Guenter Schabowski, the senior East German official whose cryptic announcement that the communist country was opening its fortified border precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, died Sunday at 86. Politburo spokesman Schabowski's halting words at the conclusion of a plodding evening news conference on Nov. 9, 1989, put an end to Berlin's 28 years of division by the wall. Schabowski offhandedly said East Germany was lifting restrictions on travel across its border with West Germany. Pressed on when the headline-making regulation would take effect, he looked down at his notes and stammered: "As far as I know, this enters into force ... this is immediately, without delay." Soon after Schabowski spoke, Western media reported that East Germany was opening its borders and East Berliners were jamming the first crossing. Border guards had received no orders to let anyone across, but gave up trying to hold back the crowds.
East German leader Egon Krenz later insisted he told Schabowski to tell reporters to withhold news about the new travel regulation until 4am the next morning, so citizens could line up properly to get exit visas. Schabowski said he never heard Krenz say that and it would have been unrealistic anyway. "It was one of many foul-ups in those days," he said. "We were acting under the pressure of events. I'm just happy that it went off without bloodshed." Opening the Berlin Wall set in motion events that led quickly to German reunification on Oct. 3, 1990. Schabowski later became one of the most senior East German leaders to be convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of East Germans trying to flee. He served 9 1/2 months of a three-year sentence before being pardoned in 2000. He turned firmly against communism.