September 30 marks 20th anniversary of dramatic announcement that East German refugees in Prague could emigrate to West

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, September 30 1989, photo: CTK

Two decades ago the attention of the world’s media was on the West German Embassy in a normally quiet corner of Prague, where thousands of East Germans were living in a makeshift camp, desperate to escape from communism. On the 30th of September, 1989 the then West German foreign minister made a dramatic announcement: those refugees were free to emigrate to the West.

The international media followed closely the arrival of West German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher at his country’s embassy in Prague’s Lesser Quarter on the evening of September 30th 1989. His dramatic intervention had been prompted by a kind of surreal refugee crisis, with thousands of East Germans living in dreadful conditions on the embassy grounds. Many had abandoned Trabants on the narrow streets nearby, and some had been camped there for several weeks. Among the refugees was David Altheide, who was 10 years old at the time.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher,  September 30 1989,  photo: CTK
“It was completely incredible. What we saw when we arrived and looked into the embassy garden reminded me of a Western movie with cowboys and Indians. There were big tents all over the garden, there was a lot of smoke, and loads of dishevelled looking people emerging from the tents. It was really like a Red Indian camp.”

Professor Vilém Prečan is a Czech historian and the editor of a new collection entitled To Freedom through Prague.

“The German Red Cross took care of them. It was desperate, the fear of an epidemic and so on. It was an exhausting, stressful situation, physically and psychologically.”

The West German Embassy garden in September 1989,  photo: CTK
With the governments of Czechoslovakia, East Germany and West Germany growing increasingly alarmed by the situation, Hans-Dietrich Genscher conducted last minute negotiations, before appearing on the balcony of his country’s embassy. The East German refugees erupted into cheers even before he could finish his historic announcement that they were free to emigrate to the West.

Professor Vilém Prečan recalls their reaction.

“They applauded, they were happy. But when they were told that they had to go to West Germany through GDR territory, it was another shock for them. [Genscher] had a great deal to do to persuade them that they didn’t need to worry.”

That same night more than 6,000 refugees began their journey to West Germany. By the time the final transport took place, around 80,000 East Germans had emigrated in this way.

It was a decision by the Hungarian authorities in May 1989 to no longer guard the country’s border with Austria that started the process that ended with the East German exodus. With the Soviet Union going through glasnost and perestroika, the communist system throughout Eastern Europe was beginning to unravel. Professor Prečan continues.

The GDR citizens are getting over the wall of the West German Embassy,  photo: CTK
“The exodus of East Germans speeded up the actual political crisis in the country, the GDR. It was a domino effect too. After the collapse of East Germany there were no allies for the hardliners in Czechoslovakia – no one.”

Those Czechoslovak communist hardliners were forced aside in the second half of November with the Velvet Revolution. By that time, of course, the Berlin Wall had fallen and East Germans were free to travel wherever they liked.