Hungary's Peaceful Revolution Cutting the Fence and Changing History

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.

An Historic Picnic

On Aug. 14, men and women from East Germany, the workers and peasants republic of atheist leader Honecker, were lying, shoulder-to-shoulder, on the floor of the Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Budapest's Zugliget district. The words on the altar read: "All that is not God is nothing." Father Imre Kozma attended to their needs.

On Aug. 13, the anniversary of the Berlin Wall's construction, the German consul in Budapest approached Kozma to ask whether some of the East German citizens packed into the overcrowded grounds of the West German embassy could be moved to the church. The priest agreed.

Kozma got volunteers to erect tents and distribute food to the refugees. He even tolerated being checked by members of the BND, West Germany's foreign intelligence agency, at the entrance to the grounds of his own church. He also allowed officials from the West German embassy, who had quickly set up a "consular office" inside the church, to hand out green West German passports to the East German citizens.

Meanwhile, members of the East German secret police, the Stasi, stood on the roofs of nearby buildings and looked on helplessly, watching as Kozma, who had since February been president of the newly established Hungarian Malteser Caritas, the Order of Malta charity service in Hungary, took on the role of an essentially neutral middleman in the struggle between the two Germanys over the future of tens of thousands of East German citizens. Prime Minister Németh was already suspected of having closer ties to Bonn, the West German capital at the time, than to East Berlin. German Chancellor Kohl and his adviser Horst Teltschik held Németh, a 41-year-old economic expert, in high regard. Kohl was in touch with Németh by telephone, and Németh communicated with Father Kozma.

The tens of thousands of East Germans with expired residence permits in Hungary were refusing to return home, and a solution was desperately needed. On Aug. 17, rumors began to spread that there would be an opportunity to flee during the planned "Pan-European Picnic" near Sopron. Representatives of the West German embassy "knew about it, but acted as if the whole thing was of no concern to them," says Kozma today.

During the night between Aug. 18 and 19, shortly before the first East German-made Trabants and Wartburgs began moving toward the West, preparations went into high gear at the rectory of the Holy Family Church in Budapest-Zugliget. A German-language flyer had turned up, but no one -- supposedly -- knew where it had come from.

The flyer included an image of a stylized rose in barbed wire, driving directions to the picnic and, as a bonus, a map showing the location of the Austrian border, 2 kilometers north of the picnic site.

'I Don't Want to Be a Mass Murderer'

Past Sopronköhida, the site of Hungary's most notorious prison since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the road leads uphill toward the border. Shortly before the barrier, on the left-hand side, there was a collective farm consisting of a group of houses and stables in a valley. There, in the plains near the town of Sopron, was the site of the Pan-European Picnic.

The organizers were members of various opposition parties that had been permitted in Hungary, a former one-party state, since February 1989. They were about to try something that would have been unthinkable until then: A three-hour opening of the border with Austria, which had been closed for the last 40 years. They had obtained the necessary permits and delegations from both sides had been invited for a barbed wire cutting ceremony. Food would be served and good neighborly relations between the two countries celebrated.

The sponsors of the event were Hungarian reformer Pozsgay and Otto von Habsburg, the son of the former Emperor of Austria, but both men declined to attend before the picnic even started. A "large number of East German citizens" were expected, according to a telegram from the border patrol agency's headquarters in Budapest, sent at 10 a.m. on the day before the picnic.

Lieutenant Colonel Arpád Bella, 43 years old and in charge of the border patrol near Sopron, had studied the telegram carefully, including a passage in which he was instructed only to use his six-shot, 9-millimeter service pistol if he or one of his men was attacked or was forced "with physical violence" to leave his post. At 2:55 p.m. on a sunny Saturday in August, Lieutenant Colonel Bella saw a crowd of people -- men, women and children -- walking uphill towards him.

Within seconds, says Bella, it became clear to him that this could not possibly be the delegation that had been registered to cross the border. And within seconds Bella realized that everything threatened to spin out of control. It was his wedding anniversary and the day before his 20th service anniversary, and he wanted to get home on time. But now they were bearing down on him, 100 or more people, pushing past him and forcing open the old wooden gate toward Austria.

Lieutenant Colonel Bella was a career officer, a man who had served the Hungarian People's Republic in exemplary fashion. In secret, however, as he says, he "did not believe that socialism was capable of making the Yenisei River flow in the opposite direction." With a family to feed, however, Bella was never one for rebelling or an advocate of "kamikaze actions."

But now he was standing there at the border, already overrun by the first wave of East German refugees and watching as the second one approached. He thought about his standard orders, which required him to fire a warning shot first, then release the guard dogs and then resort to more serious steps. It took him 10 seconds, says Bella today, to reach his decision: "I don't want to be a mass murderer." He issued the following orders to his team of four border guards: "Face Austria and check passports if anyone comes from that direction. We don't see what happens behind us."

On the Austrian side, Johann Göltl was soon surrounded by weeping, speechless East Germans. The head of the Klingenbach customs inspection office, Göltl had been Arpád Bella's counterpart on the border for two decades. The men knew each other well, even eating their meals in the same cafeteria. But now Göltl was beside himself. "Are you out of your mind," he shouted at the Hungarian officer. "We already discussed this, and then you send me 600 people out of a cornfield." Lieutenant Colonel Bella swore that he had known nothing about it.

By the evening of Aug. 19, more than 600 East Germans had crossed the border to Austria, in a mass exodus never before seen in Cold War-era Europe since the construction of the Berlin Wall. Lieutenant Colonel Bella is convinced that the very last people one should have thanked for the fact that not a single shot was fired and no one was killed were those in the Hungarian government. "Prime Minister Németh says today that an order was given at the time. But what happened to that order?" he asks.

'Keep Your Eyes Shut and Let Them Through'

A stone apparently became caught "in the chain of command," says Németh, referring to the top-secret operation. And then the former prime minister explains what the actual plan was for the picnic.

According to Németh, a general from the Interior Ministry had been chosen to give the following instructions -- discretely, but nevertheless on behalf of the Hungarian government -- to the border guards' high command: "If, during the course of the picnic, a few hundred Germans managed to get across the border, we would have no objection." For the officers this meant, in the language of politicians: Keep your eyes shut and let them through.

According to Pozsgay, a former member of the Hungarian politburo, a small group of senior government officials agreed that the following approach would be taken: If possible, the Hungarian government was to come across as "an injured party, not as a participant" in the East German citizens' penetration of the border during the picnic. The government officials had entered into a conspiracy of sorts with the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service staff and church representatives to circulate the message.

But at the Hungarian Interior Ministry, what had been intended as an order was perceived as pseudo-intellectual babble -- and was ignored. Former Prime Minister Németh, without naming names, assumes that those responsible for ignoring the order belonged to circles whose members held internal security as more important than anything else. To this day, those people treat him as a "traitor to the international proletarian friendship."

Fortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Bella recognized "what history demanded of him," as Németh puts it. "Bella knew about as much as a rabbit knows about the objectives of a laboratory experiment," says Pozsgay. The "pilot project" that was intended as a test to determine whether the Soviet Union would tolerate a breach on the Warsaw Pact's western flank was carried out at the expense of five border guards and about 30 unsuspecting picnic organizers.

On Aug. 25, Németh and Foreign Minister Horn flew to Germany for a secret meeting with Chancellor Kohl and then German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. At Gymnich Palace near Cologne, the guesthouse for the German government at the time, the four men discussed how the East Germans still in Hungary could be brought to West Germany. The tone of the meeting was friendly but the mood was tense. "Everything must have been bugged at Gymnich," says Németh. "Even though there was only a Hungarian interpreter there, I later found all my statements reproduced verbatim in Chancellor Kohl's biography." The group eventually agreed to evacuate any East Germans who wanted to leave. But a date for the evacuation was not set.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, busses containing the East German refugees began the trip to the West. They crossed the border into Austria shortly after midnight on Sept. 11.

It was a day of joy -- for the refugees and, especially, for Chancellor Kohl. It was the eve of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) convention in Bremen, where a group led by Heiner Geissler and Rita Süssmuth had planned to stage a coup against party chief Kohl. Instead he would go to the convention armed with the news of a historic triumph. Kohl remained chairman of the party and was chancellor for another nine years.

Hungary's heroes of the crucial summer of 1989 reaped few rewards at home. Prime Minister Németh was denied promotion to the office of the president of the republic and spent the next nine years in London, where he served as vice president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He has no illusions when he contemplates the new Hungary today.

What he sees is a country that, once again, is practically bankrupt. He sees a deeply divided political landscape in which the once-united members of the opposition are practically at each other's throats. And he sees a prosperous clique in power, a group of which one of the 1989 picnic organizers says: "The people in power today are precisely those former leaders of the Communist youth organization who would have ended up in the same jobs even without the fall of Communism."

Reformer Pozsgay is at loggerheads with former cohorts over the question of who deserves the credit for the sweeping changes of 1989. Politically speaking, after taking a circuitous route, he has ended up in the company of right-wing populist Viktor Orbán. The former forward thinker sits in his house in a Budapest residential neighborhood surrounded by walls of books, and describes how in 1989 the Hungarians, more or less inadvertently, brought down Europe's postwar order. "It was a strong intention that took on a life of its own."

Father Kozma continues to minister to the poor and infirm in the Budapest suburb of Zugliget. If he is grieved over the fact that the Germans never paid for the memorial to the mass exodus in his garden, as they had promised, he doesn't show it. Kozma was not even honored at the Hungarian awards ceremony to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of communism.

And Arpád Bella? He tends to his grape vines and cares for his sick mother, paying little heed to the idle gossip of former comrades who call him a traitor to this day. Occasionally, he drives across the border, where are no longer any reminders of the Iron Curtain, to pay a visit to Johann Göltl in the town of Apetlon, not far from the banks of Lake Neusiedl.

Then the two men, former guards on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain, sit and drink white wine spritzers and talk about old and new times. They are fond of each other, and yet, says Johann, he still doesn't quite trust Arpád. Why? Because he is convinced that the business with the East German refugees back then at the wooden gate near Sopron was nothing but a disruptive maneuver carefully organized "by the communists over there."

"We've probably drunk 10 hectoliters of wine spritzers together," retired Lieutenant Colonel Bella groans, "and he still doesn't believe me: I had no idea."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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