Der erste Riss in der Mauer. September 1989 - Ungarn öffnet die Grenze

TitleDer erste Riss in der Mauer. September 1989 - Ungarn öffnet die Grenze
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialOplatka, Andreas

Title translated:
The First Crack in the Wall. September 1989 – Hungary Opens the Border

PublisherZsolnay, Wien
ISSNISBN 3-552-05459-6 // 978-3-552-05459-2
Review year


Full Text

In time for its 20th anniversary, the former journalist of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung Andreas Oplatka presents a detailed study on the events leading to the Hungarian border opening in 1989. Oplatka was born in Budapest in 1943 but migrated to Switzerland in 1956. Der erste Riss in der Mauer. September 1989 - Ungarn öffnet die Grenze benefits from his rich experiences as foreign correspondent in Moscow and Budapest as well as his versatile language skills. The book aims to dismantle glorifying myths and some long-standing misinterpretations among a Western, mainly German-speaking audience. Most importantly, Oplatka insists that the rapidly unfolding events of 1989 were neither controlled nor planned, but rather they possessed a partly unintended and unforeseeable dynamic.

In addition to seventy interviews with some of the main protagonists, Oplatka has consulted available minutes and proceedings, memoirs and biographies. In contrast to common Western interpretations of courtesy and magnanimity, the author explains that the decision to dismantle Hungary’s fortified border system to Austria was based on financial considerations put forward first by the border guards themselves. At the time of a devastating economic crisis a survey about the frustrating deficiencies and the financial burden of its maintenance could serve as strong arguments for the reform-minded members of the new Hungarian communist government.

The changes in the highest political echelon as well as the growing tensions with Romania due to the treatment of its large Magyar minority elucidate the prime concerns of Miklós Németh’s new cabinet. Oplatka highlights the “dethroning of the party” and the shift of power in favor of the government. In face of an increasing influx of immigrants from its neighbor, Hungary started to openly propagate a stronger human rights regime and the UN Convention on Refugees. In Oplatka’s analysis, General Secretary Károly Grósz becomes an overly cautious and tragic (in what sense?) figure who is quickly superseded by ambitious, younger politicians like Imre Pozsgay, István Horváth and Miklós Németh (remark: well, they were quickly superseded in turn).

Additionally, the rapprochement with Austria and the expected growth of tourism became convincing financial arguments for the dismantling. Németh maintained his strong stand on Hungary’s policy changes in his consultation with Gorbachev, who – Oplatka suggests – probably underestimated the scope of Hungary’s decision to dismantle the border and sign the Geneva Convention on Refugees (p.66). However, as is well-known today, the Soviet leader had basically released the satellite states as he realized he had to deal with insurmountable domestic problems[i]. Nevertheless, the contested idea of slowly introducing a multi-party system in particular did require Moscow’s consent and a re-assurance of Gorbachev’s power within the Kremlin.

“There is an entertaining, certainly only retrospectively possible way to read the history of the year 1989 in East and East Central Europe: as a consequence of misjudgments” (p.94). In the absence of any media attention, the dismantling of the border system began on the 2nd of May. East Germany’s SED top politicians, like most other foreign leaders, were hardly worried and seemed rather appeased by Budapest’s assertions of the centrality of financial issues and interior concerns – and readily went on summer vacation.

Instead it was the Geneva Convention that caused arguments between the GDR and its most favorite tourist destination since it contradicted the habit of returning those arrested GDR citizens heading West via Hungary to prosecution at home. But apart from István Horváth’s deputy, head of the state security Ferenc Pallagi Budapest grew increasingly reluctant to listen to their obstinate and inflexible German counterparts and felt less and less bound to the bilateral treaties of 1957, 1964 and 1969. Oplatka reports on the aggravating tensions between GDR Ambassador Gerd Vehres and his Budapest contacts, when he transferred the disapproving notes from East Berlin that repeated common claims against Western instigations, etc. However, Honecker was struck by illness and could not participate in a Warsaw Treaty Conference in Bucharest in early June, thus the GDR probably missed its last chance to intervene.

As a consequence of Alois Mock and Gyula Horn’s well-publicized trenching of the border fence on June 27, East Germans started to occupy Embassies in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw. In a remarkable twist to the story, faced with reproaches from other socialist countries and in fear of turning into a cradle for refugees, the Hungarian government returned to more severe controls. Oplatka emphasizes, too, that the intentions for the Pan-European Picnic set for the 19th of August remain blurry and misunderstood: Not the Pan-European Union but oppositional groups organized the event, while its patrons – Pozsgay and Otto von Habsburg – actually withdrew their participation. Meanwhile, Oplatka rather vehemently speaks out against the image of Horn as a chief contributor and erstwhile supporter – an image propagated by Horn himself accepted. In contrast, he claims it was Németh who planned to stage this event as a test of Soviet reactions to a ‘mini-border opening’. Since July, the ICRC had been mediating between Bonn and Budapest to fly the refugees out from the Budapest Embassy. The tense situation was aggravated by the spread rumors and the documented involvement of Stasi agents while West German aid workers set up relief stations at a parish in Budapest.

Oplatka brilliantly sketches out this chaotic situation in August 1989, in which apparently (and not a little surprisingly) only Moscow remained silent. Meanwhile, ambivalent statements, secrecy and personal vanities complicated the resolution of the concrete issues as the secret meeting held near Bonn on the 24th of August between Helmut Kohl, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Miklós Németh und Gyula Horn was to underline once more.

Only in August, Oplatka insists, did the complete opening of the border become a matter for serious discussion. Yet, the Hungarian government was eager to prove its sovereignty and independence not only from Moscow, but also from Western pressure and accusations to have sold out to the West. The first planned date – 6th of September – was cancelled. Instead, Németh and Kohl’s assistant agreed on the 11th of the same month, which (rather luckily from Kohl’s point of view) coincided with the CDU party convention. The final opening, however, was barely noticed in Hungary already caught up in its own regime change.

Oplatka’s account is a very well-structured analysis in which he proves a cautious observer sensitive to political twists and individual vanities. He maintains his analytic integrity in plausibly balancing the oral accounts and vague memories of the protagonists indicating where he surmises personal mythologizing and where sources appear incomplete. Despite the density of the short period in focus, his narrative remains clear and his text combines excellent journalistic writing and qualified historic analyzing. Strikingly, the reburial of the ’56 martyrs on the 16th of June is only touched briefly, although in Hungary it is usually taken for a clear indicator that the Soviets would no longer intervene militarily. Even more puzzling is that Oplatka ignores the 40th anniversary celebrations in East Germany on the 7th of September 1989, when the personal differences between Honecker and Gorbachev became manifest and the abandonment of East Germany was largely sealed. These absences notwithstanding, German-speaking readers, even those fairly acquainted with the period, will be surprised by some of the novel results and intriguing statements. In that regard, Der erste Riss in der Mauer. September 1989 - Ungarn öffnet die Grenze is not only a timely, but an essential and eloquent contribution to the ongoing process of canonizing the international dimensions of 1989.

[i] György Dalos’ recent publications serves as similar and likewise recommendable complementary reading. Dalos, György, Der Vorhang geht auf. Das Ende der Diktaturen (Munich: C.H. Beck, 2009). It is noteworthy that Oplatka consulted with Dalos.

Though Zsolnay's German publication does not mention it, the book was published in Hungarian first: Oplatka András, Egy döntés története. Magyar Határnyitás 1989. Szeptember 11. Nulla óra (Budapest: Helikon, 2008).