Little more than 25 years ago – on 27 June 1989 – the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary, Alois Mock and Gyula Horn, breached the Iron Curtain with wirecutters near Sopron. The photos of one of the historic moments of the 20th century travelled the world. Journalist László Kulcsár witnessed the moment and sat down with The Budapest Times for an interview.
Kulcsár, born in 1941, was reporting at the time for Magyar Hírlap, the Hungarian government’s official media. He began his career in 1957 at the newspaper of Győr-Moson-Sopron county, and from 1974 he started working in Budapest.
How did you come to be at the event?
As the editor of foreign affairs at Magyar Hírlap I was always invited to such events where the government was participating, so I was also invited for 27 June. Cutting through the border was part of Horn’s state visit in Austria from 25 to 27 June, the aim of which was to strengthen the bilateral relationship. He also met the Austrian State President, Kurt Waldheim, and Vice-Chancellor, Josef Riegler. Topics such as the planned world exhibition organised together by Vienna and Budapest were on the agenda, but also ones like the situation of refugees from East Germany in Hungary.
How did the symbolic action happen?
Due to the European convergence at that time, the borders between Hungary and Austria had already lost their meaning before. In accordance with the Helsinki Accords of 1975, the European people should be able to travel around freely. In April 1989 the first section of the 365-kilometre border zone between Austria and Hungary was left by the Hungarian border control. This action was not really made public, just those people knew about it that lived close by. The news of course got to us as well but the time was not yet right to report it. The Hungarian government wanted to keep quiet about the opening of the borders because at that time Michail Gorbatschow [Mikhail Gorbachev], the leader of the Soviet party, had not given his full consent yet. After the opening, Horn and prime minister Miklós Németh travelled to Moscow and simply told him about it as a fact. Gorbatschow reacted by staying silent, which they evaluated as his consent.
Where did you get your information from?
I did not use only MTI, the state news agency, as a source, I also read German and Austrian media for new information. So I was well informed about the events happening there, just like about the quickly growing number of illegal border crossings of East German refugees. They were lucky that Austria treated them as West German citizens, who could travel freely without needing a visa, while East Berlin was anything but lucky in fact. The Hungarian border control also treated the East Germans predominantly with humanity and care.
How did the border cutting scene happen?
It was organised by the two ministers of foreign affairs as part of a following international press conference. There are many rumours about the circumstances. It is true that they had to find an intact section near the area called Sopronpuszta for the sake of the picture. The symbolic gesture was supposed to show the world that Hungary had a positive approach towards the opening and would like to continue its foreign policy in the spirit of the Helsinki Accords.
How did it happen exactly?
We came by car but we had to walk in a meadow for the last 50 metres. It was a surprisingly casual event without the usual protocol. The border patrol responsible for the section greeted the two ministers. They reported to them in the official way and then they gave them the wirecutters. After that the two ministers began slowly cutting through the fence. They cut out small pieces of wire at several points of the section, to give it to the spectators as a memory. I received a piece from Horn. There was no problem with the cutter, most likely only that you had to push it quite powerfully – which seemed to be not so easy for the two gentlemen, who were not used to physical exercise. Mock immediately said that this was the best moment of his diplomatic career: “A thousand kilometres of wire fences and walls still separate the nations of Eastern and Western Europe from each other. The Austrian and Hungarian example proves that the fences can be torn down, and all that separates us on our continent can be eliminated on one day in all Europe.” The whole action took less than half an hour. Towards the end the assistants politely asked us to leave because the international press conference with more than 100 representatives of the press was still to take place at Sopron City Hall.
How was the atmosphere?
There was beautiful summer weather, 25 degrees and gleaming sunshine. All of us knew that we were part of a historical event. We tried to cover up the resulting excitement with some serenity. This was an unbelievably important event in European history that two ministers came and simply started to cut through the wire fence separating the East and the West. A simple but not repeatable moment. When the ceremony was over and we went from the fence to our cars, there was complete silence. All of us were walking lost in our thoughts, some of us alone, some in small groups. I was walking next to Mock. You looked around and thought: that was good. It was unbelievable. Mock only said: “It’s like that.”
The border patrol, who were normally very strict and warned people for every wrong move, were absolutely relaxed and they let us behave as we wanted. Supposedly they did not understand at all what a historical event they had just witnessed. 1989 was a very turbulent year in Hungary with the reburial of Imre Nagy and the conversations around the Round Table, so people sometimes were not aware what was going on in national politics. You did not see politics in events like that, rather the dynamics of becoming free. At that time we were getting a first taste of what democracy could be like. I had seen a lot already when I was on business travels in the Western countries, but I would have never thought that it could be like that for us in Hungary as well.
How many people were present at the event?
About 30 I would say. There were the ministers and their staff, the ambassadors of the two countries and their employees, the border patrol, the leaders of the local county’s committee, the governor of Burgenland, translators, diplomats, representatives of the Austrian government and the press. Károly Matusz from the Hungarian news agency MTI was also there.
Was it only you and Matusz representing the Hungarian press?
No, there were others. Tibor Sebestyén, the former MTI news agent stationed in Vienna, was also there for all three days of Horn’s visit. Representatives of Népszabadság and some local newspapers were also at the fence.
On one of the pictures you are visible with a cassette recorder in your hand, recording the sound of cutting through the fence. Do you still have that tape?
I should still have it but I haven’t found it because I did not mark the cassette. If I found it, a museum would surely be interested (laughs).
Did Horn or Mock give you an interview at the location?
The people present answered a couple of questions. I based my report on that. At the international press conference later, there could be only five questions asked – one by me, directed to both politicians. I asked whether there are any questions still left open. Horn said they had made decisions on a lot of things but more meetings were necessary and a close collaboration of the two countries as well. They had also scheduled the topic of Hungary joining the European Free Trade Association, and Mock confirmed that Austria would support the initiative.
Did you notice any difference in the news reporting before and after the border had been cut?
Yes, even if we at Magyar Hírlap could already report quite freely before it happened. We had the freedom to write about virtually anything that we wanted, as long as the information was proven. Our chief editor, Zsolt Bajnok, was a true journalist. He was also the speaker of the government, so he always had the newest information first-hand. So there was no big difference for us. For other daily newspapers like Magyar Nemzet it was different. Imre Tatári, one of my colleagues working there, was an experienced journalist specialised in the same field as me. I liked his articles very much. I noticed in his writing, and also in the work of other colleagues at weekly magazines like HVG or Magyarország, that people were writing more freely after the event. Tatári was very professional at delivering messages in between the lines before, but now he wrote and commented clearly in a more open way. His work became catchier and easier to understand.
So would you say that cutting through the border was an important moment for Hungarian press freedom?
It was another green light for us. Information was also flowing more freely now. The informants – in my case mainly from the employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in Western embassies – could inform us more freely. Fortunately I was also free to report on the GDR [East Germany], even on their opposition events. Although the Honecker regime was getting weaker and weaker, the fear of the Stasi was overpowering right to the end. I was reminded of their activity when I returned to my hotel room in Berlin once and something was a bit “rearranged”. I don’t know if they were looking for something or they just wanted to leave me “a message”.
To be honest, I did not. Those times were so turbulent, there were so many things happening in 1989. The cutting of the border was only one of them, even if a very important one. Since Helsinki in 1975 the borderless Europe was Hungary’s future. This was very important for me personally, since I spent my childhood in the multicultural Győr in a Europe-mania.
Have your hopes from those times been fulfilled? Did Europe really converge more closely after the border cutting?
Horn had already been building a bridge between the two ideologies and societies piece by piece. He was not a Hungarian freedom fighter, rather someone who prepared the way to the European integration that happened at least 15 years after his time. He wanted to be part of international politics as well as he could, when he symbolically abolished the border between the East and the West alongside Mock. With allowing the East Germans travelling to the West through this action, he substantially contributed to the German reunion. Joining Europe led Hungary only in 2004 to entering the European Union – for which we were already hoping in 1989. The short-term, egoistic Hungarian policy did not let those ideas work out, which were already targetted after the Helsinki Accords but only reached in 2004. Certain invisible barriers were built up again; there is a ghost of the Iron Curtain there again. It is not built by the Western countries, which have hundreds of years of experience in democracy, but from some of our politicians who are blinded by their power. The current Hungarian politicians always want to emphasise the uniqueness of the country and make the question of the Hungarians living abroad a big political topic. Who is still interested in today’s borderless Europe where once the borders used to be in the past a long time ago? All the national policy and the nationalism in some European individual countries are not beneficial for Europe and the ideas for which people were risking their lives once.
Are you still in touch with the participants of the legendary event?
I kept in touch with Károly Matusz for a long time and I encouraged him to continue his career as a photographer. He was very talented but unfortunately he died young, two years ago. I met János Nagy a couple of times, who was the Hungarian ambassador in Vienna at that time, and his Austrian colleague in Budapest, Franz Schmidt, and Johann Sipöcz, the governor of Burgenland, too. I also met several workers of the Red Cross, the founder of the Hungarian Caritas Malta help service, Csilla von Boeselager, along with Imre Kozma, the president of the Hungarian Maltese Charity Service, who were both doing an important job in helping out in refugee camps in Hungary where I was reporting from later on. Gerd Vehres, who was the ambassador from the GDR in Budapest at that time, gave his last interview as an ambassador to me. He spoke with a striking honesty during that interview.
Were there any ideas to organise a meeting for the anniversary of the event in Sopronpuszta this year?
I only know that on 27 June this year the State Secretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs together with the Austrian and Slovakian Ministers of Foreign Affairs held a short memorial at the scene. I do not know about any invitations or meeting between the participants who were there 25 years ago.
László Kulcsár is now editor of news portal infovilag.hu, founded in 2000. He still keeps an eye on international events with great interest, especially in Austria and Germany.