Vilém Prečan reflects on “The German Autumn in Prague, 1989”

Photo: archive of Czechoslovak Documentation Centre

In this week's Panorama, I am joined by Vilém Prečan, the chairman and founder of the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre. Along with photographer Karel Cudlín, he is the co-author of a new Czech-German book called Německý podzim v Praze 1989, or The German Autumn in Prague, 1989. This book chronicles a very particular set of events, namely the 1989 exodus of East Germans via the West German embassy in Prague, which ultimately led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Photo: archive of Czechoslovak Documentation Centre
I began by asking Vilém Prečan about the events that this book covers.

“I would like to begin by saying that the most important and valuable part of the book is the collection of photographs from these events that took place in Prague in 1989. The pictures were taken by a then young photographer, namely Karel Cudlín. So this is really a picture book, with some very important and moving and valuable photos.”

So we have Karel Cudlín’s photographs and you have written an accompanying text to these images. Tell us specifically about the events that are featured in there. There were a particular series of events that led to East Germans climbing up the walls of the West German embassy in Lobkowicz Palace, Prague.

“This phenomenon, meaning the exodus of the DDR [East] Germans to West Germany in the summer of 1989 first took place through Hungary. And then when the Czech-Hungarian border was shut, it thus became impossible for East Germans to get to Hungary through Czechoslovakia. It began after August 1989. And about September 29th, there were around 5,000 refugees in the building and in the garden of the West German embassy in Prague.”

It all began with Hungary’s communist government deciding to dismantle the Iron Curtain that divided the country from Austria. This hole now meant that as a result of the theoretical free movement permitted within Warsaw Pact countries, East Germans could cross over into Czechoslovakia, then from Slovakia into Hungary, then from Hungary to non-Soviet dominated Austria and ultimately West Germany. The notorious round trip led to major traffic jams as thousands fled East Germany hoping to join their brethren in the Western part of the country.

Here is David Vaughan explaining those events in a 2012 Radio Prague documentary:

Vilém Prečan,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“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 had declared its decision to take down the barbed wire on its borders 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.”

“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.”

Attempts by the East Germans to stem the flow by imposing visa requirements on travel to Czechoslovakia failed to plaster over the cracks appearing in the Iron Curtain. Fresh waves of East Germans were determined to reach the prosperous and democratic part of Germany. Vilém Prečan again:

“Then East Germany decided on September 29th to let the East Germans in Prague onto a train that would return to East Germany and then transfer the refugees through East Germany to West Germany. And this was the first wave of exodus that occurred on the evening of September 30th to the morning of October 1st. 6,300 people were involved. And the second wave came immediately after on the 4th November, with more than 8,000 East Germans again allowed to travel on East German trains through east Germany to West Germany.”

Photo: Karel Cudlín
“The [fact that this situation came about] was possible because the East Germans at that time could travel to Czechoslovakia without visas quite freely. But then East Germany then decided to close the border between their country and Czechoslovakia and only permit travel with visas. But then when [Erich] Honecker...”

Who was the leader of East Germany...

“...he was then replaced by Egon Krenz. And the internal crisis in East Germany continued to get worse and worse. They then decided to re-open the border to Czechoslovakia.”

Why is this viewed as such a critical event in the collapse of communist Eastern Europe?

“Let me also mention the third wave of this exodus. This was the week of the 3rd-10th November. The East German leadership allowed East Germans to travel from Prague or Czechoslovakia directly to West Germany. And between November 4-10th, 62,000 East Germans travelled through Czechoslovakia to West Germany. Often, thousands of cars, these Trabant vehicles, didn’t even head to Prague, but rather from the Czechoslovak border in Northern Bohemia they went directly to Bavaria.”

And you were living in West Germany at the time. Did you get the sense that this was the beginning of the end and that the Iron Curtain was finally coming down?

“Of course. We followed it very closely. Both in print and on television. It was a very exciting story. Viktor Mayer, a commentator with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote on November 8th that the Berlin wall exists only provisionally now, and one can bypass it by simply going around it through Czechoslovakia. The first break in the wall happened in Hungary. And the second one was Czechoslovakia.”

And the Czechoslovak Documentation Centre also held an exhibition in Vítkov, Prague from October to November which features photographs and information about this event. So this is something the Centre has chosen to specifically highlight this year on the 25th anniversary.

Photo: Karel Cudlín
“Yes. Both of these presentations are a by-product of a huge project on which we have been working for five years now. This examines the Czechoslovak-German relationship – meaning Prague-Bonn and Prague-East Berlin in the period of democratic revolutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe from 1989-90. This is a documentation complied from Czech and German archives and will be published by us in the spring of 2015 in both German and Czech.”