Fall of the Berlin Wall: 1989’s “YouTube” and a Bad Press Conference Take Down Communism

Remember how acting White House Chief of Staff Mike Mulvaney did a press conference about a controversial Trump Administration move (the now-abandoned decision to hold the next G7 summit at one of Trump’s properties) and casually admitted to the Ukraine-aide-in-exchange-for-Biden-Investigation quid pro quo that the administration and its supporters had been denying existed for weeks?  And how he even double-downed on his admission during follow-up questions, only to try to come back in subsequent days to deny that he had said what he had clearly, emphatically said and that millions had watched him say as the video spread online? Turns out that wasn’t the worst press conference performance in history. An even more poorly handled presser led to the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall that divided the German capital and symbolized the division of Europe into democratic and communist blocs. And the circumstances around it are quite the story.

November 9, 2019 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the single event that signaled the end of the Cold War, a fortunately anti-climactic finale to a conflict that defined global politics for a generation and brought the world close to a war to end all wars (by ending all people in nuclear devastation).  I was not quite 8 years old when the wall was opened and eventually fell in 1989, and although I was too young to really understand what was going on, I could see that this was something extremely important.  Twenty-five years later, I was fortunate enough to be a Teaching Fellow for Professor Mary Elise Sarotte, who literally wrote the book on this event.  In fact, she wrote two of them:1989 and The Collapse.  Through teaching a college course on Cold War politics under Professor Sarotte, I got to learn the details of this event and meet several key figures in this process, including former East German dissidents Siegbert “Siggi” Schefke (who, records later showed, was literally “public enemy number 1” in the eyes of the Stassi, the East German secret police) and Uwe Schwabe, as well as Tom Brokaw, who was present for key moments and helped narrate the process for America and the wider world.

1989 saw protests grow in East Germany and throughout the Communist Bloc, emboldened by Mikhail Gorbachev’s signals that he would not send the Red Army to crush dissent as had happened to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 (and as the Chinese Red Army would do in Tiananmen Square that summer). In these days before YouTube, Facebook and WorldStar (the trifecta of social media), young East German dissidents like Schefke and Schwabe were filming these protests (which of course were not being covered by East German state-controlled news services) and smuggling those videos across the border to West Germany, where TV stations broadcast and reported on them. Since those stations reached the East; this was a way of circumventing communist censorship.  These reports in turn encouraged more and larger protests, creating a reinforcing cycle.

Such were the circumstances leading into the evening of November 9, 1989.  The East German Communist leaders were involved in one of their high level meetings, strategizing ways to placate protestors with the veneer of reform without making real concessions on issues such as allowing travel out of the country (there was a reason they had to build a wall to keep people in).  Busy with their business, they left one bureaucrat, a man named Guenter Schabowski, to handle a scheduled press conference with international journalists (including Brokaw), and he was hastily handed a paper with announcements to make.  Near the end of his by all accounts boring press conference, Schabowski remembered that one of the points he was supposed to mention was that the regime would eventually allow less restricted travel outside of East Berlin, subject to certain limitations (the idea, of course, being that the limitations would in practice be so strict as to render the “relaxed” policy meaningless).

But the bureaucrat butchered the delivery, seeming to announce that the government had decided to open the Berlin Wall to allow travel across the divided city (the government had decided no such thing).  Worse yet for the regime, this official didn’t realize the impact of his words, casually affirming the understanding of reporters in the room that he had just announced the opening of the wall. And then he left, unwilling to stay past his scheduled one hour and oblivious of what he had just done.  The news hit the wire, and then the late news television broadcasts in West Germany, which, again, reached the East.

Slowly but surely, thousands of East Germans eventually ended up outside the Wall, demanding to be let through as had been promised them (according to reports, at least). Confused guards didn’t know what to do: stall, open fire, give in to the demands? The regime’s senior leadership was still unreachable, and so a local guard at one of the wall’s checkpoints named Harald Jäger made the call that violence risked escalating the situation out of control, and he opened the door.  And so it began – people started going through the wall; relatives who had not seen one another in decades were reunited. By the time that East German leaders realized what had happened, it was too late to close the door, so to speak. The Wall was open, and soon demolished, and with it the communist regime would be dismantled as well.

And like that, a regime characterized by disdain for democracy, which drew its support from Moscow rather than its own people, and which created a Wall as its signature accomplishment, was in the end destroyed when one of its bureaucrats gave an ill-advised press conference. A once-in-a-lifetime event (give or take one) that changed the world.

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