BERLIN // The Berlin Wall fell on the night of November 9, 1989, because of a hasty press announcement by an East German official who had hoped the measure would "save" the communist regime. "I wouldn't say I was a hero who opened the border. Truth be told, I acted to try to save the GDR [German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was officially known]," said Guenter Schabowski, now 80.
With prayers, music and pomp, Germany yesterday remembered the 20th anniversary of the day the Wall fell, sending East Germans flooding west and setting in motion events that soon led to the country's reunification. The chancellor Angela Merkel - reunited Germany's first leader to grow up in the communist east - started the day with the president Horst Koehler and other leaders at a prayer service at a former East Berlin church that was a rallying point for opposition activists in 1989.
Memorials were planned for the 136 people killed attempting to cross the border. Candles were to be lit and 1,000 towering plastic foam dominoes placed along the wall's route to be tipped over. Among dignitaries attending commemorative events were the leaders of all 27 EU countries, the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. Thousands were expected to gather last night in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of Germany's division and then of its reunification, which for nearly three decades stood just behind the wall in no-man's-land.
It was nearly 7pm on November 9 when Mr Schabowski, who at the time was a spokesman of the central committee of the ruling communist party, pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and read out a decree stating that visas would be freely granted to those wanting to travel outside or leave the country. "As of when?" asked an Italian journalist. Mr Schabowski hesitated and then improvised: "As far as I know - as of now."
The news conference was carried live by television networks and within minutes news bulletins were proclaiming that "The Wall has fallen". Thousands of East Berliners started streaming towards checkpoints leading to West Berlin, where baffled East German border guards kept phoning for instructions. Eventually as the crowds grew ever larger, one barrier went up and bewildered East Berliners, who had been unable to cross freely for 28 years, staggered into the West.
But that was not Mr Schabowski's intention. "On November 9, I was still a committed communist," he said 20 years later. "The opening of the Wall wasn't a humanitarian, but a tactical, decision taken because of popular pressure," he said. "The very existence of the GDR was at stake. Some 300 to 500 people were fleeing abroad each day [by way of Czechoslovakia and Hungary]. We were bleeding. We had to do something to regain popularity," he said.
The decision to open the Wall followed the move on October 17 by the Politburo to oust the regime's ageing leader, Erich Honecker, Mr Schabowski recalled. "Normally in a communist party, you don't topple the secretary general - a secretary general leaves office or dies, but he isn't toppled," he said. Because of pressure created by mass public demonstrations, "the Politburo then asked the government to prepare a law allowing for freedom to travel". Within weeks the bill was ready and news of it was announced on November 6.
But one sentence was badly phrased and suggested that a new body would be set up to deliver the visas, prompting new outcries, Mr Schabowski said. "We couldn't believe it. We'd taken the most incredible of decisions to open the border and it was greeted by mass demonstrations! It was pure Kafka," he said. We had to fix that straight away with a "governmental decree". The text of the decree was agreed by the council of ministers on the morning of November 9. Mr Schabowski grabbed the text and put it in his pocket. The aim was to "announce that as late as possible during the press conference to avoid questions", he said.
But there was no holding back the tide once the news broke. Mr Schabowski was expelled from the party early in 1990 for bringing down the Wall, and then sentenced to prison in 1997 for his earlier complicity in the shoot-to-kill policy enforced by border guards against those trying to flee to the West. He was pardoned in 2000. Since then he is one of the very few senior East German officials to have condemned the regime.
"On November 9, the whole thing could have finished in a bloodbath. We were very lucky," he said. "I remember that a member of the Stasi [secret police] came over to me and said: 'Comrade Schabowski, the border is open. Nothing to report'." * AFP, with additional reporting by the AP