David T C Davies MP: Conservatives fought for the freedom of countries such as Hungary – we should be proud
David T C Davies is the Member of Parliament for Monmouth and Chairman of the Welsh Affairs select committee. Follow David on Twitter.
If it weren’t for the fall of the Berlin Wall, I would not have met my wife. This claim is a funny place to start discussing core conservatism, but true nonetheless. 1989 was also a crucial moment in forming my, and many others, political beliefs.
The wall may have fallen in Berlin but the first tear in the Iron Curtain took place 100 miles south on the border between Hungary and Austria. Last month I walked the site with an ex-border guard, a friend of my Hungarian in-laws, who presented me with a piece of the very barbed wire that was cut away, allowing East Germans their first taste of freedom.
It’s a symbol of why my generation were first inspired to join the Conservative Party, as defenders of freedom in party that set itself firmly against Communist totalitarianism.
The Hungarians, who had begun to open up their economy and embrace pluralism, stepped up their involvement in the politics of the wall at the start of ’89. Centre right politicians like Otto Von Habsburg, then an Austrian MEP, a young Hungarian dissident, Viktor Orbán, and others organised the protest which became known as the Pan-European Picnic in Sopron, Hungary. It was this event which tore a gaping whole through the Iron Curtain and helped being down Communism across Eastern Europe later that year.
In the fields facing the Austrian border, gathered thousands of East Germans. They had travelled on the pretext of going on holiday in another Communist state, but had decided to abandon their homes to make a bid for freedom in the West.
Knowing what would await them if they returned to East Germany they congregated along the border and refused to leave.
Back in East Berlin, the tired old men who had imprisoned their own people for 40 years began to realise that the game was up. On November 9th, in a last bid to head off defeat, the DDR announced that the travel restrictions which had divided a city and a nation would end, not realising that within hours of the announcement thousands of East Berliners would descend on the border points, queuing through the night, demanding to cross to the West.
Lacking orders, guards eventually let them through. The subsequent scenes that night, of a city coming together, defined 1989 – signalling the end of the cold war, the defeat communism and the triumph of freedom.
The guards on the German borders were fatally weakened by the incident in Sopron, with Chancellor Kohl later acknowledging that ‘it was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the wall.’
We Conservatives should remember our own contribution to these events. Though it was controversial at the time Margaret Thatcher stood shoulder to shoulder with Ronald Regan in saying that there would be no compromise with Communism.
Margaret Thatcher is rightly remembered for pioneering economic policies which, though unpopular at the time, were subsequently adopted across the world by governments of left and right. But her foreign policy achievements were, if anything even more impressive.
Her determination to stand up to the Soviet block was in marked contrast to the attitude of the British left who talked of withdrawal from NATO and demanded we give up our nuclear deterrent. Representatives of the repressive East European states were welcome guests at Labour Party conferences until well into the 1980s.
Those of us who campaigned for the Conservatives at the time should take a little pride in our determination to stand against this. I, for one, will always be proud to call myself a Thatcherite.
The fields of Sopron were largely empty last month, and all that remains of the border is a little section as a monument. My children ran happily backwards and forward between Hungary and Austria. Not so long ago anyone doing that would have been liable to be shot.
The fall of Communism has benefited so many in different ways.
That ever present fear of a full-scale nuclear war, which my generation grew up with, dissipated as the wire was cut.
The young freedom fighter Viktor Orbán is now the President of a free Hungary.
And, in subsequent years, a new generation of young East European students was able to take the opportunity to travel freely and see the world. One of their number came to the UK as an au pair for a local family and ended up as my wife!
The Conservative Party has an incredible record of fighting successfully for democracy and freedom across the world. We should celebrate it.