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Border guard’s refusal to shoot let the Iron Curtain drop

Posted by 4imagic on November 4, 2009


Border guard’s refusal to shoot let the Iron Curtain drop

Arpad Bella, a former Hungarian border guard who in 1989 decided not to shoot hundreds of East Germans who broke open the Iron Curtain, thus beginning a month-long breach. The stretch of barbed wire and the colourfully painted gate are remains of the Iron Curtain border.

Arpad Bella, a former Hungarian border guard who in 1989 decided not to shoot hundreds of East Germans who broke open the Iron Curtain, thus beginning a month-long breach. The stretch of barbed wire and the colourfully painted gate are remains of the Iron Curtain border.

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On Aug. 19, 1989, Bella Arpad refused to obey his orders to shoot. The Hungarian border guard let thousands of East Germans storm into Austria, a defiant decision that would change history

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Sopron, Hungary From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail

Every few weeks, a retired Hungarian military officer named Bella Arpad walks across the unmarked stretch of road that separates the border and has a drink with the man who used to be the Austrian border guard, back when Europe had borders and guards.

They reminisce about the time, 20 years ago, when this now-invisible border was part of the Iron Curtain, and Mr. Arpad, one of thousands of men under orders to shoot anyone who crossed it, inadvertently helped it to collapse.

His split-second decision in August of 1989 transformed this once-impervious barrier stretching from the Adriatic to the Baltic into something more like a bead curtain, and likely precipitated the events that caused the Berlin Wall to be opened on Nov. 9, 1989.

Monday’s Berlin Wall anniversary will be celebrated around the world, but the real end of the Iron Curtain took place on Aug. 19, 1989, when hundreds and then thousands of East Germans were permitted to pour across the mined, fenced and fortified barrier at the Hungarian-Austrian crossing – in large part because Mr. Arpad decided not to obey his rules of engagement.

“The rules said that I should have started shooting when East Germans tried to cross, and I had a split-second to decide,” he said as he took a walk the other day along the former border near his home in Sopron, Hungary.

“I could really be in a lot of trouble for the decision I made. In fact, my commander told me I was finished. It wasn’t a great experience for me, but it turned out to be right.”

During the walk, he ran into Laszlo Magas, the former peace activist who caused the rupture and made Mr. Arpad’s life briefly miserable. With a begrudging handshake, the two former foes recounted the day the two of them changed history.

By the summer of 1989, Hungary had effectively stopped being communist, its reformist leadership having followed Poland in making the transition to multiparty democracy and liberalism in a series of round-table meetings.

But the fortified wall along its western border with Austria was a problem, preventing valuable trade and commerce between two states that had once been a single, imperial nation. The Hungarians had shut down the electronic protection system and symbolically cut the barbed wire in June, and made agreements with Austria to start allowing Hungarians to cross easily.

Laszlo Magas, a Hungarian activist who was angered that his mother had been imprisoned for trying to cross the border, in August 1989 organized the Pan-European Picnic, a protest event at the border which caused all those East Germans to come flooding across.

Hungarians weren’t the only ones who wanted to cross. That summer, tens of thousands of East Germans, who were strictly forbidden to enter the West, had used their vacation weeks to drive south through Czechoslovakia to Hungary, a cavalcade of cheap Trabant cars chasing rumours of openings in the border, hoping to get around their country’s impermeable walls and decaying economy.

Mr. Magas, the activist, was infuriated by the wall and by Mr. Arpad’s soldiers, who had imprisoned his mother when she tried to cross the border years earlier. He decided to test the resolve of his government by holding an event billed the Pan-European Picnic right beside the crossing point.

He held the event on Aug. 19, the day Hungarian officials were to hold a symbolic opening of the border there. A handful of officials from each country were scheduled to open the heavy gate and shake hands at the border.

The picnic was meant to be a protest and call for freedom, but it was widely known in Hungary that it would involve East Germans making an attempt at the border.

If I fired, it would create a panic and a rush, and then we would have to use even more violence to deal with that, and a lot of people would be killed — Bella Arpad, former border guard

Miklos Nemeth, the prime minister at the time, has said that his government hoped to test the resolve of the Soviet Union, which still had a half-million soldiers stationed along the Iron Curtain. Its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had sent signals suggesting that he would no longer enforce the border between the Warsaw Pact countries and the West.

The Hungarians wanted a comparatively harmless way to gauge Moscow’s commitment to the Iron Curtain, and Mr. Magas’s picnic provided an opportunity. A few ordinary Hungarians would exercise their right to cross, they assumed, along with some slightly less legal East Germans, and officials were ready to watch.

They forgot, however, to tell Mr. Arpad and his soldiers. On the morning of Aug. 19, hours before the officials were to arrive, Mr. Arpad was shocked to see a crowd of 150 East Germans fast-marching toward the open gate. There was no time to stop them or make a phone call: He had to decide.

“We had very clear instructions to fire warning shots first, and to shoot individuals who tried to challenge us,” he said. “I knew I would be in very serious trouble if I disobeyed. But if I fired, it would create a panic and a rush, and then we would have to use even more violence to deal with that, and a lot of people would be killed.”

He decided to risk his career, and possibly even his life, by letting the East Germans pass. By the end of the day, 671 of them had entered the forbidden West, and thousands more would follow as the crossing remained sporadically open until Sept. 10, defying the entire purpose of the border.

His commanding officer severely upbraided him later that day in a screaming denouncement of his incompetence. But it became clear that there would be no further penalties: At the political level, the country’s reformist government was happy to have it open.

When Mr. Arpad walks over to his counterpart’s house down the street in Austria these days, his decision sometimes comes up. “He says, ‘I still can’t believe you didn’t warn me those Germans were coming,’” he said. “When I tell him I had no idea, he doesn’t believe me. It all just sounds impossible, even now.”

It was a day of drama: At one point, a crowd of East German families, all on foot, surged at the narrow crossing, causing a woman to drop her infant child and then to be pushed across the Austrian border. She looked back and, to her horror, saw one of Mr. Arpad’s soldiers grabbing her child. Then, the soldier, to everyone’s amazement, strolled over into Austria and handed the child to the sobbing mother.

The East German government was furious: Its iron-fisted control of its people had been mocked. And the breach was causing millions of East Germans to develop a new attitude to the Iron Curtain, and to freedom in general.

Though it was able to use Eastern Bloc diplomacy to close the boundary in September, by that time it was too late.

The open Hungarian border had turned the closed German one into an absurdity, one that brought thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of East Germans onto the streets.

As a result, when a bureaucratic error caused East Germany to suggest that the Berlin Wall might become open on Nov. 9, the citizens knew it was time to storm the crossings, pry open the gates and flood across. After all, they’d been there before, and Bella Arpad hadn’t shot them.

Follow the Beyond the Berlin Wall series


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