European leaders mark 20 years since Iron Curtain breach
Sopron — German Chancellor Angela Merkel thanked Hungary Wednesday for opening the Iron Curtain 20 years ago, allowing hundreds of East Germans to flee into democratic Europe.
Merkel, who spent most of her childhood and studied in communist East Germany, spoke at a commemoration near the Austro-Hungarian border area where East German refugees had been waiting for the moment to run to freedom on August 19, 1989.
"In the name of Germany, I would like to thank all Hungarians and East Germans who showed the East German regime their desire for freedom," Merkel said in front of about 200 people in the field of Sopronpuszta near the border.
"The members of the Hungarian government at the time … carried out a brave deed, and two prisoner nations broke the gates of prison and entered freedom," she said, recalling that a few months after the breakthrough, the Berlin Wall came down.
The event, during which a large marble statue incorporating a piece of the Berlin Wall was inaugurated, was held on the same field where the Pan-European Picnic was organised in 1989 to celebrate the dismantling of the Iron Curtain.
The commemoration was attended by Hungary’s President Laszlo Solyom and Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, representing the European Union presidency, called on Europe to remain "open to Europeans beyond our borders."
Moves to take down the fence, which had for over two decades divided the West from the Communist bloc, had begun in Hungary in May 1989, and on August 19, it was to be symbolically opened for three hours.
But minutes before the gates were opened, a crowd of East Germans broke through.
"We were not afraid at all. … If you want freedom so desperately you do not think about fear," Simone Sobel, who was part of the first group to cross over to the democratic West, recalled on Wednesday.
It was here that she and her husband made the break with their two daughters, aged two and four, because they could not imagine their lives in communist East Germany anymore, Walter Sobel told AFP.
"It was the same sunny day as today," Walter Sobel said as the couple, who now live near Dortmund in Germany, looked around in the hope of seeing some friends from 20 years ago.
Over 600 people made it across to Austria that day, the first massive exodus of East Germans to the west since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
The peaceful picnic "helped to change the course of European history," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement.
"It led to a brief opening of the Iron Curtain and contributed to its final fall and the peaceful unification of Germany," he added.
"The Sopron picnic thereby marked the beginning of the end of the division of Europe by the Cold War."
The Pan-European Picnic was organised by Hungarian opposition parties under the patronage of Imre Pozsgay, a prominent reformist member of the Communist party Politburo, and Otto von Habsburg, the president of the International Pan-European Union and son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor.
After the Hungarian government officially opened the border on September 11, an estimated 50,000 East Germans fled to Austria.
Two months later, on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell.
Hungary was where "the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall," the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl said in Berlin on the day East and West Germany were reunified on October 4, 1990.