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Escaping from Hungary’s Iron Curtain


In 1956 Hungary was separated from the West by what was a believed-to-be impenetrable structure. Churchill called it the ‘Iron Curtain’.

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘Iron Curtain’ has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe… All these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.” – Winston Churchill, 5 March 1946

Built in 1949 at the start of the Cold War the curtain had the ostensible purpose of keeping ‘imperialist agents’ from sneaking in and endangering a country saved from the greed of capitalism. In truth it was built to prevent escape attempts by the thousands upon thousands who had had enough of the great Socialist, and, eventually Communist-built, ‘promised land’. 

In the first six months of 1956, at the apex of Communist terror, seven hundred escape attempts were successfully thwarted by the Iron Curtain: an overwhelming military presence with machine gun towers at every mile, trained dogs, and a 10-foot-wide freshly ploughed strip of grass riddled with land mines between two eight-foot-tall barbed wire fences.

Nobody escaped.

Some were blown up by landmines, some were shot as they approached the barbed wire fence, and others were just caught, imprisoned, and sent to the gulags never to return.

But on Friday 13 July everything changed.

Seven desperate young Hungarians, myself included, successfully penetrated the impenetrable Iron Curtain on that day. We escaped to the West, carrying out our spectacular – and unbelievable – plan by going over the curtain, rather than through it.

Failure would mean certain death. Success would eventually lead to both personal freedom in the West and also indirectly to the Hungarian Uprising just a few months later. When we landed on the other side a chorus of Western media called it the ‘greatest escape during the Cold War’, and a ‘free for all to freedom’.

In our flight to freedom we demonstrated that tyrants are not invincible. The Iron Curtain, which the Communists considered impregnable, had ultimately failed its mission of sealing the twentieth century slave camp known as Hungary, from the West.

By Frank Iszak

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