We often think of history as somehow inevitable, the culmination of great, grinding geotectonic forces. What to make, then, of Günter Schabowski, who died this week at age 86. Few people will mark the passing of this improbable man of destiny, who made Cold War history with a shrug.
It was the evening of Nov. 9, 1989. A few weeks earlier a band of Communist Party reformers ousted the hard-line boss of the German Democratic Republic, as the eastern part of Germany behind the Iron Curtain was then known. Faced with mass protests in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, they sought to project a new face of change. And that night, Mr. Schabowski, an obscure functionary, became that face — and changed the world in a most unlikely manner.
The dramatic fall of the infamous Berlin Wall, the symbol of five decades of Cold War, played out almost as farce. It began in the early evening when Mr. Schabowski, newly appointed as Communist Party spokesman, dropped in on his boss en route to his daily press conference, itself an innovation for the secretive, all-controlling Communists.
“Anything to announce?” he asked casually. The party chief, Egon Krenz, thought for a moment, then handed Mr. Schabowski a two-page memo. “Take this,” he said with a grin. “It will do us a power of good.”
Mr. Schabowski scanned it in his limo. It seemed straightforward: a brief on legislation his boss forced through a reluctant Parliament that very afternoon that would give East Germans the right to travel to the West — and in doing so make the new regime the heroes of the people. At the press conference, he read it out as item four or five on a list of sundry announcements. It had to do with passports. Every East German would now, for the first time, have a right to one. They could go where they wanted, including to the West.
For a people locked for so long behind the Iron Curtain, this was momentous news. There was a sudden hush, then a ripple of excited murmuring. Mr. Schabowski droned on. From the back of the room, as the cameras rolled broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter shouted out the fateful question. “When does it take effect?”
Mr. Schabowski paused, looked up, suddenly confused. “What?”
The chorus of questions rang out again. Mr. Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to aides on either side, perched his glasses on the end of his nose, shuffled through his papers, looked up — and shrugged. “Ab sofort.” Immediately. Without delay.
With that, the room (and the world) erupted. We now know that Mr. Schabowski was largely oblivious to the earthquake his words had caused. In fact, he had returned from a short vacation that very day. He didn’t know that the new rules were supposed to take effect the next day, Nov. 10 — subject to all sorts of fine print, including the requirement to obtain visas. East Germans didn’t, either. All they knew was what they had just heard on radio and TV. Thanks to Mr. Schabowski, they thought they were free to go. Now. Ab sofort.
By the tens of thousands, in a human tide not unlike that descending on Europe today, they converged on Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing points to West Berlin. Surprised and overwhelmed, receiving no instructions and not knowing what else to do, East German border police acted on their own. Like Mr. Schabowski, they shrugged — and threw open the gates to freedom. And so the Berlin Wall came down.
What to make, then, of Mr. Schabowski’s improbable action? A “botch,” his boss would later scornfully call it, that within a few months would bring down not only Communist East Germany but the entire Soviet empire.
There are important lessons here. One is never to underestimate the power of accident. What if Mr. Schabowski had not messed up, and the next day his citizens began lining up in orderly queues to visit the West? The dramatic images of East Berliners standing triumphantly atop the Wall, victors over a hated regime, would not exist. Without them, would the Velvet Revolution have come to Prague a week later? Would Romanians have arisen against the evil dictator Nicolae Ceausescu?
Another lesson: Amid great social upheaval, it is possible at any point, at any time, for events to take a different course. Why this, not that? The answer seems to be those countless individual choices at key moments — accidents of human messiness, such as Mr. Schabowski’s, but also the courageous or inspired decisions of many others during the events of 1989, from solitary dissidents to masses of ordinary people who stood up and spoke out.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III knew this well, considering it an antidote to national hubris. “Ask any American who brought down the Berlin Wall, and nine of 10 will say Ronald Reagan,” he told me a few years ago. The truth, he went on to say, is that “we had hardly anything to do with it.” The great events of 1989 were ultimately a triumph of ordinary people, individually and collectively.
It is enormously heartening, this view of history. It gives people agency. It underscores how much the individual matters. It proves the power of one: Günter Schabowski and his seven minutes that shook the world.
Later in his life, when he was living in a small town in a united Germany, I spoke with Mr. Schabowski about that fateful evening. Yes, it was a mistake, he readily agreed. “What was I to do?” he asked. “I couldn’t exactly say, ‘Oh, never mind.”’
Did he regret it? Not in the least. Liberated from power and position, and after a stint in jail, he had cheerfully frank and unvarnished views. He and his ilk were creatures of an oppressive and corrupt system that could never be made to work, he told me. They deserved the dustbin of history. In the end, he was happy to see it happen. With his bungle, he helped put a very human face on one of the greatest events of the 20th century.
Michael Meyer, dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi, was Newsweek’s bureau chief for Germany and Eastern Europe during the final years of the Cold War. He is author of 1989: The Year That Changed the World.