By Dom Cioffi
Günther Schabowski has died.
While that news will undoubtedly leave most Americans wrestling with questions of why they should even care, for millions of people in Germany, he represents an epic paradigm shift in their history.
East Germany (as you’ll remember from your history textbooks) constructed the Berlin Wall in 1961 in an attempt to halt the massive emigration and defection of citizens trying to escape into Europe. East German propaganda, however, couched the concrete barrier as a valiant attempt at protecting its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent the building of a modern socialist state.
The truth is that there was a massive brain-drain of talent out of East Germany and the folks in charge were becoming increasingly concerned that this would negatively affect their future plans.
Regardless of why it was constructed, the Berlin Wall symbolized the strict delineation between Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc communist nations; it was the literal “Iron Curtain” of the Cold War period.
The Berlin Wall instilled fear in citizens, who knew that any attempt at climbing over it would be met with gunfire and an untimely death. In fact, over the course of its nearly 30-year existence, hundreds of people lost their lives trying to scale the infamous barrier.
In November of 1989, Günther Schabowski was an East German official in the Politburo – the executive committee of the reigning Communist Party – who planned to speak at a regularly scheduled press conference. No one in attendance expected anything earth shaking, since little of importance was on the agenda.
However, for several months prior to this particular press conference, pressure had been building to lessen restrictions so East Germans could finally travel freely to the West. While hope was reigning, no official word had ever been issued on the subject.
Just before entering the press conference, Schabowski was handed some paperwork and briefed on some new travel rules that would be slowly integrated. He reviewed the information but did not have the time to fully digest the documents.
As they neared the end of the press conference, a journalist stood up and asked about current travel restrictions. Schabowski, who was clearly unprepared for the question (you can see the actual press conference on YouTube), fumbled through his papers before finally stating: “We have decided today to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic to leave East Germany through any of the border crossings.”
He was then asked when the lifting of restrictions would take effect. His nervous response: “According to my information… immediately, without delay.”
The room was in shock.
As it turns out, the information Schabowski provided was incorrect. Citizens were going to be allowed to apply for visas, but the government was certainly not planning on opening its borders at that moment.
But the damage had been done.
As news spread, thousands of people arrived at the border stations. The guards were overwhelmed and uninformed. Thankfully, instead of firing on the crowds, those in charge simply opened the gates and allowed people to exit.
People cheered in the streets as jubilation erupted throughout the Republic.
In less than a year, East Germany’s Communist regime collapsed and free elections followed. The state itself vanished when reunification with Germany occurred in October 1990.
Schabowski was later sentenced to a prison term for his responsibility in the deaths of those trying to escape over the Berlin Wall. However, after serving only one year, his sentence was commuted. He later turned to journalism where he was very careful about the words he chose.
This week’s movie, “Our Brand is Crisis,” features modern day politicians who have the same issues with fumbling words. In this case, however, a presidential election is at stake.
Starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton, “Our Brand is Crisis” is a fictionalized version of actual events that occurred during the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections.
In terms of political satire, this movie lacks the dramatic flair and consistent humor to be seriously considered. The main players deliver worthy performances, but a lackluster storyline hampers the overall success of the film.
Check this one if you love politics, otherwise save your theater dollars for other fare.
A constraining “C-” for “Our Brand is Crisis.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.