This year marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the European communist dominoes, which ended the Cold War. That unexpected historic event is usually symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but each former captive nation is recalling its own delivery from "the system." What happened on November 9, 1989, was truly a miracle, a dream coming true.
Hungary's late prime minister, Jozsef Antall, who was a determined and fearless opponent of communism, said at the Paris Summit in November 1990: "With the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a symbol of European confrontation for decades, the division of the two German states was brought to an end. The unity of Europe would be inconceivable without the unity of Germany, and the accomplishment of German reunification has freed our continent from a four-decade-old burden. Hungary played an active role in setting the process in motion."
But I am afraid the Hungarian contribution has not been given the emphasis it deserves.
By the 1980s a new generation had emerged in Hungary that, having heard something about the hidden past, wanted to know more about the crimes of communism, the Gulag Archipelago, the Hungarian victims of communist repression. The "war cry" of the nascent opposition was 1956. A Committee for Historical Justice was formed; it demanded the exhumation from their unmarked graves of Imre Nagy and the other executed leaders of the 1956 Hungarian revolution, and also a new trial for them.
In May 1988, Janos Kadar, the man who betrayed the revolution in 1956 and presided over terrible reprisals at the behest of the Soviet leadership, was sent into retirement. Soon the first political parties challenging the old order were formed: Fidesz (Young Democrats), and the Hungarian Democratic Forum, followed a few months later by the Alliance of Free Democrats. All three parties pledged to implement the principles of the 1956 revolution. For us, 1989 was 1956 under more promising external circumstances.
In February 1989, Imre Pozsgay, the popular leader of the umbrella organization Patriotic People's Front, stunned fellow Hungarians by affirming that 1956 was not a counterrevolution but a popular uprising. The dramatic, solemn reburial of Imre Nagy and his fellow-martyrs on June 16, 1989, was much more than a traditional communist "rehabilitation"; it was both an international event and a unique expression of national unity. The reform-leaning government of Miklos Nemeth provided security, and some government ministers (all members of the Communist Party) were included in the guard of honor standing by the six coffins.
The boldest speech was given by the young leader of Fidesz, Viktor Orban, who called for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. That issue was considered a taboo: even the Polish Solidarity movement -- aware of "the geopolitical cage" -- had not raised it. In that respect, the reburial was much more than homage to the heroes and martyrs of 1956. It was a call for radical change, and also a demand that Kadar be held responsible for his actions. Kadar died less than three weeks later.
In the summer of 1989, the Hungarian government embarked on "roundtable discussions" with the opposition parties, and by the end of September an agreement was signed on the complete transformation of the political system. In the following weeks, the parliament passed a series of cardinal laws and practically adopted a new constitution that together amounted to a negotiated, peaceful revolution. All the aims of the 1956 revolution had been, or were close to being met.
In Poland, the semi-free election held in June 1989 resulted in the overwhelming victory of the opposition Solidarity and the appointment in August of Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the first noncommunist prime minister since 1948. The winds of change from Hungary and Poland soon caused the whole artificial edifice called "Socialism" to collapse like a house of cards.
The German Flood
The turning point was the so-called Pan-European Picnic organized by Hungarian opposition parties on August 19, 1989, at the Austrian-Hungarian border. It was originally meant only as a symbolic meeting between Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians: a call for a Europe where borders can be crossed easily.
At 3 p.m. a temporary gate was to be opened in what was still a border fence made of barbed wire. But at that point a crowd of East German refugees charged the barbed-wire fence and forced their way through to the West.
Without clear instructions from his superiors, Lieutenant Colonel Arpad Bella, the Hungarian officer in charge of the border post, decided not to open fire. "It was terrible for me!" he said later. "Those 200 people were just 10 meters away from freedom. So I made the decision that I thought was best for Hungary and for my own conscience."
That successful mass escape to the West was a sensation which filled the Western media. Tens of thousands of "tourists" from the German Democratic Republic traveled to Hungary, hoping to follow their compatriots to freedom.
Faced with that unmanageable mass of people camping in the garden of the West German Embassy in Budapest, in parks, loitering in the border area, the still-communist Hungarian government started talks with both the German and the Soviet leadership. While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said it was up to the Hungarian government to decide what to do, the East German government demanded that Hungary repatriate all those East German citizens, referring to a bilateral agreement. Fortunately, Hungary had recently signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees, albeit with a view to protecting not Germans, but ethnic Hungarians fleeing Ceausescu's Romania.
Finally, on September 10, the Hungarian government decided to allow all East Germans to leave Hungary through the border with Austria. At least 70,000 left within a few days. By that time many East Germans had travelled to Czechoslovakia, where they demanded similar treatment. The Prague government gave in and opened its western border.
All that had a tremendous impact upon the East German population. The Neues Forum, modeled on the Hungarian Democratic Forum, emerged as an umbrella organization demanding change. Visiting Berlin in October, Gorbachev failed to express unequivocal support for East German dictator Erich Honecker. The successful escape of tens of thousands of GDR citizens made it pointless to keep the Berlin Wall closed, and when a new, reformist leadership in East Berlin decided to open it, the people smashed the wall into pieces on November 9.
Europe's Historical Center
Within less than two months, Czechoslovakia had emerged triumphant from its won Velvet Revolution, and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had been toppled and executed.
Change in Bulgaria came more gradually, starting with the replacement In November 1989 of communist leader Todor Zhivkov, and in Albania in two stages by 1991. The failed coup of August 1991 in Moscow was just an afterthought, heralding the restoration of the independence of the Baltic states in September and the break-up of the Soviet Union itself in December 1991.
To my mind the direct connection between the Hungary of 1956 and the Hungary of 1989 is clear. But that is not all. 1989 was undoubtedly a turning point in world history. Both World Wars and the Cold War started in Central Europe, but it was in Central Europe too that the Cold War came to an end.
1989 was not inevitable, just as the Soviet seizure of the eastern half of Europe between 1944 and 1947 was not unavoidable. The end of the Soviet colonial empire was indeed inevitable, as all empires disappear eventually, but it could have come much later, and under far less peaceful circumstances.
The transformations in Poland and Hungary served as a model for other communist-dominated countries. By May 1990, most were already free, and the Age of Fear and Lies, the Age of Stupid and Vicious Party Apparatchiks, the Age of the Irrational Command Economy, the Age of the Cultural Wasteland was over.
The Poles and the Hungarians made the greatest contribution to winning the Cold War, without a shot being fired. But I think 1989 does not belong only to a few countries and their leaders.
As American observer Robert Hutchings noted, "That the Cold War ended peacefully and on Western terms was an achievement without parallel in modern history." And those changes, Hutchings continued, were not the result of U.S. or Western policies, "they were deeply rooted in history, and driven by the heroic efforts of democratic opposition leaders in Central and Eastern Europe." Geza Jeszenszky served as foreign minister of Hungary from 1990-94, and as Hungarian ambassador to the United States from 1998-2002. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Revolutions Of '89
In the fall of 1989, a singular wind of change swept across the continent, blowing down the Iron Curtain and revealing the public's yearning for freedom. Click here
for RFE/RL's look back at the year communism collapsed.