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The Mistake that Toppled the Berlin Wall

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2021

I was 16 years old on the day the Berlin Wall fell. I remember coming home from school that day and watching the events unfold on television, completely shocked at how quickly it had all happened. Politics & protests had been pushing the Eastern Bloc countries toward more openness for years, but before watching this video, I’d never heard that the catalyst for that world-changing event was a short mistaken statement at the end of an otherwise boring press conference. From the BBC:

East German leaders had tried to calm mounting protests by loosening the borders, making travel easier for East Germans. They had not intended to open the border up completely.

The changes were meant to be fairly minor — but the way they were delivered had major consequences.

Notes about the new rules were handed to a spokesman, Günter Schabowski — who had no time to read them before his regular press conference. When he read the note aloud for the first time, reporters were stunned.

“Private travel outside the country can now be applied for without prerequisites,” he said. Surprised journalists clamoured for more details.

Shuffling through his notes, Mr Schabowski said that as far as he was aware, it was effective immediately.

In fact it had been planned to start the next day, with details on applying for a visa.

But the news was all over television — and East Germans flocked to the border in huge numbers.

How did the Berlin Wall fall? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.