Tag Archives: Berlin Wall

Hungary / East German Refugees

When Hungary opened the Austrian border to East German refugees

On the 10th September 1989, the Hungarian government announced the opening of the border with Austria to allow thousands of East Germans to leave the Communist Bloc. Met with incredible anger from the East German government, Hungary’s decision was a major step on the road to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hungary had been inundated with East Germans since the government began removing the border fence in May that year. Inspired by the Hungarian government’s moves towards a more democratic political system, East Germans had travelled to Hungary as tourists but then sought refuge in the West German embassy. A ‘friendship picnic’ held on the Austrian-Hungarian border on the 19th August had already seen East Germans using the border as a way to escape and, before long, thousands of East Germans refugees were living in Hungary.

Unwilling to “become a country of refugee camps”, Hungarian Foreign Ministrer Gyula Horn made the announcement that the East Germans would be permitted to enter Austria. As well as allowing the refugees to cross the border, the announcement led to an exodus of an estimated 70,000 more East Germans who made their way to Hungary.

The first of what were to become weekly ‘Monday demonstrations’ had started in the East German city of Leipzig earlier that week, and the Hungarian announcement encouraged others to begin protesting in favour of democracy. Within a month up to 70,000 people a week were making their way to the Leipzig protest, and by the end of October over 300,000 were taking part. The Berlin Wall fell on the 9th November.

Opening of the Berlin Wall

9th November 1989: when the DDR opened the Berlin Wall

In the evening of the 9th November 1989, the East German government opened the Berlin Wall after central committee spokesman Guenter Schabowski mistakenly announced that GDR citizens could cross into West Berlin with immediate effect.

Surprised border guards, who had been given no information about the new rules, were overwhelmed by the appearance of thousands of East Germans who wanted to cross. Although the border remained closed for around three hours, by 11pm the checkpoint at Bornholmer Strasse had been opened. Others followed soon after.

Communist Hungary had opened its Austrian border in September, which had encouraged East Germans to push for reform in their own country. Eventually, the weekly ‘Monday protests’ that attracted hundreds of thousands of people forced the government to prepare the new travel policy.

Although the new policy had been agreed by the Politburo on the afternoon of the 9th November, their intention was to implement the policy the next day so that border guards could be briefed and crossings managed in a controlled manner. However, Schabowski had not been at the Politburo meeting and so was only able to base his announcement on notes from a piece of paper handed to him shortly before the press conference. This explains his mistake over the timing of its introduction.

The announcement led huge crowds to begin gathering at the checkpoints, with thousands pouring through the border after the guards finally relented. Ironically, West Berliners still had to have a visa in order to cross to the East. Therefore, for a few weeks after the Wall was opened, East Berliners actually had greater freedom of movement than Westerners.