Twenty years ago, a question posed by Italian journalist Riccardo Ehrmann prompted an East German official to say the words that triggered the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now new facts have emerged that shed a different light on that fateful press conference.
The press conference hosted by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) on Nov. 9, 1989, was about to come to an end when Ehrmann, who worked for the Italian news agency ANSA, inquired about the new travel law for East German citizens. Gunter Schabowski, a ruling party official, replied by announcing the introduction of new regulations that would make it possible for the people of the GDR to travel abroad. When will this take effect?" a voice from the auditorium demanded. Schabowski, after taking a quick look onto his notes through his frameless glasses, haltingly replied: "That is ... as far as I'm aware ... it is right now, immediately." (See TIME's photos of the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall)
Although the new regulations merely meant that citizens could apply for permission to travel abroad, a procedure that would take some time, and while the rule was not supposed to come into effect until the next day, the majority of the gathered press had no doubt that Schabowski's statement meant the end of the Berlin Wall. The news quickly spread and brought thousands of people to the border crossings where they demanded to pass. The border guards eventually gave in. (See TIME's cover story on the wall's fall)
But the notion that the end of the old German Democratic Republic, as East Germany was properly known, was an accident triggered by a journalist's spontaneous question has now been challenged. In an interview with the German regional public broadcaster MDR Riccardo Ehrmann, 79, who last year was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit by the German government, revealed that a ruling party official had called him before the press conference urging him to ask about the new travel law.
In the interview, broadcast on April 16 in Germany, Ehrmann said: "The question concerning the travel law: that was no coincidence." He had received a "mysterious phone call," he said, from the "submarine" a reference to the conference room of the East German state news agency ADN. Although Ehrmann in the interview didn't reveal the identity of the caller, he has since been identified as Gunter Potschke, general director of the ADN and a personal friend of Ehrmann's.
Gunter Schabowski, meantime, insists that his announcement at the press conference was spontaneous and called Ehrmann's new version of the story "completely absurd."
But historians find the story entirely plausible. Hans-Hermann Hertle from the Potsdam-based Center for Research on Contemporary History tells TIME that he had "already wondered about that 15 years ago." Hertle cites the fact that an American reporter present at the press conference, when attempting to speak, was cut short by Schabowski, who then allowed the Italian journalist to ask his question first, as an indication that Ehrmann's question had been prompted by the party. But neither Ehrmann, Potschke nor Schabowski confirmed Hertle's suspicion back then.
So was Riccardo Ehrmann a puppet of the GDR regime? And did the SED have more control over the situation than previously thought? Contemporary historian Manfred Wilke doesn't think so. "This is just more proof how advanced the inner disintegration of the SED already was at that point," he says. "The SED wanted to ease the pressure and show that it was serious about the reforms it had promised." The GDR government at that point was already under enormous pressure not only from inside of the country, where cries to lift travel restriction were becoming louder and louder, but also from Czechoslovakia, which was struggling to cope with the mass exodus of East Germans who were fleeing to the West via its borders.
Wilke says the new information is an interesting twist in the events that led to the fall of the Wall. But he doesn't believe that Germany's past needs to be re-written completely. "That Ehrmann asked the question is what matters," he says. The rest is history.