him a Wryneck (German term: Wendehals; a bird that can turn its head almost 180 degrees; popular term used to mock Communists who have turned capitalist).
Together with other leading figures of the GDR regime, he was charged with the murders of East Germans attempting to flee the GDR. In January 1995, the Berlin prosecutors pressed charges against him. In August 1997, Schabowski was convicted along with Egon Krenz and Günther Kleiber. Because he accepted his moral guilt and denounced the GDR he was sentenced to only 3 years in prison. In December 1999 he began serving his sentence in Hakenfelde Prison in Spandau. However, in September 2000 he was pardoned by Governing Mayor Eberhard Diepgen and released in December 2000, having served only a year. He is critical of the PDS/Left Party (i.e., successor of the Socialist Unity Party); in 2001, he collaborated with Bärbel Bohley as advisor of Frank Steffel (CDU).
According to his wife, Schabowski resided in a Berlin nursing home during the last years of his life, having suffered a number of infarctions and strokes. He died in Berlin after a long illness on the morning of 1 November 2015, aged 86.