The most important 24 seconds ever in a press conference

Unless you know what this is all about, the following 24 seconds from a press conference look remarkably tedious and the key moment of drama at 17 seconds in seems clothed in dullness.

But in terms of global impact, it’s hard to beat this brief press conference sequence:

The person answering the questions on November 9, 1989 was Günter Schabowski. In these few seconds he blundered his way into triggering the end of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the East German Community Party and a wave of further revolutions across Eastern Europe.

Not bad for one dull press conference answer.

Günter Schabowski died in 2015 and as the New York Times explained in his obituary:

The dramatic fall of the infamous Berlin Wall, the symbol of five decades of Cold War, played out almost as farce. It began in the early evening when Mr. Schabowski, newly appointed as Communist Party spokesman, dropped in on his boss en route to his daily press conference, itself an innovation for the secretive, all-controlling Communists.

“Anything to announce?” he asked casually. The party chief, Egon Krenz, thought for a moment, then handed Mr. Schabowski a two-page memo. “Take this,” he said with a grin. “It will do us a power of good.”

Mr. Schabowski scanned it in his limo. It seemed straightforward: a brief on legislation his boss forced through a reluctant Parliament that very afternoon that would give East Germans the right to travel to the West — and in doing so make the new regime the heroes of the people. At the press conference, he read it out as item four or five on a list of sundry announcements. It had to do with passports. Every East German would now, for the first time, have a right to one. They could go where they wanted, including to the West.

For a people locked for so long behind the Iron Curtain, this was momentous news. There was a sudden hush, then a ripple of excited murmuring. Mr. Schabowski droned on. From the back of the room, as the cameras rolled broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter shouted out the fateful question. “When does it take effect?”

Mr. Schabowski paused, looked up, suddenly confused. “What?”

The chorus of questions rang out again. Mr. Schabowski scratched his head, mumbled to aides on either side, perched his glasses on the end of his nose, shuffled through his papers, looked up — and shrugged. “Ab sofort.” Immediately. Without delay.

With that, the room (and the world) erupted. We now know that Mr. Schabowski was largely oblivious to the earthquake his words had caused. In fact, he had returned from a short vacation that very day. He didn’t know that the new rules were supposed to take effect the next day, Nov. 10 — subject to all sorts of fine print, including the requirement to obtain visas. East Germans didn’t, either. All they knew was what they had just heard on radio and TV. Thanks to Mr. Schabowski, they thought they were free to go. Now. Ab sofort.

By the tens of thousands, in a human tide not unlike that descending on Europe today, they converged on Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing points to West Berlin. Surprised and overwhelmed, receiving no instructions and not knowing what else to do, East German border police acted on their own. Like Mr. Schabowski, they shrugged — and threw open the gates to freedom. And so the Berlin Wall came down…

Never to underestimate the power of accident. What if Mr. Schabowski had not messed up, and the next day his citizens began lining up in orderly queues to visit the West? The dramatic images of East Berliners standing triumphantly atop the Wall, victors over a hated regime, would not exist. Without them, would the Velvet Revolution have come to Prague a week later? Would Romanians have arisen against the evil dictator Nicolae Ceausescu?

The story of this press conference, as well as the wider sequence of events in which people didn’t quite realise what they were doing or what they were signing off (a lesson there for all bureaucrats), is told in more detail in The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall by Mary Sarotte. It’s a great read.

For a less famous but more bizarre press conference, see City official resigns after press conference with fake snow and middle-aged man in a wig and dress.

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