The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : CHAPTER 5 HUNGARY : A Vacation Spot Turns Into the 1st Way Out : Budapest, caught between East Germany’s hard-line regime and thousands of refugees, makes its choice: ‘We had to let them go.’

It was normal that East Germans came to Hungary in the summertime. They had been doing it for years, either in busloads on specially arranged holiday tours, or in their little plastic-bodied Trabant cars, enjoying the Hungarian food, the easy looseness of the place.

They went to Lake Balaton and swam; the young people hiked about with backpacks and bedrolls and slept in crowded youth hostels or campgrounds.

It was July before the Hungarians noticed that this year, something different was going on.

The word circulated first through the Interior Ministry that increasing numbers of East Germans were crossing the border without proper papers. Since the border fence had been removed, they were crossing at isolated points along the frontier, sometimes sprinting past guards at road crossings. What were the instructions from Budapest? Certainly there was no question of shooting. But should the immigration officers be instructed to stop them, arrest them, or turn them back? The Interior Ministry was not sure what to do.


In mid-July, the West German press agency reported that more than 90 East Germans had fled across the Hungarian border into Austria since the fence had come down in May. The Austrians kept a closer count. On the last weekend in July, they reported, 44 East Germans crossed the border illegally, raising the total, since the fence was dismantled, to 237.

And now, almost overnight it seemed, 100 East Germans had moved into the lobby of the West German Embassy in Budapest. More were arriving daily, gathering at the embassy like pilgrims outside a church. They wanted to go West--and they were prepared to stay for as long as it took.

To Andras Hojdu, in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the events of the next six weeks were the logical extension of the changing political climate in Hungary.

His diminutive frame seeming even smaller in an expansively cut suit, Hojdu, intensely intellectual in his approach to problems, was regarded by most ministry professionals as the closest confidant of Foreign Minister Gyula Horn. From the beginning, his counsel to Horn was clear: Hungary had only one choice--it had to let the East Germans go.


For Hojdu, the choice was written in history, beginning with the slow transformation of Hungarian Communist politics in 1980. It had been carried on through men such as Horn, who for years had headed the Central Committee’s international department--in effect, the party’s foreign policy strategists. Or Imre Poszgay, now in the limelight as the party’s leading reformer; Rezso Nyers, soon to become head of the renamed Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party--now the Hungarian Socialist Party--and Miklos Nemeth, the prime minister.

Hungary, in a style that was unique in the Warsaw Pact, had begun its revolution within the party. The process had gone so far that by the year’s end, in the view of many Hungarians, the Communist Party would commit political suicide, change its name, lose almost 90% of its official membership and become a distinctly minority party.

“Foreign policy represented a kind of flashpoint for the changes and reforms,” Hojdu said. “Human rights were the key.”

Hungary’s embrace of international--that is to say, Western--human rights standards could become a lever by which the entire Hungarian system could be moved. Indeed, one result of the document that Andre Erdos worked on for two years in Vienna was that the Hungarian Parliament was, at that moment, revising the Hungarian legal code to conform with its provisions on travel and emigration.

In early August, Laszlo Kovacs, deputy foreign minister, met with his chief, Gyula Horn, and together they reviewed the options. Kovacs, 50, had worked with Horn for more than a decade. They were a close team: Kovacs a trim, elegant dresser, quick and brief in his analysis of problems; Horn, 57, white-haired and fit, an addicted morning jogger and a foreign policy specialist.

There were two options, Kovacs said: “First, we could send the East Germans back. We dropped this immediately as politically and technically not feasible. Politically, it would have been contrary to our human rights concept. It was technically impossible because by this time, in Budapest alone, there were now between 1,000 and 2,000. In the rest of the country, we estimated another 10,000, and we had no idea what they wanted to do.”

In addition, over the next month, East Germans vacationing by the thousands in Bulgaria and Romania would be transiting through Hungary on their way home or wherever they were going. “There was only one solution that could be defended to the Hungarian and the world public,” Kovacs said. “We had to let them go.”

He continued: “We examined the obstacles to this, and the legal barrier was a 1969 bilateral agreement we signed with the German Democratic Republic. By the terms of the agreement, Hungary was not to let East German citizens proceed to any third country for which they did not have valid travel papers. Legal experts in the ministry examined the treaty and decided that it could not be canceled because it provides for a six-month prior notification. We had to find a much quicker solution--and the solution was that the grounds for suspending the treaty could be that conditions had changed since the signing of the 1969 document.”


The next issue was how to break the news to the East Germans. Prime Minister Nemeth sent messages to the West German government in Bonn and the East German government in East Berlin suggesting a meeting of prime ministers to discuss a solution. The East Germans declined, pointing out that party leader Erich Honecker and Prime Minister Willi Stoph were both ill. (Honecker, on July 8, had departed abruptly from a Warsaw Pact meeting in Bucharest, reportedly suffering from an acute gallbladder illness. The West German press had since been full of reports that he was gravely ill.) The West Germans responded eagerly, and on Aug. 25, Horn and Nemeth flew to Bonn.

Erdos, in Budapest, was now among the small group working on the problem.

“We tried to keep it as low profile as we could,” Erdos said. “There were a limited number of people working on it. There were legal and logistical considerations, and small teams were handling the problems. The Red Cross had become involved, and the Order of St. John’s, the service organization, from both West Germany and here.”

The refugees were moved to a church in the Buda Hills, and two more camps were opened. Tents were erected and food and basic first-aid services provided. When Horn returned from Bonn, the West German government announced that reception stations were being set up in Bavaria to receive an undetermined number of East German refugees. There was still no word from East Berlin. Horn waited until Aug. 31, then flew to East Berlin to meet with Oskar Fischer, his East German counterpart. The session did not go well.

Horn’s approach with the East Germans was to urge that an agreement be reached between the two Germanys. Hungary, Horn said, had been caught in the middle. Certainly, he said, Hungary did not want to cause discomfort to an ally, but Hungary itself was in an uncomfortable position, and only action by the East Germans could relieve the situation.

Horn stopped short of a threat, but he suggested to Fischer that if the East Germans did not arrive at what he called a “reasonable” answer, the Hungarians would have to devise their own solution. He did not spell out what it might be, but he assumed Fischer got the message. Horn repeated his government’s position to a small gathering of East German Politburo officials.

The party officials argued that the Hungarians should try to persuade the East Germans to return home. Horn, and later his aides, had the feeling that the East Germans were somehow unable to comprehend the scale of the problem. Surely they did not expect the Hungarian government to engage in counseling services for 10,000 citizens, all of them determined not to return home? It was preposterous.

When the East Germans asked that their consulate in Budapest be given free access to the camps where the East Germans were waiting, Horn had no objection, although he knew this was no answer. He then returned to Budapest to await the East German response.


There was none. The East German consulate dispatched a small trailer and a team of officers to a street corner near Holy Family Church in the Buda Hills, but it was a pitiful exercise, the officers spending most of their time fending off the jeers of fellow citizens.

On Sept. 7, at the regular meeting of the Hungarian government, the decision was officially taken. “At the time,” Kovacs said, “there had been talk that the government was divided on the issue between hard-liners and liberals, but that was not true. No one spoke against it. The decision was unanimous.”

The Hungarians waited another day for a German response. On Sept. 8, Kovacs called in the East German ambassador, Gerhardt Vehres, and handed him a diplomatic note saying that if there was no further response from the East German side, the Hungarian government was suspending the 1969 bilateral treaty agreement as of midnight, Sept. 10--thereby allowing the East German citizens in Hungary to leave for any country ready to receive them.

A few hours later, an urgent message came from Fischer, in East Berlin, personal to Horn. Because Horn was out of the city, Kovacs handled it. The message demanded that Hungary reverse its decision and appealed to Horn to use his influence to block the action. Kovacs, responding for Horn, declined.

On the evening of Sept. 10, in an interview on Hungarian television, Horn publicly announced the government’s decision. The buses were already waiting, and four hours later they rolled. The East Germans trooped aboard, whistling and shouting and flinging their East German currency out the bus windows.

“We realized that what we did would have, or should have, some influence on the GDR (East Germany),” Kovacs said, “in the sense that we opened a kind of hole through which thousands of people could leave.

“But at every point, when I spoke to the East German ambassador, when they told us we should send their people back, when they asked us to change our decision, they always argued in the same way. They tried to look for a reason outside their own country. They looked for the problem in Hungary. We argued that the problem was in the GDR.”

There was one more stiff exchange of notes. On Sept. 12, the East Germans took the unusual step of releasing the contents of a diplomatic message to the state news agency before delivering it to the Hungarians. The note charged Hungary with violating its international agreements. On Sept. 13, Kovacs summoned East German Ambassador Vehres to the Foreign Ministry and handed him Hungary’s response, citing the legal basis for the decision and telling him that Hungary also had released the text of the message to the news media.

“You know,” Kovacs told him, “there are 100,000 ethnic Germans living in Hungary, and not one of them has left to go to West Germany, although they could do so at any time.” Vehres, Kovacs said, had “no specific response.”

Vehres accepted the note and left, walked down the curving marble stairway and through the lobby to the front door. His dark-blue Volvo, flag flying on the fender, was backed in at the curb, its driver waiting. It was nearly night as the car moved out into the traffic along the Danube.

In Prague, the Czechoslovak Communist Party’s chief ideologist said in a speech that Czechoslovak Communists must find their own path to reform and not give way to “dangerous” influences from Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union. Party leader Milos Jakes said a “great political struggle” would be required to counteract the activities of “various illegal groups” in Czechoslovakia. The streets of Prague were quiet.