Looking back: Tears, shouts of joy at the Hungarian border in 1989

20th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

On August 19, 1989, a PanEuropean Picnic was organised near the Austro-Hungarian border to celebrate the dismantling of the fence that had for over two decades divided the West from the Communist bloc.

Sopron -- Former border guards and East Germans who broke through the Austro-Hungarian border in August 1989 in the dying days of the Cold War, recall the now historic escape 20 years on.

"I saw about a hundred people walking towards me: women with children, older people -- they really did not look like the official delegation we had been expecting," said Arpad Bella, the commanding border officer on duty on the Hungarian side on August 19, 1989.

"I had a few seconds to decide what to do: but seeing that crowd a few metres from liberty I knew if I tried to stop them, I would only ignite a bomb," Bella said Tuesday at a conference in Sopron to discuss the events of 20 years ago.

On August 19, 1989, a PanEuropean Picnic was organised near the Austro-Hungarian border to celebrate the dismantling of the fence that had for over two decades divided the West from the Communist bloc.

The fence had started being taken down in May and on August 19, the border was to be opened for three hours.

But minutes before the gates were opened, a crowd of East Germans broke through and made the dash over the border to freedom.

Bella said about 200 people passed him by as he and his colleagues faced west, pretending they did not see the East Germans arriving from the other direction.

"We left the car on the side of the road and followed a young Hungarian who said, 'This way, this way'," said Dirk Mennenga, one of the East German escapees who crossed the border that day.

"By the time we really started to follow him we were already on the other side of the border," the now 60-year-old surgeon said.

Johann Goeltl was the commander of the border guards on the Austrian side.

"The young children ducked under the bar, women pushed prams, elder people wept, the young shouted out of happiness," he recalled.

The East Germans, most of whom had come to Hungary that summer in the hope of making their escape to the west, crossed the border in three groups until about 200 troops arrived on the Hungarian side to seal it again by 6:00 pm.

"A woman came to me and pleaded to help get her child, who got stuck on the Hungarian side," Goeltl said.

"So I walked over to the Hungarian colleagues, got the child, walked with him toward the border and told him to run to his mother when we got close."

The organisers of the picnic, who witnessed part of the escape, still remember the atmosphere of that day.

"We saw such a display of human spirit on the part of the border guards and the Germans that we haven't seen since," said one of them, Ferenc Meszaros.

Former premier Miklos Nemeth revealed on Tuesday that Hungary's leadership was testing Moscow's reactions when it did nothing to stop the exodus.

"This was a test to see whether what (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev had told me in March held true, or whether the Soviet Union would respond by ordering several of its battalions stationed in Hungary to intervene," Nemeth told AFP in Sopron.

"I knew that if news spread about this long-closed, rusty gate being opened, the East Germans in Hungary would surely know about it," the then reform-communist prime minister recalled.

In 1956, Hungary's popular uprising against communist power had been put down by Soviet tanks.

But Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had told Nemeth in March 1989 that he would not use military force to keep Hungary's communist regime in power.

"He told me: 'As long as I am sitting in this chair, there is not going to be another 1956'," Nemeth recalled, adding that he trusted the Soviet leader's words.

Nemeth's test worked as the events of August 19, 1989 unfolded peacefully.

Hungary's western border eventually opened for good on September 11, allowing about 50,000 East German refugees to flow through until October 7, without any Soviet intervention.

On Wednesday, an official commemoration ceremony was to be held at the border with Hungary's President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


0 Comments To This Article