Planted Question at Wall’s Fall

This year of 2009 marks a couple of anniversaries calling for celebration, like NATO’s 60th birthday that President Obama traveled to Europe earlier this month in part to commemorate, or likewise the 60th birthday of the Federal Republic of Germany coming up next month. There will be the 220th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, which set off the French Revolution, on July 14th – and then of course, a bit more fresh in the mind, the twentieth anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination that that symbolized, coming up in November.

As we approach that latter celebration, a tiny but interesting detail has emerged concerning the exact sequence of events behind that “Fall of the Wall” on the evening (Central European Time) of 9 November, 1989. What that was basically all about was a massive swarm of citizens of East Berlin flooding to the Wall crossing-points – and then, indeed, over the border into West Berlin as they desired – motivated by the widespread belief that, in a drastic break from previous policy, the East German authorities would henceforth actually allow them to cross rather than shooting or at least arresting them, as would have previously been the case ever since the Wall’s erection starting on 13 August 1961. That understanding stemmed from a statement at a news conference just earlier that evening by Günter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo, to the effect that the full Politburo had decided to introduce a new travel policy allowing free movement by East German citizens to the West – whose coming-into-effect was said to be “immediate.”

As had already been realized by attendees at that event, Schabowski almost did not get the chance to announce this revolutionary change-of-policy, as that news conference had originally been convened to discuss the results coming out of the full East German Politburo’s meeting of earlier that week more generally, and it was only the last journalist’s question that unlocked from him that vital new piece of information. From that it had been assumed previously that Schabowski made some mistake, that the supposed new travel policy was really not something that the Politburo had approved but rather some sort of momentous slip of the tongue on Schabowski’s part – which, once it had led to masses of East Germans rushing to overwhelm the Berlin Wall crossing-points, could not really be corrected any more short of perpetrating some bloody massacres. After all, if the Politburo really did want to change the travel policy this way, one would assume that that news would have led off that news conference, front-and-center, rather than seeming like some sort of afterthought at the end and being dependent on some journalist’s last-minute question to bring it to the fore.

That journalist in question happened to be Riccardo Ehrman, someone with long experience reporting from East Germany for the Italian press-agency ANSA. Now Ehrman has let German television and the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel know that it was hardly any sort of coincidence that he posed the vital question that he did on that November evening twenty years ago. (Der Tagesspiegel’s article: The decisive question for the Wall’s fall: Not as spontaneous as so far thought.) Rather, Ehrman now maintains that, about an hour prior to going into that news conference, he had been called by “a high SED [East German Communist Party] functionary, a member of the Central Committee” with a request to be sure to ask Schabowski about the new travel policy – which of course he then did. And although Ehrman refuses even at this point to name a specific name, Matthias Schlegel, the author of the Tagesspiegel article, figures that this must have been Günter Pötschke, at the time head of the East German press-agency ADN, who certainly was a member of the Politburo.

Na Und?

So what is the point? From Schlegel’s article you get the impression that, in the first place, even after its meeting the East German Politburo had remained divided as to whether to introduce this new travel policy. Make no mistake: there was a clear faction, probably even a majority, that was in favor of doing so because they believed that such a measure to open up the state borders would relieve the growing political pressure on the East German regime. But it’s possible that Schabowski was one Politburo member not in favor of this measure, yet who was given the assignment of announcing it at the news conference on November 9. He almost got away with putting that announcement off and putting it off again – until that direct question from Ehrman meant he could no longer avoid discussing it.

For what it’s worth, coverage of this question by reporter Joost van der Vaart of the Netherlands’ NRC Handelsblad poses yet another angle to this “planted question” story. According to Van der Vaart, the travel-policy change which the East German Politburo had approved earlier that week introduced a certain freedom for East German citizens to travel over that state’s Western borders – but only having first received “permission” from the authorities, which would have been a fatal proviso in the minds of all East Germans who knew all too well what needing “permission” usually meant: certain denial. Yet when Riccardo Ehrman then asked his planted question about that policy at the news conference, Schabowski neglected to mention anything about “permission” prior to rounding off the press-event with his remark that the new policy was effective “immediately.” In this account, then, the main significance of Ehrman’s planted question was that it made Schabowski confront the issue but also provided him the opportunity to make his mistake of neglecting to mention anything about having to gain “permission.”

On the other hand, in the Tagesspiegel article the need for “permission” did constitute part of Schabowski’s explanation of what the new travel policy was all about, although his implication was that such permission would always swiftly be forthcoming. This would have been good enough to the ears of the East Berlin citizens, then, to send them rushing to the Wall crossing-points en masse without really feeling a need to worry about any such process for permission-application at all.

Clearly, then, there remains further room for clarification about just what did transpire in that series of developments behind the opening of the Berlin Wall. The new revelation by Riccardo Ehrman merely reminds us that those events were far murkier and more convoluted than many had previously assumed.

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