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From the archives: Hungary Allows Exodus to West by East Germans

FinanceNational GovernmentEuropeGovernmentRefugeeHeads of State

BONN -- Thousands of jubilant East Germans began crossing into Austria and freedom early today shortly after the Hungarian government opened the border with a dramatic announcement late Sunday, declaring that all East Germans in its territory seeking to go to West Germany will be allowed to do so.

The exodus marked the end of days and weeks of bitter frustration by mainly young East Germans seeking escape from the stultifying life and depravations of their Communist homeland.

The first to cross shortly after midnight were occupants of an orange Trabant, a car with a sputtering two-stroke engine made in East Germany, which passed the frontier as Hungarian guards at Hegyeshalom, 120 miles northwest of Budapest, waved it and the following vehicles along after a quick look at the occupants' documents.

Vanguard in W. Germany

Four hours later, the vanguard reached the West German city of Passau on the Austria border.

Crying, laughing and shouting with happiness amid the sounds of honking horns, the refugees flowed through the Austrian border town of Nickelsdorf where guards waved them on.

Once inside Austria, many left their cars and danced with joy.

Some of the cars' passengers could be heard saying, "We've made it!"

A youth in one car held a banner reading: "Give Up, Erich Honecker: Are 100,000 Refugees Not Enough?"--a reference to the ailing, hard-line East German Communist leader.

One family carried its wedding linen and a pet canary.

"It's wonderful," several shouted to reporters as they crossed the border. "It's terrific!" One man, tears rolling down his cheeks, tried to speak, but overcome by emotion, he couldn't.

"It's a great feeling but also a sad one," Dieter Hoffman from Dresden told reporters at the frontier. "No matter what things were like there, it's still home."

The televised announcement of the Hungarian decision sparked the exodus by an estimated 7,000 East Germans from refugee camps in Budapest and Lake Balaton toward the Austrian border, a drive of about three hours. Some of those without cars hired taxis in Budapest to take them to the border where they then crossed on foot.

For its part, the East German government reacted angrily, denouncing the Hungarian decision as an "organized trade in humans under the guise of humanitarian considerations."

Insists Treaty Broken

The East German news agency ADN insisted that Hungary has broken a 1969 treaty obliging both states to keep each others citizens from leaving for a Western country without express permission. And it accused West Germany of being behind the move.

The Hungarian decision could prompt many more East Germans, now vacationing in Hungary, to take advantage of the open frontier, making it the largest single flight from a Communist country since the Berlin Wall went up in 1961.

A daily average of more than 1,500 East Germans crossed into West Berlin in the days immediately preceding the start of construction of the wall, which was supervised by Honecker, then a lower ranking official. In all, about 3.5 million East Germans fled to the West between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1961.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl warmly thanked the Hungarian Communist regime for opening the border.

"I am very grateful for this decision. It is a decision of humanity, a decision of European solidarity," he declared in Bremen, where he is attending the annual meeting of his party, the Christian Democratic Union.

In a statement carried by the Budapest news agency MTI, the Hungarian government, unhappily caught between Bonn and East Berlin, declared: "An alarming situation has emerged on the Hungarian-Austrian border, involving an increasing number of illegal border crossings and the related acts of violence.

"The Hungarian People's Republic does not bear any responsibility for the situation, and it is not the task of the Hungarian government to explain the causes of the problem.

"The government decided temporarily to suspend the related paragraphs of the inter-governmental agreement signed by Hungary and the GDR (East Germany) in 1969, and make it possible for GDR citizens staying in Hungary and refusing to return home to leave for any country which is prepared to let them through or receive them."

Soured Relations

The Hungarian decision further soured relations with its Warsaw Pact ally, and contact between Budapest and East Berlin was additionally threatened by the lack of a time limit on Hungary's open border with Austria.

Austria had said that it would allow the entry of all East Germans, whatever the nature of their travel documents.

For a past week, a fleet of buses and railroad coaches, arranged by West German officials, has been standing by in Austria near the Hungarian border to transport East Germans who might be allowed to depart.

In Vienna on Sunday night, the Red Cross said that 60 buses would be sent to Budapest and Lake Balaton early today to collect about 3,600 refugees.

The Hungarian statement made it possible for East Germans to leave with their cars--by far their most valuable possession. Many, fleeing illegally in recent weeks, had to leave cars and all other belongings behind to make their escape across the frontier.

Citizens of West Germany

Under West German law, all East Germans are deemed to be citizens of the Federal Republic.

The Hungarian announcement, divulged by MTI and broadcast by Foreign Minister Gyula Horn on television, said there are an estimated 60,000 East Germans currently vacationing in Hungary.

As to how long the Hungarian border will remain open, the reform-minded Horn declared: "I cannot determine a date, how temporary it will be. One thing is certain: It will be longer than 24 hours."

Horn said that Hungary wanted to let the East Germans depart a week ago but agreed to allow the East German government more time to persuade its citizens to return home.

"During this week," said Horn, "the situation did not improve, but in fact worsened."

The East German news agency, in a rare tirade against a Communist state, accused Hungary of "direct interference in the internal affairs of the (East) German Democratic Republic."

At the Lake Balaton refugee camp at Zanka, Reuters news agency quoted a 30-year-old East German from Potsdam as saying upon learning of the Hungarian decision: "We are unbelieveably happy. You can't just describe it in words."

Impromptu celebrations were reported at the Zanka camp and the two in Budapest.

The East German citizens' move toward Hungary began in late in May when the Budapest regime decided to dismantle the sturdy fence along the 215-mile Austrian border. Some East Germans vacationing in Hungary slipped across into Austria. This trickle soon became a stream, with waiting East Germans backed up into refugee camps.

The Hungarian government's decision reflects the fact that it has taken Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's call for glasnost, or openness, to heart, diplomatic analysts say, and has become much more reformist-minded than East Germany.

Good Terms With Bonn

It also reflects the fact that Hungary, in attempting to revive its economy with free-market measures, would rather be on good terms with the West German financial powerhouse than with East Berlin's faltering and aging regime.

Further, Hungary is attempting to look westward toward the European Community and the United States for financial help and wants to respect the human rights and refugee agreement it has signed with the United Nations.

In Bonn, rumors abounded that West Germany made the Hungarian decision easier with the promise of large financial credits. But Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who had fled to the West in 1952 from his home in East Germany, declared on television Sunday night that no such quid pro quo exists.

Rather, Genscher said, "These Germans made a personal and most certainly a difficult decision as mature citizens and without influence from outside. No one gives up his home and familiar environment lightly.

"I think we all have reason to thank the Hungarian government for making a decision of humanity and a decision that means a recognition of human rights."

East German Regime Blamed

Genscher blamed the East German regime for the refugee crisis that has seen an estimated 6,000 East Germans cross the Hungarian border illegally this summer, while another 80,000 to 90,000 are expected to emigrate legally this year.

Genscher said that East Germans are leaving the country, and thus creating the crisis, because of the lack of change, reform and hope for the future in the Communist state.

"These causes can only be removed in East Germany, by East Germany," said the foreign minister.

In East Berlin at Sunday services, some Protestant pastors urged the members of their congregations to remain in East Germany and campaign for reform rather than emigrating and leaving the nation bereft of talented, energetic young people.

Protestant clergymen have expressed concern that the East German exodus is leaving gaps of trained people in vital services such as medicine and hospitals, education and schools.

Failure to Reform

But a Protestant letter read Sunday also indicated that people are being driven from the country by the regime's failure to reform.

And in a Roman Catholic service in East Berlin on Sunday, the newly installed bishop of Berlin, who is the leader of East Germany's Catholics, said he is worried by the exodus of thousands of East Germans.

Bishop George Sterzinsky declared: "I ask with concern whether these people are taking the path that the Lord wants them to take, or are they taking the more comfortable way?"

But the main tone in East Berlin was set Sunday by the Communist Party paper Neues Deutschland, which rejected the statement that East Germans were voting with their feet, asserting: "Life here is so good and rich, socialism is so strong and attractive--which we have provided for with our own work."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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