When Hungary began dismantling the Iron Curtain

Many Hungarians are rightly proud of their country’s role in ending the Cold War. On May 2nd, 1989, the Hungarian government began dismantling their part of the iron curtain that stretched across Europe “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.” Hungary’s part of it was a 240km line of rusty barbed wire fencing just inside its border with Austria. An Austrian friend once took me through a forest to see it and one of its watch towers from a safe distance.

First they turned off the electricity that ran through it, then they began cutting sections of the wire. When Hungary's Foreign Minister, Gyula Horn, and his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, held a symbolic fence-cutting ceremony at the crossing, both armed with heavy bolt cutters, and filmed by Western TV crews, much of the barbed wire had already gone, sold for scrap by the Hungarian army. The most visible sign in the first few weeks was the number of cars in nearby Austrian towns such as Graz with washing machines strapped on top.

The main impact was not on Hungary, however, but on East Germany. While citizens behind the iron curtain could not travel to the West, they could travel to other countries in the Soviet bloc. East Germans could travel to Hungary, and with a hole now cut in the iron curtain, they could escape from there into Austria and on to West Germany. They began to do so in large numbers as the summer developed. Most famously at a “friendship picnic” between Austrians and Hungarians, 900 East Germans used the occasion to make a mass escape across the border. They were even given maps to help them do so. Hungarian border guards were told by their government to “face Austria and check the passports of anyone coming in.” They were told not to look behind them at people going out.

Soon East Germans were taking this escape route in tens of thousands, packing trains and buses, or abandoning their Trabant cars in Hungary as they took their one-way trip to freedom. The East German government was in impotent fury as its population drained Westwards, escaping the Berlin Wall by circumventing it through Hungary. Its leader, Erich Honecker, asked the Soviet government to intervene, but Gorbachev declined.

By their actions, the Hungarian government had lit a fuse that burned its way to the heart of the Soviet system of repression. The Berlin Wall was taken down by East and West German citizens early in November, as the Communist governments of Eastern Europe were toppled one by one, ending the Cold War in a victory for the West.

The people who today enthuse about socialism probably have no knowledge of what life was like in the socialist puppet states of central and Eastern Europe, or of the massive apparatus that had to be erected to keep their citizens from escaping. They probably have no knowledge either of the thousands who died trying.

The Hungarians who began its end knew they were taking a big risk. Their 1956 Revolution had been brutally and bloodily suppressed, and they could not be sure it would not happen again. They tell that when, in the summer of 1989, they reburied the five martyrs of that 1956 rising murdered by the Kremlin, they added a sixth coffin for the remains of communism.