The East German refugees in Prague

Photo: CTK

For a few weeks in the late summer of 1989, Prague became the scene of a bizarre – and now largely forgotten - refugee crisis. It had all begun in the spring, when Hungary announced its decision to take down the barbed wire on its border with Austria. A growing number of East Germans, desperate at the suffocating lack of reform in their country, took advantage of this new gap in the Iron Curtain as a way of fleeing to the West. But smuggling themselves into Austria was an uncertain business, and before long, they started seeking refuge at the West German embassy in Budapest - and then in Prague. It was much closer to home than Hungary and easier to get to, as East German citizens did not need a visa.

Photo: CTK
On August 23 1989, the West German embassy, in the exquisite Baroque Lobkowicz Palace just below Prague Castle, was forced to close down for its day-to-day business. By then hundreds of East Germans were trying to get in, many climbing over the fence into the manicured embassy gardens. The surrounding streets were soon packed with their abandoned Trabants and Wartburgs. In an interview for Radio Prague, the Czech writer, Jáchym Topol later recalled the scenes.

“They had piles of blankets, they were carrying backpacks with food, children were crying, dropping their toys. It’s strange but it reminded me of the persecution of the Jews. In my mind’s eye I could see the convoys of refugees from the time of the war… To this day I’m convinced that this East German exodus was the beginning of our own revolution.”

In the following days Red Cross was brought in and tents were set up as the number of people in the embassy garden grew.

The German embassy in Prague
By now reporters from Western television and radio stations had arrived in Prague in large numbers, and one young man, speaking through the fence, told them that conditions were becoming catastrophic. “A woman,” he said, “has just given birth right there in the garden.”

Prague’s official media needed to find a scapegoat for the crisis. This is what a Czechoslovak Press Agency report had to say:

“The mass media and certain political circles in West Germany have been organizing a campaign, to encourage the illegal emigration of citizens of the German Democratic Republic.”

With a humanitarian crisis looming, something had to be done. Behind the scenes frantic talks were going on between West and East German leaders, and with the Czechoslovak authorities. On September 30 1989, the West German Foreign Minister, Hans Dietrich Genscher arrived in Prague, and at seven in the evening, he appeared on the balcony of the West German embassy, looking down over the crowds in the garden.

“I have come to you,” he declared through a megaphone, “in order to inform you that today your departure….”

… and at this point his words were drowned by a huge cheer. Everyone knew that Genscher had managed to agree terms for the East Germans to be allowed to leave for the West. A special train was hurriedly arranged, and for the tired, but still euphoric crowds, the uncertainty was over. In the following days and at the beginning of November further East Germans fled via the embassy in Prague. The total number is unknown, but is thought to be around 20,000.

But all this was just a foretaste for far bigger changes: just forty days later after Genscher’s famous “balcony speech”, the Berlin Wall was breached.

Today, if you look into the German embassy garden from the park behind, you can see a Trabant car on legs, an aptly surreal reminder of the events of that autumn.