Günter Schabowski, the man that opened the Berlin Wall by mistake

Former leading East German Communist Günter Schabowski in 2007

East German Communist Günter Schabowski, who made history during a press conference broadcast live on television in the evening of November 9, 1989 by prematurely announcing the immediate granting of passports for all citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for the first time, died in Berlin on November 1st, 2015.

Following this statement, tens of thousands of East Berliners quickly converged on the six crossing points to West Berlin. Surprised and overwhelmed, East German border police refrained from violent acts and allowed the masses to move freely.

The Berlin Wall, the most evident symbol of the decade-long Cold War, had fallen after more than 28 years, suddenly tearing the infamous Iron Curtain wide open.

Born on January 4th, 1929 in the small town of Anklam in the Prussian province of Pomerania, he joined the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, SED) in 1952.

After studying journalism in Leipzig, Schabowski became editor of the trade union magazine Tribüne. From 1978–85 he served as editor in chief of the official party newspaper Neues Deutschland.

He was then elected to the Central Committee and Politburo of the SED, the GDR’s highest-decision making body, and responsible for agitation. For a while considered a possible successor to long-term dogmatic leader Erich Honecker (1912-1994), finally forced to step down in the autumn of 1989, he suffered the same fate as his former comrades.

In the purges of the «party’s old guard» following the dramatic political changes in the former Eastern Block, Schabowski was expelled from the SED in January 1990.

Nicknamed «Schabo», he had been the only Politburo member who dared to face the angry public at a massive protest rally against the crumbling dictatorship on Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on November 4th, 1989.

A month after the violent crackdown in Peking on a reform movement demanding more civil liberties in China on June 4th, 1989, Schabowski got an appointment with Jiang Zemin (born 1926), the newly appointed General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

According to Schabowski’s later formulated impression, Jiang felt very uncomfortable to talk about was is nowadays referred to as Tiananmen Massacre, but admitted that there had been hundreds of deaths among the demonstrators.

Although called by some one of the worst East German politicians before the GDR started disintegrating, after German reunification on October 3rd, 1990 Schabowski openly criticized his own actions and Socialism in general.

Schabowski even started working again as a journalist. Between 1992 and 1999, he edited a weekly local paper in Hesse that he had co-founded with a West German journalist.

Together with other leading figures of the ancien régime, he was charged with the murders of East Germans attempting to flee the GDR. In August 1997, Schabowski was sentenced to only three years as he had accepted his moral guilt and denounced the GDR.

At the end, he served only nine months of his sentence and was released in December 2000 after being pardoned by then Governing Mayor of Berlin, the Christian Democrat Eberhard Diepgen (born 1941).


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