Gunter Schabowski’s role is less well known. He was the East German Politburo member who held a live press conference where it was announced that all rules for their citizens travelling abroad were to be lifted. Restrictions had become unsustainable because Hungary had opened its borders already and people were using this route to travel to the west. The GDR leadership had only just introduced press conferences as part of a minimalist approach to reform but this meant they were still ill-adjusted to the demanding protocol of live questioning. Schabowski was unaware that the Politburo intended to lift the restrictions in due course and when asked about timing, panicked and said they would be lifted ‘immediately’.
The regime was thus unprepared for people following the logic of this by going to the wall and overwhelming the border guards in their thousands. The wall would have had to come down eventually, but this glorious mistake allowed the people to realise their own destiny and furnished the world with one of the defining images of the twentieth century. It also provides us with a curious and stirring counter-point of hope to the despair of 9/11 because all this also happened on 9/11 as Europeans prefer to call November 9.
These events highlight the profound importance of individuals in the shaping of world history. They also illuminate the vulnerability of some of life’s most stubborn strongholds to the power of well-directed prayer. Many people saw the key to unlocking militantly atheist Soviet power as lying in the heart of the Kremlin itself and believe that God provided in Gorbachev the right man in the manner of the Persian king of ancient Israel’s exile. For all we know, Gunter Schabowski may have been an even more unwitting product of inspired prayer.
Sometimes intercessions call for a battering ram which pounds on a vast castle door until it yields. The walls of Jericho collapsed under a similar spiritual assault. Yet there are times when the solution may be to wander round and saunter in whistling through the back gate as if you lived there.
Many people labour faithfully and necessarily for years in prayer over immovable problems – ‘the peace of Jerusalem’ is one such mournful case. Occasionally it may be the unlikely, incidental, insignificant, cheeky or unconventional prayer which does for the stronghold, like pulling away one anonymous brick in a vast structure. Spiritual intuition is a wonderful gift. Even one word, a slip of the tongue can change this world ‘immediately’.