Hungary and the East German “tourists”

Originally I was planning to write about the seven-month search for the murderer of a fourteen-year-old girl in Kiskunlacháza where the mayor of the town was sure that the murderer had to be a Gypsy. I wrote about the case on November 29, 2008, "A new murder and a new anti-Gypsy demonstration." A couple of days ago the real murderer was apprehended and he confessed. He is not a Gypsy but a red-haired young man who lived about 200 meters from the scene of the crime. But perhaps more about this at some other time.

Instead I would like to continue yesterday's theme–the events of the summer of 1989–because since I wrote that post I had the opportunity to read an interview with András Oplatka, the Hungarian-Swiss author and journalist (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) who only a few months ago published a book on point entitled Egy döntés története: Magyar határnyitás 1989. szeptember 11. nulla óra (The History of a Decision: Opening of the Hungarian Border, September 11, zero hour).

First a few words about András Oplatka. He was born in Budapest in 1942 and left Hungary with his parents in 1956. He attended high school and finished university in Zurich and worked for years as NZZ's correspondent in Stockholm, Paris, Moscow, and Budapest. He wrote several books both in German and in Hungarian: Hat Gorbatschow eine Chance? (1987), Der Eiserne Vorhang reisst (1990), Nachrufe auf den Ostblock (1998) Lennart meri–ein Leben für Estland (1998), Stephan Széchenyi (2004; translated into Hungarian as Széchenyi István, 2005), and Egy döntés története mentioned earlier. In addition he translated several Hungarian classics into German. His favorites seem to be Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910) and Mór Jókai (1825-1904), but he also translated Frigyes Karinthy's inimitable Tanár úr, kérem! (Please, Sir!) available in English on the Internet (

Oplatka's book on the Hungarian decision to allow the East German refugees to cross into Austria is a thorough study based mainly on lengthy interviews with the main characters in Russia, Hungary, and Austria, as well as with Germans from both East and West. The only person he couldn't reach was Chancellor Kohl. Oplatka, just as I wrote yesterday, emphasizes that cutting a piece of the barbed wire fence was not an "opening of the borders." The decision to let the more than 60,000 East German "tourists," in reality political refugees, cross into Austria occurred on August 22, almost two months later. The decision was made by Prime Minister Miklós Németh alone, without consulting with the party functionaries, after a meeting with his advisors. Present at the meeting were Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, István Horváth, Minister of the Interior, and Gyula Borics, undersecretary in the Ministry of Justice. In addition György Jenei and László Mohai, two advisers to the prime minister, attended but didn't participate in the discussion. No minutes were taken, but Oplatka talked to all the participants and read a summary written after the meeting by György Jenei. 

Today there are some people in Hungary (I encountered one myself on the Internet) who are convinced that Németh and his government let the East Germans go because they were a financial burden on the already economically strapped country. This is of course an incredible proposition which might have something to do with the Hungarian right's reluctance to give any credit to the political leaders of the old regime. Or it may be possible that they are mixing up two events: dismantling the electronic alarm system along the border and allowing the German refugees to leave Hungary for the West instead of sending them back to East Germany. The latter was a courageous political move with far-reaching consequences. The dismanting the 260 km barbed wire fence was indeed an economic decision because Miklós Németh was horrified at how much money the government was spending on this absolutely superfluous remnant of the Cold War. Before 1955 the Austro-Hungarian border was mined so trying to escape was a risky business. However, once the Russian troops left Austria the mines were removed. I assume the Hungarian political leaders after October 23, 1956 were very sorry about this decision. Without it two hundred thousand Hungarian refugees wouldn't have been able to leave Kádár's Hungary. In 1957 the Hungarian government once again mined the border; the mines were not removed until the mid-1960s when the barbed wire electronic alarm system was introduced.

According to Oplatka, when Németh decided to get rid of the barbed wire fence he didn't think in terms of possible political consequences. However, from the beginning his policy was westward looking. His first foreign trip after becoming prime minister was not to Moscow but to Vienna to Chancellor Franz Vranitzky. Oplatka emphasizes that Németh wasn't a "reform communist." He knew that the system couldn't be reformed. He wanted to make a clean break with the one-party dictatorship and work for the introduction of a democratic regime. At the same time he maintained good relations with Moscow. Or at least Gorbachev always defended Németh and Hungary. For example, when Nicolae Ceausescu wrote to Gorbachev demanding Soviet intervention in Hungary, Gorbachev sent a copy of the letter to Németh. Or when Ceausescu and Todor Zhivkov demanded more "forceful steps" against the foreign policy of the Hungarians at the socialist summit in Bucharest, Gorbachev refused to budge.

Oplatka lauds Németh on the domestic as well as the international front. He argues first that Németh hasn't been given enough credit for his role in the change of regime. And second, "although the Hungarians didn't unite the two Germanies or Europe they made world history. The Hungarian decision notably speeded up the process."

I also heard an interview with László Kovács, currently a member of the European Commission and in 1989 an undersecretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs under Gyula Horn. He repeated that opening the border for the East German refugees was the sole decision of Miklós Németh and that he didn't consult with the secretary of MSZMP, Károly Grósz. However, the Foreign Ministry handled the details. Before the 60,000 refugees en masse drove across the border on September 11 there was a "dress rehearsal," known as the Páneurópai Piknik (Pan-European Picnic). On August 19, Austria and Hungary agreed to open the border; that day 600 East Germans managed to cross to the West. The picnic was a test case to gauge Soviet reaction. Gorbachev's Soviet Union said nothing. The Hungarians could act as they saw fit.

And finally I would like to say a few words about Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai's speech last night in the Opera House. He talked about the change of regime in 1989-90 as the common cause of the Németh government and the participants in the Round Table discussions, mentioning the most important actors in the drama including Viktor Orbán. He emphasized that the most successful periods in Hungarian history occurred when there was cooperation and compromise between the government and the opposition. Moving from "existing socialism" to democracy has been (and remains) a work in progress. Hungary has achieved great things in the last twenty years, but it takes a long time to change societal attitudes. Most likely generations. It was relatively easy to write a new constitution, enact new laws, and change the economic system. But Hungary's GDP is about 60% of the European average and one cannot close this gap overnight. Hungarians shouldn't harbor false illusions. It will take time and hard work. "The catching up process is unfinished and will remain so for a long time to come." All wise words but is there anyone listening?