German embassy marks anniversary of 1989 East German exodus

German embassy in Prague, photo: Gerald Schubert

The German embassy in Prague is marking the 25th anniversary of the East German exodus. In the summer of 1989, several thousand citizens of communist East Germany sought refuge at the West German embassy in Prague in a prelude to the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate these historic events, the embassy on Thursday opened its doors to the public.

German embassy in Prague,  photo: Gerald Schubert
East German refugees cheered the West German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, when he told them from the embassy’s balcony their way to the West had been secured. Arranging their departure took weeks of negotiations between the governments of the two countries, a time thousands of refugees spent in the embassy’s halls or camping out in its gardens.

In commemoration of these ground-breaking events, the German embassy located in Prague’s Lobkowicz Palace on Thursday opened its doors to the public. Maike Freytag-Pitrocha is the embassy’s spokeswoman.

“This year, we are marking the 25th anniversary of the departure of thousands of refugees from the former East Germany to the West via our embassy, and we are naturally celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall as well. But it is also a chance for visitors to have a look around the historic building of the German embassy.”

Miroslav Krupička,  photo: Jan Vágner
The events at the West German embassy in Prague resonated in communist Czechoslovakia, too. The situation of the refugees, many of them families with children, was covered by the official media at the time and many saw these events as a sign that the totalitarian regime could crumble in their own country as well. Radio Prague’s editor in chief Miroslav Krupička, back then a young reporter with Czechoslovak Radio, recalls the atmosphere of the eventful summer 25 years ago.

“I remember those days were very hectic. Many Prague inhabitants came to see what was happening outside the German embassy. The little square in front of the building was packed, and it was really very hectic. The atmosphere was tense; there were plenty of policemen but they were surprisingly nice and calm and did not interfere when the East Germans were climbing the fence to get to the embassy garden. It was really something.”

Did you talk to any of the refugees?

“We did. Some of them were drinking, and they said, ‘we have to go through Prague because we cannot go through Hungary any more’. Everybody was waiting for the outcome of the East-West German talks. It was eventually resolved but the people were quite nervous.

I remember one interesting conversation I had with a young East German man who had left his Trabant car in a nearby street. He offered me the keys and said, ‘I’m not going back so you can have my car, and if you have anything to give me, like a bottle of wine, give it to me and my car is yours.’

Did you take it?

“No I didn’t. But the next day, we brought back some wine to the East Germans and we had a drink and a chat with them.”

The open day at the German embassy in Prague, which among other things features concerts, exhibitions, and reminiscences by witnesses of the exodus, is the first in a series of events marking the anniversary of the fall of communism in central and Eastern Europe.