The communist corrosion that brought down the Berlin Wall

The communist corrosion that brought down the Berlin Wall

23rd June 2009, Comments 0 comments

In the summer of 1989, the Austro-Hungarian border was opened for three hours, allowing 600 East Germans to escape to the West. It was an act that, for many, signalled the end of the Iron Curtain.

A barren track now runs along the stretch of land between Hungary and Austria where 20 years ago the Iron Curtain started to disintegrate.

Imre Caspo guarded the frontier between communist and capitalist Europe for 23 years and now he is trying to keep some of the Cold War atmosphere alive.

He has barbed wire fence, a watchtower and a green Trabant car in his back garden which he hopes to turn into a museum which should open in time to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.

"All this new freedom, this coming and going is not my thing any more," he said nostalgically.

Fertorakos, now a quaint village, was one of the most guarded settlements in Hungary and the departure point for many dissidents fleeing to the West.

"There were guards walking on the main street, they did their patrols in cars and even on bicycles, stopping people and checking their entrance permits to the zone," Csapo, now 60, reminisced as he drove through the village. "We used to walk dozens of kilometres along these fences when we were on duty."

He and his colleagues would look for footprints left by interlopers in the carefully raked soil as they made a dash for freedom from the oppressive Communist regimes.

Photo/Illustration WIKISPACE - Creative Commons

An electric boundary

The fence that he has conserved in his garden was first erected along the 246-kilometre (153-mile) Austro-Hungarian border in 1966. It was an electronic surveillance system that set off alarms when an escape attempt was made.

"People tried to climb between the wires, pass over the fence with a ladder or dig a hole under it to break free," Csapo said. "The horizontal wires were loose so if someone pressed their body across, they inevitably caused a short-circuit, which alerted the patrol."

The freedom seekers then had to dash across a two-kilometre (1.2 mile) stretch of no man's land to the border. Csapo estimated that he caught between 20 and 25 people each year.

The dismantling of the wall started on May 2, 1989. Hungary's Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock symbolically cut the wire in June -- and it was in a sector near where Csapo patrolled that on August 19, 1989,
Austrians and Hungarians held a Pan-European Picnic for peace.

A border gate was opened for three hours and about 600 East Germans escaped to the West. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl said it was the first step towards bringing down the Berlin Wall.

"The East Germans just heard somehow that the border would be open for a few hours," Erno Ambrus, a 47-year-old former colleague of Csapo, remembered. "So they hung around, leaving behind their blankets, bags and cars, they crashed through the border gate."

No orders came from Budapest on how to react and border guard commander Arpad Bella decided not to order shots fired.

AFP PHOTO / ATTILA KISBENEDEK "If he had ordered us to fire, these people would have been shot without a doubt," noted Ambrus, praising his commanding officer's "compassion and competence."

The borders were reinforced the following day, but only for a month. On September 10, the Hungarian government officially opened the border, allowing an estimated 50,000 East Germans to flee.

About 3,000 to 4,000 Trabants, Wartburgs and other communist-era cars were abandoned on the eastern side of the border, said Csapo.

Hungary had always appeared to be a chink in the Warsaw Pact defences, according to experts.

"Hungary was the weakest link in the Iron Curtain and it was inevitable that it finally gave way here," historian Geza Szebeni said.

Goulash communism

Since the 1960s, Hungarians had enjoyed relatively comfortable lives in comparison to the people of other East Bloc countries -- with extra meat and vegetables, made-in-Hungary jeans and Pepsi Cola in the shops.

That was thanks to Janos Kadar, leader of Hungary's communist party from 1956 to 1988, who went as far as possible down the free-market path without provoking Moscow into a repeat of the brutal Soviet crackdown of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.

Many Hungarians had holiday homes, small family enterprises sprang up, and people could even apply to travel to the West every three years -- an option unthinkable in other Warsaw Pact countries.

The relative comforts of the Hungarian system became known as "goulash communism" but it all came at a cost and the communist government repeatedly went cap in hand to the West.

"Kadar met various German chancellors four times,” Szebeni said. “And he met French President Francois Mitterrand four times as well. With the loans, political ties were inevitably established.”

Hungary joined international organisations, which did anger Moscow, the historian said.

Life changed when Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985 and brought in Perestroika reforms. Hungary's leaders eagerly took advantage of that, Szebeni said.

A print showing photos a collage of photos is pictured as part of a permanent open-air exhibition at the Austrian-Hungarian border near Fertorakos, some 220kms west of Budapest on 29 April 2009 where Eastern Germans broke across the border from the Hungarian side on August 19, 1989

"Gorbachev said that 1956 must not be repeated,” wrote Imre Pozsgay, a former minister and leading communist reformer of the 1980s. “It was an ambiguous remark, but we tried to find a positive interpretation."

During a visit to the Austrian-Hungarian border in October 1988, Pozsgay talked about dismantling the barbed wire, electrified "fence of shame"

It was Pozsgay who, in January 1989, was the first to state publicly that the 1956 revolution had not been a "counter-revolution" -- as qualified by Moscow -- but a "popular uprising."

There were still 120,000 Soviet troops in Hungary but Moscow did not react. The communist party then decided to dismantle the border fence.

At the same time, East German leader Erich Honecker proclaimed that the "Berlin Wall will continue to stand for 100 years." Moscow remained silent when Hungarian border guards started chopping through the Iron Curtain. The rest is history.

Timeline of 1989, fall of the Iron Curtain:

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, putting an end to the Cold War, but the sequence of events in eastern Europe that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain began several months earlier.

Here are a few key dates:

April 5: at the end of the so-called Round Table talks in Poland, the ruling Communists and the opposition agree to legalise the Solidarnosc workers' movement, which was banned in 1982, and call the first partially democratic elections in June, which Solidarnosc sweeps.

May 2: Hungary begins pulling down the Iron Curtain, dismantling the electric alarm system and cutting through the barbed wire that have marked its border with Austria since 1966.

August 19: over 600 east Germans use the so-called Pan-European Picnic, a peaceful gathering near the Hungarian town of Sopron, to flee across the Austrian border to the west. Hungarian border guards are ordered not to shoot.

August 24: Tadeusz Mazowiecki becomes Poland's prime minister, the first non-Communist head of state in eastern Europe in over 40 years.

September 10: Hungary allows all eastern Germans through to Austria without seeking Moscow's approval. Over 50,000 people flee to the West. Pressure increases on the East German government to ease travel restrictions.


 A main gate of the open-air Iron Curtain museum is opened as the owner of the exhibition, a former border guard of the Austrian-Hungarian border, Imre Csapo, sits in a Eastern-German made Trabant in Fertorakos, some 220 kms west of Budapest

October 18: GDR leader Erich Honecker is forced to resign, less than two weeks after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev warned the eastern German government not to be too rigid in the face of increasing liberalism throughout the region.
November 9: the Berlin Wall falls after weeks of mounting demonstrations including a mass rally of at least one million people in East Berlin on November 4.

November 17: police in Czechoslovakia launch a brutal crackdown on peaceful student protests in Prague, sparking the Velvet Revolution which culminated with ruling Communists stepping down on November 24 after days of mass protests.

December 22: Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu is overthrown after days of demonstrations and deadly clashes. Ceausescu and his wife Elena are executed by firing squad on December 25 after a summary trial.

Eszter Balazs and Geza Molnar/AFP/Expatica

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