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‘Hundreds of East Germans came to get through the border. I only had minutes to decide whether I would stop them or not. I think I made the right choice’

Zsófia Nagy-Vargha 2019.08.16.

August 19, 1989. He stood at the temporary border in Sopronpuszta with a gun on his side. Lieutenant Colonel Árpád Bella was in charge of the border patrol and sent to the “Pan-European Picnic” that day. A celebration of the eradication of European borders was organized in the spirit of the Austro-Hungarian overture. The plan was that as part of the picnic, a 100 member Hungarian delegation will cross the border at three in the afternoon, walking to the nearest Austrian village where they would be welcomed and then they will return home. However, at three o’clock, hundreds of East Germans appeared at the gate of the border and knocked it down to finally be able to reach the western part of their country. Hungary Today’s sister-site, Ungarn Heute had the opportunity to interview Lt. Col. Árpád Bella, who on the morning of August 19, 1989, did not even suspect that he would write history that day.

The original interview was published by our sister site, Ungarn Heute.

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August 19th is your wedding anniversary. I think 30 years ago you couldn’t really celebrate it…

No, I could not and I was really angry about it (laughs). The main attraction of the Pan-European Picnic would have been to open a gate at the border to the West and allow a Hungarian delegation of 100 people to pass it to Margitbánya and walk back from there. It was only 1-2 days before the event they put me in charge for that day. It was a Saturday, I didn’t even plan to work… What’s more, the 19th was a family holiday for us every year.

Back then, I thought it is still not a big deal, at most, it will be a wedding anniversary dinner instead of a lunch. The border closes at 6, I’ll be home at 7.

In the meantime, it turned out that I had to go to the barracks earlier because a colleague from Budapest had been assigned to check the border controls. The circumstances were already bad at the border at the time, because GDR citizens had appeared en masse on the western border. There was a danger that sooner or later there would be a clash with them. Various measures were issued from the center and the said colleague came down to check whether these measures had arrived at the crossing point in Sopron, had been processed by the commander and were known to the subordinates as well or not. And of course, he checked the location of the picnic too. I did not even think at that time that I’ll have to stay up late at night and that a historic event will occur on that day.

The flyer of the Pan-European picnic. Photo by Tamás Lobenwein – Norbert Lobenwein/Pan-European Picnic ‘89 Foundation

But there were some who expected it. What’s more, it was not by accident that hundreds of East Germans appeared at the border at the same time. Did you get any information about this, even as a gossip, that something was going on at the border?

The organizers of the picnic had no idea what was going on. However, the fact that East Germans were gathering in the border area was obvious to even kindergarteners. I considered the possibility that the picnic will be used as an opportunity to break the border, as a few days earlier I received a telegram to expect masses of East Germans arriving at the border. At the same time, the Austrian border was some 350 km long, so you could expect it anywhere. When I tried to find out where this information came from, no one knew or said anything. All they said that I should go out on the 19th. When Imre Pozsgay State Secretary was asked to be the patron of the event, he told the prime minister – as he told it a few years later – that if they wanted to organize a barbecue at the Austrian-Hungarian border, it was a good idea; however, the event could be used as a cause to accelerate the negotiations on visa-free travel between the two countries as well.

That is, they wanted to test the reaction of the GDR and Moscow, too. What would they say if the Hungarian government opened its western borders to the citizens of the GDR?

Everyone knew that if this happened, we would become a factor in world politics. They did not officially dare to make the decision themselves, but a ‘test’ would have come handy to them. They’ll see how Moscow reacts. If they say “nyet,” then they can still rebuke it on the common man – that they have not performed their task properly, that is, defending the border.

Lieutenant Colonel Árpád Bella. Photo by Kristóf Nagy.

So, you could have been blamed as well… Have you ever realized that this was kind of a historic moment that could even cause a problem for you?

Yes, I was scared. First, when the East Germans appeared instead of the delegation. The location of the celebration was also a professional and political decision. Be as far away from the border as possible, have a wire that can be dismantled and could also be protected. The idea of ​​the organizers from Debrecen was to sit on the right and left side of the Iron Curtain to demonstrate borderlessness – a pan-European conception that was the founding principle of the Habsburgs. It was a very good idea because that place was actually the border of two world systems. The border was closed by two large wooden-framed barbed-wire gates. A barbed-wire gate with a chain and lock – it can be opened spectacularly, in a theatrical way, as the people of Sopron thought.

East and West Met 30 Years Ago at Sopron

Then, instead of a 100-person delegation comfortable walking through it, the East Germans appeared. You said, that was the moment you got scared.

The event itself would have been fine because we had already made temporary border crossing points many times. It did not matter that hundreds of people were crossing it – at the time, border control was already a formality for the Hungarians. We did not have to write statistics anymore. They could have gone out almost without any checking. According to the plans, 100 people were about to arrive by bus to the border, continue the 7 kilometers to Margitbánya, Austria on foot where they would meet the Austrians on the main square. The border line lies at the top of a hill. From there, the road goes down 100-120 meters down into the valley. If somebody comes on that road, you can only see their head first. We saw heads popping up a few minutes before 3 o’clock… We thought it was quite typical of Hungary that when a political delegation arrives the bus breaks down and they have to come on foot. What else could have we thought? But then, as we could see more of the people, we saw little kids on their parents’ necks, strollers… That was suspicious. On the other side, people were watching, including TV crews.

East Germans getting through the border between the Soviet bloc and the free world. Photo by Tamás Lobenwein – Norbert Lobenwein/Pan-European Picnic ‘89 Foundation

Do you think they knew?

I think they definitely knew. The fact that these Germans appeared at the border in such a large and timed manner suggested that this could not have happened without proper organization. There was an East German, who spent the summer with a West German relative who was waiting for him across the border. They shouted to each other across the border.

Then the moment came, when I realized that I had fallen into a very, very serious situation, or rather into a mousetrap. This happened in approximately 20 seconds, it took that much to arrive there. We had to decide in that time frame what to do.

I had six people. Three were waiting for the bus, and I would have checked the delegation with three passport handlers. When it became clear that East Germans were coming, we had to decide whether to confront them or not.

What was the crowd like? Peaceful? Patient? Of course, when we talk about hundreds of people, even if they are gathering peacefully, when they are approaching the border at the same time, it can be “scary”…

In professional circles, those who do not act violently against the force are peaceful. Peaceful and disobedient are two different things. When there is a clash between the force and a crowd, that is, the armed with the unarmed, it usually ends with rifles firing.

I thought, “if I want to clash with these people, I have to do it as far from the gate as possible,” as those who are standing two steps from freedom can draw more strength from the hope.

However, if I wanted to get ahead of them, I would have needed to run. If the Germans saw men with guns running towards them, it would have had a negative effect on their mood. And if I got there in time, I certainly couldn’t have convinced them not to cross the border. I had to make sure that there was not even bumping because if we have to fire a warning shot, there would have been chaos… and I am sure that it could not have been handled.

East Germans getting through the border between the Soviet bloc and the free world. Photo by Tamás Lobenwein – Norbert Lobenwein/Pan-European Picnic ‘89 Foundation

Could you have used your weapon if someone crossed the border without permission?

By that time, the fire command was no longer in effect. Until November 30, 1988, if an illegal border crosser did not stop at the warning of the border guard, then we could fire a targeted shot after a warning shot. As our entry into the Geneva Convention was already on the verge, this was abolished from December on. However,

members of the force still had the right to use weapons in the event of a violent attack against them, in order to receive adequate legal protection. For example, in the case of self-defense.

Then, of course, I thought of everything: these people arrived here unnoticed, and no one informed me beforehand. If I do not act up against them, they will surely cross the border. I speculated a lot over the last 30 years that – even if it was decided at the government level to test the Soviet Union – it was definitely a state secret. They couldn’t risk leaking the information to the level where I was. Therefore, they decided not to tell me.

‘Forced Foreign Ideology Became Too Much for East Germans’ – Interview on the Pan-European Picnic with Father Imre Kozma

But by withholding the information they also risked that you might decide to use the weapons and then breaking the border would not have been so peaceful after all… Back then, the Prime Minister was Miklós Németh. He participates at every commemoration, just like you. Have you ever asked him this question?

Miklós Németh once said in a press statement that he thought that I would solve the problem anyway. He explained that he had previously issued an order to István Horváth, Minister of Interior that “no machine-gun nests should be put on the road.” So they planned not to use violence against the East Germans and “István Horváth understood it.” The border patrol was about to receive a similar order, something that even we, conventional soldiers would understand, but it was lost somewhere between Miklós Németh and our national headquarters.

We only got the information that “during the period of the border crossing, no armed, uniformed person can be present within a 1 km radius.” It was documented and I even made a copy for myself in case someone might blame me for the decision, I would have something to protect myself.

Obviously, there was a secret service system, the Border Guards had their own reconnaissance network, and the Ministry of Interior also had a secret body. Where so many people gathered, they were certainly present. Just like STASI. When I saw the first heads up at the border, many things came to my mind. At the top of it was when we wanted to report the events, we couldn’t, because neither the district commander nor the chief was available.

Lieutenant Colonel Árpád Bella. Photo by Kristóf Nagy.

You said you kept “evidence,” so in case someone wanted to charge you, you could defend yourself… When did you finally feel relieved? Do you remember the first moments you felt calm at last?

Ironically, in fact, the case has not yet been officially closed. Of course, the chief made it official one hour later when he came to the border that I was the one responsible for the situation. But he didn’t even ask what he could help with, whether we were injured, etc. He said he would take legal action against me.

The “breach of duty” was a crime, for which I could have received up to five years in prison. It wasn’t a game.

I guess it also worsened the situation that as the political situation was constantly changing you did not know exactly “who would pronounce judgment on you?”

Well, after nothing happened for days and weeks, it seemed that Miklós Németh believed Gorbachev that there would not be another ’56. What Gorbachev negotiated with Helmut Kohl in June – that everyone was free to leave the country where they were staying in – finally seemed to materialize.

Later it turned out that at the time, Hungarians did not know whether a weak Gorbachev was leading a strong Soviet Union or a strong Gorbachev is leading a weak Soviet Union.

The Hungarian foreign policy could not assess the situation. That is why it took a lot of nerve from [then Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister] Gyula Horn to take all the credit and accolades for his performance at the time, while he was always against releasing the East Germans to the West. Everyone agreed, except Horn. Then, when it all happened, he suddenly became the leading warrior. Merits are easier to take credit for than to accomplish.

Dismantling the Iron Curtain. Photo by Tamás Lobenwein – Norbert Lobenwein/Pan-European Picnic ‘89 Foundation

When you go out to the location and the commemoration, do positive or negative feelings dominate?

It varies. It depends on my mood when I wake up. Like all great events, many people have quite different thoughts on the occasion. Many people think they are the center of the world.

There is a war of merit going on. The organizers, the forces of time, and the politics as well. There is no peace in it, even after 30 years. There are two readings of the events of the picnic.

The Left say from the beginning that nothing has happened, it all went according to orders. There was no breakthrough here, people just walked through nicely. They probably watched another movie… While the other side says that the heroic and brave organizers forced the breakthrough. The chief, who initiated the proceedings against me had already been honored on the 5th anniversary for his humane behavior at the picnic. So, like I said, there is a war of merit going on. It’s awfully entertaining if you are aware of what has happened and you can prove it with documents.

Don’t you want to write it all down?

A book is underway, maybe it will be ready by November.

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Interview by Zsófia Nagy-Vargha
Translation by Fanni Kaszás
In the featured photo: Lieutenant Colonel Árpád Bella at the border on the historic day in 1989. Photo by Tamás Lobenwein – Norbert Lobenwein/Pan-European Picnic ‘89 Foundation. See more pictures here.