Man whose words spelled end of Berlin Wall dead at 86

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Guenter Schabowski, the East German functionary whose off-the-cuff comments in 1989 spelled the end of the Berlin Wall died Sunday, aged 86, his widow confirmed to dpa.

Schabowski made history on November 9, 1989, with one statement – “As far as I know – effective immediately, without delay.”

The imprecise phrase was an improvised answer to press conference questions about a loosening of travel restrictions. The conference came amid East German attempts to meet citizens’ demands for more freedoms while trying to sustain the German Democratic Republic as an independent state in some form.

The country had already reeled all that summer and autumn as thousands of people fled communist East Germany – then part of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact – for allied nations like Hungary and the Czech Republic, which had recently dropped their border controls. Countless people took advantage of the relaxed procedures to flee communist countries for the economic freedoms of the West.

The drain on human resources was threatening the integrity of East Germany.

However, Schabowksi was wrong. The rules were supposed to go into effect a day later, so there would be time to prepare border security for the changes.

Schabowski’s comments hastened the end for East Germany. Thousands of East Germans who had not yet fled heard his comments and took it to mean they were immediately free to travel to West Germany. Thousands massed at border crossings separating East Berlin from West Berlin, which was at the time a walled-off city in the middle of East Germany that was controlled by West Germany.

Border guards had no idea what to do with the crush of people because they had not heard Schabowski’s comments and because no formal rule had been issued. As the crowds grew, guards relented and let East Germans flow into West Germany. The Berlin Wall fell.

The moment represnted East Germany’s loss of control over its borders. Within a year, the country had merged with West Germany after four decades of division.

In 1989, Schabowski was a member of the Politburo of East Germany’s ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). When the group was reformed in 1990 he was excluded.

Unlike many other East German leaders, Schabowski several times spoke of his responsibility and moral culpability for the East German regime, which, he said, was an unsustainable system that was driving itself into the ground.

Modeled on Soviet Russia, the East German government attempted to create a centrally controlled economy which put strict controls on individual’s freedoms. Hundreds of East Germans died trying to escape to the West during its 41-year exitence.

A Berlin court in 1997 found Schabowski culpable for the East German border control system and sentenced him to three years in prison. He was pardoned in 2000 after serving less than one year of the sentence.

He spent the last few years of his life in a Berlin home for the elderly. He made no public appearances and was reportedly very sick in his last years.

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