In November 1989, the East German economy was in agony. “The very existence of the GDR was at stake. Some 300 to 500 people were fleeing abroad each day [through Czechoslovakia and Hungary]. We were bleeding. We had to do something to regain popularity,” Schabowski told the BBC World Service after 20 years.
The country’s long-standing leader, Erich Honecker, had lost all the support of even his party members. He was removed from power on 17 October 1989, and Egon Krenz, the new party leader, decided to implement reforms to improve sentiment in the society. Krenz’s reforms included a new passport law, the draft of which was ready on 8 November. The next day, the East Germany’s ruling Politburo signed off on the draft, whose main assumptions were to be presented to the press by Schabowski at an evening conference. The problem was the spokesman was not present in the meeting, which left him little time to go over the new regulations. Also, he was given a draft document which was yet to be passed through the government.
At the conference, Schabowski struggled to explain the new regulations, citing a paragraph on issuing travel permits. The reporters present in the room were especially astounded to hear that “the regulation allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave East Germany by any of the border crossings.” The question came: “When?” Shuffling papers, Schabowski answered doubtingly, “Immediately.” “The Council of Ministers will see about that,” Gerhard Beil, Foreign Trade Minister, added quietly sitting next to him. However, no one even noticed those words.
At 8PM, the West German broadcaster ARD announced the opening of the borders between the two states. Thousands of Berliners started flocking along the Wall, waiting for the border control points to open. East German Grenztruppen guarding the agencies did not receive any information on the new passport regulations. All gates opened before midnight, pressured by the stampede of the crowds.
“I wouldn’t say I was a hero who opened the border—truth be told, I acted to try to save the GDR,” Schabowski recalled in an interview for BBC in 2009. “On Nov 9, I was still a committed communist. The opening of the Wall wasn’t a humanitarian, but a tactical decision taken because of popular pressure,” the former East German spokesman added. In 1990 he was expelled from the party for his blunder and unintentionally bringing down the Wall. He was sentenced to prison in 1997 for his earlier involvement in implementing the shoot-to-kill policy enforced by East German border guards against those trying to flee. He was pardoned in 2000.