By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Budapest
BUDAPEST, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)– Leaders and elected officials from European countries and the United States have remembered how Hungary, exactly 20 years ago, helped to remove the Iron Curtain, which divided Eastern and Western Europe for decades. But the celebrations on Saturday, June 27, were overshadowed by concerns over Europe’s future.
People young and old sang the Ode to Joy, the European Union anthem, in front of the Hungarian parliament building to commemorate Hungary’s role in ending the divisions in Europe.
Exactly 20 years ago on June 27, 1989, the foreign ministers of then Communist Hungary and neighboring Austria, symbolically cut through the barbed wire fence along their country’s borders.
The move allowed tens of thousands of East German refugees later that year to escape to the west, including Robert Breitner Czuma who suffered because of his parent’s church activities and his desire to emigrate.
“I will never forget the material and moral support I have received in Hungary,” he said in an emotionally charged speech in the historic parliament building. He said the suport it helped him “to be among the first on that August night to cross into the West when Austria and Hungary opened their border.”
He said “it was like a dream” for him to have a West German passport which he received in Budapest. “I will always remember the feeling of driving through Austria to a [free] West Germany.”
The events opening the Iron Curtain were recalled by Hungary’s then Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth, whose last name ironically means German. He admitted, speaking through an interpreter, that his decision to help remove the Iron Curtain and the later permission for East Germans to leave was a major risk as Hungary was still part of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Bloc.
“Hungary’s decision meant the end of the division of Europe. And of course the protests came. The Defense [representative] of the German Democratic Republic immediately appeared in Budapest and asked for an explanation. And we gave him the explanation [saying] “We are a poor country. Unfortunately we are not in a position to restore technically or renew technically the Iron Curtain,” he said.
He added there were not only economic reasons to help remove the Iron Curtain, which he said stretched along the border of the “Soviet empire, from the Baltics to Iran”. Former Prime Minister Nemeth made clear that he also wanted to defend human rights and political freedoms.
The head of the visiting U.S.Congressional delegation, Democratic Congressman David Price, presented a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama recalling that the decision to cut the barbed wire between Hungary and Austria eventually changed Europe. “The brave decision of the Hungarian and Austrian governments to open their borders set the stage for the spread of freedom to the surrounding nations, the end of Communist control in the region, and forever changed the political landscape of Europe,” he said.
But, German President Horst Koehler also used the occasion to warn that Europe must ensure that the current economic crisis does not end “the European solidarity” between East and West that emerged following the Iron Curtain’s collapse and the reunification of Germany.
The Vice President of the European Commission, Guenter Verheugen, told BosNewsLife that he is especially concerned about calls not to further expand the EU towards former Communist countries or Turkey, which he suggested would divide Europe once again.
“We can not create an official border throughout Europe and tell people: “If you are lucky you live on our side of the border. If you have bad fortune you are on the other side of the border. That’s not possible…In my view, we as the present members of the European Union do not decide how and when the process of enlargement will continue. The nations themselves will decide whether they want it and what they are prepared to do for it,” he said.
In the midst of Europe’s deepest recession in decades, delegates agreed it is crucial not only to look back but also to build a stronger and more prosperous Union, with East and West, in the future.