Cracks in the Iron Curtain Began 30 Years Ago
August 19th marks the 30th anniversary of a pivotal moment in the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. Thirty years ago on a small road between Hungary and Austria, hundreds of East Germans broke through a border gate and made their way to the West. They were escaping from one of the most oppressive of the communist regimes
Thirty years ago on August 19th, Hungarian border guards, for the first time, allowed people from communist East Germany to cross freely into Austria and hundreds of them rejoiced. The Iron Curtain was passing into history.
This was a milestone in a year of momentous change in Europe, leading in a few short months to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.
“What you see in the pictures [of us crossing] can’t be put into words. We could not believe it was happening, it was total ecstasy, it had been unthinkable,” former East Germany refugee Hermann Pfitzenreiter said.
“Every border guard was sick of the task of handling the large numbers of people who wanted to cross the border illegally. Everyone was waiting for the foreign ministry to finally break the agreement with East Germany,” former border guard Arpad Bella said.
But Hungary, the first country to dismantle the east-west frontier, was also the first to fortify its southern border against a big new influx of Asian and African immigrants.
In 2015, Hungary built a high-tech double razor wire fence, complete with heat sensors, night vision cameras and constant border patrols along its 300-kilometer (186-mile) border with Serbia and Croatia.
This was the physical manifestation of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s vision of a “fortress Europe.”
“I think walls and fences are always a catastrophe. That’s the first point. There are probably lots of different opinions about how we can solve this business with the refugees,” former East Germany refugee Margarete Pfitzenreiter said.
“Of course, we were Germans, we belonged to Germany in a way, but I think this fence that is going up in Hungary is terrible. I’d love to put Orban behind the fence so that he feels what it is like and that this is not a life,” she added.
Orban and Merkel will mark the fall of the Iron Curtain together in Sopron on the 19th of August.
In Europe, opinions are divided on these new barriers.
“If here what was done was for the sake of European unity then I regard now the southern border as it is to preserve that unity. One cannot just march across a country like a horde,” Bella added.
For some of those whose lives were changed forever by their chance to flee to the West, they are a calamity. Hermann says that no matter how high the walls may be, they will never deter people.