Gyula Horn, a former leader of Hungary who in 1989 ripped a hole in the Iron Curtain, helping to set off months of tumultuous change in which communist governments in Eastern Europe fell one after the other, died Wednesday in Budapest. He was 80.
The Hungarian government announced the death. He had been hospitalized since 2007 with what was reported to be a brain malfunction.
Horn’s life encompassed much of the history of 20th-century Hungary. His father, a communist, was executed by the Nazis occupying Hungary in 1944. Gyula (pronounced JOO-la) also became a hard-line communist, serving in militia units that hunted down government opponents during their revolt in 1956. The rebels lynched his brother, also a communist.
As foreign minister, as Moscow’s grip on Eastern Europe slipped, Horn proved nimble as a newly minted, nonideological, pragmatic reformer in helping to lead Hungary away from communism. Elected prime minister as a socialist in 1994, he angered Hungarians by cutting social programs to stanch raging inflation.
Horn’s indelible image was a photograph taken of him and Alois Mock, the Austrian foreign minister, on June 27, 1989, cutting through once-electrified barbed wire on the border between their two countries. The men seemed to be tearing the Iron Curtain, the daunting symbol of the ideological rivalry and actual physical boundary between communist and non-communist Europe.
The truth was that the removal of the fence had begun two months earlier, because it was badly in need of repair. But the critical meaning of the stunt — which dozens of photographers were invited to document — was that it provoked no reaction in the Soviet Union, although it had tens of thousands of troops stationed in Hungary.
Horn said his purpose was to create “an irreversible situation.”
Events accelerated. East Germans, who had long gone to Hungary to meet with West German friends and relatives, refused to return home. The border police turned a blind eye when several hundred slipped across to Austria during a picnic Aug. 19. Three weeks after the picnic, Horn appeared on Hungarian television and announced that the East Germans were free to cross the border.
Two months later, the Berlin Wall was breached and communist dictatorships began to fall. In 1990, Horn was awarded the Charlemagne Prize — whose winners include Winston Churchill and Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president — for laying “one of the foundation stones for European unity.” The prize is given by the city of Aachen, Germany.
Gyula Horn was born July 5, 1932, in Budapest, the capital. The third of eight children, he was raised in a working-class district of the city. After the Gestapo killed his father, he went to work at 11 in manual labor jobs. In 1950 he was sent to Russia to study accounting at an economics institute. He returned to work in Hungary’s Finance Ministry.
He joined the Foreign Ministry in 1959 and served as a diplomat in Bulgaria and Romania before working his way up to deputy foreign minister in 1985 and foreign minister in 1989.
After Hungarians rebelled against the communist government in 1956, he joined a brigade that helped hunt down and arrest democratic activists. He never denied taking these actions, but said he had never hurt anybody. Nonetheless, two Hungarian presidents vetoed his nomination for high national awards in 2002 and 2007 because of his actions during and after the uprising.
In the 1970s, Horn worked cautiously to liberalize government controls in Hungary in an experiment that came to be known as “goulash communism.” As even that system collapsed, he was instrumental in transforming the Communist Party into the Hungarian Socialist Party. He became the party’s chairman in 1990.
He was elected to Parliament the same year and retained his seat until 2010. In the 1994 election, he led the Socialists to a majority. But in forming a government he included liberals as a way to reassure Hungarians and foreigners who were concerned that the former Communist Party might regain power. He stepped down after his party lost in 1998.
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