German Democratic Republic

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 /

Gyula Horn in 1990 /

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.”