The Iron Curtain Parts

Hungarian border guards dismantle the border fence with Austria, 1989 (photo courtesy of BBC)

Throughout the late 80s, Communism’s inherent flaws and fundamental inconsistencies could no longer be covered up with propaganda by state controlled media or coercion and terror waged by internal security forces. This was especially true in the more liberal (relative to the Soviet Union) states of the Warsaw Pact: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Some political and economic concessions had already been made, but their people clamored for more. When this happened in previous decades, the Soviet Union responded with force. But in 1988 and 1989, the Soviet Union had just withdrawn in defeat from Afghanistan and the Red Army was paralyzed from corruption and the need for its soldiers to participate in the spring planting, lest they starve. Furthermore, the Soviet Union was going through an economic crisis that was 40 years in the making. Soviet Russia could only look on.

Events came to a head in the spring of 1989. Two symbolic events in April 1989 stood out. First, the Solidarity movement in Poland gained a crucial victory when it secured permission to participate in parliamentary elections in June. (They would go on to win 90% of the seats.) But it was the second that was most distressing to the Soviets at the time because they relied on the false perception that Communism was for “the people”. In a reaction to Solidarity’s victory, the Hungarian parliament, who saw the writing on the wall, unanimously voted to change the official name of the country from “The People’s Republic of Hungary” to “The Republic of Hungary” which was more in line with the names of Western governments. This removed the farcical “People’s” from the name. By the late 80s, it was obvious Communism only served a totalitarian, oligarchic, and bureaucratic elite in the name of the “Greater Good”. Still, the name change was only a symbolic gesture, but the reformers in the Hungarian Parliament, who were the sons and daughters of those curb stomped by the Soviets in 1956, knew it was an important one.

On 2 May 1989, that symbolic gesture had substantial consequences. On that day, the Hungarian Border Police, following the lead of their Parliament’s vote, began removing the border fence with Austria, to kick start improved economic ties with the West. Although there were hundreds of small symbolic acts of defiance against the Soviets that spring, the dismantling of the Hungarian border fence was the first concrete act by a Warsaw Pact government toward a peaceful end to the Cold War.

As a popular tourist destination for Warsaw Pact subjects, Hungary was relatively easy for East German, Czech, and Polish families to obtain travel papers. Tens of thousands of “holdiaymakers” fled their countries for the West by ostensibly going to Hungary for vacation. The summer of 1989 was the most successful tourist season in Hungary’s history.

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