The Berlin Wall Looking Back 20 Years: What Caused the Fall?

Austro-Hungarian Border
Border guards dismantling the fence dividing East and West: Austro-Hungarian border, Summer 1989.

This month, the world commemorates the momentous events of 20 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell and a divided Germany came together amidst the wreckage of the Soviet Empire.

Already, there have been poignant tributes such as the recent celebration in Berlin honoring three elder statesmen who were at the center of the events at that time: Mikhail Gorbachev, President Bush (the elder) and Germany’s Prime Minister Helmut Kohl.

But what seems lost among the commemorations is the fact that the Berlin events were set in motion earlier in 1989, some 350 miles to the south. And they involved neither East nor West Germany.

In fact, the first “hole” in the iron curtain came about at the Austro-Hungarian border, masterminded by Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh and his equally brave Austrian counterpart, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky.

A reformer who was also a Communist Party member, Németh had come to power in 1988 and was determined to bring Hungary into a more close economic and political relationship with the rest of Europe. Faced with horrific economic conditions at home, he knew had had limited time to effect positive change or he would be replaced.

Students of history know that the “ties that bind” Austria and Hungary date back ~700 years, through centuries of the Habsburg Empire to the early 1900s when Vienna and Budapest were two of the most glittering cities of Europe.

In a sense, the forced separation of the two countries between East and West Bloc factions was as unnatural as the division of Germany itself; a quick look at the bevy of German and Hungarian surnames in the Vienna telephone directory proves the point.

Secret communications between Hungary and Austria culminated in a public ceremony held on the Austro-Hungarian frontier on May 2, 1989, where, documented by television cameras, the electric fence running the length of the border was declared an “anachronism” and a hole was ceremoniously cut in it.

“What are those Hungarians up to?” bellowed East German premier Erich Honecker at an East German Politburo meeting the next day. The answer was obvious. Soon throngs of East German citizens, traveling to a fellow Eastern Bloc country on tourist visas, simply moved across the Hungarian border into Austria from where they could continue on to West Germany to be reunited at long last with relatives and friends.

The die was cast. Faced with the prospect of its citizens draining out of the country, the East German government had little choice but to announce a relaxation in travel restrictions to West Germany.

This attempt at accommodation was a classic case of “too little, too late”:  The avalanche that was soon to come was simply overwhelming. Down came the Berlin Wall – and down went the East German government.

In hindsight, it’s easy to recognize the important role Mikhail Gorbachev played in the events of 1989. By signaling that Soviet troops would not necessarily come to the aid of beleaguered Eastern European satellite regimes, Gorbachev gave the restive citizens of East Germany the courage to seize the moment and take decisive action while they had the chance.

But the most credit must go to the governmental leaders of Hungary and Austria. It was these unsung heroes who took the biggest risks from the very beginning, bravely plotting their moves in the face of potentially severe political and military repercussions. (After all, memories of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the subsequent refugee flight across the Austrian border weren’t all that distant.)

In a sense, history came full circle in 1989. At the beginning of the century, Germany had been dragged into World War I because of problems faced by its Habsburg neighbor, Austria-Hungary. So many of the major political challenges in the 20th Century – communism, fascism, the Cold War, even the Middle Eastern conflict – stemmed from that struggle. And none of these were more searing for Germany than World War II and the subsequent division of the country between East and West.

Once, Austria and Hungary had created problems for Germany. Seventy-five years later, they helped solve them. Not a bad result in the end!

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