Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Hungary 1989 - the iron curtain was cut

Today is the 20th anniversary of the day the Iron Curtain was cut. It followed Hungary's own movement towards freedom that paralleled that of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Karoly Grosz had become General Secretary of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party in May 1988, and began a process of liberalisation.

Widespread protests in 1988 calling for democracy saw multi-party elections announced in February 1989. Along with that came freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the right to form competitive trade unions. In April 1989, the USSR agreed to withdraw all Soviet troops from Hungary by 1991.

However it was the removal of barbed wire between Hungary and Austria, and the "shoot to kill" policy of border guards on 6 May 1989, that saw the Iron Curtain pulled to one corner, and the light of the West draw thousands.

You see passport holders in the Warsaw Pact countries had freedom of movement between those countries. East Germans notably could travel freely to (then) Czechoslovakia and onto Hungary, and now onto the West. 30,000 did so between May and September 1989, before the geriatric thugs in the dying German Democratic Republic (GDR) put up their own restrictions on travel to Hungary. East Germans kept fleeing to Czechoslovakia, which had its own border closed in October before protests by hundreds of thousands in the streets saw Erich Honecker himself deposed by his own party.

Then the Wall came down.

Today I am in Budapest, by pure coincidence. It is a thriving city of free people, as it always should have been, and a city that remembers what it went through from the terror of a brief period of fascist rule in 1940, to Soviet imperialism, the 1956 uprising and its crushing and the sheer terror of never knowing from one day to the next whether the state would turn on you next.

Budapest has a Museum of Terror, dedicated not to terrorism as we know it, but the terror of the period of Hungary under dictatorship - from its own fascism to Nazi occupation. to the Soviet occupation and its socialist stooges. It includes pointedly, a long list of those who were the foot soldiers in this police state, the prison guards, the "judges" who proclaimed death sentences and the secret police men and women who bullied their own people. It was designed to name and shame those who "were only following orders" and so did what most would think was unthinkable - murdering, imprisoning and torturing in the name of "the people" and "the party" and "the revolution".

Today is a day worthy of celebrating, for it is remarkable to think that this once Marxist Leninist dictatorship is today a free member of NATO and the European Union. It is also worthy remembering that most of the former Soviet Union itself, at best has only just started really having some of that freedom, at worst is under a similar level of tyranny, with a different name. The philosophical and political battle for freedom in the former Soviet bloc is far from over.


workingman said...


I was in Hungary, the then Czechoslovakia, and East Germany in Sept 1989. They were heady times.

I went for a drive about 100km west of Budapest (near Lake Balaton) and saw this stream of coaches going the other way. That night on the news I learnt from my friend that these were the East German tourists who had been held by the Hungarians and were being sent across the border that day to Austria.

2 weeks later I was in Prague and had to go to get my visa amended. There was this poor West German girl who only had a 24 hour transit visa and had missed her train. The Czech authorities would not do anything to help, so we took her to the West German embassy. This was when it inundated with East German's who had got into the grounds and refused to leave. Boy did we have problems getting to embassy as there were so many police blocking all access.

To all the socialists here in NZ, they cannot imagine what life was like in these countries. I always remember 2 stories.

1) My friend in Budapest when he was younger had told a school friend that he listened to American radio, a couple of days later the school political teacher called him and his parents in and harangued them for a couple of hours.

2) He was an engineer, I asked him how he got into that career. He said he was told by his school what his job would be when he left, he had no choice. He could not contemplate how I had been able to choose my job, and indeed changed careers a couple of times. As to being able to choose where I wanted to live, again he was told which city to live in, that was where his internal passport was stamped for.

Sally said...

Excellent post and comments of workingman. The "socialists" in our country have much to answer for in implementing their disgusting agenda.

Michael said...

The irony is that the three countries that had violent risings against Communist Rule - Hungary, Czechslovakia and Poland - all transistioned to democracy and the free market without violence.