On 30 September 1989 Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the then Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, appeared on the balcony of the Embassy in Prague to tell the over 4000 refugees from the German Democratic Republic (GDR) waiting below that they were free to leave for the Federal Republic. Our colleague Thomas Strieder, currently German Ambassador in Brazzaville, gives an insider’s account of events at the Embassy at that time.
Thomas Strieder’s Prague adventure began in late summer 1989 with a call from Human Resources. The young diplomat was asked to leave for Prague as soon as possible to help look after hundreds of GDR citizens who had sought refuge in the Embassy there. In retrospect he sees those weeks as “the most memorable in my whole career”, although “at the time we hadn’t the faintest idea that something truly momentous was under way.”
Increasingly cramped conditions
The main thing at first was to organise sleeping bags and tents and listen to the worries of the around 400 refugees already at the Embassy. But soon the entire premises – Palais Lobkowicz itself and the grounds – were bursting at the seams. “Every day more and more people climbed over the back fence, often injuring themselves in the process. There were dramatic scenes with even prams and babies being handed up over the fence,” Thomas Strieder recalls. By the end of September things had reached a really critical pass.
Except for the Ambassador’s private quarters and his actual doorstep, every possible space – the stairs, too – was occupied. I can see them still: rows and rows of multi-storey bunk beds packed into the big ballroom and the cupola room. We never thought about whether the floors could take the weight.
Genscher is coming!
For the embassy staff and the many extra hands struggling to cope with the situation there was no let-up until finally on 30 September 1989 Foreign Minister Genscher’s limousine drew up at the entrance. It was a critical moment: “We didn’t know Genscher was coming! The Ambassador had been told. But everyone else was kept in the dark. If the refugees had got wind of it sooner, that could have caused trouble.”
The car stopped in front of the gate and Genscher climbed out with a look on his face I well remember. He was clearly deeply impressed by what he saw. Escorted by his body guards, he made his way through the waiting crowd of refugees. And then on all sides the shout went up, “Genscher’s arrived. Genscher’s here!”
A megaphone for the minister
While the Minister’s delegation were closeted with the Ambassador in the residence, the embassy staff were busy organising Genscher’s appearance on the balcony. Thomas Strieder already knew what he was supposed to do. “I and others had been asked to get hold of loudspeakers and a microphone. But in the time available that just couldn’t be done.” All we could manage was to borrow a megaphone from a neighbouring embassy. “The janitor plugged it in and we rigged up an improvised spotlight, which gave us a good deal of trouble.”
Then Genscher walked down the main staircase and into the cupola room. There again I saw the expression on his face, he was really shocked by what he saw. He hadn’t realised the situation was so dramatic: the overcrowding, the appalling sanitary conditions. Genscher crossed this room and stepped onto the balcony.
That was the moment he uttered those famous words: “We’ve come to you today to tell you …”. The rest was drowned in cheers of jubilation. After that everything had to be done in a great hurry. Soon trains laden with refugees were pulling out of Prague Station. Their destination was Hof in West Germany, but to get there they had to cross GDR territory. On board every train was someone with a West German diplomatic passport.
Refugees continue pouring in
“I was one of the team left to keep things ticking over at the Embassy,” Thomas Strieder relates, but the quiet was short-lived. “The Embassy filled up all over again and in the early hours I called up the GDR Embassy to negotiate the departure of yet another refugee train.”
This time it was Thomas Strieder’s turn to accompany the refugees first to the buses and then to the station. “That was the last train to leave during this first phase of the operation. I took absolutely nothing with me, to be honest. I just got on and afterwards drove back from Hof with a rented car.”
After Dresden the train suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere. Panic broke out among the passengers, there were dramatic scenes. I went from compartment to compartment telling everyone to “keep calm, nothing’s going to happen to you.” The problem was that officers from the GDR state security service had boarded the train. They went from compartment to compartment, demanding the refugees’ identity papers. After confiscating them they said to each one in turn: “And you’ve now been deprived of your citizenship,” or words to that effect. There was indescribable jubilation!
Goodbyes in the train
Thomas Strieder remembers the moment when “his train” was about to arrive in Hof in West Germany. “The refugees gave me a present: it was a large-scale map of the GDR rail network, showing every route in the GDR. And all of them had signed it for me! Of course I had it framed.” After that things moved very quickly and a few days later his assignment in Prague ended.
Of course the operation to get the GDR refugees in Prague out to West Germany continued, Thomas Strieder points out. “But this gradually became an established routine until eventually it was no longer needed... because by then the Wall had fallen.” Then he carefully rolls up the big GDR rail map – his most precious souvenir from that memorable autumn 1989.