Thirty years ago today, the freedom to travel outside of the “brotherly” Socialist countries and Soviet bloc finally became a reality for ordinary Czechoslovaks, as part of a last-ditch series of measures taken by the Communist Party in a futile bid to retain power.
The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 had signalled to other Soviet satellite states – including Czechoslovakia – that independence from Moscow was perhaps truly a possibility, as the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev had promised.
A few days before the violent crackdown on the November 17 student protest, which would spark the Velvet Revolution, Communist Prime Minister Ladislav took the first of many half-measures in a futile bid to mollify the public and cling to power.
In a November 14 speech to the legislature, he announced citizens would no longer need exit visas to visit Western countries, pledging to lift the travel restrictions in December, as the American television station NBC reported:
“There is a clear sign tonight that hard-line Czechoslovakia now is beginning to give; that it is feeling the dramatic changes taking place in East Germany next door. Today, Czechoslovakia decided to loosen the reins on its people, making it easier for them to travel…”
On December 4, 1989, the government abolished exit visas, although the Communists insisted on issuing special cards for “statistical purposes only”, as one official put it. But the floodgates had opened. After over 40 years, any Czech or Slovak with a valid passport was free to travel.
In a show of good will, Austria temporarily abolished visa requirements for Czechoslovakia, and it was to that country where many took their first journey West, such as this Slovak man:
“I have two children and I want to show them something. … I have no money, nothing, but I want to see Austria. I still can’t believe they let me in.”
Czechoslovak customs officer Marián Novák had, understandably, never seen anything like it.
“So far today 1,600 people –Czechoslovak citizens – have crossed the border. There were more than 800 passenger cars with Czechoslovak licence plates, plus a dozen buses.”
Even then, the state might not permit the journey, explains historian Pavel Mücke of the Institute for Contemporary History.
“The Czechoslovak regime, of course, used the issuance of exit visas as an instrument of repression and opponents – both real and imagined.”
Travel visas were typically valid for at most 20 days, stated the journey’s purpose and to which specific countries the holder could go.
Historian Pavel Mücke notes the regime was far more concerned about the issuance of exit visas after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“They became concerned any resident of Czechoslovakia with a passport could in theory remain abroad. Because there was a large exodus after 1968.”
That said, exit visas were relatively easy to receive, Karel Pokorný, who in 1969 immigrated to West Germany with his wife and infant son, told the Memory of the Nation project..
“The authorities would work with you ... All we needed was an invitation from my wife's cousin to get exit visas. You just had to present an invitation, even a fake one.”
That said, officials could make life difficult for the family members of those who did not return. And the risks of getting caught were a massive deterrent.