Günter Schabowski

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Günter Schabowski
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1982-0504-421, Gunter Schabowski.jpg
Schabowski in 1982 (age 53)
Personal details
Born(1929-01-04)4 January 1929
Anklam, Pomerania, Prussia, Germany
Died1 November 2015(2015-11-01) (aged 86)
Berlin, Germany
Political party Socialist Unity Party of Germany
Spouse(s)Irina [1]
Children2 [1]
Alma mater University of Leipzig
Profession Politician Journalist
Signature Gunter Schabowski sig.svg

Günter Schabowski (4 January 1929 – 1 November 2015) was an official of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands abbreviated SED), the ruling party during most of the existence of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Schabowski gained worldwide fame in November 1989 when he improvised a slightly mistaken answer to a press conference question, raising popular expectations much more rapidly than the government planned so 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.

Socialist Unity Party of Germany Marxist-Leninist political party and ruling state party of the GDR

The Socialist Unity Party of Germany, established in April 1946, was the governing Marxist–Leninist political party of the German Democratic Republic from the country's foundation in October 1949 until its dissolution after the Peaceful Revolution in 1989.

Berlin Wall barrier constructed by the German Democratic Republic, enclosing West Berlin

The Berlin Wall was a guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the German Democratic Republic, starting on 13 August 1961, the Wall cut off West Berlin from virtually all of surrounding East Germany and East Berlin until government officials opened it in November 1989. Its demolition officially began on 13 June 1990 and finished in 1992. The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, accompanied by a wide area that contained anti-vehicle trenches, "fakir beds" and other defenses. The Eastern Bloc portrayed the Wall as protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the "will of the people" in building a socialist state in East Germany.

Inner German border border which separated the territories of the FRG and the GDR

The Inner German border was the border between the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of Germany from 1949 to 1990. Not including the similar and physically separate Berlin Wall, the border was 1,393 kilometres (866 mi) long and ran from the Baltic Sea to Czechoslovakia.



Schabowski was born in Anklam, Pomerania (then in the Free State of Prussia, 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. [2] In 1981, he became a member of the SED Central Committee. In 1985, after leaving Neues Deutschland, 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. [1] [3] In 2009, 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." [4]

Anklam Place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany

Anklam [German pronunciation: [ˈaŋklam](listen)], formerly known as Tanglim and Wendenburg, is a town in the Western Pomerania region of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany. It is situated on the banks of the Peene river, just 8 km from its mouth in the Kleines Haff, the western part of the Stettin Lagoon. Anklam has a population of 14,603 (2005) and was the capital of the former Ostvorpommern district. Since September 2011, it has been part of the district of Vorpommern-Greifswald.

Pomerania Place

Pomerania is a historical region on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea in Central Europe, split between Germany and Poland.

Free State of Prussia former federated state of Germany between 1918 and 1947

The Free State of Prussia was a state of Germany from 1918 to 1947.

Press conference: the opening of the Berlin Wall

Gunter Schabowski at the Alexanderplatz demonstration on 4 November 1989 Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-1104-041, Berlin, Demonstration, Rede Gunter Schabowski.jpg
Günter Schabowski at the Alexanderplatz demonstration on 4 November 1989
The press conference on 9 November 1989 by Gunter Schabowski (seated on stage, second from right) and other East German officials which led to the Fall of the Wall. Riccardo Ehrman is sitting on the floor of the stage with the table just behind him. Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1989-1109-030, Berlin, Schabowski auf Pressekonferenz.jpg
The press conference on 9 November 1989 by Günter Schabowski (seated on stage, second from right) and other East German officials which led to the Fall of the Wall. Riccardo Ehrman is sitting on the floor of the stage with the table just behind him.

In October 1989, Schabowski, along with several other members of the Politbüro, 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. [5] He had already been in charge of media affairs for the Politbüro before then. He was also reportedly named the number-two man in the SED, Krenz's old role. [6] Schabowski had spent most of his career in Communist-style journalism, in which reporters were told what to write after events had already happened. He thus found it somewhat difficult to get used to Western-style media practice. [7]

Erich Honecker 20th-century German communist politician

Erich Honecker was a German politician who was the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). As party leader he worked closely with Moscow. He controlled the government of the German Democratic Republic from 1971 until he was forced out in the weeks preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989. From 1976 onward he was also the country's official head of state as Chairman of the State Council of the German Democratic Republic following Willi Stoph's relinquishment of the post.

Egon Krenz former General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of East Germany

Egon Rudi Ernst Krenz is a former East German politician who was the last communist leader of East Germany during the final months of 1989. He succeeded Erich Honecker as the General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), but was forced to resign only months later when the Berlin Wall fell.

On 9 November 1989, shortly before that day's press conference, Krenz handed Schabowski a text [8] containing new, temporary travel regulations. [7] The text stipulated that East German citizens could apply for permission to travel abroad without having to meet the previous requirements for those trips, and also allowed for permanent emigration between all border crossings—including those between East and West Berlin. The text was supposed to be embargoed until the next morning. [9]

Schabowski had not been on hand when Krenz read the text earlier in the day to several Politbüro members during a cigarette break at that day's Central Committee plenum, nor had he been there when it was discussed before the full committee. However, he felt comfortable discussing it at the press conference; he later said that all one needed to do in order to conduct a press conference was be able to speak German and read a text without mistakes. [7] Accordingly, he read the note aloud at the end of the press conference. One of the reporters asked when the regulations would come into effect. Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note, and replied after a few seconds' pause: "As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay." (German : Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich.) [10] [11] Accounts differ on who asked that question. Both Riccardo Ehrman, the Berlin correspondent of the ANSA news agency, and German Bild Zeitung (a 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. [12] [13]

German language West Germanic language

German is a West Germanic language that is mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, South Tyrol (Italy), the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and Liechtenstein. It is also one of the three official languages of Luxembourg and a co-official language in the Opole Voivodeship in Poland. The languages which are most similar to German are the other members of the West Germanic language branch: Afrikaans, Dutch, English, the Frisian languages, Low German/Low Saxon, Luxembourgish, and Yiddish. There are also strong similarities in vocabulary with Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, although those belong to the North Germanic group. German is the second most widely spoken Germanic language, after English.

Riccardo Ehrman Italian journalist

Riccardo Ehrmann is a retired Italian journalist whose question at a government press conference in the former East Germany is said to have precipitated the end of the Berlin Wall.

Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata news agency

The Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata is the leading wire service in Italy. ANSA is a not-for-profit cooperative, whose members and owners are 36 leading news organizations in Italy. Its mission is the distribution of fair and objective news reporting.

Later, when asked whether the new regulations also applied to travel between East and West Berlin, Schabowski looked at the text again and discovered that they did. When Daniel Johnson of The Daily Telegraph asked what that meant for the Berlin Wall, Schabowski sat frozen before giving a rambling statement about the Wall being tied to the larger disarmament question. [14]

Daniel Benedict Johnson is a British journalist who was the founding editor of Standpoint magazine.

<i>The Daily Telegraph</i> British daily broadsheet newspaper

The Daily Telegraph, commonly referred to simply as The Telegraph, is a national British daily broadsheet newspaper published in London by Telegraph Media Group and distributed across the United Kingdom and internationally. It was founded by Arthur B. Sleigh in 1855 as Daily Telegraph & Courier.

After the press conference, Schabowski sat down for a live interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw. When Brokaw asked him if it was indeed true that East Germans could now travel without having to go through a third country, Schabowski replied in broken English that East Germans were "not further forced to leave GDR by transit through another country," and could now "go through the border." When Brokaw asked if this meant "freedom of travel," Schabowski replied, "Yes of course," and added that it was not "a question of tourism," but "a permission of leaving GDR." [15]

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.[ citation needed ]

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. [16]

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the key event leading to the end of the East German regime, a state that had been crumbling for many weeks as citizens had been fleeing through intermediate countries surrounding East Germany. Indeed, Victor 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 could not believe that he had made "a simple cock-up." [5] In 2014, his wife claimed that Schabowski had been well aware of the possible consequences of what he said in the press conference. [10]

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. [1]

Political life after reunification

Schabowski in 2007 Schabowski-portrait.jpg
Schabowski in 2007
Gunter Schabowski's gravestone in Waldfriedhof Dahlem Gunter Schabowski - Mutter Erde fec.JPG
Günter Schabowski's gravestone in Waldfriedhof Dahlem

After German Reunification, Schabowski became highly critical of his own actions in the GDR and those of his fellow Politbüro members, as well as of Soviet-style socialism in general. [10] 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. [17]

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). [18]

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. [1] 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 three 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. [19] He was 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). [20]


According to his wife, Schabowski resided in a Berlin nursing home during the last years of his life, after a number of infections and strokes. [10] He died in Berlin after a long illness on the morning of 1 November 2015, aged 86. [21]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 "Günter Schabowski geb. 1929" (in German). Lebendiges Museum Online. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  2. "Former East German Communist official Günter Schabowski dies in Berlin". DW.COM. 1 November 2015. Retrieved 13 September 2016.
  3. "Im Alter von 86 Jahren: Günter Schabowski gestorben" (in German). Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 1 November 2015. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  4. "DDR-Geschichte: "Schabowski war einer der Schlimmsten"" (in German). Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. 12 March 2009.
  5. 1 2 Sebestyen, Victor (2009). Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. New York City: Pantheon Books. ISBN   0-375-42532-2.
  6. Sarotte, Mary Elise. The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall. New York City: Basic Books. p. 23. ISBN   9780465064946.
  7. 1 2 3 Sarotte, p. 115
  8. text prepared by Gerhard Lauter: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/25-jahre-deutsche-einheit/mauerfall-am-9-november-1989-und-im-uebrigen-die-grenze-ist-auf-12654876.html
  9. Sarotte, pp. 107–108
  10. 1 2 3 4 "Schabowskis Ehefrau: "Mein Mann wusste, was er sagte"" (in German). Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 7 November 2014. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  11. Hemmerich, Lisa (9 November 2009). "Schabowskis legendärer Auftritt: Das folgenreichste Versehen der DDR-Geschichte" via Spiegel Online.
  12. Walker, Marcus (Oct 21, 2009) "Did Brinkmannship Fell Berlin's Wall? Brinkmann Says It Did" The Wall Street Journal.
  13. You Tube
  14. Sarotte, p. 118
  15. Sarotte, p. 129.
  16. Wroe, David (8 November 2009). "'It was the best and worst night'". Al Jazeera America . Retrieved 14 October 2014.
  17. "Günter Schabowski: Der Mann, der aus Versehen die Mauer öffnete" (in German). Focus. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  18. Pond, Elizabeth (1993). Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Reunification. Brookings Institution Press. p. 117. ISBN   0-8157-7154-1.
  19. "BEGNADIGUNG: Günter Schabowski/Günther Kleiber" (in German). Der Spiegel. 11 September 2000. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  20. "Frank Steffel: CDU-Spitzenkandidat fragt Schabowski um Rat" (in German). Tagesspiegel. 8 August 2001. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  21. "Im Alter von 86 Jahren: Ex-SED-Funktionär Schabowski gestorben" (in German). Tagesschau. 1 November 2015. Archived from the original on 1 November 2015. Retrieved 1 November 2015.