Witness: The news conference that toppled the Wall

Wednesday, November 4, 2009; 2:25 PM

Volker Warkentin, a correspondent for the German language service in Berlin, has worked for Reuters for 31 years. In the following story, he describes the East German government news conference on travel freedom that unexpectedly led to the opening of the Berlin Wall.

By Volker Warkentin

BERLIN (Reuters) - It's not often that a historic announcement comes, as an afterthought, almost by accident, at the end of an otherwise stultifying tedious press conference.

But that's how the Communist East German government told an incredulous world that the Berlin Wall, that most potent symbol of the Cold War, would be thrown open after three decades.

I was fortunate enough to witness that most famous news conference of modern German history on November 9, called with no great fanfare by Politburo member and spokesman Guenter Schabowski.

For an hour he had rambled through the dull deliberations of a meeting of the Communist Party's ruling Central Committee.

Many journalists had already left the small, stuffy windowless room on the first floor of the International Press Center where news conferences were held. Some had headed home, some drifted to the restaurant where the Stasi security police routinely observed foreign reporters by hidden camera.

Even though pressure had been building on the East German government for months to grant "Reisefreiheit" -- or freedom to travel -- Schabowski had nothing to say about that until near the end of his presentation when he was asked about travel rules by Riccardo Ehrman of the Italian news agency ANSA at 6:53 p.m.

"Therefore...um...we have decided today...um...to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic...um...to...um...leave East Germany through any of the border crossings," said Schabowski.

He appeared scarcely to believe his own words and we were all dumbfounded. What did he just say?

Schabowski was asked when the new rule would take effect.

"That comes into effect...according to my information.... immediately, without delay," Schabowski stammered, shuffling through the papers spread in front of him as he sought in vain for more information.

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