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Germany: How The Wall Came Down: Part One -- The Exodus

  • Jolyon Naegele

It has been a decade since the sudden and unexpected decision by the East German communists to permit citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to freely travel to the West. The move, which came to be known as the "fall of the Berlin Wall," took reporters, politicians and East German border guards by surprise. In the first of two reports on the opening of the wall, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back at the events that preceded it: the exodus of East Germans to the West through Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Berlin, 5 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- An East German woman said on November 9, 1989.

"I can't believe I'm here. I've lived a year within sight of the wall, looked at it every day, and now suddenly to be able to drive through!"

The East German communist leadership's decision in November 1989 to suddenly reverse its policy and permit free travel to the West was preceded by a growing drama domestically and internationally.

It started in Hungary. Though still ruled by a Communist Party, that country was rapidly moving toward democracy. On May 2, 1989, Hungary began to dismantle the barbed wire and guard towers that separated it from neutral Austria, part of the Iron Curtain that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Hungarians were already allowed to travel to the West.

East German Communist Party chief Erich Honecker was enraged when he heard the news, but Hungarian officials sought to calm down their East German colleagues by saying border patrols would continue and that any policy changes would only affect Hungarians.

In the following weeks and months, large numbers of East Germans traveled to Hungary on holiday. Many visited the West German Embassy in Budapest to inquire about getting to the West, and more than 100 even sought asylum there. When the tourists' vacation time was up, instead of returning home, they stayed in bungalows on the shores of Lake Balaton. And waited. East Germany then barred its citizens from traveling to Hungary without special permission.

In August, West Germany closed its diplomatic mission in East Berlin, and then its embassy in Budapest, because those missions had become so crowded with refugees that they could no longer function.

In Bonn, West German Finance Minister Theo Waigel called on East Berlin to guarantee the human rights of its citizens if it wanted to stop the exodus.

"The GDR leadership is not doing itself any favor by keeping people cooped up who no longer want to live under that regime in such conditions."

In mid-August, a group of Austrians and Hungarians, including the heir to the defunct Austro-Hungarian throne, Otto von Habsburg, and Hungarian reform Communist Imre Pozsgay, came up with an idea to organize a large picnic on the Austro-Hungarian border near Sopron to enable East German refugees in Hungary to walk unhindered to Austria.

More than 650 East Germans took advantage of the picnic and on August 19 and 20 walked to freedom in Austria. Hungarian border guards were ordered to ask any East Germans they saw to turn back, but were told not to interfere if the East Germans ignored the warnings. West German Consular officials from Budapest were present to direct the refugees.

On September 10, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn went on television and announced that the border was henceforth open and that GDR citizens could travel freely to the West. East German refugees listened intently as an interpreter translated Horn's announcement.

"You can leave the country (Hungary) with your GDR papers (cheers and applause). You can leave the country and the Austrians will permit you to enter their country."

An estimated 7,000 GDR refugees quickly moved out of their camp in police-assisted convoys and rolled to freedom.

The East German authorities were again outraged at the Hungarian decision. Earlier that week, hundreds of East Germans had demonstrated in the city of Leipzig with banners demanding freedom of travel.

Protesters chanted "We want to leave" and "Down with the Stasi."

Within days, opponents of the regime founded a movement, the New Forum, and tried to register it officially with the authorities. But the government rejected their application, as East German TV reported on September 21.

"The goals and purpose of the applicant association contradict the constitution of the German Democratic Republic and represent a platform hostile to the state. The collection of signatures supporting founding the association has not been approved and is thus illegal."

In Prague, East Germans had begun seeking refuge in the West German Embassy in mid-August. First hundreds and soon thousands were camped out on the embassy grounds, insisting that they be allowed to emigrate to the West.

At the United Nations in New York, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher held separate talks with the East German, Czechoslovak, and Soviet foreign ministers in a bid to resolve the plight of the refugees in Prague. Two days later on October 1, Genscher arrived in Prague. Speaking to the refugees from the embassy balcony, Genscher announced the good news.

"We have come to inform you that your return will take place today." (cheers and applause)

Genscher said this moment was the most moving hour in his entire political career. The deal was made possible after Czechoslovak Communist Party chief Milos Jakes approved an East German proposal to permit all of the more than 4,000 GDR asylum seekers at the West German Embassy in Prague to travel to West Germany by train, through East German territory.

When the trains reached Dresden in East Germany, huge crowds were waiting in the rail yards, hoping to force their way past police and onto the crowded, westbound carriages.

More East Germans continued to make their way to the West German Embassy in Prague, and within hours it was again packed with thousands more refugees.

Czechoslovak police used clubs in an attempt to prevent the renewed and even larger surge of asylum seekers and fought hand to hand with refugees.

On October 3, the East German government declared all further travel by its citizens to Czechoslovakia required special permission but announced it would permit its citizens in the West German Embassy to travel to the West.

Five weeks later all East Germans were finally allowed to travel abroad freely.