Speech by Minister of State Niels Annen on the 30th anniversary of the Order of Malta supporting GDR refugees in Budapest: “The door is open, the heart even more

11.09.2019 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

I, too, would like to welcome you most warmly to the Collegium Hungaricum. Thank you very much, Ambassador Györkös, for making this venue available for the celebrations. My thanks extend also to the Order of Malta for the Invitation.

In 1989, I was 16 years old. I remember the then Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher standing on the balcony of the German Embassy in Prague on 30 September 1989 announcing to the refugees from the GDR: “We have come here today to tell you that you are free to leave...” The remainder of his declaration was swallowed by the cheering of thousands of GDR refugees.

For my generation, the Cold War was omnipresent. The fear of global destruction by a nuclear bomb was palpable and the Iron Curtain divided Europe. Germany’s division with the Berlin Wall, the barrier along the inner-German border and the order to shoot were our normality.

While unemployment had been increasing in many areas of West Germany since the early 1980s in the wake of structural change, the real existing socialism championed by the German Democratic Republic prevented its people from leaving and spied on them on a scale that is barely imaginable.

GDR citizens were only allowed to travel to other socialist countries. For their part, these countries also erected border fences at the borders to Germany, Austria, Greece, Turkey and Yugoslavia.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Much changed in the Eastern bloc countries when Mikhail Gorbachev took office as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. The terms he coined be it Glasnost (openness) or Perestroika (restructuring) have stood the test of time.

Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union started implementing reform. The GDR saw itself in contrast as an “island of orthodoxy”. It wanted above all to extend its economic ties to the West and tried at the same time to prevent democratic ideas and values permeating the GDR.

A need for reform, growing economic difficulties, a low standard of living compared to the West, lack of freedom to travel and political repression meant frustration was growing amongst the East German population.

This is why more and more GDR citizens wanted to leave. In 1983, almost 8000 people left the GDR. In 1987 and 1988, more than 100,000 applications to leave were being lodged per year.

In the summer of 1989, more and more GDR citizens were fleeing to the West German Embassies in Sofia, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. They wanted to gain permission to leave for West Germany as a so-called “refuge case”.

Without seeing it for yourself, you can probably hardly imagine what it was like in the Embassies that were practically bursting at the seams. On 30 September 1989, Thomas Strieder who worked at the Embassy in Prague penned the following lines in his diary:

“We can’t even count the new arrivals. There is no end to it, we have to give up even trying to count. At 2 p.m., there were about 2700 and numbers were increasing dramatically”.

Amidst this chaos, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced a spontaneous visit to the Embassy in Prague:

“FM (Foreign Minister) arrives in a motorcade. […] FM very surprised, seemingly hadn’t expected such a dramatic situation. Hint of horror in his eyes. […] FM very moved, tense, stricken, we don’t know what he wants to say. […] There are people lying everywhere on the ground, above all small children, horrible stench. FM goes on to the balcony. […]”

What were things like in Budapest and Hungary?

As early as May, Hungarian soldiers started to remove the barriers at the border between Hungary and Austria. They were doing this not least in reaction to Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika.

On 27 June 1989, the Hungarian Foreign Minister Horn and his Austrian counterpart Mock were pictured cutting a hole in the Iron Curtain together.

The images of this symbolic act spread like wildfire and through West German television also reached the GDR. Others wanting to leave headed for Hungary hoping to be able to flee to the West with relatively little danger.

That was the theory at least. The fact of the matter was that although the border fence had been taken down, border patrols had been stepped up. GDR citizens discovered by the Hungarian border police were however not sent back to the GDR but to other areas of Hungary.

In their plight, they often sought refuge in the West German Embassy in Budapest. On 13 August, the Embassy had to close to the public as it was overcrowded with 181 people seeking refuge.

This is where the Malteser Hilfsdienst comes into the equation, the Health and First Aid Service of the Order of Malta. That very day, the first emergency camp was set up for others wanting to leave in the grounds of Zugliget Church. Csilla von Boeselager was the driving force behind it and her daughter, Ilona von Boeselager, is with us here today. Ms von Boeselager, we extend a very warm welcome.

The German-Hungarian member of the Order of Malta had just set up the first Hilfsdienst of the Order of Malta in an Eastern bloc country together with Imre Kozma, the former priest of the Zugliget Church, who is also with us today. Also to you, Mr Kozma, the warmest of welcomes!

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Order of Malta is one of the oldest institutions in the Western civilisation. Since its founding more than 900 years ago, the Order of Malta has been helping those in need. Its motto was and remains: “defence of the faith and assistance to the poor”.

Members of the Order of Malta help others based on the Christian understanding of God and humanity. Their help is an expression of solidarity and free of prejudice. For them, the colour of the person’s skin doesn’t matter, nor what they look like, what language they speak nor the reason for their need.

So, in the summer 30 years ago in Budapest from 16 August, the Order of Malta started bringing more tents and equipment as well as food to Hungary. Many volunteers from the Malteser Hilfsdienst used their annual holiday to look after refugees in Budapest and in other camps and shelters in Hungary. It was only later that the Order of Malta received the official mandate from the Federal Government to look after refugees from the GDR.

The exodus movement reached a new level with the Pan-European Picnic at the border between Austria and Hungary. 600 GDR citizens – including many families with small children – took the Hungarian border guards by surprise and rushed past them heading for Austria.

In the wake of this, the number of refugees heading for the West German Embassies in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw increased further.

Although the Embassies in Prague and Warsaw counted only 347 and 29 people respectively wanting to leave on 5 September, the situation in Hungary was quite different.

There were as many as 5300 people being looked after by the Order of Malta in various camps in Hungary. And the emergency shelters were getting fuller and fuller.

On 11 September, the Embassy in Budapest cabled the Federal Foreign Office in Bonn with the information that, in the emergency shelters filled beyond capacity with about 7500 people, the news announced by Hungarian Foreign Minister Horn that they were free to leave had been received “with great joy”. In a selfless move, Hungary opened its border to Austria. This signalled the end of the Iron Curtain.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the eventful weeks of August and September 1989, the Order of Malta provided more than 55,000 GDR citizens with protection, comfort and a temporary home. The Malteser Hilfsdienst and all those involved in Hungary and Germany deserve our heartfelt thanks.

Our gratitude extends also of course to the then Hungarian Government which, with its reforms and circumspection, played a considerable role in ensuring that the story of exodus across the inner-German border had a happy end and one without bloodshed. It opened the way for the peaceful revolution in the GDR.

By opening its border, Hungary was the country showing the Governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia the way forward. It wasn’t until October 1989 that these two countries agreed to let GDR refugees leave the country.

While the Wall stood tall in Berlin and the inner-German border remained impassable, tens of thousands of GDR citizens fled to the West through Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia. On 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall finally fell.

Ladies and gentlemen,

On the 20th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic in 2009, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced thanks in her speech for the help of the Hungarians, provided not least by those in the then opposition movement and current governing party.

In 1989, countless Hungarians showed solidarity with the refugees from the GDR. True to the Christian maxim of loving your neighbour, they showed the GDR citizens the way to the border or offered them assistance and accommodation.

In other words, without Hungary and the Hungarian people, we would presumably not be standing here today.

In his speech yesterday to the German-Hungarian Forum, Minister Maas emphasised the meaning of Europe:

a Europe based on solidarity; a peaceful Europe; and a free Europe. The European Union stands for democracy, freedom, tolerance and human rights.

These achievements are neither to be taken for granted nor God-given. All around the world, but also increasingly in Europe, these achievements are being called into question.

Now is the time to stand up for these European values and achievements and, wherever and whenever necessary, to defend them vehemently. Democracy, the freedom of the press and opinion and the rule of law are not negotiable.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Isolation, nationalism and populism are not the way forward. They build walls and divisions in people’s minds and lives. Problems are merely shifted not solved.

Recently the Kettcar band from Hamburg reminded us of the dramatic day in Hungary 30 years ago in an emotional and much-discussed song and videoclip. The spirit of “Sommer 89”, as the song was called, in which courageous people cut holes in the fence is the spirit which should guide our decisions to this day.

I am firmly convinced that in this critical phase we do not need less Europe but more Europe. “Europe United” – let’s fight for it together.


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