Former East German official Günter Schabowski, who accidentally announced the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989, has died. He said the wall was open hours ahead of the official release and caused a political storm.
Schabowski's death on Sunday at the age of 86 in a Berlin care home brought back memories of the sensation he caused in 1989 when he said a Politburo decree to allow travel came "into effect, according to my information immediately, without delay."
As a senior East German Communist official, Schabowski was responding to a question on travel rules at a press conference on the evening of 9 November, 1989, while shuffling through notes in front of him.
It later emerged that the decision was not supposed to be formally released until 4 am the next morning.
Schabowski's reply in German - stammered seemingly as an afterthought - prompted East Germans to rush to border crossings that evening and sealed the rapid demise of the Soviet-backed regime led by the unrepentant Erich Honecker, who had headed the German Democratic Republic since 1971.
"Therefore... um... we have decided today... um... to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic... um... to... um... leave East Germany through any of the border crossings," Schabowski said at the press conference in 1989.
For months pressure had been building among East Germans for free travel.
Schabowski's wife and life
The German agency DPA said Schabowski's wife Irina had reported his death early on Sunday, reportedly after a series of strokes.
The young Schabowski studied journalism after World War Two and rose to become editor of the "Neues Deutschland," a newspaper closely aligned to Honecker's regime.
Schabowski became Politiburo member in 1984 and had been tipped as potential successor to party chief Honecker alongside contemporary Egon Krenz.
Jailed over border shootings
Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1,400 kilometer-long inner-German border, Schabowski and two other Politburo members were jailed on charges of tolerating the former regime's fatal shootings of escaping East Germans along the border.
Unlike six other accused former Politiburo members, Schabowski said during the trial in 1997 that nothing could justify that "even a single person" had had to pay for trying to flee with his or her life.
He also claimed to have contributed to a process of de-escalation during 1989. Early in 1990, he was excluded from the East German left's successor grouping, the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).
Schabowski was freed in 2000 after a pardon issued by the then Berlin mayor Eberhard Diepgen.
Schabowski went on to write several books and gave lectures recounting the communist collapse. He rebuffed accusations by communist contemporaries that he had become a "traitor."
"They hate me, the diehards," he reportedly told Germany's political magazine "Cicero" in 2006, saying they did so because he had "grappled with communism and its creation, the GDR."
A wall from 1961 to 1989
East German authorities closed the border to West Germany overnight on August 13, 1961 to stop a population exodus from the communist state.
The Berlin Wall and the GDR's long inner-German border fence made East Germans prisoners under their own regime until it was toppled in 1989.
ipj/jm (dpa, AFP, Munzinger, Reuters)