The way 1989 began did not bode well for the proponents of reform socialism or nationalist change. At a demonstration in Prague, eight hundred protesters were arrested – including Václav Havel – for inciting protest against the government. In Georgia and throughout the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia there were demonstrations and rumblings of protest against Soviet rule.
However, seeds of radical change were being planted in other parts of the Soviet ‘Empire’. In Hungary, in early January, the parliament voted to allow freedom of association and assembly. It permitted the establishment of political parties, opening the way for multiparty elections, scheduled for the following year. In May, in a symbolic gesture, Hungarian soldiers began to pull down the countries barbed-wire border fences with Austria, opening the first chink in the iron curtain. When an anxious East German foreign minister telephoned his ‘opposite number’ in Hungary to enquire as to what on earth was going on, he was assured by Gyula Horn that the sections of the fence needed repairing and would soon be replaced to do an even more effective job in preventing East Germans holidaying in Hungary that summer from escaping to the west! Then came Beijing, and the crushing of the protests in the bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square at the beginning of June. Following Solidarity‘s victory in the Polish elections later that month, President George Bush paid visits to Poland and Hungary, praising their first steps towards democracy in front of large crowds. In Budapest, he was genuinely moved when he presented with strands of barbed wire torn down from the fence with Austria.
During August, Poland reached crisis point: the Communists were negotiating with Solidarity about their membership in the new coalition government. At the peak of the crisis, on the evening of 22 August, the secretary-general of the Polish Communist Party , Mieczyslaw Rakowski, telephoned Gorbachev to ask his advice. They talked for forty minutes, Rakowski explaining how deeply divided the Polish communists were. Gorbachev told him bluntly, the time has come to yield power and that they should join a coalition government as part of a process of national reconciliation. Two days later the Solidarity leader, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was elected prime minister of a new Solidarity-led coaltion. The unthinkable had happened, the Communists had given up power with Soviet encouragement. It was later acknowledged that it was during Rakowski’s call to Gorbahev that the Rubicon was crossed.
Only hours after that phone-call between Warsaw and Moscow, on 23 August, Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn spent a sleepless night worrying about the changes going on around him. The dismantling of the border fence in May was of only symbolic importance in Hungary itself, since Hungarians already had the right to go West, if they could afford it and had a sponsor there. But thousands of East Germans, far more than the usual holiday-makers at Lake Balaton, had been making their way into Hungary to escape from their own unpopular regime. The Hungarians had signed a treaty in 1968 not to allow East Germans to leave for the West through their territory. Now Horn sounded out Moscow for its likely reaction if Hungary abandoned this undertaking. The Soviets did not, and would not object, he was told. So Horn resolved to open the border for the East Germans. He later said that it was quite obvious to me that this would be the first step in a landslide-like series of events. On 10 September, despite strenuous objections and even thinly-veiled threats of invasion from the East German government, the border to Austria was opened for the East Germans, and within three days of that, thirteen thousand of them, mostly couples with young children, had indeed gone West.
Like the cutting of the barbed wire in May, the Pan-European Picnic, held at the border on the 22nd, played only a small, symbolic part both in the Downfall of the Wall and in the transition to democracy in Hungary.