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Crossing Over To Freedom

Iron Curtain, Pan-European Picnic and Regime Change

“Hungarians are good people”
Mikhail Gorbachev, August 25, 1989


In the second half of the twentieth century Hungary played a significant role in world history on two occasions, and in both cases made a decisive contribution to the collapse of Communism. Six decades ago, in October 1956, “the Budapest lads” with their home-made Molotov cocktails and their bicycles confronted the Soviet army and its tanks, rockets and state-of-the-art weaponry. By now, we know that victory was theirs. They made the whole world realize that Communism could only be imposed on the people by permanent terror and the superior force of the Red Army. People acting of their own free will would have never tolerated the rule of the Communists.
In 1989, Hungarians took the lead again: in an enormously risky move they demolished the Iron Curtain, which was meant to hermetically separate the East from the West. The artificial division of Europe into two parts thus came to an end. The opening of the border barriers for the several thousand East German refugees then staying in Hungary triggered a domino effect: it made the Berlin Wall irrelevant and signaled that the German Democratic Republic and the rest of the European single-party dictatorships could be overthrown. All the more so, since behind the deconstructed walls and the demolished barbed wire fences there lived nations striving for freedom and independence, who had been suffocated by the lack of freedom for too long; they had enough of living behind walls and could not tolerate foreign rule any longer.
It is a great feeling to know that it was the courage and determination of Hungarians twenty-five years ago that hit the first and unfillable gap in those walls. We have thus good reason to be proud of our achievements.

THE IRON CURTAIN

The Iron Curtain was the most striking symbol of the division of Europe into two parts after World War II. That phrase that has since become widespread was first used by Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 in his speech in Fulton, Missouri. At the end of the 1940s the frontiers were closed all along the Western border of the area under Soviet control to prevent the population from escaping.

The order to build the Iron Curtain along Hungary’s western borders was emitted in May 1948. A year later the construction of the 1000 kilometer long wire fence began, with mined stretches behind it in several sections. The landmines were removed between 1955 and October 1956. This is how it became possible for about two hundred thousand 1956 freedom heroes to leave Hungary for Austria and Yugoslavia.

The “workers’-peasants’ government” led by János Kádár decreed the Western border to be closed again on March 2, 1957. Then two rows of barbed wire fence were erected along a 350-kilometer stretch, and about 800 thousand landmines were lid down along it. These facilities went out of date within a couple of years. In 1965 the S–100 border surveillance system was introduced, which was also in use in the Soviet Union and was considered a modern technology. The new system carried 12 to 16 volts of electric current, but it was too sensitive, as it often reacted to weather changes and the movement of beasts and birds. Between 1970 and 1988, there were 500 to 1000 attempts per year to cross the border across the Iron Curtain in Hungary. The border surveillance system blocked more than 90% of the border crossing attempts that became known. Nine people of those attempting to cross the Hungarian–Austrian border were shot dead by the border guards.

When it was decided that citizens would get passports valid for the whole world and for a period of five years from January 1, 1988, the raison d’être of the Iron Curtain ceased to exist. Adult citizens who had been almost hermetically separated from western countries and markets for decades and who had been brought up in a Socialist shortage economy could thus move freely beyond the borders. The border surveillance system was ordered to be demolished by the single-party state on February 28, 1989. Workers started dismantling the Iron Curtain on May 2, 1989 and went forward with such a momentum that when Foreign Ministers of Austria and Hungary Alois Mock and Gyula Horn were to ceremonially cut through the Iron Curtain outside Sopron on June 27, a stretch of it had to be reconstructed temporarily.

THE PAN-EUROPEAN PICNIC

The Pan-European Picnic was an outstanding event of the regime change, which garnered international attention for Hungary. The meeting was initiated and organized by groups based outside Budapest and amateur politicians of freshly established opposition movements. After a talk given by Pan-European Union President Otto von Habsburg in Debrecen on June 20, 1989, Ferenc Mészáros, a member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) living in Debrecen, proposed that a stretch of the Hungarian– Austrian border should be opened symbolically so that Austrians and Hungarians could demonstrate their belonging together in the frame of a common picnic. Upon a proposal by Mária Filep, a member of the Debrecen branch of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Hungarian Democratic Forum started to organize the event with the help of the Sopron groups of the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz) and the Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party (FKgP). Otto von Habsburg and Minister of State Imre Pozsgay became the patrons of the picnic.

The Pan-European Picnic eventually took place at Sopronpuszta on August 19. The event became a real popular celebration, with several thousand participants from both Austria and Hungary. The main purpose of the meeting in addition to the demolishment of the still standing fences of the Iron Curtain was to keep open the border crossing between Sankt Margarethen in Austria’s Burgenland and Sopronkőhida in Hungary for three hours. The opportunity was used by about nine hundred East German citizens to escape from Hungary to West Germany through Austria. The Pan-European Picnic was one of those rare events in Hungarian history when the political leadership, the freshly established civil movements and the armed forces consciously cooperated to help East German refugees gathering in Hungary.
However, the atmosphere of freedom was stained by a tragic incident. On August 21, a refugee trying to get hold of the gun of a Hungarian border guard was shot dead by this armed serviceman. This was the last occasion when firearms were used at the Hungarian–Austrian border. On August 23, the Hungarian Government allowed all 117 East German refugees staying at the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany to freely leave Hungary. Two days later Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and Foreign Minister Gyula Horn met Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans- Dietrich Genscher of West Germany in Gymnich, near Bonn. After the meeting the Hungarian Government decided to allow citizens of the German Democratic Republic staying in Hungary to leave for West Germany. Gyula Horn told the general public about this decision taken with the tacit agreement of the Soviet Union on television in the evening of September 10. The following day starting at 0:00, the Hungarian border crossings were opened for the refugees. By November 9 when the Berlin Wall was opened, 60 thousand East German citizens escaped to the West through Hungary.


 


 
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