The “Berlin Wall” has become the principal symbol of the East-West Cold War divide. Yet the first breach in the iron curtain surprisingly occurred along the Austro-Hungarian border. The new Hungarian Communist reform government of Miklos Nemeth entered office in late November 1988 and made crucial decisions. Ever since the mid-1980s border guards had warned the authorities in Budapest that the electronic border installations (“iron curtain”) were outdated. Hundreds of false alarms occurred every day.
It would be too expensive to modernize the 30-year technical barriers – they had lost their purpose when travel restrictions for Hungarians were gradually eased in the 1980s. In early May, the Hungarian government ordered the removal of the border installations.
On June 27, Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn staged a high profile photo op cutting the iron curtain. This inspired thousands of East Germans to vacation in Hungary with the intention of crossing the border and migrate via Austria to West Germany.
CHRONOLOGY OF FIRST BREACHES IN THE IRON CURTAIN
FALL, 1987 First position papers by Hungarian border troops about the outdated and faulty electronic barriers on Western border.
JANUARY 1, 1988 Hungarian “world passport” & freedom to travel everywhere.
MARCH, 1989 Hungary joins the U.N. Convention on Refugees.
MAY 2, 1989 Hungary begins removing the technical barriers on its Western Border.
JUNE 27, 1989 Austrian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn stage iconic photo op cutting through the barbed wire of the “iron curtain”.
AUGUST 19, 1989 Pan-European Picknick near Sopron – hundreds of GDR tourists cross the border into Austria.
AUGUST 22, 1989 Nemeth government makes decision to let GDR “refugees” cross the Austro-Hungarian border.
AUGUST 25, 1989 Secret meeting at Schloss Gymnich (outside Bonn, West Germany) between of Nemeth and Horn and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher – border opening confirmed; Hungary’s difficult economic situation was also discussed.
SEPTEMBER 10, 1989 Foreign Minister Horn announces opening of border
SEPTEMBER 11, 1989 East Germans begin leaving Hungary to West Germany via Austria In large numbers.
NOVEMBER 9, 1989 East German regime opens the Berlin Wall.
DECEMBER 17, 1989 Austrian and Czechoslovak Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Jirí Dienstbier cut the “iron curtain” on Austro-Czechoslovak border.
300 East Germans cross the border at St. Margarethen into Austria on September 11.
PHOTO CREDITS: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP Courtesy of Austrian Ministry for European and International Affairs; Votavafoto Wien 890819; Source: Andreas Oplatka, Der erstre Riss in der Mauer. Vienna 2009.