Gyula Horn and the opening of Austro-Hungarian border, September 10, 1989

When I am either unfamiliar with a topic or have only bits and pieces of information that don’t make a coherent whole, I like to follow up. Since I didn’t remember all the details of the Hungarian decision to allow the East German tourists who refused to return to the German Democratic Republic to cross into Austria, I decided that I would reread Gyula Horn’s autobiography, Cölöpök (Piles).

It took me a little while to find the appropriate pages because the book has no table of contents. There are some chapter numbers but no chapter titles. Moreover, Horn jumps from topic to topic, and not necessarily in chronological order. Once I found it, however, the passage turned out to be full of interesting details.

Let’s start with the crucial question of whether the Soviet Union gave the Hungarians permission to allow the thousands of East Germans to cross into Austria. No, there was no permission. The Soviets were “informed on the day that the Hungarians opened the border for the East Germans to cross.” That was on September 10, 1989.

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

Gyula Horn in 1990 / parlament.hu

According to Horn, the Hungarian foreign ministry suspected that the Soviets already knew about the Hungarian decision, either directly through their intelligence forces in Hungary or from the leadership of the GDR. Because the East German party and government leaders had been informed by the Hungarians of their decision on August 29. The East Germans insisted that Hungary fulfill its obligation of a 1969 treaty between Hungary and East Germany by which Hungary was supposed to force East German citizens to return to their homeland. It was this treaty that the Hungarians were going to suspend. Why suspend instead of abrogate? Because in the latter case Hungary would have been obliged to wait three months before they would have been free to let the Germans go. And the number of East Germans in Hungary had already swelled to the thousands by then.

The East German side insisted on a meeting with Miklós Németh, the prime minister, and Gyula Horn. The Germans were still hoping that the Hungarians could be cajoled, blackmailed, persuaded, take your pick, to return the East German citizens who were staying in the West German embassy, in student hostels, in camping facilities. But when the two politicians got to Berlin, the hosts were told about the suspension of the 1969 treaty.

If Gorbachev had wanted to prevent the escapade of the Germans across the Austro-Hungarian border he had more than a week to send word to the Hungarians warning them against such a step. But although Horn gives a very detailed account, there is not a word about any visit from the Soviet ambassador to the Foreign Ministry.

The relationship between Horn and Eduard Shevardnadze was cordial, and in the previous year or two the Soviets usually took the Hungarian more liberal side against the noisiest hard-liners–Romania, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. When, shortly after the momentous event, Horn met Shevardnadze in New York, the Soviet foreign minister expressed his agreement with the Hungarian solution. In fact, he asked Horn to estimate the number of dissatisfied East Germans who would gladly leave and was duly impressed with Horn’s answer that the number might be one or two million.

Horn admits that there was some fear that Gorbachev might be pressured by others in the government and party to intervene. After all, the existence of an East Germany within the Soviet bloc might be considered of paramount interest to Moscow. Horn adds that he never feared military intervention because he knew that Gorbachev was not in favor of any kind of military action. But he did consider possible economic or political action, although elsewhere in the book Horn mentions that by that time the Soviet Union was in such dire economic straits that they were unable to fulfill their delivery obligations to Hungary.

Horn outlines the different ideas the Hungarians entertained over time, but he claims they never contemplated sending the East Germans back home.  When there were only a few hundred escapees, they offered them refugee status in Hungary which they categorically refused. Then the German and the Hungarian governments came up with a plan that  in the middle of the night in great secret a large German plane would land in Budapest and the East Germans would be smuggled onto the plane. But soon enough that idea was abandoned because the East Germans continued to arrive in greater and greater numbers, not so much from East Germany as from Yugoslavia where they had spent their holidays. Once they got to Hungary, they refused to continue northward. Something had to be done.

It was at this point that Németh and Horn secretly visited Bonn and talked to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. They outlined the difficulties and promised that a solution would be found. A few days later when the decision was made to open the border, Horn phoned Genscher and asked him to send his undersecretary to Budapest immediately to begin serious negotiations about the details of the border opening. Genscher kept repeating that “this is fantastic, we never in our wildest dreams imagined such a brave and humane step.” The undersecretary arrived overnight and was told about the details of the operation. The reach of the East German intelligence services worried Horn, and he asked the Germans not to send cipher telegrams. Only handwritten notes by courier.

It was around 6 p.m. on September 10 that Horn gave an interview on MTV in which announced the government’s decision to open the border between Austria and Hungary. In his book he added: “Naturally I did not know at that time that with this step we began the road toward the unification of the two states and with it a new chapter in the history of Europe.”

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61 comments

  1. Lévay Atilla :
    The Soviet Story offers an alternative history of an Allied ..

    Oh, no !! The Katyn Massacre really happened ??? Came on Attila … This movie is crap.

  2. “Oh, no !! The Katyn Massacre really happened ??? Came on Attila … This movie is crap.”
    Reply to Mutt:

    Katyn Forest is a wooded area near Gneizdovo village, a short distance from Smolensk in Russia where, in 1940 on Stalin’s orders, the NKVD shot and buried over 4000 Polish service personnel that had been taken prisoner when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939 in WW2 in support of the Nazis.
    [NKVD- Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del. If you are Polish NKVD means “Nie wiadomo kiedy wroce do domu. Impossible to tell when I will return home.”]

    In 1943 the Nazis exhumed the Polish dead and blamed the Soviets. In 1944, having retaken the Katyn area from the Nazis, the Soviets exhumed the Polish dead again and blamed the Nazis. The rest of the world took its usual sides in such arguments.

    In 1989, with the collapse of Soviet Power, Premier Gorbachev finally admitted that the Soviet NKVD had executed the Poles, and confirmed two other burial sites similar to the site at Katyn.

    Stalin’s order of March 1940 to execute by shooting some 25,700 Poles, including those found at the three sites, was also disclosed with the collapse of Soviet Power. This particular second world war slaughter of Poles is often referred to as the “Katyn Massacre” or the “Katyn Forest Massacre”.

  3. I checked the pages on the subject in Fejtö & Kulesza-Mietkowski’s book La Fin des démocraties populaires (The End of People’s Republics).

    First, it mentions that the ‘refugee crisis’ started in early May with the Hungarian decision to weaken its border surveillance with Austria, meaning people could cross, albeit illegally – Honecker protested.

    Then, as most DDR citizens were waiting for a legal exit, numbers of them seeked asylum in the BRD embassy in Budapest (up to its closing by the BRD Aug. 14th – the Prague Embassy was closed a week later). Then on Aug. 19th, the ‘Pan-European picnic’ was held, and a few hundreds flew West (Honecker protested again). But most DDR citizens were still waiting… for BRD passports.

    At this point, it mentions that Németh’s first strategy was to have both the BRD and DDR face their responsibilities. But that quickly, Bonn made economic promises (new credit lines plus trade facilities with the EEC) while the relationship with Berlin was worsening (the Fischer/Horn meeting at the end of August, and Horn’s statement about ‘only one solution, a humanitarian one’).

    Finally, it adds that both the internal Politburo struggle in Moscow and the renewed contestation in Leipzig (since Sept. 2nd) probably contributed to the absence of an effective Moscow/Berlin counter-reaction.

  4. Mutt: God forbid I support Levay Attila, but why is this movie a crap exactly? Yes it’s a little “hatásvadász” (theatrical I guess?), but not any more than any holocaust/inquisition/hutu-tuci (take your pick) movie I’ve seen.

    I think it’s a positive thing that the US “public knowledge” is starting to discover about the Soviets as well. As you seem to live in the US too, I’m sure you noticed that it’s an understatement to say that people doesn’t have the clue about this. (Mind you, the only reason most of them know about the holocaust is because they watch TV and movies sometimes).

  5. oneill :
    “Lévay Attila. He had every right to present another side of Horn.”
    Yep, but only in the common language of the blog.

    Right he may have – manners hardly.
    Then again, what else would you expect from a civil, democrat, – even christian – Fidesz supporter, what his masters known of…

  6. Jano :
    Mutt: God forbid I support Levay Attila, but why is this movie a crap exactly? Yes it’s a little “hatásvadász” (theatrical I guess?), but not any more than any holocaust/inquisition/hutu-tuci (take your pick) movie I’ve seen.

    Exactly. It’s a very badly done documentary with all the cliches. The content is indisputably true about the crimes but the style is assaulting. Lot’s of dead bodies with dramatic music followed by average Joe testimonies telling deadly obvious facts and all this in 2008. Boooooring … Like we never heard about it.

  7. Mutt :

    Jano :
    Mutt: God forbid I support Levay Attila, but why is this movie a crap exactly? Yes it’s a little “hatásvadász” (theatrical I guess?), but not any more than any holocaust/inquisition/hutu-tuci (take your pick) movie I’ve seen.

    Exactly. It’s a very badly done documentary with all the cliches. The content is indisputably true about the crimes but the style is assaulting. Lot’s of dead bodies with dramatic music followed by average Joe testimonies telling deadly obvious facts and all this in 2008. Boooooring … Like we never heard about it.

    A documentary should not be “based on” but the Soviet Story very much is based on true events, and become highly distorted. It is like a phd paper about cancer treatment that talks about real facts, except some of the material is not about cancer. THe Soviet Story contained photographs and footage to illustrate some segments that had nothing to do with the segment itself. Imagine if “any holocaust/inquisition/hutu-tuci (take your pick)” segment would use a footage from the Kosovo War for illustration.

    At any case I do not see to much relevance between the Gulags, and Gyula Horn opening the borders.

  8. Mutt: Yes,we have heard it. On the audience it was intended to hasn’t. I really don’t want to give the impression that I’m praising the quality, because honestly it’s just slightly better, than any of the History Channels overdramatized and and overly sentimental documentaries. The fact that you can’t even come up with a better is unfortunately very telling. But we live in the US and this is what affects the Americans.

    I’ve recently watched a Holocaust documentary on TV and the only merit it had was that they remastered the black and white footages to make them colored. Otherwise it falls under the “About Nazis to kindergardeners” category. It was so intellectually insulting that I had to turn it off. I learned a day later that it was an award winning piece. In that respect, the Soviet story has it’s place. At least it is telling something new to the Americans.

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