Twenty years ago today I arrived in Eastern Europe for the first time, crossing the border from Austria at just about exactly the moment Hungary's reform communist government announced it was letting the 60,000 East German refugees on its territory escape to Austria and on to West Germany.
I was back in Hungary recently and have a piece in today's Christian Science Monitor on the 20th anniversary of Budapest's decision to facilitate the East German exodus, an event which led to the opening of the Berlin wall two months later. Recent research suggests the decision was made with the tacit approval of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, but that nobody felt certain that there might not be a coup in Moscow or that Soviet troops in Hungary might react on their own to a provocation.
On my train from Vienna to Budapest on Sept. 10, 1989, that sense of uncertainty was palpable. At Vienna-Westbahnhof I had sat down in a compartment with an elderly man and his wife, but the man got off the train just before departure. He'd see his wife in when she next visited Austria. I recorded his explanation in my journal: "I left Hungary for good six months ago and I won't go back. There's no warranty that things won't return to the way they were. I just don't believe fundamental change an happen -- we don't have a Gorbachev."
I'd expected some sort of drama at the border -- it was supposed to be the Iron Curtain after all -- but the guards took little interest in a young American and his ample supply of luggage (I was 20 and on a university exchange program.) They were far more interested in questioning the Hungarian passengers, but even that seemed no more intimidating than at U.S. Customs. The Evil Empire's minions seemed to have lost their edge.
Arriving at night at Budapest-Keleti, the first person I met was a black market moneychanger, eager to change Hungarian forints for dollars at a rate several times higher than the official one. He threw in a taxi ride to my dormitory at the Karl Marx University of Economic Sciences for free, and was as honest and efficient as could be. As I'd soon learn, many people were eager to buy hard currency, not least the tens of thousands of East Germans in the country who suddenly had a chance to flee the Eastern Bloc for good.