Gyula Horn and the opening of Austro-Hungarian border, September 10, 1989

When I am either unfamiliar with a topic or have only bits and pieces of information that don’t make a coherent whole, I like to follow up. Since I didn’t remember all the details of the Hungarian decision to allow the East German tourists who refused to return to the German Democratic Republic to cross into Austria, I decided that I would reread Gyula Horn’s autobiography, Cölöpök (Piles).

It took me a little while to find the appropriate pages because the book has no table of contents. There are some chapter numbers but no chapter titles. Moreover, Horn jumps from topic to topic, and not necessarily in chronological order. Once I found it, however, the passage turned out to be full of interesting details.

Let’s start with the crucial question of whether the Soviet Union gave the Hungarians permission to allow the thousands of East Germans to cross into Austria. No, there was no permission. The Soviets were “informed on the day that the Hungarians opened the border for the East Germans to cross.” That was on September 10, 1989.

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

According to Horn, the Hungarian foreign ministry suspected that the Soviets already knew about the Hungarian decision, either directly through their intelligence forces in Hungary or from the leadership of the GDR. Because the East German party and government leaders had been informed by the Hungarians of their decision on August 29. The East Germans insisted that Hungary fulfill its obligation of a 1969 treaty between Hungary and East Germany by which Hungary was supposed to force East German citizens to return to their homeland. It was this treaty that the Hungarians were going to suspend. Why suspend instead of abrogate? Because in the latter case Hungary would have been obliged to wait three months before they would have been free to let the Germans go. And the number of East Germans in Hungary had already swelled to the thousands by then.

The East German side insisted on a meeting with Miklós Németh, the prime minister, and Gyula Horn. The Germans were still hoping that the Hungarians could be cajoled, blackmailed, persuaded, take your pick, to return the East German citizens who were staying in the West German embassy, in student hostels, in camping facilities. But when the two politicians got to Berlin, the hosts were told about the suspension of the 1969 treaty.

If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border he had more than a week to send word to the Hungarians warning them against such a step. But although Horn gives a very detailed account, there is not a word about any visit from the Soviet ambassador to the Foreign Ministry.

The relationship between Horn and Eduard Shevardnadze was cordial, and in the previous year or two the Soviets usually took the Hungarian more liberal side against the noisiest hard-liners–Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. When, shortly after the momentous event, Horn met Shevardnadze in New York, the Soviet foreign minister expressed his agreement with the Hungarian solution. In fact, he asked Horn to estimate the number of dissatisfied East Germans who would gladly leave and was duly impressed with Horn’s answer that the number might be one or two million.

Horn admits that there was some fear that Gorbachev might be pressured by others in the government and party to intervene. After all, the existence of an East Germany within the Soviet bloc might be considered of paramount interest to Moscow. Horn adds that he never feared military intervention because he knew that Gorbachev was not in favor of any kind of military action. But he did consider possible economic or political action, although elsewhere in the book Horn mentions that by that time the Soviet Union was in such dire economic straits that they were unable to fulfill their delivery obligations to Hungary.

Horn outlines the different ideas the Hungarians entertained over time, but he claims they never contemplated sending the East Germans back home.  When there were only a few hundred escapees, they offered them refugee status in Hungary which they categorically refused. Then the German and the Hungarian governments came up with a plan that  in the middle of the night in great secret a large German plane would land in Budapest and the East Germans would be smuggled onto the plane. But soon enough that idea was abandoned because the East Germans continued to arrive in greater and greater numbers, not so much from East Germany as from Yugoslavia where they had spent their holidays. Once they got to Hungary, they refused to continue northward. Something had to be done.

It was at this point that Németh and Horn secretly visited Bonn and talked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They outlined the difficulties and promised that a solution would be found. A few days later when the decision was made to open the border, Horn phoned Genscher and asked him to send his undersecretary to Budapest immediately to begin serious negotiations about the details of the border opening. Genscher kept repeating that “this is fantastic, we never in our wildest dreams imagined such a brave and humane step.” The undersecretary arrived overnight and was told about the details of the operation. The reach of the East German intelligence services worried Horn, and he asked the Germans not to send cipher telegrams. Only handwritten notes by courier.

It was around 6 p.m. on September 10 that Horn gave an interview on MTV in which announced the government’s decision to open the border between Austria and Hungary. In his book he added: “Naturally I did not know at that time that with this step we began the road toward the unification of the two states and with it a new chapter in the history of Europe.”

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Petofi1
Guest

From Horn Gyula to Orban Victor: the Judeo-Christian idea of Progress is no longer operational in Hungary; and it has been suspended indefinitely by Kerenyi….

Paul
Guest

I think your spell-checker got you in paragraph 6, Éva – “escapade”?

Jano
Guest

@Eva: I’m wondering, is this just his own account or do external sources confirm all this (to your knowledge)?

Paul
Guest

Eva S. Balogh :

Paul :
I think your spell-checker got you in paragraph 6, Éva – “escapade”?

What’s wrong with it?

I assumed you meant ‘escape’?

Member

Eva S. Balogh :

Paul :
I think your spell-checker got you in paragraph 6, Éva – “escapade”?

What’s wrong with it?

“If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border…”

That should be the “escape.” An escapade is an adventure, even a daring adventure, but it has no implication of escaping…

Member

The link of “escapade” to “escape” is merely etymological. It no more means escape today than enormity will mean enormousness (rather than monstrousness) tomorrow: it still does, but it’s on the way out…

Lévay Atilla
Guest
MAGYAR JUSTITIA BIZOTTSÁG (SZÓRÓLAPJA) MEGEMLÉKEZÉS HORN GYULÁRÓL Nem szívesen teszem, de nem hallgathatok tovább! Az elhunytakról “vagy jót, vagy semmit”, mondja az ismert közmondás, viszont Horn Gyuláról jót nem tudok mondani, de a semmit sem választhatom, mert megítélésem szerint, amit most egyesekből Horn halála kiváltott, az átlépte az emberi tűréshatár küszöbét! Az még csak érthető, hogy Mesterházy könnyfacsaró szavakkal ecsetelte, hogy számára és pártja számára mit jelentett Horn, hiszen egy elvakult bolseviktól mást nem lehetett várni, de az sem kizárt, hogy a szokatlan hőség zavarta meg az agyműködését. Az viszont a meglepetés erejével hatott, hogy a parlament többségétől kezdve, számos szervezet és megszámlálhatatlanul sok (ismert) közéleti személyiség szaggatta meg köntösét és szórta a hamut a fejére mérhetetlen fájdalmában, már-már utánozva az észak-koreai gyászolókat, akik közül sokan még a dísztér betonját is megrongálták, addig verték a fejükkel elkeseredésük jeléül. Nem vitatható, hogy Horn Gyula tehetséges tanuló volt, az Oleg Kosevoj intézetben egy év alatt(!) sajátította el a négy éves gimnáziumi anyagot, középfokú vizsgát tett orosz nyelvből, sikeresen abszolválta az érettségit is, miközben – mint ifjú kommunista – agitációs feladatokat végzett a lakosság körében. 1950-ben beiskolázták Rosztovba, az ottani Pénzügyi Főiskolára, ahol rátermettségének következtében a rosztovi magyar tanulók vezetőjévé nevezték ki. Ő… Read more »
petofi
Guest

It is the very pinnacle of bad manners to inflict such a block of Hungarian text into an English blog. How typical of Fideszers to have no care for courtesy or etiquette.

“Fuj!”

I’d like to have Mr. Bokor Imre’s bona fides checked out…Hungarian doctorals being what they are in the post-Schmidt age.

Member

petofi :
I’d like to have Mr. Bokor Imre’s bona fides checked out…Hungarian doctorals being what they are in the post-Schmidt age.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h6Z9ZwYNxAk&w=640&h=390%5D

Member
Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

If anyone is interested, there is a very good documentary originally shown on CNN, now available on YouTube that deals in detail with the events of ’88 and ’89 and has many of the participants talking about it. Episode 23: http://youtu.be/qpyCz3UyOJE

Member

We were fresh out of college. My buddies rented a house in Biatorbagy, close to BP. They had few east-German frauleins in the house weeks before the escapade. Man, we hated to let them go. These girls knew the border will be open. This had to be planned for a longer time. I was always skeptical about Horn and Nemeth deciding on the spur of the moment.

It was very great watching them in their Trabants leaving to freedom.

LwiiH
Guest
I don’t want to take anything away from Horn or the others involved in the decisions they took. There is no doubt that it was done at great risk. However, on the question of did they have permission the answer depends on how you interprut things. My memory from interviews of Gorbachev is that they knew this was happening and he gave tacit yes by indicating he wouldn’t interfere. The Washington Post on Horn states that; In the Naplo interview, Nemeth said he traveled to Moscow four months before the symbolic fence-cutting ceremony in 1989 and told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that the border with Austria would be opened. More poking about yielded this bit from Horst Teltschik. Miklosz Nemeth, the prime minister of Hungary, told me in 1989, “We are not going to ask Gorbachev whether we are allowed to move ahead with reforms or not. We’ll just do it, and we’ll wait and see if he’ll interfere or not.” And he didn’t. I think this is the historic merit of Gorbachev, that he stuck to his promise from the very beginning. He had told his allies in the Warsaw Pact already at the 1988 summit that he would… Read more »
Dan
Guest
Eva S. Balogh : Stevan Harnad : Eva S. Balogh : Paul : I think your spell-checker got you in paragraph 6, Éva – “escapade”? What’s wrong with it? “If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border…” That should be the “escape.” An escapade is an adventure, even a daring adventure, but it has no implication of escaping… Sorry, I stick to my original wording. I know the difference between “escape” and “escapade.” I’m not illiterate but I don’t think that it was an escape. The Hungarian government opened the borders and therefore no one had to escape from Hungary. It was from East Germany they escaped. Hungarian refugees in 1956 when they crossed the border illegally they “escaped” in the true sense of the word. Or later those Hungarians who refused to return from their trips to the west. They also escaped from Hungary. What happened in September 1989 was entirely different. In some way it was a wild adventure what escapade means because no one knew how it would end. This was true about the East Germans as well as the Hungarian officials. At the end it turned out alright.Luckily. Yes,… Read more »
LwiiH
Guest

Forgot to add the reference for those interested.

http://nanovic.nd.edu/assets/60897/

Lévay Atilla
Guest

petofi
“It is the very pinnacle of bad manners to inflict such a block of Hungarian text into an English blog. How typical of Fideszers to have no care for courtesy or etiquette.”

If you wish, I will translate it for you for a small fee, say the income for one day of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

“Fuj!”
Although “Fuj!” is spelled ‘pfuj’, with a name like “petofi” presumably you you still speak a little Hungarian as well.

“I’d like to have Mr. Bokor Imre’s bona fides checked out…Hungarian doctorals being what they are in the post-Schmidt age.”
You are welcome to check Mr. Bokor Imre’s credentilals any time.

LwiiH
Guest

Lévay Atilla :
If you wish, I will translate it for you for a small fee, say the income for one day of Ferenc Gyurcsány.

If you wish to be heard you might consider a different fee structure. Διαφορετικά, έχετε χάσει μόνο τις προσπάθειές σας.

Lévay Atilla
Guest

Congatulations for using Greek letters in the Hungarian Spectrum, which is used mostly by English speaking Hungarians, or perhaps also by a few Hungarian speaking other nationals.

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

Levay Atilla: Chuck you, Farley. 🙂

Hank
Guest
Just to confirm what others have told as well: I was already here when all this took place in 1989 and I spoke to Rezsö Nyers, one of the old MSZMP leaders and a reformer like Horn, in 1991. He also confirmed that already in 1988 Gorbachov had made it very clear to them that the Breznjev doctrine was no longer valid and the USSR would not interfere, which Nyers and his reform minded colleagues in Poland and Hungary interpreted as the allowance to do as they saw fit. Hence, in spring 89 in Poland the first partly free elections in a communist country and the Mazowiecki-Solidarnosc government and in Hungary the Imre Nagy reburial and free travel to the West for Hungarians (which was the reason GDR youngster came to Hungary in the hope they would also be allowed to cross the border with Austria). So important as the decision to allow them out was, it was hardly the decision of Horn personally but very much in line of what the reform leadership of the MSZMP wanted. If anything held them back and made them maneuver carefully, it was not the fear for a Moscow intervention, but the uncertainty… Read more »
petofi
Guest

Lévay Atilla :
Congatulations for using Greek letters in the Hungarian Spectrum, which is used mostly by English speaking Hungarians, or perhaps also by a few Hungarian speaking other nationals.

This from the schmuck who has inflicted the biggest blog entry in a foreign tongue. “What is allowed me is not allowed to you…”–the byword in the Fidesz world.

Guest

London Calling!

All this happened in the climate of Perestroika and Glasnost – and it would have been difficult for Gorbachev to intervene.

I believe impossible.

Horn was a hero of his time, in the right place at the right time.

He could only have been a hero due to the convergence of these political themes – but he was a hero nevertheless.

It was so satisfying to watch the downfall of the evil Erich Honecker – who could rewrite the truth better than Orban.

I followed the Gorbachev’s ‘Perestroika’ as Russia awoke from its ‘Brezhnev Sclerotic Sleep’ with fascination at the time.

I regret I did not follow it from a Hungarian perspective – as Hungary was a distant, unknown foreign country, of little interest to us Englanders!

Every time I visit Hungary it is my intention to visit Sopron – the scene of the Pan-European Picnic – which I believe was the follow up to Gyula Horn’s wire-cutting act.

Maybe I will have more determination after your article Eva.

Regards

Charlie

Guest

Re Atilla’s contributions, Petofi; yes very discourteous..; I just ignore the troll – it’s useful that he contributes in Hungarian – which I can’t understand; I just scroll down and down…..; he’s (if it is a he) done it before; just a waste of Eva’s space; not worth the candle

Joe Simon
Guest

Lévay Attila. He had every right to present another side of Horn. In ‘Cölöpök’, Horn does not even mention ’56. Yes, he was a communist, yet he single handedly destroyed that system. His life shows just how complicated people are. A dictatorship never knows where the next blow will come from.

Guest

London Calling!

Joe Simon – ‘every right’ is not in contention – just the method.

Was your comment “He single handedly destroyed the system……” a regret of yours?

And re your ‘dictatorship’ remark..

Orban better watch his back.

Regards

Charlie

Ivan
Guest

Many of my Hungarian acquaintances react with astonishment when I tell them that the west views Gorbachev as one of the principal players in the ending of the Cold War. For them, the main players were Reagan, Thatcher and (above all others, naturally!) Orban. My non-Hungarian acquaintances act with equal confusion when they see Ronnie’s statue in central Budapest apparently ambling towards the Soviet war memorial.

Entirely different history books in the schools of different countries mean polarised mutual incomprehension between peoples either side of Europe is as great as it has ever been (as we see in almost every issue to do with Hungary).

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