The next Genre of the Week is also a tribute to a man whose life as well as the lives of East and West Germans alike and those of Europe forever. Günter Schabowski was a long-time journalist, who was the chief editor the East German newspaper Neues Deutschland (New Germany) and later co-founder of the weekly newspaper, Heimat Nachrichten, based in Rotenberg/Fulda. Schabowski, who died on 1 November, 2015 after a long illness in a nursing home in Berlin, was a member of the Socialist Party SED from 1952 until its dissolution as part of the German Reunification process in 1990, of which he was member of the Volkskammer from 1981 until its end, and he was the governmental spokesperson for the East German Politbüro after the removal of SED leader and dictator, Erich Honecker in October, 1989. Once feared by many, by the likes of Christa Wolf (who was a writer and critic), Schabowski’s rounded character was revealed when he and members of the Politbüro executed the putsch to remove Honecker and replace him with Egon Krenz. However, his peak of fame came with this press conference on the eve of the Fall of the Wall in 1989:
The announcement of the opening of the Berlin Wall and the borders separating East and West Germany led to many East Germans to flock to the borders and many West Germans to embrace them.
And the rest was history.
But how about looking at it from the point of view of the border guards who had patrolled the Wall and the borders prior to November 9th, 1989? Maybe a bit of satire to go along with that?
This is where this film comes in: Bornholmer Strasse, a German film produced last year in commemoration of the event that is going on 26 years. The plot of the story is the border patrolmen guarding the border crossing at Bornholmer Strasse, at the site of the Bösebrücke, separating East and West Berlin, whose lives had been anything but spectacular until the events culminating to November 9th, where thousands of people stormed the crossings after hearing of Schabowski’s announcement of the opening of the borders. After much resistance because of misunderstandings between them, the media, and the SED, the patrolmen gave the green light, thus marking the beginning of the end of their lives, which was depicted at the beginning of the film, and whose display can be found at the GDR Museum in Berlin on Karl-Liebknecht Strasse 1. Here’s a trailer to the film:
The one caveat in this film was the fact that it was filmed at the Swinemünde Bridge near the train station Berlin Gesundbrunnen instead of at the actual site, but part of that has to do with the memorials that had been in place and the increase in traffic since the border’s opening. For more on the crossings, check out the Bridgehunter’s Chronicles’ guide to the crossings along the former Berlin Wall, here.
The producers of the film did a great job of keeping to the realities of the events, for the film depicts the confusion that not only the members of the SED had, but also the border guards and the people lining up just to see the other side of Berlin. It showed that once Honecker had been removed, it was a matter of time before the calls for democracy and the Wall to come down were heeded.
It is unknown whether Schabowski’s announcement to the media that the borders were going to open was accidental or intentional. But given his later renouncement of the SED and admittance of guilt of his involvement in the prevention of people from fleeing to the West (the latter resulted in a lighter sentence of only a year in prison), it seemed that he too realized that the changes were going to come eventually, either peacefully or by force. Already Mikhail Gorbachev allowed the countries in the eastern block to go their own way and announced that the Soviets were not going to be involved. Poland and Hungary had removed their dictators and opened their borders to the West. Realizing that Honecker was becoming an obstructionist who lived in his shell outside reality, Schabowski and others removed him from power peacefully. He eventually left Germany for Chile, where he died in 1994. The pressure was growing on Schabowski to open the gates. It was just a matter of time before he pulled the trigger- and this willfully.
Despite him being one of the worst politicians of the SED, he made good on his promise to unite East and West, even if the announcement was misunderstood as many scholars have mentioned. Sometimes when there is nothing left, the only solution is make the move and go on with life, leaving the past behind for a greener future. Because of him, we have a united Germany, and a united Europe. And looking at it from an East German’s perspective, we say Thanks! Looking at it from an author’s point of view, being an outsider from rural Minnesota, we say this: normally, bad guys should not be getting tributes like this, unless their merits warranted it. Schindler and Schabowski right now are probably sharing their experiences and embracing each other for their actions in saving lives of thousands in the face of repressive regimes even as this tribute and genre is being posted. And here I say, Vielen Dank und Gott segnet Sie. 🙂