Twenty Years Ago – The News Conference That Toppled The Berlin Wall

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This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, and the beginning of the end of oppressive Communist rule that kept Eastern Europe under the boot of the Soviet Union for nearly forty five years.

It all started with a seemingly mundane news conference, reports Reuters correspondent Volker Warkentin, that suddenly ended with a stunning (and accidentally bungled) announcement:

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.

It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4 a.m. the next morning. He also meant to say East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency. The sudden rush to the border that so overwhelmed the guards there was the last thing he had in mind.

I believe we should take great pleasure in the fact that perhaps the single greatest act of liberation during my lifetime came about as the result of a screw-up by a bureaucrat acting as an agent of one of the most repressive Communist regimes in human history.

Secretary of State Clinton is in Germany today, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

And of course there are those who still lament the end of the German Democratic Republic, and its state-guaranteed employment. It’s truly frightening that some people would willfully exchange freedom for terror in order to receive a meager handout from the state.

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