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How A News Item Became ‘The Fatal Crack In The Monolithic Eastern Bloc’

HUNGARY – Hungarian border guards cut through the barbed wire frontier with Austria and the Free West near Hegyeshalom some 50 kilometers east of Vienna on May 2, 1989.

RFE/RL spoke with Andras Vincze, RFE Hungarian Broadcasting Department News Desk Editor, based in Munich from 1979-94, about the role and impact of RFE in Hungary during the events of 1989. Vincze was later sent to Budapest in 1990 to organize local freelancers for the newly opened RFE bureau.

RFE/RL: The events started with the Pan-European picnic in Hungary, close to the Austrian border. How did RFE/RL cover it? And the exodus of Germans through Austria to Germany?

VINCZE: At the time, we got all our information from the [RFE/RL] News and Current Affairs Department (NCA), where all the main East and West European news agencies like AP, UPI or DPA, AFP, but also TASS and the Hungarian MTI were monitored.

As far as I know, there were already at that time some freelancers in Budapest. One of them got in touch even with Pater Imre Kozma, who took care of the East German tourists in the camp around his church in Zugliget, a borough of Budapest, with the help of the West German Maltese Help Organization and with Caritas.

And the exodus of Germans through Austria was, as I remember, no more than a news item. At that time, there were no more than 1,000 East Germans who had travelled by chartered buses through Austria, and arrived in Passau. From there they were sent to different small German towns, which had prepared temporary homes for them.

RFE/RL: They went to Munich, where RFE/RL was based. What did RFE/RL and the staff think at that stage about the possible outcome of the developments?

VINCZE: After the Pan-European picnic the border was closed again, but more and more East Germans came to Budapest, hoping for a similar border opening. RFE was covering the international events, the talks between Helmut Kohl, the West German Chancellor and Mitterrand, President of France, Margaret Thatcher, the British PM and Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR.

In the early days of September, Gorbachev said to Helmut Kohl that the Hungarians were good people. It was thus understood by Kohl that the Hungarian government had received permission to let East Germans go to the West, and therefore on the 10th of September the border was opened. This decision by the government was announced that evening on Hungarian State TV.

For us at the Hungarian News Desk, this news was the top story that evening. Over the next several days about 60,000 East Germans left Budapest mainly by chartered buses. I remember hearing a commentary in our broadcast during those days, saying that the border opening was probably the point of the definitive break-down in relations between Budapest and East Berlin, and that no more East German citizens would be delivered, as before, to the Stasi, the East German secret police. And this decision could be considered the fatal crack in the monolithic eastern bloc.

RFE/RL: The fall of the Berlin Wall: the turning point in East-West relations?

VINCZE: I guess the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was a turning point in East-West relations. I remember those days well, because I was sent to Berlin on November 10 to make reports in the streets and to speak with people. One of the most emotional impressions was how people reacted when they learned I was Hungarian, and many of them even knew of Radio Free Europe’s contribution to the downfall of communism.

When I went to West-Berlin Radio to send back to Munich my reports by radio-lines, I was greeted with a lot of emotion, and when I asked what I owed them for using their facilities, they said to me with tears in their eyes that this was the minimum they could do as a big-big thank-you to Radio Free Europe.

RFE/RL: How did it happen that more and more original material could be gained from behind the Iron Curtain?

VINCZE: The Hungarian Broadcasting Department had a freelancer in London already in 1986, George Krasso, who was the point of contact for regime-critical people in the country, and through him we got a lot of direct information from the anti-communist circles.

After Roland Eggleston from NCA left Munich to work on the spot in Budapest, he also started to build up a correspondent network there. He had good contacts with the Hungarian government, so he could also get from this side important inside information. I can say that in 1989, we had regular reports from our freelance correspondents from Hungary, and because they were mainly involved in the struggle for regime change, they could also talk about upcoming events for us to report on. The fear was somehow broken, and these correspondents often did vox pop interviews in the streets in Budapest.

RFE/RL: When did journalists first manage to enter Eastern bloc countries for reporting?

VINCZE: Let me answer with my own experience. I tried to get into Hungary in the summer of 1988. That was the year of the reburial of the famous Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, who died in exile in 1945 in NY, and the government in Budapest decided to return his coffin for a state funeral in Budapest. The coffin came by ship from New York to Cherbourg, and in every important town there were special celebrations honoring Béla Bartók.

The Hungarian Broadcasting Department decided to report on this as it progressed through Western Europe, and accompany the coffin to the state funeral in Budapest. This was to be the first entry by a staff member of the department behind the Iron Curtain. And because I didn’t have Hungarian citizenship, only my Belgian, the board thought I wouldn’t run any danger by entering the country, if I got a Hungarian visa. The department began the process of officially applying for a visa for me at the Hungarian Embassy in Bonn well in advance. There the answer was positive, but they had to wait for the decision from the Central Committee of the Hungarian Communist Party.

So, in the meantime, I went to France, then accompanied the coffin through Germany, then to Salzburg. Finally, when we got to Vienna, Munich told me to go to the Bankgass, the Hungarian Embassy in Vienna, to get the visa into my passport. I did so, but the Embassy said I should get my visa at the border. My boss told me from Munich not to do that, because it could be a trap, so I returned back to Munich, without reporting on the last leg of this reburial. A couple of days later the Hungarian Embassy in Bonn called the department, telling us that I could come and pick up my visa. This was typical harassment by the official side of communist Hungary.

RFE/RL: How did East European politicians begin to respond to RFE/RL approaches?

VINCZE: I can only speak on my own experience of what happened in Hungary, where, from 1989 politicians who still were members of the Communist Party but wanted to rejuvenate the system, give it a human image, started to use RFE to make public their opinion, or to prepare to save themselves for the future. Just to mention some names: Miklos Nemeth, the prime minister at the time, or Imre Pozsgay, member of the Central Committee, who was the first to call the 1956 uprising a “revolution.”

Interview by Zydrone Krasauskiene.