Hungary and the Iron Curtain

Today is a great day in Budapest because it is the twentieth anniversary of the official fall of the iron curtain between Hungary and Austria. On June 27 Gyula Horn, then foreign minister of Hungary, and Alois Mock, his Austrian counterpart, together used wire cutters to open up the barbed wire fence on the border between the two countries.Horn This was an official ceremony and it was more symbolic than real. By 1989 the fence built by the Hungarians during the cold war was not much more than a nuisance. By that time Hungarians were entitled to passports that were valid to any destination in the world. So Hungarians didn't need to escape across the border. In the last years before 1989 only a few hundred people were caught, and they were mostly foreigners from other socialist countries. However, since the fence was electrically wired there were many false alarms. Every year many thousands. I guess every time something hit the barbed wire the alarm went off. So the decision was reached earlier that the wire fence must go. The work began on May 2, 1989, but the world wasn't paying much attention. But then István Horváth, currently Hungarian ambassador in Vienna but then ambassador in Bonn, got the bright idea that a higher profile, public relations event was necessary for the world to notice that something important was going on. He convinced Gyula Horn, who then talked to Alois Mock, to have an official wire-cutting ceremony. That did the trick. All the newspapers were full of the story.

The East Germans who had been cut off from the world also heard about it, and within a few months thousands of East Germans arrived in Budapest hoping that the Hungarian government would allow them to drive across to Austria. That took a bit more finagling but in the end Hungary opened the border and the Germans poured into Austria by the tens of thousands. Helmut Kohl in December 1989 said that Hungary was the country that knocked the first brick from the Berlin Wall. Ever since, the Germans have been grateful to the Hungarians. In Wertheim-Reinhardshof they even named a street after Gyula Horn.

This is what the world celebrated today. Barack Obama's staff didn't forget to send greetings to the Hungarian people, read this morning at the commemoration held in the parliament. He called the day one of the most significant in recent history, a day that marked the beginning of a process that ended in the unification not only of Germany but of Europe. He expressed his admiration for the courage of those who took the first steps. In addition to Gyula Horn the man who was perhaps equally if not more important in this drama was Miklós Németh, who did a splendid job as the last prime minister of the old regime leading the country from a one-party system to a democratic one. I was glad to see Miklós Németh at today's celebration. Unfortunately Horn suffers from Alzheimers and is totally oblivious to the world. Gordon Bajnai, László Sólyom, and Katalin Szili greeted Miklós Németh this morning on the attached picture.Nemeth Miklos The celebrations began in front of the parliament, on Kossuth Square. First came the military parade, then the flags of all the countries represented were brought in, followed by the Hungarian flag. And, of course, the band played the Hungarian anthem and Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the anthem of the European Union. Among those present were Horst Köhler, president of Germany, Heinz Fischer, president of Austria, Traha Halonen, the Finnish president, Danilo Türk, Slovenian president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, president of Switzerland, Günther Verheugen of the European Council, and Bronislaw Komorowski, president of the Polish Szejm. Even a former East German refugee was there representing the thousands of East Germans who a few months later could cross into Austria. In the evening there was a gala performance at the Hungarian State Opera House.

In today's Népszava there is an interview with István Horváth, Hungarian ambassador in Bonn in 1989 and the mastermind of the wire cutting ceremony. According to him Germany was so grateful to Hungary for letting the East Germans cross into Austria that the Germans offered material assistance to the Hungarian government. However, according to Horváth, József Antall kept telling the Germans that Hungary didn't open its border to the East German refugees in the hope of compensation. The Hungarian government missed a great opportunity when it didn't take up the offer, Horváth argues. Apparently Antall went to Bonn in May 1990 when the Germans suggested setting up "strategic working groups" whose job would have been to coordinate the offered financial assistance. The Germans set up such a group, the Hungarians didn't. To this day Horváth doesn't know why not. In 1994 when Gyula Horn became prime minister he tried his very best to revive the scheme, but by that time Germany was in distress itself because of the financial burden the incorporation of East Germany imposed.

Horváth also claims that Hungary in the last twenty years didn't take advantage of the pivotal role it played in 1989. There were no celebrations, no remembrances of the day. Horváth thinks that the reason for this is the deep division between right and left concerning 1989-1990. I believe Horváth has a point. Even today László Sólyom's celebratory speech struck a somewhat sour note. He emphasized that just opening the border and letting the East Germans cross over to Austria didn't lead to the unification of Europe. The barbed wire fence might have been removed but there were radically different political regimes on the two sides of the border. In order to unite Europe this difference had to be obliterated. His speech on the occasion of the anniversary, in brief, actually belittled the significance of the day. But this is a rather peculiar interpretation of the events of 1989-1990. Sólyom is trying to draw a sharp dividing line between before and after. As if the proclamation of the democratic Hungarian Republic on October 23, 1989, could be separated from the the reburial of Imre Nagy and his comrades on June 16 or from granting permission for the East Germans to cross the Austro-Hungarian border in August or from cutting that barbed wire fence on June 27. History is a seamless flow of events and it doesn't matter how much Mr. Sólyom would like to marginalize everything that happened before the first free elections, it cannot be done.