The mistake that toppled the Berlin Wall

The mistake that toppled the Berlin Wall

If you know one thing about the fall of the
Berlin Wall, it might be this.
REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
Or this.
Or maybe…
HASSELHOFF: I’ve been looking for freedom!
These moments were huge in unifying Berlin
and undermining the physical symbol of a divided
Europe during the Cold War.
But they don’t top this one. The last few
minutes of an otherwise uneventful press conference
on November 9th, 1989:
It might not look like it, but this is the
moment the Berlin Wall became obsolete – completely
by mistake.
After the allied powers defeated Nazi Germany
in World War II, they divided the country
into four parts, each controlled by a separate
These formed into two new countries in 1949.
Democratic West Germany and Soviet-controlled
communist East Germany, officially named the
German Democratic Republic, or GDR.
Through the 1950s, West Germany prospered
as a free society and industrious member of
Europe, and hundreds of thousands of East
Germans began emigrating west, in search of
new opportunities.
To stem the tide, the GDR erected a barrier
along the Inner German Border.
Separating the two countries with barbed wire,
guarded checkpoints, and, in many places,
defensive measures like land mines.
But there was a loophole – in Berlin.
And it goes back to when the 4 allied powers
controlled Germany.
See, even though the German capital was well
inside the Soviet zone, the allies divided
control of it equally to match the rest of
the country.
And when East and West Germany formed, so
did East and West Berlin.
Even as the Inner German Border fortified,
Berlin had no physical barrier dividing it.
East Germans could simply walk or take public
transportation to the Western part of the
city and travel freely from there.
ARCHIVE: The island of West Berlin had become
the staging point for the free road to the
This “brain drain” took a huge toll on
East Germany’s labor force.
By 1961, more than 3.5 million East Germans,
approximately 20% of the population, had fled
to the West – the majority of which were
young and well-educated.
But the Berlin loophole closed on Aug 13th,
1961, when the city woke up to East German
soldiers standing shoulder-to-shoulder along
the invisible line dividing East and West
Unannounced, they began unrolling kilometers
of barbed wire through the middle of the city.
They were building the Berlin Wall.
ARCHIVE: Brick by brick, until no contact
but a friendly wave.
Travel out of East Berlin became strictly
No one could leave unless they met strict
And those who didn’t faced a nearly impassable
barrier, complete with floodlights and guard
Where armed border guards patrolled day and
night, with orders to shoot and kill anyone
trying to cross illegally.
And that’s how it remained for 28 years.
But change came in late 1989.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced
social reforms meant to relax oppressive practices
and open up discourse between people and government.
These changes sparked massive peaceful uprisings
throughout Eastern Bloc countries, including
East Germany.
BAUMBACH: Things had kind of heated up all
In 1989, Catherine Baumbach was a young translator
working for the East German news agency.
BAUMBACH: And there were the famous Monday
demonstrations in Leipzig, actually my college
town. Initially thousands, then tens of thousands,
then hundreds of thousands.
Freedom of expression and freedom to travel
were key demands.
And pressure on the GDR to loosen travel restrictions
only grew as neighboring countries, particularly
Hungary and Czechoslovakia, relaxed their
border laws, prompting a mass southward exodus
of East Germans.
By early November 1989, more than 40,000 East
German refugees had arrived at the West German
embassy in Prague, hoping to travel to the
The GDR was facing a crisis.
BAUMBACH: There were forces in the government
that realized something had to be done. This
was not sustainable. So lifting the travel
ban was one way that they thought they could
quell the protests and make people happy.
On November 8th, 1989, GDR official Gerhard
Lauter was tasked with drafting looser travel
regulations, meant to be a temporary pressure
The new rules were finalized less than a day
later, and read:
“Private trips abroad can be applied for
without conditions. Permits are issued on
short notice.”
“Without conditions.” That’s the key
phrase here.
This meant the strict application requirements
were eliminated, and anyone who wanted could
leave East Germany and come back.
That afternoon, the updated regulations were
handed to government spokesman Günter Schabowski,
just as he was about to begin a routine press
BAUMBACH: And as we all know, something kind
of didn’t go quite right there.
He had no time to review them before sitting
in front of cameras.
And as you can see from his handwritten “roadmap”
of the press conference, he scribbled in a
reminder to announce them at the very end.
And on live TV at 6:53 PM on November 9th,
he read the relaxed travel laws, for the first
time, out loud.
BAUMBACH: It seemed totally unreal. But it
was Schabowski saying it and it was broadcast
on official television so it had to be true.
There were people around me, older colleagues,
who immediately said, “this is the beginning
of the end.”
Watch a confused Schabowski shuffle his papers
when a journalist asks a simple follow-up
The thing is, if Schabowski had had time to
read the new rules, he might have seen this
on the final page:
The new regulations were meant to go into
effect the following day, in an orderly manner,
when the passport offices were open.
What happened next can only be described as
a chain reaction.
By 7:05 PM, the AP wire had already gone out:
GDR opens borders.
And both East and West German nightly news
reports announced the stunning policy reversal.
East Berliners began gathering at the wall,
and security officers tried to let them through
But the final nail in the coffin came at 10:42
pm, when this broadcast triggered a mass rush:
They actually weren’t yet. But by this point,
there was no going back.
Tens of thousands of Berliners stormed the
Wall, saying they heard on the news that they
could cross.
The outnumbered East German border guards
were completely overwhelmed.
BAUMBACH: Somehow they hadn’t gotten the
message, or they didn’t know what to do,
or they were afraid, who knows. But they basically
opened the border and thousands of people
streamed into West Berlin.
Over its 28-year history, at least 140 people
died trying to cross the Berlin Wall.
BAUMBACH: November 9th, plus unification a
year later, was the most decisive event in
my life. I basically went from one political
system to another, and changes happened very
And it happened unintentionally.
The result of a rushed plan and a botched
announcement, delivered in a small room at
the end of a boring press conference.

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About Nicklaus Predovic

100 thoughts on “The mistake that toppled the Berlin Wall

  1. I grew up in East Berlin and the wall opened when I was a a young kid. That November my grandfather was finally able to meet his sister after 28 long years.

    Never ever trust in any left wing politicians!
    They only know how to ruin a country, steal your money and take your freedom.

  2. Thanks for fixing your weird Reagan brought down the wall moment you had in one of you videos a couple of months ago…. I lost a little bit of my trust in Vox back then 😛

  3. No, I know exactly how the piece in Fatima looks like.
    My teacher obliged us to stare at it for 15 minutes.
    That's it!

  4. I was in the seventh grade when it happened. I saw what transpired the next morning turning on the news. This is my favorite "Where were you when it happened?" moment.

  5. Both my parents were from East Germany. Every time I see the press conference scenes and what happened afterwards, it brings me to tears. Just knowing exactly how they felt in that moment. What an impact it had on both their lives. How different life would be without all these little coincidences.

  6. It has been common knowledge for a long time that Reagan and his policies destroyed the USSR without firing a single shot or declaring war.

  7. As a Hungarian, even if am only 33 years old, the video footages simply makes me cry. Also thanks for mentioning Hungary too. 🙂

  8. I remember when I'd read on Reader's Digest about a couple and a kid who were the one of the first ones to cross in the middle of the night but also one of the most dramatic were about two families who crossed in an hot air balloon and were inmortalized in the movie "Night Crossing" with actor John Hurt.

  9. One of the most damning indictments against communism is that in the 28 years the wall stood, thousands tried to get into the west- only a small handful tried to get into the east.

  10. So what if he hadn't made that blunder? Were they trying to stall people travelling over the border by making them queue up the following day?

  11. Even though the majority videos don't belong to my country- India. I watch it because it is from vox and it has information about world.

  12. It’s kind of funny – in the end, the world changed not only because of a mistake, but simply because… a lot of people who WANTED to believe it had BELIEVED it did. A lot of the time, thinking things are better than they are makes things worse, but here it did the opposite. That’s just… beautiful.

  13. When a notification popped up saying there's a new vox video upload..

    I watch it Immediately, without delay.

  14. I never for got those words Mr president Ronald Regan said tear down that wall it still sticks with. Me till this day I was a young woman then I am so glad that they are deciding to send a peace of the wall here may be this will soften his hart thank you for doing that you know not every body is a drug dealer or a killer or a mad man there are some good people out there that wont's to live a normal life and raise there children so that one day they to can become some body important one day thank you for reading take care

  15. I’m from America, and I only really learned about the Berlin Wall in any depth in sophomore year of high school when I was taking a class to learn German. My teacher had lived in Germany at one point (which was helpful for learning German from her) and she was the one who taught us about the ‘immediately’ mistake. I’m not really tapped into mainstream culture, so I didn’t know the Reagan quote, but, I recall, basically everyone else in that class did.

  16. My German teach she was in the US in university and she said she was so stunned that she didn’t think it was real. She started crying in front of class.

  17. remember when Russia was the enemy? The Germans havent forgotten, neither has Poland, Czechoslovakia, or any other european country. But these MAGAts sure have.

  18. It's very interesting how Americans think "we might not know about this" even though it's what pretty much every educated German knows. And by contrast most Germans don't know or care about Reagens PR stunt.

  19. Korea? Could this happen in Korea? The North is a very different place than east Germany. I’d like some thoughts

  20. And because of one small mistake…
    "Yaaaaay!" cried all the Germans.
    "Nooooooo!" cried the East German government.
    And so the West won, and Germany became the Germany we know today.

  21. I'm a bit confused. If there were no mistake, what would happen? The passport office opens the next day and still everyone can go?

  22. 04:20: Lifting a travel ban improved things, you say?🤔 The lack of a wall was the best defence against totalitarianism?

    How 'bout that? 😉

  23. Socialism builds walls. It's such an unattractive and unfair system that you need to restrict freedom of movement just to keep it viable. The iorny is that the socialists who ostensibly support immigration would need to forbid emigration should their dreams ever come to fruition.

    And no, the Scandinavian nations like Denmark and Sweden are not socialist; they're capitalist systems with robust social programs and ridiculous tax rates


  25. It is obvious the facts are straight, but this video is downplaying the circumstances, the pressure mounting from different fronts and the effort of the people prior to this point.

    This mistake was, indeed, a tipping point. By no means was a cause.

  26. What I remember most from the after effect was german friends telling me for awhile you could not buy a used car in west Germany because the now free east Germans bought them all.

  27. Wow Really??!!! He made the announcement less than 24 hours before the borders were actually supposed to be opened and that made a difference???!!!! Give me a break! It would've only delayed the opening less than 24 hours and nothing else!!!!! Get a Life!

  28. When you think that things that governments do can't get any worse… Don't worry, they're not as competent at being evil as you may think.

  29. It might have been worse if he'd announced the correct date. People would have been swarmed around the wall waiting, with some potentially trying to go on through.

  30. The big downside to all of this is, unthankful "ostlers" now can run freely and spreading their toxic closeminded attitude.

  31. Bit wouldn't the same thing simply have happened a day later? And if a huge tide of people could just overwhelm the guards at the gate, then couldn't they have done that at any time?

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