How a picnic led to the fall of the Berlin Wall
Twenty years ago today, Hungary decided to test its allies' mood by opening its border, allowing thousands of East Germans to escape.
These days, cars whiz through the abandoned border-control stations in the hills separating this Hungarian city from the villages and vineyards of Eastern Austria. Crossing the old Iron Curtain is much the same as traveling between US states: no fences, no guards, just a welcome sign.Skip to next paragraph
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Twenty years ago today, the militarized barrier between Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe and the democracies of the West met its end when Hungary's reform Communist government announced it would open its borders, allowing tens of thousands of East Germans to escape into Austria.
The decision triggered the largest westward exodus of East Germans since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, unleashing a chain of events that brought down the Wall and the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
"It was a snowball or a domino effect," says historian Geza Jeszenszky, a member of the anti-Communist opposition in 1989 and Hungary's first post-Communist foreign minister. "When so many East Germans escaped to the West, it undermined East Germany, which brought down the wall, which induced the Czechs to make the so-called Velvet Revolution and the Romanians to overthrow [dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu."
Some 10,000 East Germans crossed the border in the first 24 hours after the announcement and proceeded to West Germany, where they were entitled to instant citizenship. Hungarian border guards smiled and waved them through.
Little awareness of consequences
There has long been speculation as to what was going on behind closed doors in Budapest, Moscow, and Berlin, and whether key decisionmakers were aware of the potential consequences. Recent research suggests that while former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev tacitly approved the arrangement, neither he nor his colleagues in Hungary and East Germany realized the full implications.
"They did not foresee the chain of events," says Andreas Oplatka, a Hungarian-born Swiss journalist who studied once-secret archives and interviewed key participants for his book, "The First Crack in the Wall," published in German and Hungarian earlier this year. "The Hungarians were querying the Soviets through different diplomatic contacts; the Soviet sources all the time said: It's up to you."
Hungary's prime minister at the time, Miklos Nemeth, was a reform Communist who took Gorbachev's perestroika, or reform, policies to heart. In May 1989, after consulting Moscow, Mr. Nemeth's government had announced it would begin dismantling its Western border defenses.
Word spread quickly
Word spread quickly in East Germany – a hard-line police state – where tens of thousands were planning their summer holidays to Hungary, one of the few countries ordinary citizens were allowed to visit.
By mid-August, some 60,000 East German "tourists" were camped out in Hungary, refusing to go home and actively seeking escape routes into Austria. Their underpowered Trabant automobiles lined the streets in Budapest and the resorts of Lake Balaton, many with the first and third letters of their East German "DDR" automobile stickers crossed out, leaving a "D", the designation for West Germany.