1989: A Slip of the Tongue on the Night the Berlin Wall Fell

Peter Foges worked for the BBC in London for fifteen years as a correspondent, anchor, producer, and director, before moving to the U.S. to serve as BBC-TV's Bureau Chief. He later became Director of News and Public Affairs Programming for WNET/Thirteen in New York City. For more from Lapham's Quarterly, please visit

In 1990, just months after the dismantling of the wall, I was in Berlin as a producer for a weekly PBS show on money and markets. Waiting in my hotel lobby, I’d just derailed my television story for the chance to interview an East German official about the last days of the DDR government. I’d picked up his book the day before (“The first account by an insider of how the Berlin Wall came down”) and devoured it that night with much help from an interpreter. When Günter Schabowski sauntered into the lobby of our hotel he was unheralded and unrecognized. “Good evening,” he said in perfect English, extending a hand. “I am the man they say brought down the Berlin Wall. But it’s not quite true, I’m afraid. And please don’t mistake me for a hero.”

We warmed him up for twenty minutes while our crew set and lit a corner of the noisy lobby. He turned out to be astute, funny, self-deprecating; a rumpled professorial type, not at all what I expected from a former Communist politico. “We’re here,” I said, “to hear your story. Tell us what happened.”

“First let me tell you a little of the context,” he began. “Events a year ago moved so fast, it’s easy to forget. About a month before the wall fell, we had celebrated forty years of the DDR. Gorbachev was there, next to our leader—my boss—Erich Honecker. One hundred young people marched past us that night by torchlight. It was our last moment of glory. Eleven days later Honecker was gone. Why? It was because Gorbachev wanted it. It is that simple.”

Honecker was quickly replaced in a Party putsch on October 24th by his political heir apparent Egon Krenz. The new leader went on TV promising reforms, but failed to placate the crowds. The clamor for change was too great. People could watch West German TV and had seen the Polish Solidarity movement triumph in a historic poll in June, and reformist Communist leaders in Budapest tear down part of the Iron Curtain, allowing East Germans to escape to the west. Above all they were fired up by Gorbachev. Night after night, in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, in the largest mass demonstrations ever seen in the country—many led by pastors of the Lutheran Church—they chanted his name.

Schabowski continued: “The Czech government now complained that unless we opened our own border to the West, they would be swamped. Gorbachev instructed his ambassador in East Berlin to tell Krenz to draft a new law to let our people travel directly to the West. I announced this new law and a new procedure for travel at a mass rally in Berlin on November 7th. But they shouted me down. They wanted unrestricted travel rights—not some new bureaucratic system, based on passports which very few DDR citizens possessed.”

So the Krenz government, by now in a panic, went back to the drawing board.

On the morning of November 9, 1989, Gerhard Lauter, a young Interior Ministry civil servant, was put to work drafting yet another version of the travel law—a last ditch effort to save the DDR. On his own authority, without consulting anyone, Lauter added a clause about “freedom of travel for everyone, without restriction.”

“In those days my job was to hold a live TV press conference each evening at six,” “Schabowski explained. “Because of the daily drama it was widely watched in both the East and the West. But on that day Krenz, and everybody else, was locked in a dramatic three day power struggle during which many members of the leadership were expelled and fresh people brought in. Krenz was fighting for his political life and could not be expected to concentrate properly on the draft of the new travel law. The Council of Ministers approved Lauter’s text in the afternoon, but perhaps, like Krenz, they hardly read it. I grabbed the new travel law from Krenz’s hands—it was two pages plus some scribbled notes—and rushed over to meet the journalists at six. My plan was to devote most of the hour to the changes in the Politburo and government, and read the travel decree out at the end, allowing no time for questions.” Those two pages are now known by German historians as “Schabowski’s Note”.

“On November 9th I was still a committed Communist,” Schabowski said. “Our decision to allow people to travel was not a humanitarian one. It was tactical. We had to do something to regain popularity, and relieve the pressure”.

The travel decree hit the forty journalists in the room like a bomb. All hands went up. An Italian started badgering Schabowski without waiting to be called. At that moment, apparently, his resolve to resist questions broke down. Schabowski was by now exhausted and arguably not thinking straight. “Would travel from East to West require a passport?” barked the Italian. “No” replied Schabowski, squinting at his notes. “Would the Berlin crossings be included?” “Yes” he said. “And when would all this come into effect?” After a pause, and another consultation with various bits of paper on his desk, two simple words.

“Sofort, Unverzuglich.” Immediately…Without delay.

His meaning was clear and unambiguous. What Schabowski had said on live television in front of an audience that probably included most of the citizens of the DDR, was that the Berlin Wall would be opening “immediately, and without delay.”

Unfortunately for the DDR, all three of his answers to the press were wrong. The plan was to make people get some kind of visa to be allowed out; to open all east-west crossings before those in Berlin, where it might be necessary to negotiate with the occupying powers; and to open things up slowly, in stages, beginning in a day or two. The chaos that ensued went against the grain, not only of much vaunted DDR command and control, but against Prussian traditions of order.

“It is true I expressed myself badly,” Schabowski told me in the hotel lobby. Sofort was not meant to mean ‘Right now, tonight.’ Rather, ‘In a short time, a day or two.’”

We now know more than Schabowski was willing to tell. The announcement that people were free to go was meant to happen a day later, on November 10th, after proper preparation. The theoretical opening of the wall was not a complete bolt from the blue, though the total loss of control by the DDR was. We also know that Shervadnadze telephoned his ambassador in Berlin on November 7th, two days before Schabowski’s slip of the tongue, saying: “If our friends want this law, we should not oppose it.”

We also know things Schabowski could not have known. Hundreds of thousands of east Berliners who were now beginning a slow procession towards the wall. Harald Jeager, the deputy commander of the Bornholmer Strasse crossing, for instance, remembers laughing when he heard and saw Schabowski on the TV in the mess hall of his heavily armed barracks. But two hours later as the hundreds of thousands gathered, he realized it was serious. He called his superiors but got no instructions. Later, just before 11pm, as the huge throng demanded to be let through—open the wall! they roared—he called again saying “We can’t hold up any more. I’m shutting down the controls and letting people out.” When they saw what was happening, members of the Bundestag in Bonn sang “Deutschland Uber Alles.” And Mayor Momper of West Berlin went on TV saying “this is what we’ve been waiting for twenty-eight years.” Meanwhile, only the hapless members of the East German politburo, closeted behind closed doors, were oblivious. Schabowski told us he took one of the calls from the guards, and in turn called Krenz at around 11:30pm as his gargantuan meeting was finally winding up. But by then thousands were dancing on the wall, the gates were wide open, and it was too late.

Roger Cohen of the New York Times interviewed Jeager recently about how he had felt standing there, in the dead of night, alone and without orders. “Sweat was pouring down my neck and my legs were trembling,” he said. “I knew what I had done. I knew immediately. That’s it, I thought, East Germany is finished.”