Do you remember much about the end of the Cold War? The significance of November 9, 1989? Such a momentous event as the crumbling of the Berlin Wall came about by accident. I’ve been reading When the World Seemed New; George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War, by Jeffrey A. Engel, which details this critical period of recent history.
Eastern Europeans were demonstrating for more freedom. The Soviet Union wasn’t stopping them. The satellite countries’ leaders were in a quandary. With no help from the Soviets, what should they do?
In East Germany, General Secretary Erich Honecker fell from power, replaced by Egon Krenz. Krenz wasn’t popular. He begged Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev for help. “After all, the GDR is in a sense the child of the Soviet Union, and one must acknowledge paternity of one’s children.”
All Gorbachev did was advise maintaining East Germany’s integrity, even if it meant loosening the borders.
Hoping new travel regulations would pacify the thousands of protesters, on November 9th, Krenz gave his spokesman, Günter Schabowski a paper describing the new reforms. They would be released on the weekend.
Schabowski’s news conferences were boring affairs as he plodded through reading pronouncements, capable of putting newsmen to sleep. He stuffed the paper into his briefcase without looking at it and headed to the news room.
Asked about the government’s long-promised travel reforms, Schabowski dug out the paper and stumbled through it, forgetting it wasn’t to be made public just yet. The newsmen perked up. Here was something significant. When would the new regulations go into effect?
Schabowski changed the course of history. “As far as I am aware, immediately. Without delay.”
The news sped around the world. Crowds gathered at Berlin’s crossing points, demanding to cross. The border guards had heard nothing of a new travel policy.
At the Bornholmer Strasse gate, Harald Jäger repeatedly called his superiors for confirmation. He received none, only an insult. Was he “capable of assessing the situation, or simply a coward?”