Page last updated at 14:42 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 15:42 UK

How Hungary let East Germans go

By Oana Lungescu
BBC European affairs correspondent, Sopron

"It was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall," said the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

His successor Angela Merkel went to the Hungarian town of Sopron on Wednesday, to thank the country for opening its border 20 years ago. That decision led to the fall of the Wall three months later.

Miklos Nemeth
The most important thing in those days was how I judged the position of Gorbachev in power
Miklos Nemeth
Former Hungarian Prime Minister

But curiously enough, it was a picnic in a field outside Sopron that would change the face of Europe.

In the summer of 1989, thousands of East German "tourists" had been making their way to Hungary, looking for a way to cross into Austria. What drew them was a bold decision taken earlier that year by the reformist prime minister Miklos Nemeth to start dismantling the security system along the border.

"I thought it was obsolete in the 20th Century," Mr Nemeth told the BBC. Another reason was that Hungary, heavily in debt, simply could not afford to pay $1m to maintain it.

As he returned from holiday in his official car, Mr Nemeth was shocked to see hundreds of young people and families camping outside the West German consulate in Budapest. Others had found refuge in the imposing Holy Family Church in a leafy district of the Hungarian capital.

Among them was Robert Breitner, who was 19. He arrived with just the clothes on his back, after losing his backpack in a failed escape attempt.

"The street was full of East German cars," he recalls.

Robert Breitner
Robert Breitner in the church garden where he camped 20 years ago

"There were families who came with two or three cars and did a lot of escapes. They lost one car so they took the next one!"

Mr Breitner's story was fairly typical. Because of his family's Christian beliefs, he was not allowed to do his high-school degree in the GDR. He could not travel to the Soviet Union, let alone to West Germany, where most of his family lived.

From the age of 14, he had decided to flee. "I grew up just 300 metres behind the Berlin Wall but for me it was too dangerous to try it there," he said. He thought in Hungary "the chance to die was not as high".

East German agents

The man who opened the gate to the church was Father Imre Kozma, who led the Order of Malta charity service. The charity erected tents and distributed food - all under the watchful eye of the Stasi, the East German secret service, whose agents were posted just across the street.

Father Kozma and his trabant
They were afraid we would ... hand them over to the East German authorities
Father Kozma about the refugees

Father Kozma said the refugees feared each other and even the Hungarian volunteers. "They were afraid we would gather them in one place and hand them over to the East German authorities."

Then in August, the place was awash with rumours and leaflets about the Pan-European Picnic.

Opposition groups had decided to organise the event as a celebration of good-neighbourly relations, with beer and gammon roasted over a bonfire right on the border with Austria. But the refugees wanted more than a picnic.

Today, you can simply drive or walk into Austria with no questions asked. The Iron Curtain has become a bike trail.

But in August 1989, much of the barbed wire fence was still there. Just before 3 o'clock that afternoon, Lt-Col Arpad Bella, who was in charge of the Hungarian border post, saw a crowd of men, women, even children rushing towards him.

Before his eyes, the first wave of East German refugees pushed through a barbed wire-topped wooden gate into the West. Some cried, laughed, embraced each other. Others kept running because they could not believe they were in Austria.

Guards' dilemma

Without clear instructions from his superiors, Lt-Col Bella decided not to shoot ."It was terrible for me!" he said. "Those two hundred people were just ten metres away from freedom. So I took the decision that I thought was best for Hungary and for my own conscience."

Hungary map

On the other side of the border, Austrian chief inspector Johann Goeltl faced another dilemma. In their headlong rush to freedom, an East German family had left their eight-year-old son on the other side of the gate, which had now been closed.

"Please, please, let him through," they pleaded, "otherwise we'll have to go back to that terrible regime". Somehow, chief inspector Goeltl managed to sneak the boy in.

By the end of that day, more than 600 East Germans had crossed over to the West. Three weeks later, when Hungary fully opened its borders, 60,000 flooded out. Among the first to leave was Robert Breitner, who arrived in Berlin in time to see the Wall collapse.

But 20 years on, Lt-Col Bella feels he was only an actor in a complex play whose director remains unknown. Some of those who organised the Pan-European Picnic, like engineer Laszlo Nagy, also feel politicians used it to test how far they could go.

"If you are taking part in a test of which you are not informed, you feel yourself as a worm that they use in fishing," Mr Nagy said. "They threw us in deep water and they were watching whether the sharks are coming or not."

The shark of course was the Soviet Union, which still had 100,000 troops in Hungary. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, its appetite seemed to be for reforms rather than military intervention.

Laszlo Nagy
Laszlo Nagy was one of the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic

In March 1989, Miklos Nemeth told the Soviet leader he planned to dismantle the barbed wire along the border. Mr Gorbachev reacted calmly and said border security was Mr Nemeth's problem, not his. The Hungarian prime minister took it as a green light. But could things have gone differently?

"Absolutely, we had worked out a lot of scenarios," Mr Nemeth told me.

"For me, the most important thing in those days was how I judged the position of Gorbachev in power. If he's being toppled, kicked out of power, that would have been a different story, I can tell you."

Like Mr Gorbachev, Mr Nemeth has retired from politics. He is disappointed that crisis-ridden Hungary is no longer a leader in Central Europe.

Lt-Col Bella and chief inspector Goeltl are friends and often meet to talk about the past.

Robert Breitner went on to study politics and now works in St Petersburg, happy that East and West can do business together.

For Father Kozma, little has changed. Except that now he drives one of the Trabants left behind by the refugees he helped 20 years ago.

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