Hungarian lake resort helped reunify Germany

Wed Nov 25, 2009 11:26am EST
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By Marton Dunai

ZANKA, Hungary (Reuters) - They called it the "Plattensee" (flat sea), and for Germans from both sides of the Berlin Wall, Hungary's Lake Balaton was close, cheap and mostly free of spies.

No one knew then their 1960s lakeside holidays would set in motion events that helped bring down the wall dividing them.

As the world recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and Germany's reunification, Hungarians on the scenic shores of central Europe's biggest lake recalled the decades when crowds of East and West Germans vacationed here, just to be together.

"A West German family of three would rent a four-bedroom house," said Csaba Sall, a local travel agent. "A few days later, we would see three cars in the garden and 10 people on the patio: the eastern relatives."

East Germans started to flock to Hungary after the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 to exploit easy visa regulations and security laxer than almost anywhere in the communist bloc.

"The German decision to seal off the borders coincided with an easing of travel policy in Hungary," said Janos Rainier, a historian who directs the 1956 Institute in Budapest.

The Institute studies the events leading to and following Hungary's failed 1956 revolution against Soviet rule.

"After the 1956 uprising, Hungarians relaxed rules to soothe tensions," Rainier said, noting that hundreds of thousands of Hungarians fled to the West in 1956, leaving relatives behind.   Continued...

<p>A West German family, the Heusers, and their east German friends, the Szirmai family, pose for a picture at Lake Balaton in Hungary in this 1987 file photo. REUTERS/Deutsche Einheit am Balaton CBE/Handout</p>