The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Traces of Communism in Budapest

I spent the first week of September in Budapest, on the first leg of a research trip funded by the Centre for Culture and the Arts at Leeds Metropolitan University. While I was in Budapest, I spent most of my time researching at the Open Society Archivum. I really can’t recommend the OSA highly enough. They have some fantastic Cold War-related collections, the archivists were friendly and helpful, and the open access ethos means they are generally happy for researchers to take digital copies for research purposes. This was really helpful for me, as working in a second language (in this case, translating documents from Czech to English) slows down the research process considerably, which can be frustrating when you have large amounts of information to get through in a limited time frame. So it was great for me to be able to quickly scan reports to ascertain their relevance and then take copies of the most relevant information that I could keep, to read through properly and develop for my research project at a later date.

 

Inside the Open Society Archivum, Budapest.

Inside the Open Society Archivum, Budapest.

 

Despite a very productive week which turned up some fantastic information for my current research project relating to terror and repression in communist Czechoslovakia, I left already thinking about future visits, having identified several additional collections that I plan to return to OSA to view!

In addition to focusing on my own research, I attended two interesting events during my week at the OSA. Firstly, I was able to attend the opening of a new art installation, ‘QR Code’ by Gergely Barcza. This 3 sq metre display consists of 2.916 slides, capturing the life of a family over a 20 year period in communist Hungary (1970s-80s). The montage is deliberately arranged into a giant QR code, which can be read by a smartphone, and links to the project’s facebook page, containing the individually digitised images:

 

'QR Code' by Gergely Barcza - on display at the OSA in Budapest.

‘QR Code’ by Gergely Barcza – on display at the OSA in Budapest.

 

Close up of QR Code, showing some of the 2619 individual slides that comprise the photo montage

Close up of QR Code, showing some of the 2916 individual slides that comprise the photo montage

 

If, like me, you’ve ever looked through old photographs at flea markets or second hand stores, and wondered about the people in the photographs and what became of them, then Barcza’s project will strike a chord with you. The photomontage not only showcases private family memories, but also encapsulates Hungarian society in the 1970s and 80s, and poses some interesting questions about methods of visually documenting human life, in both the past and the present:

 

I was also excited to discover that the team from the Europeana 1989 project were visting the OSA while I was there. Their team travel around former East bloc countries collecting personal memories, stories, objects and memorabilia relating to the revolutions of 1989, to add to their online collection. I think Europeana 1989 is a wonderful initiative, and have been following their Twitter account for a while now, so it was really great to have the chance to meet some of the team and find out a bit more about the project. You can check out their main website here.

 

Europeana 1989 Collection Point - Sign Outside OSA, Budapest (5-6 September 2014)

Europeana 1989 Collection Point – Sign Outside OSA, Budapest (5-6 September 2014)

 

The Europeana 1989 Team, setting up at OSA in Budapest.

The Europeana 1989 Team, setting up at OSA in Budapest.

 

As the OSA was closed over the weekend, I had some free time to see a bit more of Budapest before travelling on to Prague. Today Budapest is a thriving, cosmopolitan city. But twenty-five years after the collapse of communism, reminders of the communist legacy can still be found throughout the city:

 

Statue of ill-fated communist leader Imre Nagy, executed for his role in the 1956 Revolution, in central Budapest.

Statue of ill-fated communist leader Imre Nagy, executed for his role in the 1956 Revolution, in central Budapest.

 

Today, Nagy's statue stands proudly looking towards the Hungarian Houses of Parliament.

Today, Nagy’s statue stands proudly looking towards the Hungarian Houses of Parliament.

 

An old trabant I spotted, parked next to St Stephens Basilica.

An old trabant I spotted, parked next to St Stephens Basilica.

 

Monument to the Soviet Liberation of Hungary in WWII.

Monument to the Soviet Liberation of Hungary in WWII.

 

I also took the opportunity to visit Memento Park, an open air museum on the outskirts of Budapest, dedicated to the display of some of the most striking communist-era monuments which were removed from the City after 1989. Ákos Eleőd, the Hungarian architect who designed the park is said to have remarked that “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

 

The entrance to Memento Park.

The entrance to Memento Park.

 

Statue of Marx and Engels, at the main entrance to Memento Park.

Statue of Marx and Engels, Memento Park.

 

'Stalin's Boots' - just outside the entrance to Memento Park stands a replica of the grandstand in Budapest which once held an 8 metre tall bronze statue of Stalin. The statue was sawn off at the knees and torn down during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Only Stalin's boots remained.

‘Stalin’s Boots’ – just outside the entrance to Memento Park stands a replica of the grandstand in Budapest which once held an 8 metre tall bronze statue of Stalin. The statue was sawn off at the knees and torn down during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Only Stalin’s boots remained.

 

The moving poem ‘One Sentence About Tyranny’ by Hungarian poet Gyula Ilyes is also displayed at the entrance to Memento Park. You can read an English translation of the poem here:

 

Gyula Illyés’ poem, 'One Sentence About Tyranny' is also displayed in full at the entrance to Memento Park.

Gyula Illyés’ poem, ‘One Sentence About Tyranny’ is also displayed in full at the entrance to Memento Park.

 

One inside the park, you are free to wander around and view the 42 communist-era statues on display. Guided tours are also available. Here are just a few photos of some of the many striking exhibits:

 

Standing in front og the 6 metre tall Liberation Army Soldier.

The author, standing in front of the 6 metre tall Soviet Liberation Army Soldier.

 

Monument to “Hungarian-Soviet Friendship”.

Monument to “Hungarian-Soviet Friendship”.

 

A comradely handshake

A comradely handshake

 

One of the largest statues on display at Memento Park.

One of the largest statues on display at Memento Park.

 

Memento Park.

Memento Park.

 

Memento Park

Memento Park

 

Panoramic view across Memento Park.

Panoramic view across Memento Park.

 

Memento Park

Memento Park

 

Memento Park

Memento Park

 

Memento Park.

Memento Park.

 

Monument to friendship between Hungarian and Soviet women.

Monument to friendship between Hungarian and Soviet women.

 

Communist-era plaque, at Memento Park.

Communist-era plaque, at Memento Park.

 

Other exhibits at Memento Park included an old Trabant and film footage from ‘Life of an Agent’, depicting secret police training methods in communist Hungary:

 

Memento Park Trabant.

Memento Park Trabant.

 

Film showing - 'Life of an Agent'.

Film showing – ‘Life of an Agent’.

 

I also visited Terror Haza (House of Terror), a rather sobering museum that documents the experiences of both fascism and communism in Hungary. Located at 60 Andrassy Ucta, the former police headquarters of both regimes, Terror Haza has been criticised for focusing on the imposition of external terror, and ignoring the question of Hungarian collaboration. However, the displays were interesting and visually striking – I found the footage recounting the experiences of some of the victims of both regimes that plays on screens at various points around the museum (in Hungarian, but with English subtitles) particularly effective:

 

Outside Terror Haza (House of Terror) in Budapest.

Outside Terror Haza (House of Terror) in Budapest.

 

Memorial plaque to the victims of terror, outside Terror Haza. Pictures of several victims are studded into the brickwork.

Memorial plaque to the victims of terror, outside Terror Haza. Pictures of several victims are studded into the brickwork around the building.

 

TerrorHaza documents life under the fascist Arrow Cross and the post-WWII  Communist regime in Hungary.

TerrorHaza documents life under the fascist Arrow Cross and the post-WWII Communist regime in Hungary.

 

Soviet-era tank, displayed next to the 'Wall of Victims' inside TerrorHaza.

Soviet-era tank, next to the ‘Wall of Victims’ inside TerrorHaza.

 

Wall of Victims - inside TerrorHaza.

Wall of Victims – inside TerrorHaza.

 

Inside the former prison cells.

Inside the former prison cells.

 

'Russians go home!' - exhibition about the 1956 Revolution inside TerrorHaza.

‘Russians go home!’ – exhibition about the 1956 Revolution inside TerrorHaza.

 

"We Made It Happen" - poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Hungary.

“We Made It Happen” – poster commemorating the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Hungary.

 

Exhibition about the Hungarian Pan-European Picnic of 1989.

Exhibition about the Hungarian Pan-European Picnic of 1989.

 

'The Iron Curtain' - on display outside TerrorHaza.

‘The Iron Curtain’ – on display outside TerrorHaza.

 

Whilst in Budapest, I also gave an interview to The Budapest Times, discussing the legacy of communism, post-communism, contemporary developments in Hungary and Ukraine and the impact of EU expansion, which has now been published on their website here.

 

Finally, you can see more of my photos from Budapest, and from my visit to Memento Park over at my personal blog Kelly and Kamera.

 

 

 

 

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September 17, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Operation Whirlwind’: Explaining the 1956 Soviet Invasion of Hungary

 

During the second week of this year’s student showcase we journey from Russia to Eastern Europe, with a trio of short articles relating to protest, dissent and opposition in communist East Europe. Today’s article by Arron Sharkey begins by analysing the Soviet decision-making process in the lead up to ‘Operation Whirlwind’ – the code name given to the Soviet invasion of Hungary launched on 4 November 1956.

 

‘Operation Whirlwind’: Explaining the 1956 Soviet Invasion of Hungary

 

By Arron Sharkey

 

The Soviet decision to launch ‘Operation Whirlwind’, a large military intervention in Hungary, on the 4 November 1956 has created much discussion and debate amongst historians during the last thirty years. This was the second Soviet military action in Hungary in quick succession, following their initial response to a request for military assistance from Hungarian leader Erno Gero on the 23 October when 31,500 Soviet troops were sent to Hungary as a result of the growing demonstrations against the current Hungarian leadership and Soviet imposed policies. After Gero’s replacement by Imre Nagy on 24 October Soviet leader Khrushchev had a critical decision to make: whether to support Nagy’s efforts to quell the Hungarian rising through concessionary reforms, or whether to put an abrupt end to the growing demonstrations through force. Numerous factors influenced the Soviet decision making process between 24 October and the 4 November 1956, the date when 60,000 Soviet tanks crossed the Hungarian border to crush the revolution.

 

The Soviet Turnaround

 

Initially, when Imre Nagy assumed power on 24 October the Soviets threw their support behind his leadership, conceding that some ‘limited concessions’ were necessary to quell the growing dissent in Hungary. It is important to highlight how close the Soviets came to agreeing with the changes Imre Nagy proposed. Today, declassified minutes from meetings of the Soviet leadership demonstrate that while some quickly pushed for more decisive military action to quell the Hungarian rebellion, others were initially reluctant to endorse this course of action. On 28 October, at an emergency meeting among the Soviet leadership, Khrushchev maintained that there was ‘no alternative’ to supporting Nagy’s efforts and agreed to work towards a ceasefire and sanction the withdrawal of Soviet troops, despite several other leading figures suggesting more decisive military action.[1] On 30 October, following further intense discussions in Moscow, Khrushchev confirmed that the Soviets would withdraw their troops from Hungary. At this meeting Soviet defence Minister Zhukov even went as far as stating that: ‘we should withdraw troops from Budapest, and if necessary withdraw from Hungary as a whole. This is a lesson for us in the military-political sphere’[2].

 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initially declared his support for new Hungarian leader Imre Nagy and expressed his reluctance to launch any large scale Soviet military action in Hungary.

 

The Soviet declaration of withdrawal from Hungary was published in Pravda the following day, announcing ‘with respect to the immediate issue at hand, the Soviet government stated its willingness to withdraw the Soviet military units from the city of Budapest as soon as this was considered necessary by the Hungarian government.’ The declaration also confirmed that negotiations could begin about the ‘question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary.’[3] The crisis appeared to be resolved, in favour of the Hungarians! During the next twenty four hours however, a complete turnaround of this decision would be implemented. On 31 October Khrushchev announced that the leadership should ‘re-examine our assessment and should not withdraw our troops  … we should take the initiative in restoring order in Hungary’ to prevent socialism from being strangled.[4] By 1st November, Khrushchev had approved plans for a large scale military intervention to remove Nagy from power and crush the rebellion. A few days later the Soviet army would once again be rolling into Budapest. So what explained this radical change in policy?

 

Hungary: From Reform to Radicalisation

 

Developments in Hungary during the period 24-31 October were obviously crucial in influencing Soviet decision making. During Nagy’s first week in power, Soviet confidence in him ebbed away as the situation in Hungary continued to escalate and Nagy responded by issuing a number of reformist decrees, each one more radical than the last.

 

Within a week of taking power, Imre Nagy had sanctioned a series of far reaching reforms which would have certainly unsettled Khrushchev and his associates. Johanna Granville believes it was Nagy’s lack of firm leadership as the revolution gathered pace that consequently led to the loss of confidence in Moscow – rather than subduing the uprising Nagy was instead desperately trying to keep up with the accelerating events and increasingly radicalized popular demands.[5] The predicament Nagy found himself in would certainly not have been easy; the juggling act of attempting to maintain a functional government and dealing with the mass requests for radical reform policies whilst also attempting to appease the Soviets.

 

Hungarian leader Imre Nagy – during the 24 October – 1 November the reforms he offered the Hungarian people became increasingly radical.

 

A key concern of Khrushchev and other Soviet leaders was Imre Nagy’s course of action from the 27 to 30 October. On 27 October Nagy announced his intention to move away from single party rule and create a ‘people’s patriotic government’ which would include non-communists. On 28October the embattled Hungarian leader followed this with a radio broadcast promising economic concessions, amnesties for anyone involved in the uprising, the dissolution of the communist secret police (the notorious AVO) and greater independence from Soviet rule in the form of securing the withdrawal of Soviet troops stationed on Hungarian territory. Plans for a new ‘national government’ including non-communists were formalised on 30 November and on 1 November Nagy even proposed the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact.

 

The CSPU CC presidium clearly viewed Nagy’s plans to reorganise the Hungarian political system on a multi-party basis as a step too far. In response Molotov observed that the political situation in Hungary had now become clear: noting that an ‘anti-revolutionary transition government’ had been formed and a further slide to the right was expected. And the Hungarian communists were deeply divided by Nagy’s proposals – on 28 October a secret plea by Hungarian Prime Minister Andras Hegedus for Soviet troops to ‘restore order in Hungary’ was presented to the Presidium.[6] At the same time, Soviet concerns were further heightened by the information reaching them from Budapest, with communist insignia removed from buildings and the communist symbol torn from Hungarian flags during demonstrations. Mikoyan and Suslov, Soviet ambassadors despatched to Budapest to monitor the situation in Hungary sent regular reports back, which stated that the situation in Hungary appeared ‘increasingly unsettled’ with Nagy ‘helpless and unable to control events’. One damning report sent back to Moscow on 30 October claimed:

 

“The political situation in the country, rather than improving, is getting worse … We will try to liquidate them using the armed forces of the Hungarians. But there is a great danger in this … the Hungarian army had adopted a wait and see position. Our military advisors say that the attitude of Hungarian officers and generals towards Soviet officers has deteriorated in recent days … it may well be that if Hungarian units are used for the uprising, they will go over to the side of the insurgents…”[7]

Soviets concerns about a ‘turn to the right’ in Hungary were also strengthened by news of the public lynching of AVO (secret police) officers in Republic Square on the 30 October.

 

Hungarian demonstrators topple a statue of Stalin during the uprising of 1956. As events escalated in Hungary, Khrushchev came under increasing pressure to act.

“Russians Out!” – graffitti in Budapest during the 1956 revolution.

 

While the Soviet leadership had initially been willing to accept moderate reforms in Hungary, Nagy’s proposals clearly went a step too far. Charles Gati, an expert in the study of Hungary 1956, believes that it was the continued Hungarian push for revolutionary change (and Nagy’s willingness to grant it) which led Moscow to realise that Nagy’s reforms would result in granting Hungary a level of independence that would fundamentally undermine their own power in the East European bloc, with the realisation that ‘Hungary did not want to be on a longer leash; it wanted to be on no leash at all’[8].

 

Outside Influences

 

Beyond the developing crisis in Hungary, there were numerous other influences on the Soviet decision making process. It is possible that part of the reason behind Khrushchev’s U-turn on 31 October, was his desire to preserve his own authority in Moscow against Stalinist hardliners, potential rivals for the leadership, many of whom were pushing him to take more decisive action in Hungary and defend the prestige of the Soviet Empire. The fact that Hungary appeared to be deviating from Soviet control to such an extent not only worried leaders in Moscow, but internationally. Rising concern about ‘counterrevolutionary’ activities in Hungary were further heightened on 30 October when a telegram from Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti arrived in Moscow. Togliatti wrote ‘My opinion is that the Hungarian government- whether Imre Nagy remains its leader or not- is going irreversibly in a reactionary direction’.[9] Khrushchev also came under pressure to intervene from the Chinese Communists, who voiced their concerns that Nagy was making too many concessions and that events in Hungary were ‘no longer under party control’, while leaders in many of the East European satellite states – including the GDR and Poland – became increasingly concerned by the implications of the proposed Hungarian reforms and worried that demands for change may spread across Eastern Europe, so pressured Khrushchev to act quickly to prevent ‘contagion’.

 

Khrushchev was also obviously concerned that any Soviet withdrawal from Hungary would be perceived as a sign of weakness by the Western powers. Hungarian withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact would have left a gaping hole in Soviet defences in Eastern Europe. In his speech to the CC Presidium on 31 October he emphasised that ‘If we depart from Hungary, it will give a great boost to the Americans, English and French – the Imperialists. They will perceive it as weakness on our part and go on the offensive. We would then be exposing the weakness of our positions’.[10] It is important to also consider the turn of events regarding the Suez crisis in the Middle East on the 30 October. As is evident from the presidium session on the 31 October, the Soviet leadership had little faith in the ability of the Egyptian regime and were expecting inevitable concessions to the West, something which would weaken the Soviet position in the Middle East. Khrushchev worried that the West would be keen to ‘add Hungary to Egypt’, if they did not act quickly, perceiving any Soviet weakness in Eastern Europe as a ‘retreat from Empire’.[11] On the same day tens of thousands of Soviet troops (who had begun withdrawing from Hungary) received orders to move back towards Budapest and await Soviet ‘reinforcements’.

 

Although the decision to invade was essentially made on 31 October, Khrushchev still proceeded with some caution. In particular, he was keen to ensure that newly restored Soviet-Yugoslav relations did not suffer if possible. Khrushchev travelled to Brioni on the evening of the 2 November to brief Yugoslav leader Tito about the Soviet plan for large scale intervention in Hungary. However, Tito agreed that events in Hungary had gone too far, and that the possibility of ‘counterrevolution’ was on the cards, so was willing to support military action.[12] Tito’s backing removed the last potential stumbling block to invasion.

 

Conclusion

 

Hungary’s fate was sealed on 31 October 1956, when the Soviet decision to launch a large scale military intervention to quash the uprising and curtail Imre Nagy’s proposed reforms was made. However, the final decision in favour of military intervention was only made after considerable deliberation between key members of the Soviet leadership between 24 and 31 October. During this time discussions were shaped by both the escalating crisis in Hungary itself and by numerous wider factors. While Khrushchev initially appeared willing to consider some erosion of Soviet influence over Hungary by sanctioning a ‘partial retreat’, by 31 October it was clear he could not concede to the increasingly radical reforms endorsed by Nagy. It was increasingly apparent that events in Hungary had the potential for much wider ramifications; seriously weakening the international prestige of the USSR and undermining the Soviet monopoly of power in Eastern Europe. On 4 November 1956 ‘Operation Whirlwind’ was launched and 60,000 Soviet troops swarmed across the border into Hungary to subdue Hungarian calls for independence, remove Imre Nagy from power and install a new pro-Soviet leadership under Janos Kadar.

 

 About the Author

 

Arron Sharkey has just completed his BA in History at Swansea University. Duing  his third and final year of study, Arron specialised in the study of communist Eastern Europe.

 


[1] Working Notes from the Session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 28 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive: http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[2] Working notes from the session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 30 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[3] Declaration of the Government of the USSR on the principles of Development and Further Strengthening of Friendship and Cooperation between the Soviet Union and Other Socialist States, October 30, 1956, reproduced in Heller, Agnes and Feher, Ferenc, From Yalta to Glasnost: The Dismantling of Stalin’s Empire (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990),  65.

[4] Working Notes from Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium, 31 October 1956 available via http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/doc6.pdf

[5] Joanna Granville, ‘From the Archives of Warsaw and Budapest: A Comparison of the events of 1956’, East European Politics and Societies, 16/2

[6] Letter from Hungarian Prime Minister Andras Hegedus to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Socialist Republics, 28 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[7][7] Working notes from the session of the CPSU CC Presidium on 30 October 1956 available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[8] Charles Gati, Failed Illusions:  Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), 188

[9] Cable from Italian Communist leader Togliatti on Imre Nagy’s Hungary on the 30th October 1956, available online via the Wilson Center Digital Archive, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/digital-archive

[10] Working Notes from Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium, 31 October 1956 available via http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/doc6.pdf

[11] Working Notes from Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium, 31 October 1956 available via http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB76/doc6.pdf

[12] Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain, Eastern Europe Since 1945, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 106

June 25, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cracking the Iron Curtain: Remembering Hungary’s ‘Pan-European Picnic’

“Hungary was where the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall” ~ former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, speaking to mark the reunification of Germany on October 4th 1990.

Today marks the anniversary of  another key event linked to the collapse of communism across East Europe in 1989. Twenty years ago today, 19th August 1989, was the date of the Pan-European Picnic organised along the Austro-Hungarian border, in a field  just outside the Hungarian city of Sopron.

The premise of the picnic was fairly simple: organised by members of the growing anti-communist opposition parties in Hungary, the event was planned as a peaceful event to demonstrate increasing Hungarian freedom under Glasnost, and to promote friendship between East and West. Austrian and Hungarian authorities agreed to open a small stretch of the common border at  Sopronpuszta for just three hours, at 3pm, in order to allow small delegations representing both countries to conduct ‘an ordinary exchange of greetings between local populations’ on either side of the Iron Curtain. On the day, however,  hundreds of East Germans arrived at the picnic to attempt to walk across the border into Austria. A sizeable  group of around 600 people made it across the border that afternoon, in the first large-scale exodus of East German citizens to the West since the construction of the Berlin Wall back in 1961.

Cracks in the ‘Iron Curtain’ between Austria and Hungary were increasingly evident in the months leading up to August 1989 – most notably demonstrated on 27th June when then Austrian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn were photographed using bolt cutters to tear holes in part of the barbed wire fence marking the border between their countries:

Cutting the Iron Curtain: Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counderpart Alois Mock work together to dismantle part of the 'Iron Curtain' between Austria and Hungary in June 1989.

Cutting the Iron Curtain: Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counderpart Alois Mock work together to dismantle part of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between Austria and Hungary in June 1989.

However, the border between Austria and Hungary was not officially thrown open until September 11th 1989, and at the time of the Pan European Picnic, the Hungarian border guards were still officially working under orders to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone who attempted to cross into Austria illegally. Thus the events of 19th August were seen (as former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth described earlier this week) as ‘a test of Gorbachev’s word‘ that he would not intervene militarily to prevent the cross-border movements of people, as the Hungarians remained unsure how Moscow would react. When confronted with the large group of Germans intent on attempting to breach the border,  Lt. Col. Arpad Bella, acting commander of the Hungarian border guards on duty at Sopronpuszta that day,  described how he had “just a few seconds” to decide what course of action to take in the absence of any clear orders from above. He decided that he “did not want to be a mass murderer” so he would “do the right thing“, and ordered his guards to stand aside and allow the people to pass, observing the reactions of those who had made it safely onto Austrian soil:

“What I saw on the other side was amazing. There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land. There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just either cried or laughed”.

19th August 1989: 600 East Germans cross the border from Hungary into Austria at the Pan-European Picnic.

19th August 1989: 600 East Germans cross the border from Hungary into Austria at the Pan-European Picnic.

Laszlo Nagy, one of the main organisers behind the picnic, has claimed that at the time ‘we didn’t feel like we were making history‘ describing the events of 19 August 1989 as ‘just the world’s greatest garden party‘. In the intervening twenty years however, and in the context of events that took place later in 1989, the significance imbued on that day has increased. Earlier this week, Jose Manuel Barroso (current President of the European Commission) issued a statement claiming that the events at Sopronpuszta had ‘helped to change the course of European History’ marking ‘the beginning of the end of the division of Europe by the Cold War‘, while  Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (representing the current EU Presidency) also referred to the anniversary in his online blog, where he stated that:

“What happened attracted enormous attention and set in motion the process which saw the wall fall in Berlin on November 9 … for the appearance of a hole in the Iron Curtain means that the curtain in its entirety became worthless. It was like a gigantic dam which suddenly had developed a little hole somewhere. And it was at Sopron where everything really begun to crack in all seriousness”.

To mark the anniversary of the Pan-European picnic an official ceremony is being held today at Sopronpuszta, where Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel are making commemorative speeches, meeting with some of the East Germans who crossed the border twenty years ago, and unveiling a monument called ‘Breakthrough’ to formally mark the 20th anniversary of events.

You can read more about Border Guard Arpad Bella’s account of the events of that day here,  in a recent article from The Times Online, (published on 14th August 2009):

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6795400.ece

While former Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth spoke to the BBC World Service about his decision to open the border here:

Miklos Nemeth on Opening Hungary to the West

And the BBC Website also hosts this video clip, of the first East Germans to cross from Hungary to Austria twenty years ago today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8210356.stm

 

August 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 2 Comments