Never say that press conferences are meaningless

Your humble blogger’s all-time favorite historian, Mary Elise Sarotte, has just published her magnum opus, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, about the fall of the Brelin Wall and the year of diplomacy that led to a renunified Germany ensconced within NATO and the European Union.  In the Washington Post yesterday, Sarotte recounts ...

Your humble blogger's all-time favorite historian, Mary Elise Sarotte, has just published her magnum opus, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, about the fall of the Brelin Wall and the year of diplomacy that led to a renunified Germany ensconced within NATO and the European Union. 

In the Washington Post yesterday, Sarotte recounts the precise manner in which the Berlin Wall fell.  Turns out that a botched press conference played a rather significant role:   

That night at 6, Guenter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo who served as its spokesman, was scheduled to hold a news conference. Shortly before it began, he received a piece of paper with an update on the regulations and a suggestion that he mention them publicly. He had not been involved in discussions about the rules and did not have time to read the document carefully before starting.

Your humble blogger’s all-time favorite historian, Mary Elise Sarotte, has just published her magnum opus, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe, about the fall of the Brelin Wall and the year of diplomacy that led to a renunified Germany ensconced within NATO and the European Union. 

In the Washington Post yesterday, Sarotte recounts the precise manner in which the Berlin Wall fell.  Turns out that a botched press conference played a rather significant role:   

That night at 6, Guenter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo who served as its spokesman, was scheduled to hold a news conference. Shortly before it began, he received a piece of paper with an update on the regulations and a suggestion that he mention them publicly. He had not been involved in discussions about the rules and did not have time to read the document carefully before starting.

His hour-long news conference was so tedious that Tom Brokaw, who was there, remembered being "bored." But in the final minutes, an Italian journalist’s question about travel spurred Schabowski’s memory. He tried to summarize the new regulations but became confused, and his sentences trailed off. "Anyway, today, as far as I know, a decision has been made," he said. "It is a recommendation of the Politburo that has been taken up, that one should from the draft of a travel law, take out a passage. . ."

Among the long-winded clauses, some snippets leapt out: "exit via border crossings" and "possible for every citizen."

Suddenly, every journalist in the room had questions. "When does that go into force?" shouted one. "Immediately?" shouted another. Rattled and mumbling to himself, Schabowski flipped through his papers until he uttered the phrase: "Immediately, right away."

It felt as if "a signal had come from outer space and electrified the room," Brokaw recalled. Some wire journalists rushed out to file reports, but the questions kept coming, among them: "What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?"

Alarmed about what was unfolding, Schabowski concluded with more muddled responses: "The question of travel, of the permeability therefore of the wall from our side, does not yet answer, exclusively, the question of the meaning, of this, let me say it this way, fortified border." Furthermore, "the debate over these questions could be positively influenced if the Federal Republic [of West Germany] and if NATO would commit themselves to and carry out disarmament."

As NATO was unlikely to disarm itself by breakfast, Schabowski clearly did not expect much to happen that night. But it was too late — by 7:03 p.m., the wires were reporting that the Berlin Wall was open.

Read the rest of the article to find out what happened at Checkpoint Charlie and other guardposts across the Wall that evening.  And buy Sarotte’s book to discover the rest of the story of German reunification. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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