First Iron Curtain breach was to test Soviet reaction

19th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

Former Hungarian premier Miklos Nemeth said that at the time he did not know whether to believe a promise from then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that there would be no repeat of the bloody suppression of Hungary's 1956 uprising.

Sopron -- The man who set off events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago by briefly opening Hungary's border with Austria was unsure whether Soviet troops would intervene, he said Tuesday.

Former Hungarian premier Miklos Nemeth said that at the time he did not know whether to believe a promise from then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that there would be no repeat of the bloody suppression of Hungary's 1956 uprising.

"This was a test to see whether what Gorbachev had told me held true, or whether the Soviet Union would respond by ordering several of its battalions stationed in Hungary to intervene," Nemeth told AFP at a conference to discuss the events of 20 years ago.

The events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 began almost three months earlier on 19 August near the village of Sopronkohida on the border between communist Hungary and democratic Austria.

Hungarians and Austrians had organised a Paneuropean Picnic to celebrate the dismantling of the fortified border there, which for decades served as a psychological and physical divide between the communist bloc and Western democracies.

The high point of the celebration was to be the symbolic opening of the border gates for a few hours, with the Hungarian leadership expecting thousands of East Germans who had arrived in Hungary to make a break for the West.

"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 former reformist communist prime minister recalled. "I was very anxious all day."

A crowd of East Germans crashed through the border minutes ahead of the planned opening, with over 600 people entering Austria that day in the first mass exodus by East Germans since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Without any orders from their superiors, the Hungarian border guards refrained from shooting and the gates were closed three hours later.

The opening came after Gorbachev reassured Nemeth at a meeting in Moscow in March that he did not plan to 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.

In 1956, Hungary's popular uprising against communist rule was put down by Soviet tanks.

Gorbachev himself later confirmed that he intended to react peacefully to the border opening: when German chancellor Helmut Kohl informed him about Hungary's plan to permanently open the border, he said "Nemeth is a good man."

"To Kohl it meant that what Nemeth said was alright," and that the planned border opening had the green light from Moscow, just as Nemeth had understood, the former premier explained.

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

Two months later on 9 November, the Berlin Wall fell.

By that time, Hungary's communist party had officially ceased to exist, the first to do so in the Eastern bloc.

AFP / Expatica

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