The German Refugee Crisis of 1989

The German Refugee Crisis of 1989


So, you’re German, East German, and it’s
the summer of 1989. Where do you go on holiday? Why, Hungary of course! And not just for
the culture, deep fried food or lack of viable alternatives, but also for one other key attraction. Austria.
Let’s rewind a bit. Earlier that year gentle reforms by the Hungarian government had begun,
the most important of which for our purposes was the removal of the fencing between Hungary and Austria. The Hungarian government ensured this act was made as public as possible, having
electric fencing purposefully removed in front of Western film crews and began allowing travel
across the border after decades of having Western Europe completely locked off. And they even hosted a picnic to celebrate. Now you may at this point be wondering at this point why the Soviet Union wasn’t going for it’s usual “less than peaceful” response of military
intervention. Well that’s because the Soviets, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev,
were operating under the wonderfully named Sinatra Doctrine, which took the stance of
allowing Warsaw Pact members to “do it their way” and make their own futures, so whilst the Soviets weren’t happy, they weren’t going to intervene either. This left Hungary by themselves, and by September the Iron Curtain had fully come down around them, which sparked thousands of
East Germans packing their Trabants and flooding to the gap. After losing over 30,000 citizens,
East German leader Erich Honecker realised the unfolding disaster and swiftly put an
end to it by banning all travel to Hungary. Problem was, the citizens were already pretty
psyched to be heading to the West, so rather than just giving up and going home they turned their sights instead to Czechoslovakia. Although Czechoslovakia didn’t have an open
border to the West, there was still a way to get there, and that was through the West German
embassies. The embassy in Prague, amongst others, became the scene of GDR citizens scaling the
walls to take refuge inside and demanding passage to the West. This had been happening on and
off for a few years now, and normally the Refugees were granted emergency accommodation
within the embassy building, but as the number of refugees grew over the course of the month
to almost 4000 people, the German Red Cross had to begin providing emergency supplies
such as food, water, toilets, and beds in the embassy gardens. With so many people crammed
in this small space, it quickly turned to mud, resembling other humanitarian crisis
zones such as Glastonbury. Blockades eventually prevented cars from getting
too close to the embassy, with both uniformed and plain clothed officers patrolling around the clock in an attempt to stop any further would-be refugees. As a result, streets were
lined with abandoned Trabbys, in fact here are just some which were recovered by the
Stasi, and people got creative with their escape attempts, such as giving their luggage
to Prague citizens so they could approach without suspicion and have it thrown over
the wall later. These actions are remembered today through this Trabby sculpture in the
embassy gardens and this luggage which was never claimed.
Towards the end of September after long negotiations, an agreement was finally made between the
West and the East to have the refugees be stripped of their East German Citizenship
and sent across the border to the West. After hours of rumours of a breakthrough, on September 30th, West
German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher addressed the crowd of refugees from the balcony
of the embassy in a moment which can still give you shivers to this day. Within hours sealed buses and trains began carrying the refugees to West Germany, but
rather than go there directly, part of the deal was the brilliant idea that they must
pass through East Germany. Honecker planned to use this as an opportunity to humiliate
the “traitors” and make an example of them. But what actually happened was the refugees
began throwing their torn up GDR papers out the window like confetti, and when the trains
stopped in Dresden large crowds attempted to storm the station and jump on the trains,
some of whom succeeded. So that went well. With all borders closed, public protests,
and no sign of support or reform, Honecker was eventually ousted by his own party members
who quickly attempted to rescue the situation by reopening the borders. But, following the
pattern of great decisions, this just takes us back to where we started with everyone
going to Hungary, and by this point it wasn’t even Summer! School and factories closed all over the country because everyone left for the West which wrecked the already struggling economy, and this continued for weeks until one final confused decision was made on November 9th, when government
spokesperson Günter Schabowski read aloud a note at a press conference stating that
East German citizens could apply for travel and emigration permissions to the West. Applications
were only meant to be open from the next day, but Schabowski had missed the meeting where the
details of the note were clarified, so when asked when this came in to effect he said Yeah…
There was no coming back from that one really, and within hours crowds were gathering on
both sides of the Berlin wall with the border guards, who didn’t know what had been happening
on the news because they’d been at work, attempting to stall for time. Luckily rather
than things turning violent, one officer, Harald Jäger, disobeyed his orders and began
letting the crowds through, effectively opening the border and ending the crisis.

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About the Author: Sam Caldwell

5 Comments

  1. Ich finde dass, diese Geschichten über den letzten Tagen der DDR wirklich wirklich befriedigend sind. Weiß aber nicht genau warum

  2. Intersting video, I learnt probably in this video more about my own country than in a whole history lesson. Do you plan to create and upload more videos on your channel?

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