Cutting the Curtain

Today marks the 20th anniversary of an event that symbolised the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain, leading within a few months to the end of communism in Eastern Europe. On June 27, 1989, an image made its way around the world. It showed Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn (right) and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock using bolt cutters to nip holes in a barbed wire fence, putting a symbolic end to a physical and psychological boundary of which by then there was little left.

Hungary had begun to dismantle the Iron Curtain nearly two months earlier — partly because border guards said it was in such poor condition that even small animals were setting off false alarms along the electrified fence. With most of it already gone, officials had trouble finding even a small section of the Iron Curtain for Horn and Mock’s staged photo opportunity with wire cutters.

Pictures of the event were published around the world and inspired tens of thousands of East Germans to leave their country, find temporary refuge in Hungary, Poland or Czechoslovakia and wait for an opportunity to travel to West Germany.

Just a few weeks later, on August 19, hundreds of East Germans fled to Austria at the occasion of the ‘Pan-European Picnic’ near Sopron in Hungary.

By the end of the summer, thousands of East German ‘tourists’ were living in tents on the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest and in several other locations around the city, including church yards and the site of a communist youth camp. After allowing some East Germans to leave for West Germany via Austria in August and then some more a few weeks later, Hungary finally decided to let all East Germans out from September 11, 1989.

Within two months, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany’s reunification was formalized in October 1990.

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