Günter Schabowski was considered a hardliner in the SED. Ironically he then promised the GDR citizens on November 9, 1989 in bumpy words the freedom of travel. Later, Schabowski criticized the system hard. A portrait.
In 1988, incidents at the extended secondary school Carl-von-Ossietzky in Berlin-Pankow cause a stir in the GDR. The peaceful protest of some students arouses the interest of the Stasi. At the end of the East Berlin SED boss Günter Schabowski ensures that they fly from school.
It all starts quite harmless. In the self-proclaimed peace state of the GDR, some prospective graduates sign a poster against military parades. They also mock the National People's Army with an ironic commentary on a poem. They have long been under surveillance by spies from the state security. When they finally express sympathy for the Polish trade union movement Solidarność, the school administration is alarmed.
Photo series with 14 pictures
The incidents are finally reported to the party. Criticism is undesirable in the authoritarian GDR system. Minister of Education Margot Honecker is seething with rage. Parents of the students again ask the party official Schabowski to mediate. But it makes clear what he thinks of the brave students. He instructs the school administration "to develop an atmosphere for rejecting the behavior of the provocative students". In plain language: The classmates should be made to decide on their own exclusion of their classmates. Finally, the class associations are forced to vote on the whereabouts of their classmates. In front of the assembled team, the school management then stages the reprimand of the protesters. The vote of the schoolmates gives the sanction a kind of pseudo-democratic painting.
From the Hitler Youth to the party studies in Moscow
Just one year later, it is precisely the same Schabowski at the world-famous press conference on November 9, 1989, who initiates the fall of the Berlin Wall. After the turn, he later publicly shows remorse as the only high official of the SED state. At the same time, Schabowski, born on January 4, 1929, in Anklam, Pomerania, was a devoted Party soldier for a long time.
From the beginning he met a tight political organization. Shortly after Schabowski's fourth birthday, the Nazis take power. As a teenager, he is a Hitler boy and brings him to the Scharfuhrer. Shortly after the war, he graduated from high school in ruined Berlin.
Schabowski summarizes new thoughts. First he joins the communist trade union movement and then the SED. Political conformity is required of everyone in the workers 'and peasants' state. But Schabowski wants more – he makes a career.
From the editor of a union newspaper, he rises to the editor-in-chief of the party organ "Neues Deutschland". On the way, he receives a special honor: a party study in Moscow.
Christa Wolf was afraid of Schabowski
For the SED is a journalist who "participates with journalistic means in the direction of ideological processes". The media are subject to strict censorship, have no control function, but fulfill propaganda purposes.
Günter Schabowski understands his craft and agitates eloquently. In the GDR, the numerous political jokes told behind closed doors are among the few possibilities of criticism. Schabowski is mocked as "Shah Bowski" for his loyalty to the lineage and his notorious hangover temper.
At the age of 56, he became head of the Berlin SED in 1985 after the fall of an adversary. With his appointment as secretary of the Central Committee he reports to Erich Honecker personally. From now on he is privy to all political decisions of the regime. And Schabowski is behind the repressive Honecker policy.
Günter Schabowski, Egon Krenz and other SED officials: Here at a protest rally in the Lustgarten. (Source: Werner Schulze / imago images)
Writer Christa Wolf, herself a member of the SED Party, says: "I remember one of Schabowski's few appearances in the Writers' Union.
Futile attempts to maintain power
Nevertheless, Günter Schabowski understands early that the GDR leadership is unable to recognize the signs of the times. The mass exodus via the Prague Embassy of the Federal Republic and the Hungarian border, the street protest of oppositionists or Gorbachev's reforms: "Instead of talking about the problems of the SED, he described the GDR's efficiency with a red head," recalls Schabowski in 2004 to a Honecker speech on the occasion of the 40th GDR birthday on October 7, 1989.
Therefore Schabowski instigates a kind of revolt later in the Politburo together with colleagues like Egon Krenz. Honecker has to sign a resignation statement issued by Schabowski. Small reforms are intended to reassure the protesting people. At the largest non-government-led demonstration of GDR history on November 4, Schabowski even makes himself available as a speaker. He feels like a renewer.
Ironically, Schabowski is now on the same list of speakers as Christa Wolf. He recalls, "The whistles, the boos that hit me, the sea of banners with cheeky, funny slogans that mocked the stumbling SED power and filled the field 'all over the place, that was the scene I remembered that memorable one November 4, 1989 on the Alex perceived. "
Despite the refusal, he continues to believe the party is indispensable: "We remain the vanguard that needs the crowd that does not understand itself."
A symbolic thought for the arrogance of the setting party leadership. By the end of his speech Schabowski is booed. No problem for him: "I did not feel bad, I had proven 'presence'."
Günter Schabowski: Member of the SED Central Committee, during the protest rally in Berlin-Mitte, in conversation with a journalist. (Source: Gueffroy / imago images)
November 9th changes everything
It was important to Schabowski – and this characteristic also played a role in the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Politburo concludes its easing on 9 November 1989 as the last straw, Schabowski is missing. He discusses with journalists in front of the building.
Later that day, he announces these changes at the government press conference. From the demanded by Krenz lock until 10 November he knows nothing. Thus, Schabowski sets the events of the evening in motion with his world-famous stutterer and prevents the border troops from getting ready at the crossings until the next day.
With 20 years distance Schabowski says the "Tagesspiegel" 2009: "The 9th November 1989 is for me a day that I look back with satisfaction and with a certain pride." That sets him apart from many of his former party-leader.
Schabowski asks for forgiveness
Schabowski quickly starts to express fundamental criticism of socialism. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, one thing is clear to him: "The question of the viability of a socialist ideology and compulsory society had been answered."
From 1993 he has to take legal responsibility for manslaughter in the Politburo trials. During a trial, he asks the relatives of the Mauertoten forgiveness. The fate of the refugees touches him: "As a former follower and protagonist of this world view I feel guilt and shame at the thought of those killed at the wall."
Schabowski was sentenced in 1997 to three years imprisonment, but was pardoned after a year by the governing mayor Eberhard Diepgen.
The 80-year-old Günter Schabowski: Here in 2009 in a podium discussion. (Source: Hoffmann / imago images)
He then appears in particular by his harsh criticism of the Left Party in which he accuses of having learned nothing from the failure of the predecessor party.
It's getting lonely around Schabowski. Only his wife Irina, a former TV journalist, and his two sons give him support. For the old comrades to Krenz and Hans Modrow he has long been a traitor.
His wife is fighting for the memory of the wall opener. For example, when the Bonn House of History buys the famous note from the press conference for 25,000 euros. This is the cold-blooded sale of a stolen thing. The Schabowskis had lent the note to acquaintances after the turnaround and never got it back.
Schabowski himself is seriously ill in his last years. Among other things, dementia torments him. In 2015 he dies at the age of 86 years. On November 9, 1989 Günter Schabowski could not remember.
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