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The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : CHAPTER 5 HUNGARY : A Vacation Spot Turns Into the 1st Way Out : Budapest, caught between East Germany's hard-line regime and thousands of refugees, makes its choice: 'We had to let them go.'

December 17, 1989

It was normal that East Germans came to Hungary in the summertime. They had been doing it for years, either in busloads on specially arranged holiday tours, or in their little plastic-bodied Trabant cars, enjoying the Hungarian food, the easy looseness of the place.

They went to Lake Balaton and swam; the young people hiked about with backpacks and bedrolls and slept in crowded youth hostels or campgrounds.

It was July before the Hungarians noticed that this year, something different was going on.

The word circulated first through the Interior Ministry that increasing numbers of East Germans were crossing the border without proper papers. Since the border fence had been removed, they were crossing at isolated points along the frontier, sometimes sprinting past guards at road crossings. What were the instructions from Budapest? Certainly there was no question of shooting. But should the immigration officers be instructed to stop them, arrest them, or turn them back? The Interior Ministry was not sure what to do.

In mid-July, the West German press agency reported that more than 90 East Germans had fled across the Hungarian border into Austria since the fence had come down in May. The Austrians kept a closer count. On the last weekend in July, they reported, 44 East Germans crossed the border illegally, raising the total, since the fence was dismantled, to 237.

And now, almost overnight it seemed, 100 East Germans had moved into the lobby of the West German Embassy in Budapest. More were arriving daily, gathering at the embassy like pilgrims outside a church. They wanted to go West--and they were prepared to stay for as long as it took.

To Andras Hojdu, in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the events of the next six weeks were the logical extension of the changing political climate in Hungary.

His diminutive frame seeming even smaller in an expansively cut suit, Hojdu, intensely intellectual in his approach to problems, was regarded by most ministry professionals as the closest confidant of Foreign Minister Gyula Horn. From the beginning, his counsel to Horn was clear: Hungary had only one choice--it had to let the East Germans go.

For Hojdu, the choice was written in history, beginning with the slow transformation of Hungarian Communist politics in 1980. It had been carried on through men such as Horn, who for years had headed the Central Committee's international department--in effect, the party's foreign policy strategists. Or Imre Poszgay, now in the limelight as the party's leading reformer; Rezso Nyers, soon to become head of the renamed Hungarian Socialist Workers' (Communist) Party--now the Hungarian Socialist Party--and Miklos Nemeth, the prime minister.

Hungary, in a style that was unique in the Warsaw Pact, had begun its revolution within the party. The process had gone so far that by the year's end, in the view of many Hungarians, the Communist Party would commit political suicide, change its name, lose almost 90% of its official membership and become a distinctly minority party.

"Foreign policy represented a kind of flashpoint for the changes and reforms," Hojdu said. "Human rights were the key."

Hungary's embrace of international--that is to say, Western--human rights standards could become a lever by which the entire Hungarian system could be moved. Indeed, one result of the document that Andre Erdos worked on for two years in Vienna was that the Hungarian Parliament was, at that moment, revising the Hungarian legal code to conform with its provisions on travel and emigration.

In early August, Laszlo Kovacs, deputy foreign minister, met with his chief, Gyula Horn, and together they reviewed the options. Kovacs, 50, had worked with Horn for more than a decade. They were a close team: Kovacs a trim, elegant dresser, quick and brief in his analysis of problems; Horn, 57, white-haired and fit, an addicted morning jogger and a foreign policy specialist.

There were two options, Kovacs said: "First, we could send the East Germans back. We dropped this immediately as politically and technically not feasible. Politically, it would have been contrary to our human rights concept. It was technically impossible because by this time, in Budapest alone, there were now between 1,000 and 2,000. In the rest of the country, we estimated another 10,000, and we had no idea what they wanted to do."

In addition, over the next month, East Germans vacationing by the thousands in Bulgaria and Romania would be transiting through Hungary on their way home or wherever they were going. "There was only one solution that could be defended to the Hungarian and the world public," Kovacs said. "We had to let them go."

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