In the autumn of 1989, the people of Eastern Europe had had enough of Socialism. In Poland in September, Lech Walesa and Solidarity formed the first non-Communist government in a Warsaw Pact nation. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel was organizing the Velvet Revolution from his prison cell, and thousands of East Germans were openly using the West German Embassy in Prague to escape their Stasi-controlled socialist paradise. In Hungary, the border was effectively open and tens of thousands of Eastern European “tourists” were flooding Austria, never to return.
In East Germany, and Berlin in particular, massive but peaceful protests rocked the Communist government. In early November, the protesters stopped chanting “We want out!” and began chanting “We are staying!”. The new East German leader, Egon Krenz, recognized that he would not be in power for long if some changes were not made. On 9 November 1989, he and his advisors finished reviewing the new rules which greatly lessened the restrictions on travel and the burdensome bureaucratic process needed to obtain approval, but it did not open the border.
A note about the new regulations was passed to his spokesman, Gunter Schabowski, who was having a press conference that evening. Schabowski told reporters that there would be changes to the regulations, but not the details since he didn’t have them. When asked, Schabowski assumed they would also include Berlin and that they were effective immediately. The reporters then assumed the changes would open the border as it was in Hungary, and ran with it. This was most definitely not the case, but within the hour, it was broadcast around the world that the inter-German border was open.
Thousands descended upon the gates in the Berlin Wall demanding that they be allowed to cross into West Berlin, because “Schabowski said we could”. East German Stasi Lieutenant Colonel Harald Jager of the Bornholmer Street Gate made repeated calls to his superiors asking for clarification. His superiors mocked him and told him to use force to clear the protesters since they knew nothing of the new regulations, despite it being all over the news. Jager refused and let the East Berliners through. They were met by celebrating West Berliners. Within days all of the gates in the Berlin Wall were open and several new ones were established when jubilant Berliners smashed through with pick axes and bulldozers.
The Cold War was over.