Hungary's Peaceful Revolution: Cutting the Fence and Changing History

By Walter Mayr

In spring 1989, Hungary began dismantling its fortified border with Austria. A few months later, the first crack in the Iron Curtain opened when hundreds of East Germans fled across the Austrian-Hungarian border. Now new details about the quiet heroes of that historic event are coming to light.

When the Iron Curtain was torn open for the first time, on June 27, 1989, an image made its way around the world. It showed two men dressed in suits, using bolt cutters to nip holes in a barbed wire fence.

The men, then-Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn, had traveled to the Austrian-Hungarian border that day to send a signal that the division of postwar Europe was coming to an end. Shoulder-to-shoulder, wielding the bulky bolt cutters against the wire fence, they seemed to be conveying the good news that the fence was finally coming down.

In reality, as then-Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh says today, speaking in a coffee shop close to his home on the north shore of Lake Balaton, the removal of the border fence had already been underway for several weeks at the time. When Foreign Minister Horn proposed the fence-cutting ceremony along the border, Németh replied: "Gyula, do it, but hurry up -- there isn't much barbed wire left."

There had been signs of Hungary's quiet departure from the camp of the Warsaw Pact states for years. But neither Hungary's allies nor the NATO countries took these signals seriously. Even in the summer of 1989, there still seemed to be too many factors standing in the way of a change in the postwar order. For one thing, Russian troops were still stationed in Hungary. The rest of the world was not truly convinced of the changes until August 19, 1989, when hundreds of East Germans, more or less unobstructed, slipped into the West through a rickety wooden gate near Sopron. It was the beginning of the end of East Germany. Roughly three weeks later, more than 10,000 East German citizens traveled to West Germany through Austria -- legally, by this time.

It was in Hungary where "the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall," then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl reminded his fellow Germans when he spoke in Berlin on Oct. 4, 1990, the day after German reunification. And Hungary is still home today to the secret facilitators and quiet heroes who probably gave the regime of East German leader Erich Honecker the decisive push by opening the gates to the West for tens of thousands of East German refugees.

The names of the communist reformers and civil rights activists, border patrol officers and pastors who helped to write history in front of a barbed wire-topped wooden gate in the border region near Lake Neusiedl were soon on everyone's lips.

What inspired them to act, on the other hand, is only slowly coming to light now.

False Alarms

Hungary's problems began 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Austrian border. In the late 1980s, those attempting to flee the country could expect to face a barbed wire fence and a Soviet SZ-100 signaling system, which set off an alarm via 24-volt electricity cables. After decades of the Cold War, the signal wire had become rusty. In a complaint to the relevant cabinet minister, the head of the border patrols wrote: "We have to purchase the stainless steel wire needed to replace the current wire from the West, for hard currency." The Soviet Union was apparently no longer supplying the requisite material.

With their audible complaints, the Hungarian border patrol officers were the ones who got the ball rolling at the time, writes historian Andreas Oplatka in his well-informed book, "Der erste Riss in der Mauer" ("The First Crack in the Wall"). In their reports, the officers wrote that rabbits, birds and the occasional drunk were setting off false alarms at the border close to 4,000 times a year. They also reported that almost all would-be escapees they caught were foreigners.

Hungarians, for their part, had already been permitted to travel wherever they wished since the beginning of 1988. Because of these new freedoms, many in Budapest resented the fact that the government was spending money to maintain the run-down border facilities. Although the annual maintenance cost of close to $1 million (€715,000) was relatively low compared with the country's foreign debt of $17 billion (€12 billion), it was enough to serve as an argument in favor of dismantling the border facilities.

Then-Prime Minister Miklós Németh had hardly assumed office when, in late 1988, he eliminated the budget for maintaining the signaling system. The first barbed wire fences at the border were dismantled on May 2, 1989. When Foreign Minister Horn arrived, bolt cutters in hand, for his photo opportunity eight weeks later, the Hungarian army was already boosting its revenue with the sale of rusty sections of barbed wire fencing.

"To be honest, I don't see a problem with it." According to official records, those were the words with which Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev commented on the Hungarians' plans to open the Iron Curtain, during Németh's visit to Moscow in March 1989. Did the Kremlin ruler, as Németh assumes today, underestimate the consequences of this step?

By that point, Németh and a small group of reformers were already at work in Hungary. They differed from rulers in the rest of the socialist world as much as a pioneer battalion differs from a combat tank unit. The leader and patron saint of all Hungarian forward thinkers and contrarians was the politburo member Imre Pozsgay.

Pozsgay had always been ahead of his time. In 1968, he wrote a dissertation titled "Some Questions of the Further Development of Socialist Democracy and of Our Political System." In 1981, by then a member of the Hungarian Communist Party Central Committee, he was the first to warn against Hungary embarking on a "road to the debt trap." In 1988, he described the border facilities as "technically, morally and historically" outdated, and he participated in the removal of long-term Hungarian leader János Kadár as general secretary. In May 1989, Pozsgay traveled to West Berlin, where he referred to the Berlin Wall, which the East Germans claimed was an "anti-fascist protective rampart," as a "disgrace" that had to come down.

Thanks in part to Pozsgay's efforts, Hungary joined the Geneva Refugee Convention on June 12. This meant that Hungary could now cite internationally binding agreements as justification for its refusal to return "border violators" to their native countries. In the ensuing weeks, campsites along Lake Balaton, as well as parks and the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest began filling up with tens of thousands of East Germans.

Many of them had already gotten wind of an opportunity that no one was mentioning officially at that time: The door to the West had opened a crack in Hungary.

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