BERLIN, NOV. 9 -- It wasn't supposed to happen. But it did and now, a year after the Berlin Wall burst open, the story of last Nov. 9 is finally becoming clear.
It began as one more in a seemingly endless series of crisis days for the crumbling East German regime. Communist leader Erich Honecker already had been forced out of office. Almost a million East Germans had applied to emigrate. The country had been hemorrhaging citizens by the tens of thousands since circuitous exit routes opened through Hungary and Czechoslovakia that summer and fall.
In the previous 24 hours alone, more than 20,000 people had escaped to the West through Czechoslovakia. The Communist government in Prague, worried that its citizens would follow the example of the East Germans, had threatened to seal its border. Dreading the popular rage that would meet such a cutoff, the East German Communists' Politburo had spent two days considering how to deal with the exodus.
Egon Krenz, who had replaced Honecker, had even called Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow to find out if the Soviets had any suggestions. According to accounts by several former East German Central Committee members, Gorbachev told Krenz that the border between the two Germanys had to be opened to provide an escape valve and prevent unrest that threatened to bring down Communist control.
But Krenz said the Politburo was several weeks away from establishing new travel rules. By Nov. 9, there was still no decision.
That morning, according to the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, two colonels from East Germany's Stasi secret police arrived at the Interior Ministry and immediately ordered the head of the passport department to write up rules allowing East Germans to emigrate. The passport official, Gerhard Lauter, was to create a regulation allowing citizens to leave East Germany for good. But the new rules would not let people simply cross over for short visits -- the kind of travel freedom that East Germans longed for.
The orders were "schizophrenic," Lauter told Der Spiegel. So Lauter and his colleagues added a sentence saying that permission for "private trips abroad can be requested without fulfilling requirements."
The phrase was certainly vague. Indeed, it was vague enough to slip by the Politburo members who read and approved the text at 1 p.m. Four hours later, Krenz read the proposed rule to the Central Committee. According to former Politburo member Siegfried Lorenz, "it is certain that none of them was aware of the importance of this resolution."
No one objected to the rule. At about 6 p.m., Krenz handed a note to government spokesman Guenter Schabowski and told him to read it at the press conference he was about to hold.
Schabowski, who now tells reporters he will discuss Nov. 9 only if he is paid, said earlier this year that he did not read the note until the end of the press session.
Shortly before 7 p.m., as the press conference was wrapping up, a reporter asked Schabowski about the status of a new travel law. The spokesman opened the note from Krenz and read the vaguely worded rule, which would take effect at midnight. "Private trips abroad can be applied for," it said. "Permits will be granted promptly."
Reporters did not know what to make of the statement. They asked Schabowski to clarify it. He could not.
Does the new freedom apply to travel from Soviet-controlled East Berlin to Allied-controlled West Berlin? Schabowski looked at the note from Krenz and saw that it indeed included Berlin. As he recalled later, he suddenly thought, "I hope the Soviets know about this. This thing affects the four-power status" of Berlin.
The Soviets did not know. Nor did the Allies.
While the Allied commanders were busy trying to find out what was happening, the scenes in the newsrooms of East German radio and television were confused.
Reporters knew that Schabowski had announced what sounded like a momentous change. They knew rumors were sweeping the city about an opening of the wall. But when they turned to the printers of the national news agency, ADN, they saw no official government statement. Editors called ADN and were told that the official statement had been embargoed until 4 a.m. and could not be released until then.
Without any directive from their party political bosses about what to put on the air, the editors broke with the rules and wrote their own report. They chose to emphasize that "starting immediately, private trips abroad can be applied for without any special reason." The vagueness of Schabowski's statement had vanished.
The West German television networks -- which also are government-funded -- put almost the opposite emphasis on the news, reporting that the new regulations were directed at people who wanted to leave East Germany permanently.
One of the main West German newscasts, ARD's Tagesthemen, which could be received in almost every corner of East Germany, did not go on the air at its regular 10:30 p.m. time because the network decided not to interrupt coverage of a key soccer game.
On the street, the first reports of the new rule spread with startling speed in a country where few people had telephones. Within minutes, there were thousands of people along the wall. By mid-evening, the crowds were pushing and chanting, "Open the gate!" Others shoved their way up to the gates at the official crossing points. Some started climbing.
The Stasi secret police and East German army border units along the wall were in the dark. Dozens of border officers called their commanders as the crowds thickened and patrol units heard the various news reports. There was no order, no directive. Without special instructions, the policy was to stop anyone without the proper visa. If anyone tried to go over the wall without the right papers, the border guards were to shoot to stop them.
At about 9 p.m., according to a letter Krenz wrote to Der Spiegel, the party leaders received a call at home about the masses along the wall. "The fateful question was, opening the wall or violence?" Krenz said. Krenz now says he instructed his ministers to open the border to free travel. Krenz also told reporters this week that he issued a no-shooting order to border guards almost a week before the wall opened.
But even if Krenz is being honest about what he did -- and many former East German officials believe he is engaging in a bit of revisionist history -- his directives did not open the wall.
The border guards, encouraged by the crowds, who were in turn emboldened by the remarkable news reports, simply gave in.
Without any word from the government, according to an account published this week in the East German Communist Party newspaper Neues Deutschland, two Stasi officials, a colonel and a deputy minister of the secret police, filled the command vacuum and gave the go-ahead to open the wall.
Some crossing points opened to the press of people in late evening. Others waited until the stroke of midnight. At some places, guards checked ID cards; at others, they didn't bother.
After the crowds had begun to rush through the checkpoints, filling West Berlin streets in the jubilant celebration that would stretch on for weeks, the West German ARD network finally began its late news. "Travel to the West is free," the announcer said. "The gates in the wall are wide open."