BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Gyula Horn, who as Hungary's last communist foreign minister ripped a hole in the Iron Curtain in 1989, has died at the age of 80 after long illness, the government said on Wednesday.
His decisions helped trigger off tumultuous months in which European communist regimes collapsed like dominoes, the Berlin Wall was trampled down and Soviet tanks prepared to rumble home from land they had occupied for nearly half a century.
For Horn, it was a breathtaking year in a career marked by paradoxes.
The man who helped dismantle the East Bloc was never forgiven by some of his countrymen for his role, long before, in helping to crush the 1956 Budapest uprising against Soviet domination.
And by 1994, Horn the former communist was back in power - as prime minister of the post-communist state.
Attila Mesterhazy, chairman of the opposition Socialists who are the main opposition to Hungary's ruling conservative Fidesz, on Wednesday paid tribute to his fellow-party member Horn.
"The modern Hungarian left has lost its most defining leader, Hungary has lost one of its most successful Prime Ministers, and Europe has lost one of the most lasting figures in the transition from communism," he wrote on his website.
Horn was foreign minister in the late 1980s as Hungary and other satellite states of Moscow began to exploit new freedoms under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
He and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock posed for cameras on June 27, 1989 to cut through a barbed wire frontier fence, in a largely symbolic act of rapprochement which had been planned months before.
Within weeks tens of thousands of East Germans, who travelled to Hungary with "tourist" visas, headed straight for the unfortified border and walked into the West.
The fall of East German communism and the process of German unification had been launched.
With dizzying speed, communist governments in the region succumbed to popular uprisings and sheer fatigue. Within a few years, the Soviet Union itself had evaporated.
In his memoirs, Horn himself recalls a meeting of his prime minister in 1989, Miklos Nemeth, with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to discuss the East German refugees in Hungary.
"Both of them were gripped by emotion when I said: I don't know how we will resolve their issue, but we certainly won't extradite them (back to East Germany)."
Horn and his party were ousted from power in 1990, but four years later he returned as prime minister, persuading Hungarians his party had split with its communist past.
He is credited with steering the country away from economic disaster in 1995 with austerity measures.
In 2007, then Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom declined to grant him an award on the occasion of his 75th birthday, citing his role as member of the "pufajkas", an armed unit in 1956-57 which helped in the bloody crushing of the uprising against Soviet rule.
Asked about his role in 1956, Horn said: "So what?"
The stocky, flint-faced Horn had a tough upbringing.
As a youth, he attended night school in Budapest while doing manual jobs by day. His father was executed as a communist by the Gestapo in 1944.
Communists took power after the war and Horn studied bookkeeping in the Soviet Union, then returned in 1954 to work in the finance ministry as a section head.
In the 1960s he was a diplomat in Bulgaria and Romania. He rose through the ranks to become head of the foreign affairs department of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party central committee, where reformers were starting to tinker with economic changes that decentralized decision-making.
As Hungary began moving away from orthodox Marxist ideology, the communist leadership began building up contacts with the West in the 1970s.
Horn said he began to question communism's future in light of the material and social conditions the West had to offer and began his conversion to a social democrat.
With Moscow's tacit support, Hungary legalized opposition parties and negotiated free elections in 1990.
In his later years, Horn's illness kept him out of public view, and he did not even attend the party organized by the Socialists for his 80th birthday. He was praised there as an central figure of the momentous era which saw the fall of communism.
Editing by Andrew Roche