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18 November 2014

John Simpson: the raising of the Iron Curtain felt like a miracle

It all happened because of the use of a single German word, unverzüglich: “immediately”, or “at once”.

By John Simpson

Over the past few days, reading and listening to all the reports about the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, you could be forgiven for thinking it must have been totally predictable.

Actually, not. Neither the political scientists nor the intelligence experts, nor the journalists who specialised in east-west relations, saw it coming. The shocked surprise on the chubby features of the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, when someone told him the news at a public appearance in Poland, showed he hadn’t expected it either. And it all happened because of the use of a single German word, unverzüglich: “immediately”, or “at once”.

On the evening of Thursday 9 November 1989, about 300 journalists crammed into an unremarkable hall in an official East Berlin building. No one guessed that our world was about to be convulsed. We were all aware that attitudes were changing in the East German Central Committee, but we had no idea what was coming. Nor did the Central Committee.

Shortly after 7pm, its media secretary, Günter Schabowski, sat down in front of the microphones. He was a straight-dealing, decent character, and indeed in recent weeks the corrupt old time-servers in the East German Politburo had mostly been eased out. The new members had been trying to change the rules that kept East Germans trapped in their claustrophobic statelet, but the basic system seemed solid enough.

Schabowski talked for a while about the new, pluralist philosophy of the regime, and the forthcoming party conference. Then there was an awkward pause. He whispered to the official sitting beside him and shuffled through his documents. The other man leant over and pointed to a particular piece of paper. Schabowski started reading from it. “This will be interesting for you,” he said. “Today the decision was taken to make it possible for all citizens to leave the country through the official border crossing-points. All citizens of the German Democratic Republic can now be issued with visas for the purposes of travel or visiting relatives in the West. This order is to take effect at once.”

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He used the word “unverzüglich”. A correspondent from East German radio called out: “What exactly does unverzüglich mean in this context?” Schabowski paused, then said, “Well, it just means straight away.”

What the Central Committee had actually decided was that from now on anyone could apply for a visa to the West and get one. It would be a bureaucratic process, and would take some time. But Schabowski’s use of the phrase “straight away” gave a totally different impression. The tens of thousands of East Berliners watching him live on television assumed that he meant they could just go to the Wall and be allowed through. The word spread. Within minutes crowds of people were heading for the crossing-points. Once, the border guards would have shot them down. But things were changing, and anyway they had no orders to stop the crowds; so they grinned and waved them through. Soon the bolder spirits were clambering up on to the top of the Wall and dancing and partying there. My late friend and colleague Brian Hanrahan and his camera crew joined them. No one stopped them.

In the following days and weeks, the story went round that somebody whom no one recognised had handed Schabowski the piece of paper he had read from. “If you find out how that announcement came about,” a West German civil servant said to me, “you must tell everyone. It’s the great mystery of our time.”

A week after the announcement, a senior Christian Democrat official told a radio interviewer, “We still don’t know who wrote that small piece of paper which ordered the Wall to come down . . . Even the man who read it out was amazed.” Otherwise sensible people started saying it had been a miracle, and even that an angel had been responsible for it. I eventually tracked down Günter Schabowski, who was now out of a job, and asked him about the miracle. He laughed. The mysterious piece of paper, supposedly written with the pen of an angel, was the typed-up note of the Central Committee decision. When he’d arrived at the press conference it had been on top of his other papers, but somehow it had got mixed up with the rest, so he decided to read out the other announcements first, hoping that it would emerge. It turned out to be at the bottom of the pile.

As for that word, “unverzüglich”, which changed everything, he’d used it because he was flustered about losing the piece of paper. End of miracle. Except that it wasn’t, really. What happened at the Berlin Wall was wonderful: the entirely peaceful end of something that had represented such violence and brutality for so long. I’ve never seen such undiluted joy.

The next night, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, I was the lead on the BBC news. We knew we would have the biggest audience in British television history. And then, halfway through my live report, someone pulled the plug on us. John Humphrys’s voice came to me forlornly from London: “We seem to have lost John Simpson there.” In the deepest gloom and humiliation, I wandered off into the darkness towards the Wall. Then I came across a group of delighted young men and women standing beside the concrete monstrosity, holding up candles and cigarette lighters and listening entranced to the sound of hammering from the other side of the Wall – the eastern side. As we watched, a hole started to appear. Then a hand reached through and was grabbed delightedly by hands on the western side.

It really was a miracle, after all. 

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC

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