The Fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

When 1989 began, most people inside the Soviet sphere of influence in the East Bloc no doubt believed that the Iron Curtain was secure. But this time, the public’s demands for freedom and reform weren’t silenced. Before the year was out, the curtain had fallen. Revolution had come once again to Europe.

A watchtower and electric security fence with a field in the background as a symbol of the Iron Curtain.
The Iron Curtain’s fall wasn’t something many people would predict at the start of 1989. (Image: Pudelek (Marcin Szala)/Public Domain)

Hungary Refused Surrender

On November 4, 1956, Soviet news outlets announced that there was a fascist coup underway in Hungary. In actuality, Soviet troops had moved into the country to defeat a popular nationalist uprising. Students, workers, and intellectuals had all taken to the streets, and they weren’t looking for mild reforms. They wanted political freedoms and neutrality in foreign affairs.

A street in Budapest in the afternoon of October 25, 1956, a "bloody flag" demonstration
Though Soviet news outlets claimed the invasion of Hungary was to defeat a fascist coup, they were, in fact, trying to suppress a nationalist movement. (Image: Nagy Gyula/Public domain)

Protestors called for the liberal communist, Imre Nagy, to be appointed premier. Nagy assumed the leadership on October 24. Soon after, likely pushed along by popular support, he announced the formation of a coalition government and that Hungary was withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact military alliance.

With the Soviet invasion, the Hungarians refused to surrender, and their suppression was exceptionally bloody: some 20,000 Hungarians were killed, and 200,000 fled to the West. Nagy was deposed, and he fled to the Yugoslavian Embassy. Before the month was over, though, he was duped into believing he would be given amnesty. Instead, he was taken into Soviet custody and transferred to Romania, where in 1958, he was executed as a traitor.

The Young Democrat

During the summer of 1988, Hungarian communists decided to replace the 76-year-old general secretary, János Kádár, who’d been in power since the 1956 uprising was suppressed. Living standards were higher in Hungary than in other soviet satellite states, but the economic situation was worsening in the 1980s. Liberal members of Hungary’s communist leadership pushed Kádár aside to enact reforms.

In January 1989, the Hungarian National Assembly passed laws authorizing freedom of speech, assembly, and association. In May, Hungarian reformers moved from rhetoric to action when they began to dismantle fencing along sections of the border with Austria. It quickly became a sieve through which disaffected Soviet bloc citizens made their way to the West.

But the real turning point came in June 1989 when 200,000 Hungarians converged on Heroes’ Square in Budapest to pay their respects to the fallen men and women of the 1956 uprising. Significantly, those honored included the executed leader, Imre Nagy. 

A moving commemoration at Heroes’ Square was filled with reverence and respect that had been bottled up for more than 40 years. The final speaker belonged to a new liberal party called the Young Democrats. Capturing the revolutionary links between the past and the present, he told the crowd, “If we can trust our soul and strength, we can put an end to the communist dictatorship.”

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Viktor Orbán

Viktor Orbán in 1997
The leader of the Young Democrat party, Viktor Orbán, who influenced the course of the fall of the Iron Curtain, became an authoritarian member of the right decades after. (Image: Rita Molnár/Public domain)

The Young Democrat who called his people to freedom that day was Viktor Orbán, who, decades later, would refashion himself as an authoritarian of the right. But in 1989, he personified the freedom quest. On October 23, 1989—the 43rd anniversary of the Hungarian uprisings—Hungary declared itself a free, democratic, and independent state.

As Hungary moved toward freedom, its officials continued the process of dismantling border fortifications. Thousands of East Germans who traveled to Hungary on regular tourist visas now clamored to cross the Hungarian-Austrian border into Western Europe. On September 10, 1989, the Hungarian government announced that it would allow East German refugees free passage through any part of their territory to the country of their choice. 

This infuriated East German leader Erich Honecker, a dedicated communist who wanted no part of liberalization and who vowed to block any further emigration to the West. Tens of thousands of East Germans protested in response. In turn, Honecker threatened what he called a “Chinese solution”, implying he would use lethal force as the Chinese had in Tiananmen Square just months before. But Mikhail Gorbachev made it clear that Soviet troops would not support any such action.

Fall of the Iron Curtain

On October 9, 70,000 East Germans demonstrated in Leipzig, and no force was used against the protesters. This was the turning point. The number of demonstrations and demonstrators continued to grow. On October 18, Erich Honecker resigned from his position.

By November, the East German crowds demanding a revolution had grown to hundreds of thousands. Pressure on the regime built, and on November 9, 1989, it gave way. In a live press conference, an East German official announced that all prohibitions on travel to the West had been lifted. People freely flowed across the Berlin Wall for the first time since 1961.

Common Questions about the Fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe

Q: Was a fascist coup really underway in Hungary in 1956?

No. The reality was that Soviet troops were moving into the country to suppress a national uprising to keep the Iron Curtain effective. Soviet troops encountered the Hungarian nation that wasn’t ready to surrender, which led to a massacre where approximately 20,000 people died.

Q: Why did 200,000 Hungarians march on Heroes’ Square in Budapest in June 1989?

The Hungarians wanted to pay their respects to those who had died as a result of the 1956 uprising. This included its leader, Imre Nagy, who was executed.

Q: What did Erich Honecker mean when he threatened a “Chinese solution”?

When thousands of East Germans protested Erich Honecker’s decision to block any further immigration to the West, he threatened he would react just as the Chinese government had reacted in Tiananmen Square a few months ago with lethal force.

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