Gyula Horn, Hungary Leader Who Cut Iron Curtain, Dies at 80

Gyula Horn, a former Hungarian prime minister who helped trigger events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall when he symbolically cut the Iron Curtain in 1989, has died. He was 80.

Horn, who was the communist regime’s last foreign minister and later embraced free-market policies including the sale of state assets to foreign investors as premier from 1994 to 1998, died at a hospital in Budapest after a prolonged illness, the government said on its website yesterday.

Horn’s journey took him from a young communist militant who aided Soviet troops in crushing Hungary’s uprising in 1956 to being a top diplomat who helped usher the country out of Moscow’s sphere of influence and on a path to membership in the European Union and NATO.

His defining moment came on June 27, 1989, when he joined Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock in cutting the fence separating the two countries, presaging the end of the Cold War.

“Horn was one of the most well-known and well-respected Hungarian politicians of the past several decades,” Laszlo Kovacs, who served as Horn’s foreign minister between 1994 and 1998, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Horn was a great proponent of ending communism and of tearing down the Iron Curtain, even if he wasn’t the one who made the ultimate decisions.”

The cutting ceremony, captured by television cameras, prompted tens of thousands of East Germans to go to Hungary in the hope of crossing over to Austria and then joining relatives in West Germany, on the other side of the Berlin Wall.

Rebuilt Fence

Lost in the symbolism of the event was the fact that the ministers actually cut the only remaining section of the Iron Curtain on the border as a decision had already been taken and carried out to disassemble the physical barrier. The images were also misleading because no official decision had been taken by Hungary to open its western border.

“They actually had to rebuild the fence on a 200-meter section so that they’d have something to cut through,” Miklos Nemeth, Hungary’s prime minister at the time, said in a 2009 interview with Naplo Online. “The only significance of that was that we could further test the tolerance” of the Soviets.

It worked. The first East German refugees crossed into Austria from Hungary on Aug. 19, 1989, during a civic gathering on the border that came to be known as the Pan-European Picnic. Tens of thousands followed after Sept. 10, 1989, when Horn announced on the evening news that Hungary would officially open its border the following day. The Berlin Wall came down two months later.

Horn “cut open the Iron Curtain that had been dividing Europe for 40 years,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement yesterday. “When he a short time later announced that thousands of citizens of the former East Germany would be allowed to leave Hungary for the West, he ensured his place in the history books.”

Socialist Leader

After Hungary’s transition to democracy, Horn helped lead the Socialist Party, the successor to the communists, to power for the first time after the transition to democracy in 1994.

As premier, Horn sold state companies, devalued the forint, restricted imports and lured foreign investment, boosting growth and winning approval from business executives while alienating voters jolted by the vanishing social safety net they had grown accustomed to during four decades of communist rule.

“We are wiping away the last remnants of Kadarism and putting an end to the patronizing role of the state,” Horn wrote in TIME magazine in 1996, in reference to long-time communist leader Janos Kadar. He added that he turned into “a European left-wing politician” as the communist system was “antidemocratic, against achievement and performance.”

Born on July 5, 1932, into a poor, working-class family in Budapest, Horn started working as a fifth grader to make ends meet, according to his official biography on Parliament’s website. His father was killed in 1944 by the Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazis, Hungary’s allies during World War II.

1956 Role

In the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, which started as a student movement and was later joined by Hungary’s reformist communist government, Horn backed the Soviets, joining a local militia to put down the revolt. The same year, he became a member of the communist party led by Kadar, who was installed by Moscow and ruled Hungary until 1988.

Horn started his career in the Finance Ministry before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1959, rising through the ranks after diplomatic postings in Eastern Europe.

While not image-conscious -- Horn was a chain-smoker, tended to mumble and wore a head-brace for months following a car accident in 1994 -- he cultivated his place in history as the leader who pierced the Iron Curtain, drawing criticism from historians and peers for inflating his role.

Four months before the symbolic fence-cutting ceremony in 1989, Nemeth, speaking in the Naplo interview, said he traveled to Moscow to meet Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and told him that the border with Austria would be opened. The dismantling started immediately after his return, Nemeth said.

Charlemagne Prize

The official opening of the border, in September, was delayed by a few days because Nemeth rescheduled it after officials including Horn leaked the date, Naplo said.

“Gyula was desperate, he thought that meant he wouldn’t be the one making the announcement,” Nemeth said, according to Naplo. “I calmed him down and said I’d keep my promise.”

Horn was awarded the Charlemagne Prize in 1990, presented to individuals for the “most valuable contribution in the services of Western European understanding and work for the community, and in the services of humanity and world peace.”

At home, the last public event Horn attended was a party for his 75th birthday in 2007 in Budapest, where Gorbachev was among the guests. Days earlier, then-President Laszlo Solyom rejected giving a state award to Horn, citing the former premier’s lack of remorse about his actions in the anti-Soviet uprising.