Friday, October 23, 2009

Fall of Berlin Wall: An accident?

There is history and then there is arcana. Ask any American schoolboy who caused the fall of the Berlin Wall, he would say "Ronald Reagan", a well informed student might even cite, with justifiable pride, Reagan's exhortation to Gorbachev, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall". The same question is Europe would get various answers and various emotional coloring depending on personal political leanings and whether they gained or lost.

A recent Wall Street Journal highlighted a little known arcane information in its series of article leading up to the 20th anniversary of the fall of Berlin Wall on 9th November. I shall intersperse Wikipedia and WSJ article for a contiguous narrative. Wiki article is

"the politburo led by Krenz decided on November 9, to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany, including West Berlin. On the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private travel. The new regulations were to take effect on November 17, 1989.
Günter Schabowski, the Party Secretary for Propaganda, had the task of announcing this; however he had been on vacation prior to this decision and had not been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note that said that East Berliners would be allowed to cross the border with proper permission but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day, so as to allow time to inform the border guards. However, nobody had informed Schabowski. He read the note out loud at the end of the conference and when asked when the regulations would come into effect, he assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note and replied "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". After further questions from journalists he confirmed that the regulations included the border crossings towards West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.

Tens of thousands of East Berliners heard Schabowski's statement live on East German television and flooded the checkpoints in the Wall demanding entry into West Berlin. The surprised and overwhelmed border guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors, but it became clear that there was no one among the East German authorities who would dare to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so there was no way for the vastly outnumbered soldiers to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. In face of the growing crowd, the guards finally yielded, opening the checkpoints and allowing people through with little or no identity checking. Ecstatic East Berliners were soon greeted by West Berliners on the other side in a celebratory atmosphere. November 9 is thus considered the date the Wall fell. In the days and weeks that followed, people came to the wall with sledgehammers to chip off souvenirs, demolishing lengthy parts of it in the process. These people were nicknamed "Mauerspechte" (wall woodpeckers)."

The fateful slip was in the sentence "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay". That was in response to a reporters question as to when the new policy of allowing people to cross over would come into effect. The haughty or beleaguered bureaucrat replied off the cuff setting off an avalanche of events that drove the proverbial last nail into the coffin of communism.

Now controversy surrounds over the reporter who is said to have asked that fateful question. This is where WSJ steps in. "Riccardo Ehrman, a veteran Italian foreign correspondent, and Peter Brinkmann, a combative German tabloid reporter, both claim they asked the crucial questions at a news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, that led East German Politburo member Günter Schabowski to make one of the biggest fumbles in modern history....

As the anniversary of that tumultuous night nears, a dispute is heating up over who flummoxed Mr. Schabowski.
Among those who are aware of the incident, Mr. Ehrman generally gets credit. In 2008, Germany's president awarded Mr. Ehrman the country's highest honor, the Federal Cross of Merit. "His persistence at the press conference finally elicited the crucial statement" that brought down the Wall, the citation said: "His name stands for...German unity..."

What can one say but that the juggernaut of history was already rolling and all it needed was one fatal push. An evil empire that imprisoned and killed tens of millions across a continent finally tottered and plunged into a deserving abyss thanks to characteristic bureaucratic fumbling. What a fitting finale.

Here is WSJ's excerpt from that fateful interview:

Excerpt: Asking the Hard Questions
Gunter Schabowski was supposed to announce eased travel restrictions for East Germans. Instead, his answers left reporters with the impression the Berlin Wall had fallen. Here's an excerpt from the Nov. 9, 1989, news conference:
Riccardo Ehrman (reporter, ANSA): Don't you think it was a big mistake, this draft law on travel that you presented a few days ago?
Gunter Schabowski (East German Politburo official): No, I don't think so. Ah... [talks for three minutes] And therefore, ah, we have decided on a new regulation today that makes it possible for every citizen of the GDR, ah, to exit via border crossing points of the, ah, GDR.
Ehrman: Without a passport?
Krzysztof Janowski (reporter, Voice of America): From when does that apply?
Schabowski: What?
Peter Brinkmann (reporter, Bild): At once? At...?
Schabowski: [Scratches head] Well, comrades, I was informed today …[puts on his glasses, reads out press release on visa authorization procedure]
Ehrman: With a passport?
Schabowski: [Reads out rest of press release, says he doesn't know the answer on passports]
Second East German official: The substance of the announcement is the important thing...
Schabowski: the...
Fourth reporter: When does that go into effect?
Schabowski: [Rustles through his papers] That goes, to my knowledge, that is...immediately. Without delay.
Sources: DDR1 archive footage, WSJ research

No comments: