That’s a famous balcony.
The balcony on the second floor facing the back gardens doesn’t look particularly special. But here in the Czech capital city of Prague there’s an important connection between that building’s balcony and events leading to the fall of the Wall. This building is also the German Embassy, and it’s where Hans-Dietrich Genscher looked over the crowds from the balcony and made a famous speech in 1989.
Escaping East Germany: 30 September 1989
All over eastern Europe, decades-old communism was beginning to collapse.
In May, Hungary had begun removing parts of the their wall, but under the pretense of a “Pan-European Picnic” near the town of Sopron in August, the country opened its border with Austria for three hours, allowing hundreds of east Germans free passage into western Europe. Hungary would eventually open their borders for good in mid-September.
The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic (Czechoslovakia) was the “bridge” connecting East Germany with West Germany’s Bavaria, and Czechoslovakia’s capital city of Prague was also home to the West German Embassy.
Eventually, thousands of East Germans crossed the East German-Czechoslovak border, arrived in Prague, and streamed into the gardens of the West German Embassy. An estimated 4000 East Germans occupied the cramped gardens, and living conditions deteriorated quickly. For all, the goal was one and the same: they all wanted to head west and they needed permission to leave.
Negotiations ensued between the two German states, including also the United Nations. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor of West Germany, arrived at the West German Embassy in Prague to deal with the growing crisis and address the crowds of East German refugees. Murmurs from those camped on the grounds grew louder in excited anticipation. In the evening, Genscher stepped out onto the upper balcony; calls for silence gave him an opportunity to speak.
Wir sind zu Ihnen gekommen, um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass heute Ihre Ausreise in die Bundesrepublik Deutschland möglich geworden ist. (We’ve come here today to tell you your departure to West Germany has been approved.)
Genscher never made it past the twelfth word, “Ausreise“, the only word the crowd needed to hear.
Genscher’s remaining words were immediately drowned out to deafening shouts of joy, disbelief, relief, and applause. In the following days, special trains were brought in to bring East German refugees from Prague directly to West Germany.
East German leader Erich Honecker said: “Wir weinen niemandem eine Träne nach, der das Land verlassen will” (We won’t shed a tear for anyone who leaves the country.) which was also quoted in the East German state paper “Neues Deutschland”. Later that November, the Berlin Wall fell.
Present day: no need to escape
I’m standing against a tall metal security fence on the muddy track separating the city’s public green space at the bottom of Petřín hill from the land belonging to the German Embassy. I’m lurking at the back of the embassy, pointing my camera through the fence.
It’s hard to believe I’m the only one here, at least for the time being. I’m surprised I haven’t already been flanked by guards, wondering what the hell I’m doing here. If I tried to make a run for it, I’d be trapped between a hill and a hard fence.
No matter, the expected guards don’t come. The only people who arrive are additional curious visitors from other parts of the world.
Czech artist David Černý created the sculpture “Quo Vadis?” (Where are you going?) to pay tribute to the thousands of East German who sought refuge in Prague. The sculpture is a Trabant car on four legs. Once a ubiquitous symbol of industrial productivity in East Germany, hundreds of Trabants were left behind in Prague as East Germans made their way to the West.
2014 marks the 25th anniversary of Genscher’s famous speech in Prague, and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.
My approximate translation
“Wir sind zu Ihnen gekommen, um Ihnen mitzuteilen, dass heute Ihre Ausreise in die Bundesrepublik Deutschland möglich geworden ist.”
On 30 September 1989, West Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher stood on the balcony of the Lobkowicz Palace, and with these words, announced to almost 4000 refugees permission to travel into West Germany. Three months later communism was no more in Czechoslovakia, and former dissident Václav Havel would be elected as the new president.
The Trabant sculpture “Quo Vadis” by David Černý is a reminder of the events in the autumn of 1989. The original sculpture is in the collection of the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum (of Contemporary History) in Leipzig, Germany.
Built Baroque style in 1702, the palace was owned by the bohemian aristocratic Lobkowicz family since 1753. Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber once performed concerts under the palace’s domed hall. The palace was sold by the Lobkowicz family to the Czechoslovakian state in 1927, and has been the site of the German Embassy since 1974.
CZ: Velvyslanectví Spolkové Republiky Německo
DE: Botschaft der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
EN: Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany
Directions to Cerny’s Trabi sculpture “Quo Vadis?”
Walk uphill on Vlašská street in Prague’s Malá Strana. When a hospital (Nemocnice Milosrdných Sester sv. Karla Boromejského v Praze) appears on the right and an open portal to a children’s park is on the left, make a left turn from Vlašská onto the path to walk past the park. At the end of the path, turn left again. The high metal fence of the German Embassy will be on your left, and the foot of Petřín hill is on the right. After walking halfway along the fence, you’ll see the sculpture “parked” in the back garden with accompanying signage in Czech and German.
More from 30 September 1989
• A personal account from Christian Seebode (in English). I’m grateful to his son, Georg, for the link and reference.
• 4-minute summary of events at the West German Embassy in Prague, video in German.
• Tagesschau nightly West German news broadcast, on 30 Sept. 1989, video in German.
• The aftermath, train(s) to freedom (Zug in die Freiheit): on MDR, in German.
• Genscher returns to the German Embassy in Prague in 2014 for 25th anniversary, on ARD’s Tagesschau, video in German.
I made the five photos above on 17 March 2010. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.