November 9, 1989: From the boring press conference to the tumultuous opening of the Berlin Wall


Mr Brinkmann, at the press conference on 9 November 1989 you asked SED Politburo member Gunter Schabowski when the travel arrangements he announced for GDR citizens will apply. Then came the answer "from now" or "immediately". Did you open the wall with it?

No, but first a small correction: I have also asked "from when?", But the crucial question was "from now?" – And that came from me. Then he answered: "From now." I have pushed two more questions, which is clearly heard in the TV record, so: "Is that also true for West Berlin?" That was an important question, because actually would have they can not do that to West Berlin. They should have asked the Soviets, which they did not do.
The wall was opened by demonstrations in the days before. November 9, 1989 was a consequence of this. Due to the ever increasing Monday demonstrations in Leipzig and in other cities the pressure of the road became so big. That is why Egon Krenz, SED secretary-general, said during the session of the SED Central Committee (8-10 November 1989 – editor's note) on 9 November: "What we do, we always do it wrong." The pressure was so great that the leadership had to do something. They had to open the wall. But they did not want to get rid of them, which was the end of this process that began with "this time" at night. "Immediately" had only the function that people thought: Now they can go immediately to the West. What happened, but was not intended, that resulted from the situation of the evening.

What exactly happened at the press conference?

Schabowski has introduced a novelty, namely always to give a press conference after the CC sessions. That did not exist before. The first one was on the 8th of November and was poorly attended. On November 9, it was said that the Travel Law is being discussed in the Central Committee. That was no secret in the former GDR press center. It was known to all journalists that the travel law will be topic. But no one knew what was in this bill of the GDR Interior Ministry. I've been there since 3pm so I was sitting in the front row.

Questions and unclear answers

It was one of the most frightening and boring press conferences I've ever experienced. It was not just me. On the television pictures of it can be seen how some colleagues have dozed off next to their camera. And the cameras did not work, except for those from GDR television and Soviet television. These are the only two stations that have recorded the entire press conference, including what happened before and after. Sent but only the official part.
I asked for the press censorship. Schabowski said, "I do not know you at all. Introduce yourself first. "I introduce myself:" Brinkmann, Bild-Zeitung. "I ask, he answers. This went on, I raised my hand again, but did not turn. Then the Italian journalist Ricardo Ehrmann answered. He sat in front of me, about a meter, on the pedestal. He asked if the travel law was talked about and what it is about. He did not ask from when that comes into force, but only if it was talked about. Then Schabowski leafs through his papers and finds the paper and says, "Actually you have to have that too." But we did not have that. Then he said that something had been decided and read that – and no one understands that.

                    Sputnik / Screenshot / Archive Brinkmann

Peter Brinkmann asks Schabowski the question, if the travel regulation applies immediately

Then come the heckling. We all shouted in the crowd. We shouted, "From when?" That messed up. Since I called in sharp tone between: "From now?" – That was the key point. Then Schabowski looks. As he sees on the sheet that there is "now". But that meant something else. So that went like this: First the question came after the travel law, "from now?", "West Berlin?" And then it was unclear. Then the press conference was over. He did not give an explanation anymore, although he was asked by an English journalist: "What's going to happen with the wall?" And then he drives home. We all stood and asked ourselves: "What does that mean now?"

Not only did Schabowski sit on the podium. What role did his companions play?

They were stooges to the announced party conference. Incidentally, that took up most of the time. We were not interested in Western journalists at all. We also did not know the terminology. That's why it was so boring. From television viewers right next to Schabowski sat Foreign Trade Minister Gerhard Beil. He had an important function and was in the CC session. When Schabowski said "Immediately," Beil whispered to him that it had not been decided yet. That is, what he said there was not yet fact.

The mysterious note

There is the story around a supposed note from Schabowski, with the roadmap for the press conference. The historian Hans-Herrmann Hertle says that it did not exist before that Schabowski had only the official paper from the ZK meeting with the travel regulation.

I share this view. I often asked the Schabowski myself. We talked in the end. I said to him, "You can not have written that. You just could not know how it went. That's what you wrote when you were at home and saw the TV pictures, so you have a justification. "It could have been that I ask first about the travel law, not about the censorship. But on his note this is at the end. He could only have known that if he had known in advance how it really worked. He said: "That's not true." He had arranged that before.

How did he get the travel arrangements if he was not there at the point in the Central Committee meeting?

There are two versions. The one Krenz tells, and I doubt a bit, is this: Schabowski was not there. So he did not know what was being discussed and what Krenz read aloud. Then he came around 17 clock. The press conference started at 6 pm. And Krenz gives him the handwritten corrected draft resolution from the Council of Ministers and tells him: "Prove it. That's a world news." Then Schabowski takes the note, goes over it and does not read it before. He did not read it until he was sitting on the podium.

The question is: where was he during the CC session? I can not answer. There are some people who say that Schabowski did not get the paper with the order directly, but that it was handed over to him. But we do not know.

Why were you as an economic editor at the Bild-Zeitung in Hamburg at the press conference? How did you know that something was coming? You write in your book "witness on the spot – Correspondent in the GDR '89 / 90", you would have received information from State Secretary JOrg Rommerskirchen in the Berlin Senate. Walter Momper, then Governing Mayor of Berlin (West), wrote that Rommerskirchen had told him about a clue by a journalist friend about the events in the East.

Although I was in Hamburg because we did not have an office in the GDR as Bild-Zeitung. We got that later and I became the first and only East German correspondent of the Bild newspaper. That was not the case on 9 November 1989. But I was responsible for the GDR in Hamburg. I have been at the Leipzig Trade Fair twice a year since 1980.

I knew JOrg Rommerskirchen from Hamburg, where he worked in front of his Berlin function in the Senate. I always met him at the Leipzig Trade Fair as State Secretary for Economic Affairs in West Berlin. We exchanged views about developments in the GDR. He said in 1989 that something was happening, there was movement in it. He called me in November and said there was something happening, pointing to the CC. He did not know what happened. But he was then already together with Werner Kolhoff head of the working group travel in the West Berlin Senate. They knew that the GDR was preparing something. He signaled that to me.

Previous knowledge in West Berlin

How did they know that?

On October 29, 1989 Walter Momper met with Schabowski in the East Berlin "Palasthotel". Kolhoff was there as spokesman for the Senate, and Rommerskirchen. Schabowski told them that the GDR wanted to enlarge the group of travel rights and no longer wanted to make the travel permit. Every GDR citizen should get a passport, which would take about six weeks. That was the time around the 10th of December. This means that the GDR intended to make a big travel gift to all GDR citizens at Christmas. Egon Krenz would have become the big hero.

When saying goodbye, Schabowski said to Momper, "I'll call you in time when we're ready." Momper and the other two knew that they needed to prepare when at least 500,000 people came to West Berlin in one day. Then Momper sets the working group travel, with Rommerskirchen and Kolhoff as bosses. They have prepared the Berliner Verkehrsgesellschaft (BVG) for the onslaught from the East, also the financial institutions because of the 100 D-Mark "welcome money". The care of the visitors was regulated, just everything. Nobody wondered why, on 9th November, when 900,000 people came from the East, everything worked. This was based on the conversation of October 29, 1989, which, incidentally, no West Berlin journalist has noticed.

In the book of Momper is written that Rommerskirchen got a call from you on 9 November 1989, that a GDR travel regulation comes on 10 November. That must have been before the press conference. How did you know that?

That came from the conversations upstairs in the restaurant in the GDR press center. There were SED caretakers who were always around us as in Leipzig. We had a bit of conversation and so I learned that the ZK conference is also about traveling. You did not hear anything right, but some snippets of information. That's our job. And then you have to put it together. Only afterwards does it show if you are right when the result is there. But here it was. And Rommerskirchen had said I should call when I'm in East Berlin. I told him something was about to happen, but I did not know exactly what. There was much speculation about the date.

Schabowski's peculiar behavior

Did Schabowski know what he was doing? You became acquainted with him later and asked him about it several times.

That's really hard to answer. This cardinal question, until it became dementing, we have repeatedly discussed. He eventually came to a point where he said – his wife repeated that – "I wanted it that way." I asked him, "What did you want? If you would have wanted that, then you would have withdrawn a certain dramaturgy and would not be so surprised. You would not have talked about a party congress for half an hour. You did not behave as if it was a world message. You have behaved as if it were the biggest triviality in the world. "That's why I doubt it.
There is one more point: Schabowski goes home after the press conference, although the CC still meets until 10 pm, to Wandlitz! And he does not go to his boss Egon Krenz and tells what happened. He is driving home! If he had allegedly wanted to do so before, he drives home and sits down, opens a bottle of beer and the television and then sees the result at some point, and then drive back to Bornholmer Strasse, but not to the Central Committee to celebrate this? That would have been the closest thing.

How did you experience Schabowski, who died in 2015? There are reports that he portrayed himself as the big SED reformer back then.

I did not know him before. From the time before, I only learned something from his wife. Of course, he was always the big hero. His political view has changed completely. That started when he was the first to say, "We screwed up." Also, that he stood by. That's why he was shunned by the others. He tried to fit into the course of the story as it happened through his – in my view – unwanted act. But that did not work because it was too late. He should have acted differently on the evening after the press conference. As of 10 November, everything has gotten out of hand. Since the federal government has taken the book in hand. At the latest on 28 November, with the ten-point plan of the Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the GDR was over.

The obvious end of the GDR

When was it clear what the opening of the border announced at the press conference meant? That has accelerated the downfall of the GDR. When did you realize that?

Still at night. When I talk about it, I always get goose bumps. That was clear to me when I saw how East German citizens came to West Berlin. They shook off their state like a burden. All. There was not a single one who said: Save the GDR! They are over and thought, "That's it!" I noticed that in the night. I had been traveling at night and throughout the day until Saturday. That night, I realized that people wanted nothing more to do with this state and its system. That was obvious.

Among other things, Hertle writes in the "Chronicle of the Fall of the Wall" that less the Schabowski press conference itself was decisive, not even the live broadcast on GDR television, but the coverage of the German media at that time. Did the media overturn the wall?

At least they have contributed a great deal. Recalling November 9, everyone was waiting for some explanation at the press conference. That's how it came. But no one immediately thought it through in its entirety, neither did I. Then come the West German media: Hanns-Joachim Friedrichs in the ARD "Tagesthemen", about 22:52: "This November 9 is a historic day. The GDR has announced that its borders are now open to everyone. The gates in the wall are wide open. "The fact that Friedrichs said that the borders are now open, people climbed out of their beds again, rang with friends and went to see if that's true. The television has reinforced that like an avalanche. Then 900,000 people walked over and went down until the next day.

Gigantic euphoria after the opening

They were then traveling in Berlin. What did you experience after the press conference?

A great euphoria, which also remained. I went by taxi and told the taxi driver that he should park and wait outside when people gather. I went there then. I was in the Bornholmer street to the front of the fence. That's when I realized that if they do not open that, something will happen. The people who came in did not know what a border fortification looks like. We Westerners knew that because we drove there. There was a steel fence. And then came this turnpike that had not been used for years, which was rusty. So they had a hard time putting it aside. But the fence was much worse. If they had not opened the turnpike, people would have been pushed against the fence, because all the backcountry did not know what was up front. Then Herr Jager did the right thing in Bornholmer Strasse and opened it. He could not push them back, people could only move forward. There is a steel fence in the front so the passageways for the cars have to be opened.

That was a gigantic euphoria, a joyous frenzy. It was already a bit crazy. I looked everywhere. It was the same everywhere. At the beginning I was very worried: At Checkpoint Charlie, the passage for foreigners where I was first, nothing was going on. That was about half past eight. Two black cars drove in and I saw in them Soviet officers. They drove around and then drove out again. Then I thought: Now it's getting dangerous. If they now give the wrong message and say "We have to secure that." … But nothing happened.

"Nobody wanted the GDR anymore"

What is left of the 9th of November, 1989, 30 years later, even though all the hustle and bustle is over?

Today, an attempt is made to say that the 9th of November would not have been necessary if there had previously been certain changes in the GDR. It is forgotten that the majority of the GDR population did not want the GDR. That's the key difference. The Poles wanted their Polish state, the Latvians their Latvian, the Lithuanians their Lithuanian, and so on. But nobody wanted the GDR.

Since I have to ask as born in the GDR on what you support that?

On my conversations during the time of the Leipziger Messe, where I met normal people. I lived with normal people, was in the bar in the evening, with people I did not choose. The me were not fed. I drove through the GDR, I knew people there, talked to them. That was nine years. No matter where I went: No one had the feeling "I'm proud to be a GDR citizen." I've never met one.
The big difference to all other countries in the block of the Warsaw Treaty: The GDR was not recognized by their own population as their state. That's why there was no chance. Therefore, it was over on the night of November 9, 1989. There was nothing to save. The civil rights activists, who wanted to improve the GDR, did not get such a bad result on March 18, 1990 for nothing. Nobody wanted a better GDR. A large part did not want any GDR anymore.

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