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Hungary: Open borders allowed East Germans to flee 25 years ago

Wednesday 10, September 2014

It’s not often that a single sentence can send a photographer rushing into action, but Hungarian photographer Barnabas Szabo did not have to hear more than that of then-Hungarian Foreign Ministrer Gyula Horn’s televised announcement 25 years ago to grab his cameras.

For months the Iron Curtain – which had divided the Soviet Bloc from Western Europe since the end of World War II – had been fraying. Now, on 10 September 1989, as Szabo recalls, Horn “announced on the public TV Sunday evening news program that at midnight Hungary would open its border with  Austria and let East German refugees leave the country. After the very first sentence I jumped up, took my camera, ran to my old Trabant and set off for the border.”

The effect of Hungary’s momentous decision was freedom for tens of thousands of East Germans who had been streaming into Hungary, one of the freer countries in the Soviet sphere, since May. At first they found refuge in the West German embassy, but as numbers grew, refugee camps were set up in Budapest and on the shores of the popular holiday spot, Lake Balaton.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall followed less than two months later. Communism was swept from Eastern Europe by the end of 1989.

The determination of the refugees never to return was evident in the belongings they abandoned in the camps. Another Hungarian photographer, Tamas Szigeti, who visited the abandoned refugee camp at Csilleberc the following day, recorded the haste in which people departed, leaving clothes, clothes, toys and even half-cooked dinners. Old belongings no longer offered security. No matter how uncertain the new life beckoning to them on that day 25 years ago, the East Germans were clearly ready to leave fear and the Communist dictatorship behind forever.

By Ernő Simon

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