Remembering the Wire Cutters : Hungary's Gutsy Border Opening 10 Years Ago Was Crucial to Bringing Down the Iron Curtain

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Quick, rerun the images of Central Europe in 1989 in your mind and what do you see? Certainly the charismatic shipyard electrician Lech Walesa, the workers' hero who exploded the myth of the workers' state, leading the Solidarity delegation to the round-table negotiations with the embattled Polish communist leadership and then to a stunning victory at the polls. Or perhaps the joyous crowds on Prague's Wenceslas Square greeting Alexander Dubcek, back from his long political exile, and dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, soon to become Czechoslovakia's philosopher king. And, of course--from those pictures seared in everyone's memory--Germans celebrating atop the Berlin wall on the night of Nov. 9, when this ultimate symbol of a divided continent broke wide open.

But there's usually a glaring omission: Hungary's dismantling of the barbed-wire fences on its border with Austria that year. On June 27, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock took up wire cutters themselves, providing the world with an image that should rank right up there with the others. For Hungarians who had been free to travel to Austria since the 1980s, this was largely a symbolic event. But for East

Germans--who could travel to Hungary but, until then, no further--this was a screaming signal to start a stampede for the exits. Suddenly, the Hungarians had to decide whether to keep arresting at least some of the East Germans trying to cross the border illegally or whether to throw the gates open. On Sept. 10 exactly a decade ago, the government announced it would open the border and let the East Germans escape. If the collapse of the Berlin wall was the final act for the Iron Curtain and East German communism, Hungary's decision was the turning point that made it possible. German reunification inevitably followed.

Even for the Hungarian communists who ran the most liberal regime in the region, this wasn't an easy call. A 20-year-old treaty between Hungary and East Germany obligated the two countries to prevent the other's citizens from fleeing west. But this legacy of "socialist fraternalism" was directly at odds with Hungary's more recent commitments to uphold international human rights. The 65,000 East Germans who had gathered in Hungary to make their way to Austria left the authorities with no way to fudge the issue as they had in the past. The Hungarians jettisoned their treaty with East Germany because they were determined to prove they could win the acceptance of the West. As an aide to Communist Party General Secretary Karoly Grosz told me at the time: "We thought that, if we wanted to meet the requirements of joining Europe, this was the test. …