Page last updated at 20:30 GMT, Monday, 26 October 2009

The man who opened the Iron Curtain

Chris Bowlby
BBC Radio 4

Mikos Nemeth

The 1989 revolution has its unforgettable images, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and its famous figures - Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But the man who made a crucial first breach in the Iron Curtain which divided Cold War Europe has received far less attention in the West.

He is Miklos Nemeth, an economist who became Hungarian prime minister in November 1988 and proceeded to tear up the rule book for leaders of communist bloc countries.

I did not do the impossible, I just did all that was possible at the time
Miklos Nemeth

His assault on the Iron Curtain began, strangely enough, as he considered his country's budget for 1989.

He spotted a mysteriously large sum listed under interior ministry spending. When he was told it was in fact for renewing the barbed wire on the border between Hungary in the Cold War "East", and Austria in the "West", he "erased it immediately", he recalls.

'Disturbing' intelligence

Nervous colleagues warned him of the possible consequences. Memory of brutal Soviet intervention in Hungary in 1956 was still strong.

1989: How the Wall Fell is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 27 October 2000 GMT
Or hear it later on the iPlayer

But Nemeth wanted to test the promises of a new era made by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

He visited Gorbachev in March 1989 and informed him of his government's decision in principle to start dismantling the border.

"I did not ask for permission", he says.

Nonetheless, as the barbed wire began to come down and border controls were gradually reduced, he half expected an angry phone call from Moscow, and was relieved when it did not come.

Nemeth was convinced that the so-called Brezhnev doctrine, in which a previous Soviet leader had asserted the right to invade other countries to defend orthodox communist rule, was now dead.

But the possibility that Gorbachev would be deposed by hardliners, who might exploit the fact that the Soviet Union still had many thousands of troops stationed in Hungary, was a constant worry.

He remembers hearing "disturbing noises" from intelligence sources in Moscow.

And Nemeth's decision to relax border controls - and his willingness to consider multi-party rule - enraged more conservative rulers in other communist countries.

Comrade no more

At a Warsaw Pact meeting in July 1989 he was harangued by Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu and East German leader Erich Honecker.

"They branded me 'mister' instead of 'comrade'," he says with a proud smile. "Mister" was a terrible insult among Europe's communist elite.

Helmut Kohl and Miklos Nemeth
None of us, including Kohl, forecast the domino effect
Miklos Nemeth

Meanwhile Gorbachev, also attending, said nothing, Nemeth remembers, but occasionally "winked at me" in silent support.

Nemeth was to incur Honecker's lasting wrath when he decided to "cross the Rubicon", and open up the border fully in September.

This allowed thousands of East Germans, who had massed in Hungary after hearing of looser border controls, to leave for the West without exit visas, via Hungary's border with Austria.

But first Nemeth made a secret deal with the West German government, giving them time to prepare to accept the influx.

In return, a grateful West German chancellor Helmut Kohl helped Hungary service its large debt to Western banks.

New Europe

This definitive opening of the Iron Curtain greatly undermined the authority of the East German regime.

Honecker lost power soon afterwards, and within weeks the Berlin Wall had fallen. "None of us, including Kohl, forecast the domino effect," Nemeth says.

Kohl visited Nemeth shortly before making a crucial visit to East Germany which paved the way for German reunification.

Nemeth noticed how nervous he was, and Kohl confided that he did not know what to say to East Germans, so different from the Germans he knew in the West.

Nemeth advised him "not to promise anything" but to stress instead patience and hard work.

Nemeth also had to reassure Margaret Thatcher, a strong opponent of German reunification, who told him that after 40 years of Cold War stability "now something strange is happening".

"I emphasised there was no choice," Nemeth says. "We had to work together to find new security."

He went on to play his part in building the new Europe as vice-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. But nothing could match the drama and personal satisfaction of the role he played in Europe's year of revolutionary drama 20 years ago.

"I did not do the impossible, I just did all that was possible at the time," he says now. And the approval he enjoyed most was not from the top political leaders he met, but from much closer to home.

"After I had resigned as prime minister in 1990," he recalls, "I went back to my home village. And my father clapped me on the back, and said 'Son, well done, I'm still holding my head up high whenever I walk through the gates to my front door.'"

Miklos Nemeth is one of the contributors to 1989 - How the Wall Fell, a discussion chaired by John Tusa.

1989: How the Wall Fell is on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 27 October 2000 GMT. Or hear it later on the iPlayer.

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