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The Italian Who Brought Down The Berlin Wall

On November 9th, 1989, Riccardo Ehrman, an Italian journalist, born in Florence on November 4th, 1929, attended a Government-led press conference in East Berlin. He was the representative of the Italian national press agency, the ANSA. He asked one question. A few hours later, the Berlin Wall was collapsing.

The context

The Berlin Wall, built in a few days in mid-August 1961, isolated the Western sectors of Berlin from the Soviet sector – which then became “East Berlin”, the capital of the German Democratic Republic.

Countless attempts were made by the East German population to cross it: more than half of the attempts were successful and more than 5,000 individuals made it through. Some lost their lives, though. I’ll only mention the first one, Ida Siekmann, on August 22nd, 1961, and the last one, Winfried Freudenberg, on March 8th, 1989…

Since the seventies, “temporary travel” to Western countries was envisaged only for emergencies, e.g. for the funeral o a close relative like a sibling or a parent, and only for one member of the family, so that the Government could mitigate the flee risk. The alternative for citizens was to leave the country for good – after Government authorisation. These limitations were the symbol of how fundamental rights were neglected – this was never properly understood by the Communist Government. People had already found possible and impossible ways to leave: they would occupy West Germany embassies in Budapest or Prague or any other Soviet bloc capital, not returning from their vacations in Hungary or Romania, abandoning their cars but keeping their ID cards – which would be used as official documents in West Germany.

In 1989, after years of misunderstanding of reality and months of control loss, the Politbüro and the Zentralkommittee of the SED – the Communist Party or Sozialistische Einhertspartei Deutschlands – replaced Erich Honecker with Egon Krenz, just after the 40th anniversary of the Foundation of Democratic Republic of Germany; but Krenz was still perceived as Honecker’s heir (Kronnprinz) and more was needed to stop the emigration flow, which was causing damage to the reputation and the economy.

A new law was issued, allowing the citizens of East Germany to travel to the West for thirty days: a temporary bureaucratic procedure that would make it easier for East Germans to travel abroad, a tactic aimed at shoring up the Communist regime in the face of mass demonstrations…..

The press conference

On the morning of November 9th, 1989, the spokesman of the Party, Gunter Schabowski, announced an international press conference, at the East Berlin Press Centre, for the same day, in the evening, only mentioning that it was important. Later, Ehrman would later comment:

(….) For the Communist regime, they were all important, so there was no real reason to think that they would say anything sensational.

At the conference, the atmosphere was tense but no one could have imagined what was about to happen. Schabowski spoke reassuring those present: the past weeks had been characterised by public demonstrations and protests and tension was very high. These reassurances were vague and, at 6:53 pm, Ehrman asked an apparently simple question, but one filled with consequences.

Ehrman: Ich heiße Riccardo Ehrman, ich vertrete die italienische Nachrichtenagentu ANSA. Herr Schabowski, Sie haben von Fehlern gesprochen. Glauben Sie nicht, dass es war eine große Fehler, diese Reisegesetzentwurf, das sie haben vorgestellt vor wenigen Tagen?

I am Riccardo Ehrman, I represent the Italian press agency ANSA. Mr. Schabowski, you talked about mistakes. Don’t you think the recently apporved law was a serious mistake?

The question was intentionally provocative. Ehrman knew that this law was only a propaganda move to pacify the citizens of the East who longed for freedom. Looking clearly irritated, Schabowski initially denied this but then opted for a more bureaucratic answer. He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and read a statement.

Schabowski: Privatreisen nach dem Ausland können ohne Vorliegen von Voraussetzungen (Reiseanlässe und Verwandtschaftsverhältnisse) beantragt werden. Die Genehmigungen werden kurzfristig erteilt. Die zuständigen Abteilungen Paß- und Meldewesen der Volkspolizeikreisämter in der DDR sind angewiesen, Visa zur ständigen Ausreise unverzüglich zu erteilen, ohne daß dafür noch geltende Voraussetzungen für eine ständige Ausreise vorliegen müssen. (….) Ständige Ausreisen können über alle Berliner Grenzübergangsstellen der DDR zur BRD bzw. zu West-Berlin erfolgen.

Private trips can be applied for without conditions (travel and relatives). The authorisation will come shortly. The relevant departments for passaports in the East German police have been insytructed to issue visas for permanent departure without any condition. (….) Permanent departures can be made via all Berlin border crossing points of the German Democratic Republic to the Federal Republic of Germany or to West Berlin.

Another question came up about when these measures were supposed to enter into effect. Schabowski, after a short pause, declared:

Schabowski: Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich.

As far as I know… this is effective immediately… without delay.

Clearly, Schabowski didn’t ponder the effect of his words, forgetting that this live press conference was being watched by millions of Germans, from both sides of the Berlin Wall….

The effect

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. The news was broadcast to nearly all of East Germany, where West German television was widely watched, as well.

Up to then, people knew that moving to the West was possible with consent but irreversible: no coming back. Even if they couldn’t believe it, all East Germans in front of the TV matched the words ständige Ausreise e unverzüglich to their desires: leaving now!

Harald Jäger, lieutenant-colonel of the East German border force, was also watching TV that evening, while he was eating at the cafeteria. When, on the screen, Günter Schabowski pronounced the word “sofort” (“immediately”), he felt a drop of sweat sliding down his back. He would later comment that his thought was “what is he saying?”…. A few minutes later, he looked outside the window: in front of the border barrier at the Berlin Wall – but at a safe distance from the soldiers’ guns – some twenty people were gathering. An hour later, at Bornholmer Straße crossing point, they were tens of thousands. His superiors repeatedly ordered: “Tell the guards to send them home!” It was no more possible, so he gave the order to lift the bar.

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