… was a mistake. Not the address you’re thinking of, American. On this date twenty years ago, East German Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski was giving a press conference. Immediately before it had started, he had been handed a note instructing him to announce some new travel regulations that had been intended to appease East German protesters. These regulations included a provision for the travel of private citizens to the West, and it’s unclear whether it was meant as more than an empty promise, as the East German government had neither conferred with the Soviets nor ordered the armed border guards to stand down.
So into the sleepy little press conference Schabowski read his note, announcing that private travel visas to the West would be granted. “When?” asked the reporters.
And then came the mistake.
“As far as I know, immediately, without delay,” replied Schabowski.
A tiny stumble on a mountainside leads to a great fall. During the evening news broadcast in West Germany, the anchor Hanns Friedrichs joyfully proclaimed that the ninth of November was a historic day, for the East German government had announced that its borders were open. East Germans who listened surreptitiously to the Western broadcast immediately gathered at the gate. Within an hour, thousands had gathered at the Wall.
In a nearby possible world, this story ends with a bloody riot. Armed guards shoot the boldest of the misinformed citizens; the uninjured retaliate. Guards are killed, the police put down the riot, and the Wall stands, not forever, but for a little while longer as the Soviets eased into openness.
In this world, Harald Jäger, in command at the Bornholmer Gate, decided not to shoot. He called his superiors, who of course had heard of no such policy change, and faced with the gathering, chanting crowds, decided to let a few cross the border; by midnight, he simply opened the gate to all, not taking names or checking identification.
As the news spread and more Ossis came to the Wall, other gates opened throughout the night, and what was done was done. Eleven months later the states of the DDR would join the West, reuniting Germany.