Midnight from 10 to 11 September 1989: Hungary opens its borders to GDR refugees, Austria helps thousands on their way to freedom
1989: East German refugee exodus – via Hungary to freedom
By Jan Krcmar sen.
On 19 August 1989, some 600 East Germans “picnickers”, participants in a celebration of good neighbourly relations on the Austrian-Hungarian border, originally meant for Austrians and Hungarians, pushed through a barbed wire topped wooden gate and made their way into the West and freedom. As it turned out, this was not a one-off “great escape” but the precursor to the greatest flood of East German refugees fleeing their “bastion of socialism on German soil” since 1961 when the Berlin Wall was built. Some three weeks later, the trickle of escapees from the Iron Curtain became a deluge of tens of thousands, who were able to cross legally from Hungary to Austria and eventually to West Germany. Although I missed the picnic I made sure that I would be able to witness and report what happened on the following 11 September.
Queues of Trabant cars with GDR refugees waiting for entry to Austria at Klingenbach
Silence and anticipationThere was an eerie silence and a sense of anticipation just before midnight at the Austrian border checkpoint in Klingenbach opposite the Hungarian town of Sopron a few hundred metres away. But the border crossing was not deserted, as one would expect at this time of night. On the contrary, there were rows of empty buses waiting for their passengers and stalls stacked with packages manned by Red Cross volunteers. The packages contained sandwiches, road maps of Austria, petrol coupons and some cash to help their recipients cross the country to what was then still West Germany. Hardly anybody spoke, and many checked their watches to see what would happen at the stroke of midnight.
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GDR refugees in front of the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Budapest (left), reform-oriented KP prime minister Miklós Németh (right)
Thousands waiting for exodusFollowing the August picnic episode, it was estimated that some 60,000 East Germans had made their way to Hungary, in itself one of the most popular holiday resorts for East Germans, whose holiday destinations were limited to the countries of the then Soviet dominated Eastern Bloc. Several thousand began besieging the West German embassy in Budapest in the hope that the West Germans would negotiate permission for them to travel from Hungary to West Germany. They had been encouraged by the fact that in the spring of 1989 Hungary had begun dismantling the security system on the border with Austria. This in itself put the Hungarian authorities, themselves of course the Communist allies of East Germany, into a quandary, as they had an agreement with the East Berlin government that they would not allow East Germans to cross the border to Austria without the relevant permits which, naturally, they did not have. Similar agreements existed with Hungary’s other Warsaw Pact allies. Under pressure from Bonn, the Hungarian government under reformist premier Miklos Nemeth agreed to temporarily lift the travel restriction on East Germans, but until the final decision was made the authorities began assembling the would-be emigrants mainly in state holiday camps, for the most part on the shores of Lake Balaton, which had been emptied with the start of the autumn school term.
Visiting camps on the southern tip of Lake BalatonOn Sunday, 10 September, I visited one of these camps near Keszthely on the southern tip of Lake Balaton. The camp was full with around one thousand people, but on that warm, sunny afternoon it had the appearance of any normal holiday camp with children running around the playground and adults lolling in deck chairs, playing cards or keeping their children amused. Despite this picture of normality, everybody had their transistor radios on and there was an air of tension and expectation, as it had been rumoured that a decision was in the offing allowing East Germans to leave for West Germany. And then it came.
Foreign minister Gyula Horn announced the opening of the borders for all GDR refugees
Queues of cars on main road to SopronAt six o’clock Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn announced that as of midnight Hungary would temporarily relax its border restrictions on East Germans and allow them to cross into Austria and then on to West Germany. Horn had hardly finished speaking when parents swept up their children, adults rushed to their cars, motorcycles and bicycles with their packed belongings, and within 15 minutes the camp was virtually empty except for a queue of cars at the gate waiting to get onto the road. By the time I got to my car and onto the road there was a column several kilometres long on the main road leading to the border town Sopron with more traffic coming from side roads and all heading in the same direction. There was hardly any traffic in the opposite direction and it was a simple task to overtake the very disciplined column of Trabants and Wartburgs crammed with people and their belongings, some also with tents or small boats in trailers and one car even with a small racing car on its trailer. I soon left the column behind me and passed through Sopron and on to the Hungarian border checkpoint, which apart from myself and the Hungarian border police was deserted, as was the road leading from there to the Austrian border.
There I was eagerly questioned as to what I had seen, how many people were on their way and if I had encountered any incidents. And then all we could all do was to wait, wait until midnight.
Reunified Germany celebrates 20 years of freedom
Minutes after midnight: GDR exodus to Austria beginsMidnight struck, but the dark road leading into Hungary remained empty. Within perhaps two minutes, however, we saw the first cars flashing their headlamps and hooting with their horns and heard the cheering of the occupants. The Austrian border police, all smiles and words of welcome, did not bother to check documents but just marshalled the cars to lines by the Red Cross stalls, where everybody received their packages and directions on how to reach the main road leading to the West. As if from nowhere, large crowds of young people crossed the border on foot after having camped nearby waiting for their longed-for moment. One young man with tears in his eyes fell into the arms of an Austrian customs officer, who comforted him and slowly led him to one of the waiting buses.
From Klingenbach I drove north to the crossing at Nickelsdorf, where a similar scene was taking place, and later colleagues from other crossing points spoke of similar experiences. It was estimated that over 6,000 persons crossed into the West on 11 September, followed by almost 60,000 more.
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Lines of cars with GDR refugees heading for Austria (left), abandoned cars (right)
Almost all go west, only few head back to GDRBut not every East German headed to the West. In a roadside café near the Hungarian-Slovak border crossing at Rajka, tourists were subjected to hour-long waits while the Hungarian and Czechoslovak border police carefully scrutinised every traveller entering or leaving the country. Here the road was virtually deserted and the café almost empty. At one table a young couple sat with their small child. When I asked them why they had not decided to join the stream of compatriots, they replied that it wasn’t an option for them. “We have just finished rebuilding our family house, which cost us all our savings, and besides we have no relatives in the West who would help us,” said the husband.
In the car park outside I met an athletic, short-cropped grey haired man who, when I asked him what he thought of the whole situation, proudly replied:
“I’m going home to the German Democratic Republic, which I helped rebuild and which I am proud of.” “Those running away are fascists,” he added with contempt.
The greatest goal: freedomOn the way home to Vienna I had a different experience. I was stopped by a lonely middle-aged man with just a shoulder bag, who said he had taken the train to Budapest and was now on his way. When I asked him where he was actually headed for, he just replied with a large grin: “In die Freiheit”, to freedom.
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Heading for freedom in Trabant cars, in the spotlight of the media, on foot with bags and suitcases
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Freedom train 1989-2009
A special train will commemorate the opening of the borders of Hungary and Austria to East German refugees and to freedom in the West on 11 September 1989. A few days later, on 1 October 1989, thousands of East Germans who had taken refuge in the West German embassy in Prague were able to leave Czechoslovakia for the West. Special trains took them from Prague railway station through East German territory to Hof in Bavaria. The East German leaders had given way to the growing international pressure and agreed to the transit. These trains became a pan-European symbol of the yearning for freedom of East German citizens. Those remaining in East Germany were growing increasingly discontented. The journey from Prague to Hof gave thousands of East Germans the opportunity to give vent to their dissatisfaction, and demonstrations were held at the railway stations on the way. Most of them were broken up by force by the East German authorities, but they nevertheless represented an important milestone in the Peaceful Revolution. Shortly afterwards, on 18 October 1989, Communist Party leader Erich Honecker was forced to resign as a result of public pressure. The entire East German government stepped down a few days later and the Berlin Wall fell on 9-10 November.
The historical 1989-2009 Freedom Train recalls the refugees in the embassy and the first demonstrations in East Germany. It will set off with five carriages from Prague to Hof via Dresden, Freiberg, Chemnitz and Plauen. Each of the carriages will contain exhibitions. Former refugees will give interviews and historians will shed light on the events. Young people of the time from all of the former Eastern Bloc states will talk about their own experiences. Together they will seek to reflect on the opening and reunification of Europe and the prospects for the future. Local festivities are planned at stations along the way.
The event is being organised by honorary members of the Verein Kultur Aktiv in Dresden.
Kultur Aktiv e.V.
Further articles in our series “1989 - Fall of the Iron Curtain” by Jan Krcmar sen. and the wieninternational.at foreign correspondents
Opening of Hungary’s border in 1989: the end of “Goulash Communism”
Opening of Hungary’s border in 1989: a picnic changes Europe
The Fall of the Iron Curtain
Bulgaria 1989: from environmental protests to the Turkish exodus and Central Committee putsch
1989: fateful year for Poland and Europe:
Árpád Bella, the man who refused to obey the order to shoot: