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Guenter Schabowski, 86; announced opening of Berlin Wall

Guenter Schabowski, in comments made 26 years ago Monday, revealed the end of rules banning East Germans from crossing border.European Pressphoto Agency/file

BERLIN — Guenter Schabowski, the senior East German official whose cryptic announcement that the communist country was opening its fortified border precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, died Nov. 1 at 86.

His widow, Irina, told the German news agency dpa that he died in a Berlin nursing home.

A politburo spokesman, Mr. Schabowski, in halting words at the conclusion of a plodding evening news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, put an end to Berlin’s 28 years of division by the wall. Mr. Schabowski offhandedly said that East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its border with West Germany.


Pressed on when the headline-making regulation would take effect, he looked down at his notes and stammered: ‘‘As far as I know, this enters into force . . . this is immediately, without delay.’’

Soon after Mr. Schabowski spoke, Western media reported that East Germany was opening its borders and East Berliners were jamming the first crossing. Border guards had received no orders to let anyone across but gave up trying to hold back the crowds.

East German leader Egon Krenz later insisted that he told Mr. Schabowski to tell reporters to withhold news about the new travel regulation until 4 a.m. the next morning, so citizens could line up properly to get exit visas.

Mr. Schabowski, a trained journalist, said he never heard Krenz say that and it would have been unrealistic anyway.

‘‘It was one of many foul-ups in those days,’’ he said. ‘‘We were acting under the pressure of events. I’m just happy that it went off without bloodshed.’’

At the time, East German leaders saw opening the Berlin Wall as a relief valve amid huge prodemocracy protests and a flight of citizens to the West via other countries. Instead, it set in motion events that led quickly to German reunification on Oct. 3, 1990.


Mr. Schabowski was born in the northern town of Anklam. He rose through the ranks of East Germany’s media after World War II and became the chief editor of Neues Deutschland, the main Communist Party-controlled newspaper, in 1978. He became a member of the ruling Politburo in 1984.

In October 1989, Mr. Schabowski, then the Communist Party chief in East Berlin, became the first Politburo member to talk to opposition leaders.

In another turnaround for East Germany, Mr. Schabow-ski also voiced support for ‘‘approved and well-ordered’’ demonstrations.

But amid mounting pressure from the emboldened prodemocracy movement, he resigned along with the rest of the Politburo weeks after the Berlin Wall fell.

Mr. Schabowski later became one of the most senior East German leaders to be convicted of manslaughter and jailed for the shooting deaths of East Germans trying to flee to the West.

He served 9½ months of a three-year sentence before being pardoned by Berlin’s mayor in 2000.

Mr. Schabowski turned firmly against communism, publicly backing Germany’s main conservative party in a 2001 Berlin election.