Hungary marks first Iron Curtain breach

Hungary marks first Iron Curtain breach

Thirty years ago this week Hungarian border guards allowed hundreds of East German citizens to cross into Austria in the first large-scale breach of the Iron Curtain which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and German Chancellor Angela Merkel marked the first fall of the Iron Curtain in Sopron at the “Pan-European Picnic”, where around 600 East Germans entered Austria as border guards stood aside.

The event was held at the border crossing to protest against the fences dividing Europe.

“That was our second birthday,” said Hermann Pfitzenreiter, who took his wife and small children across the border.

“Erecting these walls and fences, it’s catastrophic,” said his wife Margarete. “As Germans, we belonged in Germany, but we had experienced the same unliveable life [as Syrian migrants]. I’d love to drop Viktor Orban on the other side so he feels what that is like.”

Orban’s populist government constructed a fence along Hungary’s southern border with Serbia after hundreds of thousands of migrants crossed Hungary in 2015 with many of them trying to reach Merkel’s Germany.

The Soviet-era Sopronkohida crossing was once part of the vast network of walls and fences of the Iron Curtain. It was mined on the Hungarian side and electrified. 

Arpad Bella, who ran the border at Sopron in August 1989, said he was busy with the Pan-European Picnic with hundreds of “Ossies” or East Germans.

“I could confront them and risk violence, or let them through and face the consequences,” he said. “Every border guard was sick of the task … We just wanted them gone.”

In the weeks after the picnic, thousands of East Germans ditched their cars in fields along the border and entered Austria. 

In less than a month, 60,000 East Germans were heading to West Germany through Austria. 

Dr Joszef Toka, a dentist, said his ethnic-German wife had not been able to see her relatives in West Germany until the Berlin Wall fell. 

But Toka made a distinction between the Cold-War fence and the contemporary barrier on the southern border with Serbia that keeps out largely Muslim migrants. “It is important to know that there are differences between building borders,” he said, echoing Orban’s anti-migrant approach. “There was a border between Europeans and Europeans . . . it is a good thing we are not letting Muslims in because these nations will never integrate into Hungarian society.” 


Hungary in 1989. Picture credit: Wikimedia 

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