Gyula Horn, a former Hungarian prime minister who helped trigger events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall when he symbolically cut the Iron Curtain in 1989, died Wednesday. He was 80.
Mr. Horn, who was the communist regime's last foreign minister and later embraced free-market policies including the sale of state assets to foreign investors as premier from 1994 to 1998, died at a hospital in Budapest after a prolonged illness, the government said on its website.
Mr. Horn's journey took him from a young communist militant who aided Soviet troops in crushing Hungary's uprising in 1956 to being a top diplomat who helped usher the country out of Moscow's sphere of influence and on a path to membership in the European Union and NATO.
His defining moment came June 27, 1989, when he joined Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock in cutting the fence separating the two countries, presaging the end of the Cold War.
The cutting ceremony, captured by television cameras, prompted tens of thousands of East Germans to go to Hungary in the hope of crossing over to Austria and then joining relatives in West Germany, on the other side of the Berlin Wall.
Lost in the symbolism of the event was the fact that the ministers actually cut the only remaining section of the Iron Curtain on the border as a decision had already been taken and carried out to disassemble the physical barrier. The images were also misleading because no official decision had been taken by Hungary to open its western border.
"They actually had to rebuild the fence on a 200-meter section so that they'd have something to cut through," Miklos Nemeth, Hungary's prime minister at the time, said in a 2009 interview with Naplo Online. "The only significance of that was that we could further test the tolerance" of the Soviets.
It worked. The first East German refugees crossed into Austria from Hungary on Aug. 19, 1989, during a civic gathering on the border that came to be known as the Pan-European Picnic. Tens of thousands followed after Sept. 10, 1989, when Mr. Horn announced on the evening news that Hungary would officially open its border the following day. The Berlin Wall came down two months later.
After Hungary's transition to democracy, Mr. Horn helped lead the Socialist Party, the successor to the communists, to power for the first time after the transition to democracy in 1994.
As premier, Mr. Horn sold state companies, devalued the forint, restricted imports and lured foreign investment, boosting growth and winning approval from business executives while alienating voters jolted by the vanishing social safety net they had grown accustomed to during four decades of communist rule.
"We are wiping away the last remnants of Kadarism and putting an end to the patronizing role of the state," Mr. Horn wrote in TIME magazine in 1996, in reference to long-time communist leader Janos Kadar. He added that he turned into "a European left-wing politician" as the communist system was "antidemocratic, against achievement and performance."
Born on July 5, 1932, into a poor, working-class family in Budapest, Mr. Horn started working as a fifth grader to make ends meet, according to his official biography on Parliament's website. His father was killed in 1944 by the Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazis, Hungary's allies during World War II.
In the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising, which started as a student movement and was later joined by Hungary's reformist communist government, Mr. Horn backed the Soviets, joining a local militia to put down the revolt. The same year, he became a member of the communist party led by Kadar, who was installed by Moscow and ruled Hungary until 1988.
Mr. Horn started his career in the Finance Ministry before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1959, rising through the ranks after diplomatic postings in Eastern Europe.