You can drive to one of the most historically significant memorials in Europe in under an hour from where we are staying in Eastern Austria. And yet most of us will be unfamiliar with the name – Sopron, a small Hungarian town just a few kilometres from the Austrian border.
In 1989 the Soviet Union was in trouble. The failing economies of Russia and its satellite countries were leading to the rapid collapse of state socialism. Former satellite nations Poland and Hungary were leading agents of change in East and Central Europe. President Gorbachev was a fresh face in the Kremlin who refused to continue funding the satellite nations. The entire USSR was bankrupt.
The communist leaders in Berlin became prisoners of their own policies and their citizens whom they had held hostage. More and more East Germans were attempting to escape to the West and were gathering in large numbers in Hungary. Their hopes had been raised by discussions between Hungary and Austria on dismantling the Iron Curtain. There were rumours that Austria could be reached by a short walk. But illegal border traffic continued to be stopped by border patrols. The opposition in Sopron promoted the idea of a Pan European Picnic and spread the word that it would commence at 3pm on the 19th August 1989. Large numbers of refugees from East Germany appeared, walking and driving little Trabants, and before the official start spontaneously broke through the border. The Hungarian border guards whose superiors had left them, did not try to stop the refugees. Hundreds of people forced their way across the border and freedom. Later the border guards once again imposed border controls and the crossing stopped. But the damage was done.
The news was instantly relayed around the world. Chancellor Helmut Kohl said, “The Hungarians have removed the first stone from the Berlin wall”. And it was just a few months later that East Berliners made their own first steps to break down the Berlin wall and paved the way for German reunification, which formally took place on 3 October 1990.
Today the site of the Pan-European Picnic is a memorial park right next to the border crossing. The park must be hundreds of acres in size and includes pictorial records, a reconstruction of part of the old wall, walking trails and statues. Every year there are commemoration picnic events. The largest in 2009 was attended by Angela Merkel who thanked the Hungarians for their courage saying, “Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement… and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans’ desire for freedom.”
Yet as we walked around the park we pondered on how today as the world embraces nationalism there are walls appearing in many places including the USA, UK, Israel and even Hungary to name just a few. Some are physical, some are virtual, but they are a manifestation of the desire to reverse the trend for international cooperation. And the events of 1989 are almost forgotten!
We drove across the border back into Austria remembering that for now we were crossing between two EU countries with no hindrance. The same can be said for the nine borders that we crossed, some of them multiple times during our travels – Ireland, Wales, England, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Lichtenstein and Hungary.
Coda from the Eagles:
Cruisin’ down the centre of a two way street, Wondering who is really in the driver’s seat
Mindin’ my business along comes big brother, Says, “Son you better get on one side or the other”. Oh oh, I’m out on the border, I’m walkin’ the line, Don’t you tell me ’bout your law and order. I’m try’n’ to change this water to wine,
Never mind your name, just give us your number, Never mind your face, just show us your card, And we want to know whose wing are you under, You better step to the right or we can make it hard, Oh ooh, I’m stuck on the border, All I wanted was some peace of mind, Don’t you tell me ’bout your law and order, I’m try’n’ to change this water to wine