Reporters' Ruckus Who Told the World the Wall Was Down?

Journalists who were at the fateful press conference when a GDR official inadvertently announced the fall of the Berlin Wall still can't agree on just what happened that evening.
The media was full of the news of the opening of the wall – but which journalist triggered the fateful question?

Who broke the biggest story in the world on 9 November 1989? The news that the Berlin Wall had fallen, and that citizens of the GDR were free to travel to the West without permits or restriction, was the biggest scoop of the year. And reporters are still arguing about who got it.

On the evening of November 9, 1989, the East German government called a press conference at their media center in East Berlin. Most of the foreign correspondents there suspected change was in the air. In May that year, Hungary had opened its border with Austria, giving people in the Eastern Bloc a back route to the West. Over the summer GDR citizens occupied the West German embassies in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest.

In Leipzig, people began to gather and demonstrate for the freedom to travel.

At the end of September, the 10,000 GDR citizens who had waited at the embassy in Prague were told they could go West, in trains that had to pass through the GDR first. When the trains passed through Dresden, police had to stop people trying to jump on them. The protests in Leipzig grew.

In the GDR, in an attempt to quell rising protests, officials had been discussing how and when to ease border controls.

A well-known senior GDR official, Günter Schabowski, took to the stage. He appeared badly briefed and first delivered a rambling communique about party machinations. Then the questions began. Riccardo Ehrman, who worked for the Italian news agency Ansa asked about travel regulations. Mr. Schabowski answered with the same opaque bureaucratic language he had used earlier in the press conference, but the correspondents gradually began to realize something important was unfurling.

Reporters are still arguing over just who asked the question “Ab Wann?” or “From When?"

At one point, he pulled out a sheaf papers and read them aloud as if he was reading them for the first time. All GDR citizens, he said, would be permitted to travel to the West without presenting a formal request to the police authorities.

Then, one reporter asked the question that cut through the fog of officialdom. From when would these travel restrictions be implemented?

Mr. Schabowski answered “As far as I know, now – immediately.”

 

Quelle: dpa
Press conference on 9 November 1989, where Günter Schabowski inadvertantly announced the fall of the wall.
(Source: dpa)

 

Reporters are still arguing over just who asked the question “Ab Wann?” or “From When?"

Mr. Ehrman claims to be the one who asked the question. He also claims to be the first to have understood all the implications of the answers: if there were no travel restrictions, the Berlin Wall had effectively fallen down. Ehrman received the Bundesverdienst, or the Federal Cross of Merit, for his questioning of the hapless Mr. Schabowski, along with recognition from former chancellor Helmut Kohl.

But Peter Brinkmann, a reporter for the Bild Zeitung, Europe’s biggest tabloid, insists he asked the crucial question. “I asked that question – ab wann, and got the answer, ab sofort,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “Ehrman asked some questions earlier, but I asked that one.”

 

Quelle: dpa
Riccardo Ehrman at his Madrid home in October 2014.
(Source: dpa)

 

Mr Brinkmann was certainly in the better position: he had arrived at the press conference early and sat in the front row, at the center, in front of Mr. Schabowski. But Mr. Ehrman, who arrived late, perched at the edge of the podium, in full view of the cameras.

Ralph T. Niemeyer recently contacted The Wall Street Journal claiming he was actually the journalist who asked the critical question.

Television footage shows several reporters shouting questions at once. Mr. Brinkmann, for his part, believes the credit ought to be shared out. “We reporters were like a football team,” he said. “We worked together to score a goal. And we succeeded.”

Indeed, Stephan Russ-Mohl, a journalism professor who had been teaching at the Free University in West Berlin in 1989, said that ultimately, whichever print reporter got the story first, the news about the fall of the wall spread through television, radio and word of mouth.

“Newspapers, even then, were a day late,” he told Handelsblatt Global Edition. “People listened to the radio and watched television and decided to go down to the wall.”

Indeed, after the confusing press conference, the ARD television news station carried a clear message, “GDR opens border,” at 8 p.m. East Germans had already taken to watching West German television, and as the news that the border was open filtered out, they began to gather at check points, looking for a way through the wall.

The border guards were as confused as everyone else about what Mr. Schabowski meant. But as people gathered at Bornholmerstrasse, one of the most northern check points in Berlin, the head of passport control allowed them through, but invalidated their passports as he did so. As more people arrived, the guards eventually decided to open the gate and let everyone through.

Mr. Schabowski may not have intended to open up the Berlin Wall straight away, but by hastily answering a question he was not prepared for, that is exactly what he did.

 

Meera Selva is a British journalist based in Berlin, and an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact the author: [email protected]