After World War II, defeated Nazi Germany divided into Democratic West Germany and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). West Germany thrived as a free, industrial society while East Germany lived under Soviet control. By 1961, over 20% of East Germany’s population fled to West Germany through the only place without barriers: the capital of Berlin. East Germany lost over 3.5 million of their mostly young, skilled, and educated citizens seeking freedom and opportunity. On August 13, 1961, the Communist Party declared the borders closed and the Berlin Wall was built.
Many believe that the Berlin Wall came down after United States President Ronald Reagan challenged leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to “tear down this wall!” in his 1987 speech. However, it was another speech that sparked the famous event. In 1989, Berlin faced hundreds of thousands protesting the strict travel enforcement and decided to ease regulations to temporarily relieve the pressure. GDR official, Gunter Schabowski, was given the updated policies to share with the public moments before a routine press conference with little time to proofread. At the end of his speech, he briefly mentioned the policy reversal regarding traveling abroad, implying much more than intended.
When asked when the change would take place, he shuffled through his papers and said, “According to my information… Immediately, without delay.” A chain reaction was set off by news outlets announcing that the border gates were wide open, when in fact, they were not.
The unprepared Schabowski had missed the note, at the end of his papers, that the modest changes would go into effect the following day when the passport offices opened.
Nothing could stop the cheering crowds that stormed the Wall. Tens of thousands of East Germans flooded into West Germany, completely overwhelming the guards and tearing down chunks of Wall as they went.
It was from that mistake at an otherwise dull and routine press conference that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany’s collapse, and the reunification of Germany after 44 years of division.