August 23, 1989: The East German Refugees in Prague

The Cold War that ensued after World War II partitioned Europe into East and West, with an Iron Curtain cutting right through Germany.

The division of East and West Germany culminated in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Many East German refugees died during attempts to cross directly into West Germany, and as a result, people began to look to third countries to reach the West.

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.

For several weeks, around 4,000 people lived in its garden and adjacent streets in makeshift conditions.

In the following days, Red Cross was brought in and tents were set up as the number of people in the embassy garden grew.

Deliverance from this bleak situation came on 30 September, when, after several rounds of talks with representatives of the GDR, the USSR and Czechoslovakia, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the West German foreign minister, delivered his legendary “balcony speech”: “Dear fellow Germans, we have come to you to tell you that today, your departure…” The rest was drowned out by cheering. The path to the West was free.

This historic moment spelled the symbolic start of peaceful revolutions in the states of Central and Eastern Europe. For the GDR it ushered in the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, while for Czechoslovakia it became an important impetus towards overthrowing its communist regime with the Velvet Revolution.

A crowd of refugees in front of the Lobkowicz Palace on Vlašská St. Oldřich Krutský 1989-09

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