Transit of East German refugees through Prague remembered 25 years later

Photo: Czech Television

Twenty-five years ago, the West German Embassy in a normally quiet part of Prague’s Malá Strana became a refuge for hundreds of East Germans, desperately trying to escape from communism. On September 30 1989, they got the news they were hoping for, when West Germany’s foreign minister stood before them and announced they were free to emigrate to the West.

Photo: Czech Television
The East German exodus was triggered by a decision announced by Hungary in spring 1989 to take down the barbed wire on its border with Austria. A growing number of East Germans, who were unhappy with the political situation in their country, decided to take the opportunity – and Prague became a junction on their way to the West.

In September, the narrow streets of the city’s Malá Strana were flooded with abandoned Trabant and Wartburg cars, while their owners lived in dreadful conditions in a makeshift camp in the Embassy’s large gardens. Many Czechs, sympathetic to their plight, gave them food and drink, as well as blankets and other materials.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the West German Foreign Minister at that time, conducted negotiations with the governments of Czechoslovakia, East Germany and West Germany, who were increasingly alarmed by the situation.

Hans-Dietrich Genscher,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
In the evening of 30 September, Mr. Genscher appeared on the balcony of the Baroque West German Embassy and declared to the crowds in the garden below that they were allowed to leave for the West.

Before he could even finish his statement, the minister was interrupted by the cheering crowd.

One of the people who documented the event was photographer Antonín Nový, who was commissioned by the AP:

“It was one of the strongest moments of my life. When Mr. Genscher announced the news to the wretched people, it sent chills down my spine. Unfortunately, the balcony was badly lit and the people were barely visible. I used a telephoto lens to take the photo, which immediately appeared all around the world.

Antonín Nový,  photo: Gerald Schubert
“I am really proud that I took it despite the darkness. I couldn’t use a flash because of the distance, but it came out ok. It is one of my biggest professional successes and I could sense history was made at that moment. We didn’t know then what the consequences would be, that the Berlin wall would fall and Germany would be reunited and assume a new role in Europe.”

Mr Genscher, along with the current German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is in Prague on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the historic event. The German Embassy has also invited some 150 former refugees, who sought protection in its garden back in 1989.