The Fourth Man: Who Prompted the Fall of the Berlin Wall?

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tags: BERLIN WALL



The fall of the Berlin Wall, 25 years ago this weekend, was one of the few turning points in history that journalists not only witnessed but helped cause.

We can now reveal whodunit.

The Wall opened after rapid-fire questioning at a press conference on Nov. 9, 1989 led a member of East Germany’s Politburo, Günter Schabowski, to botch the announcement of new travel regulations. Mr. Schabowski’s confusing answers gave the impression that Communist East Germany had opened its borders with immediate effect.

It hadn’t. But Mr. Schabowski’s confusion, amplified by the media, led East Berliners to gather at border crossings in such numbers that they peacefully overwhelmed the guards, who were just as confused as everyone else.

That night’s chaos accelerated the end of East Germany, of the Soviet Union’s empire in Central Europe, and of the Cold War.

That makes Schabowski’s hour of fame probably the most historically important press conference of all time.

Who were the journalists whose questions rattled Mr. Schabowski so badly that he pulled the rug from under his own regime?

In 2009, The Wall Street Journal revealed that four journalists were responsible for flummoxing Mr. Schabowski. They were:

Riccardo Ehrman of Italian news agency ANSA, who first raised the question of freedom to travel, prompting Mr. Schabowski to say that the regime had decided to make it easier for East Germans to travel abroad.

Peter Brinkmann of German tabloid Bild, whose repeated shouted questions that kept Mr. Schabowski under pressure.

Krzysztof Janowski of Voice of America, who wanted to know whether looser border restrictions also applied to Berlin.

The Fourth Man: a mystery reporter whose question from the edge of the room – “When does that take effect?” – led Mr. Schabowski to make the crucial gaffe. “Immediately. Without delay,” Mr. Schabowski blundered.

That answer led news agencies, and eventually West German television, to announce that the Wall was open – a falsehood that made itself come true a few hours later, as crowds of eager East Germans browbeat demoralized border guards into opening the gates to West Berlin.

So who was the Fourth Man?

In October, German journalist and businessman Ralph T. Niemeyer emailed the Journal, announcing: “I was actually the ‘fourth man’ who you say was never identified.” In 1989, he was a 20-year-old reporter with a small, now-defunct news agency in Bonn called dapa.




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