The “What If?” of 1989

NEW YORK – For weeks, the scene has been re-played on TV screens around the world, as if the events were breaking news: joyous Berliners dancing atop the infamous Wall, toppled 20 years ago on November 9, 1989. “Die Mauer ist Weg,” the people cried out, punching their fists in the air before the cameras at the Brandenburg Gate. “The Wall is gone!”

Without doubt, it is one of the iconic images of the twentieth century. For Americans, especially, it was the totemic emblem of victory in the Cold War. Yet, if you were there that night, as I was for Newsweek, the moment is more ambiguous, especially with the hindsight of two decades. Simply put, history could easily have happened very differently, and almost did.

Egon Krenz, the Communist boss of the German Democratic Republic, called it a “botch.” He was savoring a rare moment of triumph when his party spokesman stopped by in the late afternoon of November 9. “Anything to announce?” asked Günter Schabowski, innocently. Krenz hesitated, then handed him a press release. It was to announce a major initiative he had forced through parliament only hours earlier, and which the country’s restive people had been demanding in the streets for weeks: the right to travel. Krenz intended to give it to them – but only the next day, November 10.

Oblivious to this critical fact, Schabowski went off and read it out to the world in a now-famous vignette. “When does it take effect?” reporters asked. Confused, Schabowski neglected the all-important date: “sofort,” he said. “Immediately.” In a heartbeat, the damage was done. Astounded East Germans surged like a human sea to the crossing points to the West. Border guards, receiving no instructions and not knowing what else to do, opened them up. The rest is history.