Practically, this is exactly what happened.
Günter Schabowski gets a little folded text note that he knew nothing about informing him about new planned travel regulations. Schabowski went on to announce those in the then daily evening press briefings. He was not even supposed to read it out in that way and if he did in knowledge of what the Politbüro discussed at least to explain that from the next day onwards, people were allowed to make visits to the West crossing over all "established border crossings".
Note that he mainly talked about "travel" beforehand and 'permanent travel' (in GDR talk, Ausreise = emigration) in the crucial passage. In essence the new regulation was meant only to stop emigration via West German embassies in Prague, Warsaw etc, to bring that whole messy procedure back into the hands of East Germany. That exact regulation wasn't meant to allow short travel visites with East Germans returning voluntarily home, but only speeding up emigration.
Now emigration should be possible without all previous arbitrary reasons needed to obtain a permit. That was all thought of being an orderly administrative process, with people still applying for permits, at their local people's police station, although in intent being granted those swiftly. Nice detail: they would get a permit swiftly but still had to use a passport. And that would take on average six weeks to process.
And also crucially this new regulation coming into effect only at morning next day, after the border guards were briefed how to handle that in detail. Nothing of the sort happened. Because Schabowski didn't know the unwritten details and omitted the coming into effect date.
After being asked about the date for it to become effective he simply inferred (mumbling and shuffling through his papers): "immediately".
That meant that via worldwide television the citizens heard that anyone could now "Go West", no strings attached whatsoever. Clearly a misunderstanding, but neither Schabowski nor the other press people bothered to look into any details. One factor being that GDR talk used Ausreise (literally 'travel out' ie permanent emigration, although in ordinary German still used and just meaning the point in time that a traveling man crosses a border) as well as Reise (ordinary 'travel' in all German talk, meaning leaving a land and at some time returning to it) in a conundrum of speech regulations.
As the citizens of East Berlin then set in move en masse towards the border quoting the party official from the "party that was always right" the border guards were stooped and asked around what to do. At first they didn't believe it at all and just held them up. Then they let a few through but the guards stamped the passports of those they did let through as "permanently gave up GDR citizenship" ('a never to return troublemaker anyways'). Only those that were let through for what they intended mostly: 'a short walk in the west' (most came without any baggage and out of curiosity), motivated still others to also come (knowing nothing about technically loosing citizenship in the process). After a few hours the guards gave up everything, let through a human wave unhindered and the next day the party accepted a fait accompli.
Günter Schabowski: Press conference: the opening of the Berlin Wall
October 1989, Schabowski, along with several other members of the Politbüro, turned on longtime SED leader Erich Honecker and forced him to step down in favor of Egon Krenz. As part of the effort to change the regime's image, Schabowski was named the regime's unofficial spokesman, and he held several daily press conferences to announce changes. He had already been in charge of media affairs for the Politbüro before then. He was also reportedly named the number-two man in the SED, Krenz's old role. Schabowski had spent most of his career in Communist-style journalism, in which reporters were told what to write after events had already happened. He thus found it somewhat difficult to get used to Western-style media practice.
On 9 November 1989, shortly before that day's press conference, Krenz handed Schabowski a text containing new, temporary travel regulations. The text stipulated that East German citizens could apply for permission to travel abroad without having to meet the previous requirements for those trips, and also allowed for permanent emigration between all border crossings—including those between East and West Berlin. The text was supposed to be embargoed until the next morning.
Schabowski had not been on hand when Krenz read the text earlier in the day to several Politbüro members during a cigarette break at that day's Central Committee plenum, nor had he been there when it was discussed before the full committee. However, he felt comfortable discussing it at the press conference; he later said that all one needed to do in order to conduct a press conference was be able to speak German and read a text without mistakes. Accordingly, he read the note aloud at the end of the press conference. One of the reporters asked when the regulations would come into effect. Schabowski assumed it would be the same day based on the wording of the note, and replied after a few seconds' pause: "As far as I know — effective immediately, without delay." (German: Das tritt nach meiner Kenntnis … ist das sofort … unverzüglich.) Accounts differ on who asked that question. Both Riccardo Ehrman, the Berlin correspondent of the ANSA news agency, and German Bild Zeitung (a tabloid) reporter Peter Brinkmann were sitting on the front row at the press conference, and claimed to have asked when the regulations would come into force.
Later, when asked whether the new regulations also applied to travel between East and West Berlin, Schabowski looked at the text again and discovered that they did. When Daniel Johnson of The Daily Telegraph asked what that meant for the Berlin Wall, Schabowski sat frozen before giving a rambling statement about the Wall being tied to the larger disarmament question.
After the press conference, Schabowski sat down for a live interview with NBC's Tom Brokaw. When Brokaw asked him if it was indeed true that East Germans could now travel without having to go through a third country, Schabowski replied in broken English that East Germans were "not further forced to leave GDR by transit through another country," and could now "go through the border." When Brokaw asked if this meant "freedom of travel," Schabowski replied, "Yes of course," and added that it was not "a question of tourism," but "a permission of leaving GDR."
The West German public national television channels showed parts of Schabowski's press conference in their main evening news reports at 7:17 PM on ZDF's heute and at 8 PM on ARD's Tagesschau; this meant that the news was broadcast to nearly all of East Germany, where West German television was widely watched, as well. The news then spread like wildfire with news reports continuing to repeat the news throughout the night.
As the night progressed, thousands of East Berliners began proceeding to the six border crossings along the Berlin Wall. They demanded to be let through. Live TV reported on the gathering people which only increased the numbers of East Berliners coming to the gates. The crowds vastly outnumbered the border guards who initially tried to stall for time. However, no one was willing to order deadly force. Finally, at 11:30 pm, Stasi officer Harald Jäger decided to open the gates at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing and allow people into West Berlin.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was the key event leading to the end of the East German regime, a state that had been crumbling for many weeks as citizens had been fleeing through intermediate countries surrounding East Germany. Indeed, Victor Sebestyen later wrote that when the gates were opened, for all intents and purposes, East Germany "ceased to exist." He also wrote that many of Schabowski's colleagues suspected he was either an American or West German agent, and could not believe that he had made "a simple cock-up." In 2014, his wife claimed that Schabowski had been well aware of the possible consequences of what he said in the press conference.
There is still a bit of interpretation left. That it all was 'just a mistake' … hm. Well it's tempting to ascribe it to the power of 'one word', uninterrupted propaganda (West-German TV really seized the opportunity) or then just the mass human wave overcoming the armed and ready to shoot border guards? But it is quite clear that the 'East Germans brought down the wall', not Helmut Kohl or Ronald Reagan or Michail Gorbachev. And one East German communist man in particular had a most significant role in it.
This is the crucial video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZiAxgYY75Y and his former superior evaluating that event years later: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VujRixEso5U
West German TV on that day, still emphasising that Schabowski mainly talked about permanent migration, although ordinary short term private travel is now even more confusingly mixed in:
20:00: Tagesschau vom 09. November 1989
Take note of the context: By then it was reported that 50000 GDR citizens were leaving daily and permanently via CSSR and Hungary, 'naturally' without any permits from the GDR government, across the iron curtain from other Warsaw Pact states. And that the West German minister of the interior issued a declaration informing GDR citizens about to leave or already arriving in the West that they would face for a long time personal living conditions in the West quite markedly below the living standards in the East that they were accustomed to.
The first East German TV news was broadcast 30 minutes after the end of the press briefing and just recounts the main points read out by Schabowski
19:30: Aktuelle Kamera vom 09. November 1989
The emphasis is still on "private travel, from now on, can be applied for"
And how the tone and content of West German news changed just within 2 hours later:
21:45: "ZDF heute-journal" vom 09. November 1989
22:30: Tagesthemen vom 09. November 1989
(3 main newscasts in one video)
That 22:30 news opened by declaring the wall as 'history', "gates wide open" telling only about the temporary travel regulations, for anyone willing to, and already showing West German officials expecting all those Easterners about to arrive in the West at borders in West Berlin. While their own reporters at two different border still cannot provide any pictures of that, as the border guards then still tried to stall and hold the line. Only occasionally were people let through with all of the first 'early adopters' of temporary travel receiving a stamp of 'permanently emigrated', although that quickly lost all meaning and was eventually abandoned.
This was strictly speaking "fake news". At that point in time things were still unclear and only very few managed to get through. As can be seen in the video, the news-people spoke of "masses" and were not able to show more than 5 people from West Berlin who re-told some hearsay.
19:00 Press briefing ends
19:30 West Berlin mayor expected such a move for mid-December but announces that West Berliners should prepare for what is to come "for tomorrow"
19:30 GDR public is informed of the text via own news broadcast (less than 100 people start testing the border)
20:00 Main West German news repeats the text as well
20:30 Without much pressure, border-guard and Stais Oberstleutnant Heinz Schäfer instructs his troops at the little known border crossing Waltersdorfer Chaussee/Rudower Chausee out of own initiative to disarm and open the gate to let everyone who might come through even without any passport controls (only few realised this option)
[But Stasi documents speak of the first people arriving at that gate only at 23:00, being let out with permanent passport markings at 23:15]
20:47 East German Politbüro members leave their internal conference and get briefed about what happened "meanwhile", they knew nothing of all that and are confused
"meanwhile" more East Berliners started to move and make demands; faced with between 500–1000 citizens the Stasi decides to try a valve solution: stamp one after the other as excommunicated and let those through
21:00 Border guards raise "silent alarm" (somethings brewing at the control points)
22:00 late edition of East German TV tries to de-escalate and re-emphasises the "private travel after application for it"
22:45 West German TV declares wall as history
23:00 situation at border crossing gets tumultuos, thousands gather, and are still largely withheld
23:30 situation gets dangerous, a few people were allowed to go, inciting thousands more to come and increase pressure, valve solution abandoned
00:00 Soviet vice-ambassador Maximytschew decides to not inform Moscow in order to prevent any "knee-jerk reactions" after the wall has effectively been breached now
00:20 all 12.000 East German security institutions in Berlin get the order "increased combat readiness" and prepare covertly for action; further orders are not issued and in the course of events local commanders start take back that order
02:00 the state leadership announces that until 08:00 things are going to be as they are, but that it all shall end then again
– meanwhile West German media does nothing else than to report on the events unfolding
08:00 as announced GDR officials try to restart orderly border-regime and crossings. They fail. At the same time the party envisioned applications for travel permits also start to roll in en masse, binding security forces across the whole country
As an English transcript of the relevant part of that press conference seems not easy to locate on the net:
GS: So, we want through a series of circumstances, including the travel law, the chance of the sovereign decision of the citizen to travel wherever he wants. (Uh) We are of course (uh) concerned that the possibility of this travel law, - it is still not in force, it is a draft.
However, today, as far as I know (looks at these words consenting towards Labs and Banaschak), a decision has been made. A recommendation by the Politbüro has been taken up, that the former passus which used to be included should be removed from the draft and the modified travel law allowed to enter into force for perm… – as they say so beautifully or so unpleasantly - regulates the permanent departure, i.e. the leaving of the republic. Because we (uh) consider it to be an impossible situation that this movement takes place (uh) via a friendly state (uh), which is not easy for this state either. And that is why (uh) we have decided to make today (uh) a regulation which makes it possible (uh) for every citizen of the GDR to leave the country via border crossing points of the GDR (uh).
Question: When does that come into effect?
GS: (Scratches his head) So, comrades, I've been told about this here (sits his glasses on as he continues, leafs through his papers, pulls a paper), that such a message has already been (uh) spread today. It should actually be in your possession. So (reads very quickly from the sheet):
"Private trips abroad can be applied for without the existence of prerequisites – reasons for travel and family relationships. The permits are issued on short notice. The responsible departments of passport and registration of the VPKÄ - the Volkspolizeikreisämter (people's police district offices) – in the GDR are instructed to issue visas for permanent departure without delay, without having to meet any conditions for permanent departure. (Äh) Permanent departures can take place via all border crossing points of the GDR to the FRG. This means that the temporary granting of corresponding permits in GDR missions abroad or the permanent departure with the GDR identity card via third countries is no longer necessary."
(Looks up.) (Äh) I can't answer the passport question now (looks questioningly towards Labs and Banaschak). That is also a technical question. I don't know, the passports must be, … so that everyone is in possession of a passport, one would have to be issued first. But we wanted
Banaschak: interrupts Schabowski undecipherably, incomprehensibly
Question: When will that come into effect?
GS: (Scrolls through his papers.) To the best of my knowledge … that is immediately, immediately (scrolls further in his documents).
Question: (voices buzzing) You only said FRG, does that also apply to West Berlin?
GS: (Reads quickly, swallowing a few words:) 'Like the press department of the Ministry …, the Council of Ministers has decided that this transitional regulation will be put into effect by the People's Chamber until a corresponding legal regulation comes into force'.
Question: Does that also apply to Berlin-West?
GS: (He shrugs his shoulders, pulls the corners of his mouth downwards, looks into his papers.) So (pause), yes, but (read aloud): "The constant departure can take place over all border crossing points of the GDR to the FRG or to Berlin West."
Question: (Confusion of voices) Does this mean that from now on the citizens of the GDR… (Journalist introduces himself, phonetically:) Christoph Janowski. (newspaper and/or agency not understandable) … does that mean that from now on GDR citizens are not allowed to leave Czechoslovakia or Poland?
GS: Yeah, it doesn't say anything about that at all. Rather we hope that in this way (uh) this movement regulates itself in the sense we strive for it.
Question: (Confusion of voices, incomprehensible question).
GS: I have heard nothing to the contrary.
Question: (Confusion of voices, incomprehensible question).
GS: I have heard nothing to the contrary.
Question: (Confusion of voices, incomprehensible question).
GS: Yes, I did not hear anything to the contrary. I only express myself so cautiously, because now I am not, therefore, constantly up to date in this question, but shortly before I came over, I got this information pressed into my hand.
(Some journalists hurriedly left the room.)
Question: Mr. Schabowski, what will happen to the Berlin Wall now?
GS: I am reminded that it is 19.00 hrs. It is the last question, yes! Please understand that.
GS: What about the Berlin Wall? Information has already been given on this in connection with travel. (Uh) The question of travelling, (uh) the permeability of the Berlin Wall from our side, does not yet answer and exclusively the question of the meaning, that is, this, I'll say it this way, fortified state border of the GDR. (Uh)
We have always said that there are some other factors (uh) that need to be taken into account. And these relate to the complex of questions which Comrade Krenz raised in his presentation in the - with regard to relations between the GDR and the FRG, with regard to (er) the need to continue the peacekeeping process with new initiatives. And (uh) certainly the debate on this question (uh) can be positively influenced, if also the FRG and if the NATO decides on disarmament steps and asserts them, like or similar to the GDR this and other socialist states have already done with certain preliminary performances.
It may be the case that the text quoted by OP is alluding to a still more nuanced detail. Schabowski was not a mid level bureaucrat!
As already noted, the intent of the short note was to announce merely that new emigration laws were to be applied to channel the emigrants over GDR borders again. That the compelled speech regulations in the GDR called this also 'travel out' gave the opportunity to insert other travel related regulations into the new text. And at that point a quite sub-altern functionary inserted three lines:
"Private travel to foreign countries can be applied for without any prerequisites (reasons for travel and family relationships). Permits are granted at short notice. Reasons for refusal will only be applied in exceptional cases."
Which were not anywhere on the agenda of what the leading Politbüro discussed beforehand, the state security council pre-formulated, but the sub-committee eventually agreed to being added to it. The final proposal is then read out in the Central Committee, under the preliminary yet also final title "Proposal for a decision on changing the situation of permanent departure of GDR citizens to Germany via the CSSR". No one objects. After a long series of discussions when they apparently themselves forgot what they really mean with 'travel' at any given time. (Among other evidence: The members of the Central Committee are on record from sitting the day to have been baffled by what happened, looking for scapegoats all around, only much later claiming that 'it was our intention all along'.)
So this small addendum gets into the text, which as a whole is still barred from announcement until November 10th, 0400. This news tidbit is what's on the little paper Schabowski receives via Krenz, all now informally referring to that paper as "new travel regulations" including the retention order to not release it until 0400.
The name of this mid-level functionary was Gerhard Lauter. From 1 July 1989 until reunification, he was head of the passport and registration department at the Ministry of the Interior of the GDR. After coming back from a theatre visit at 2200 on the night of November 9, he was informed of the early release and spent the rest of the night in crisis management at his post.
Schabowksi's paper showing what he planned to talk about at the press briefing
Src: Dokument Original "Schabowski-Zettel"
And the text to be released the next day, given by Krenz to Schabowski with allegedly the words "why not read this out tonight?" (according to Schabowski):
(online version [here], complete set of decision plus press release for November 10th as PDF24)
–– Source: Hans-Hermann Hertle: "Chronik des Mauerfalls. Die dramatischen Ereignisse um den 9. November 1989", Ch. Links: Nerlin, 112009.
until today, Thursday 9 November 1989, 18.00 hours
to confirm the accuracy of this information by circular letter.
Confidential classified information
Title of the template:
Temporary transitional regime for travel and permanent departure from the GDR
Submitter of the template:
Chairman of the Council of Ministers
signed Willi Stoph
Berlin, 9 November 1989
The attached Decision on the temporary and transitional arrangements for travel and permanent departure from the GDR is hereby confirmed.
Proposal for a decision
To change the situation of permanent departure of GDR citizens to the FRG via the CSSR is established:
The decree of 30 November 1988 on travel abroad by citizens of the GDR (GBl. I No. 25 p. 271) is no longer applicable until the new travel law comes into force.
With immediate effect, the following temporary transitional arrangements for travel and permanent departures from the GDR to other countries will come into force:
-2. a) Private travel to foreign countries can be applied for without the existence of prerequisites (reasons for travel and family relationships). Permits are granted at short notice. Reasons for refusal are only applied in exceptional cases.
-2. b) The competent passport and registration departments of the VPKÄ in the GDR are instructed to issue visas for permanent departure without delay, without the need for any conditions for permanent departure. As before, applications for permanent departure can also be submitted to the Internal Affairs departments.
-2. c) Permanent departures can be made via all border crossing points of the GDR to the FRG or to Berlin (West).
-2. d)This means that the temporary granting of corresponding permits in GDR missions abroad or the permanent departure with the GDR identity card via third countries is no longer necessary.
The attached press release on the temporary transitional arrangements will be published on 10 November 1989.
Government spokesman at the GDR Council of Ministers
The items 2 & 2a is the trojan horse here, smuggled in by primarily 4 sub-committee members, 2 from minister of the interior, 2 from the minister of state security, under Lauter. The heading and the entire rest of the paper only talk about permanent emigration. But 2 ("travel & out travel") and 2a ("Private travel") made this sandwich so juicy.
Main events in a timeline in English: Chronik der Mauer
Going back to the exact quoted claim in question: Who exactly "declared the wall to be open" may remain a matter of perspective:
- The basic words leading to the events were formulated as a proposal around midday by four midl-level officers in a subcommittee, intent to come into effect after approval from high-up, orderly the next day
- Chairman Krenz reads the text out to the Politbüro and after no objections gives the proposal text to Schabowksi, apparently without clear instructions, shortly before press briefing
- Inner Circle member Schabowksi reads out the proposal text at press briefing, while Politbüro still in session, answers questions about the confusing text with ever more confusing details, says the famous "immediately, without delay" and hints at 'wall not really making sense anymore'
- uniformed but uninformed local border guards make localised decisions regarding permeability ad hoc and under pressure, from "shall not pass", to "shall pass with pass stamped", to "shall pass, who cares"
- but the last decision taken only after West German TV moderator "declares gates wide open", with the precise words, before the fact
- border guards give in into pressure from the masses, security forces and military ordered to prepare then to stand down, even as masses pour in all directions and some even start squatting on the wall
! Stages that night:
! Next day:
! symbolic picture of Krenz from Nov 9