While the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was the symbolic end of communism, the Iron Curtain was first breached in Hungary months earlier The Economist reflects on the events which spurred a revolution in human liberty:
The images of crowds hacking at the Berlin Wall in November 1989 while bemused East German border guards watch helplessly are now iconic. But it’s often forgotten that the Iron Curtain was first physically breached not in Berlin, but just outside Sopron, Hungary, on the Hungarian-Austrian border in the summer of 1989. As tens of thousands of fleeing East Germans poured in to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the pressure built and built until it could no longer be contained.
When you cannot dam a wave, it’s better to try and ride it. Which is why in June 1989 Gyula Horn, the Hungarian foreign minister, travelled to the border with Alois Mock, his Austrian counterpart. They brought a large pair of wire-cutters and started snipping (pictured above).
By then the Hungarians had been working with the West Germans against their supposed comrades in hard-line East Germany for years. The wily Magyars had joined the International Monetary Fund as early as 1982. One western official involved in negotiations between Budapest and Bonn told me how, as the one party state began to collapse, the Hungarian communist leadership would even travel to Germany with lists of reformist candidates for the Germans’ approval.
It’s hard to say what exactly was the tipping point that made the Communists realise that the game was truly, finally, over. The most likely event was the June 1989 reburial of Imre Nagy, the leader of the failed 1956 revolution. Nagy was arrested by the Soviets and executed two years later after a show trial. He was buried in an anonymous plot known as “Section 301” of a Budapest cemetery. (Ironically, historians such as Johanna Granville and Charles Gati argue that Russian archives show Nagy had been an informer or agent for the Soviet secret police, known as “Agent Volodya” during his time in Moscow in the 1930s. Others argue the documents are fake.)
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