The Berlin Wall and the East-West divide it signified seemed as unassailable as ever that late summer evening. Then came a terse announcement by Hungary's communist government.
The message from Foreign Minister Gyula Horn on Sept. 10, 1989 - five years ago Saturday - was a bombshell. Hungarian border guards would permit any East German refusing to go home to his police state to head for freedom in the West.In makeshift refugee camps harboring thousands of East Germans, silent anticipation gave way to whoops, tears, popping champagne corks and joyful embraces.
Soon, the road to the Austrian border and the coveted West, less than 120 miles away, was choked by a miles-long convoy of rickety East German cars.
Few foresaw that the human flood who crossed that night was the crest of a wave that would soon sweep away the Iron Curtain. The Soviet bloc's communist regimes began falling soon after - first East Germany, then Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.
Philip Kaiser, a former U.S. ambassador to Hungary, called Hungary's bold decision "the start of the disintegration process of the whole communist system."
Hungary's decision to open the borders was daring. The Hungarians were siding with a NATO country, West Germany, against their East German allies. It was unclear how Moscow would react, even though Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had paved the way for reform.
And though Polish Communists were making reluctant concessions to the Solidarity movement and the Catholic Church, other hard-line East European leaders were resisting reform with the iron will of the dying.
Hungary's ambassador to West Germany, Istvan Horvath, recalls much of the decision making.
"On the one hand, we were determined to let the East Germans go, but, on the other, we had no idea how the Warsaw Pact would react," he told The Associated Press. "Keep in mind that Soviet troops were still stationed in Hungary . . . and, equally important, the West showed no interest in upsetting the status quo."
"We informed the Soviets only on the last day," Horn wrote in his autobiography. "Our not including the Soviets allowed them to not have to take a position."
Over the summer, East Germans emboldened by Hungarian reforms had streamed to Budapest in hopes of using it as a springboard to the West.
Hungary began dismantling the barbed wire along its border to Austria in May. By September, about 6,000 East Germans had crossed the border illegally, with Hungary turning a blind eye. The word spread.
On Aug. 25, 1989, Hungarian officials told West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl they would allow all East Germans free passage.