The Refugees and the Picnic
The current Hungarian government has been peculiarly pissy toward the Syrian and other MidEast refugees trying to pass through Hungary on their way to Germany. This attitude contrasts interestingly with a different episode inolving refugees in Hungary just twenty-six years ago, an episode which had extraordinary consequences.
In those days of the Iron Curtain, the fortunate citizens of the Socialist Bloc were denied the privilege of leaving it. The borders of the Peoples' Democracies were mined, barb-wired, walled, and heavily patrolled by border guards with orders to shoot to kill. The Berlin Wall, referred to in East German poesy as "The Anti-Fascist Rampart." had been built in 1961 after 3.5 million eccentrics had abandoned the compulsory utopia of East Germany for the rigors of life in the oppressive, capitalist, imperialist West. Even after the Wall's construction, thousands more were arrested while trying to get out of East Germany, and 100 to 200 of them were killed in the attempt.
In late 1988, in the midst of economic difficulties, the orthodox Communists of Hungary's government compromised somewhat with reality, and named as Prime Minister the young economist Miklos Nemeth, who was more of a technocrat than an orthodox Marxist-Leninist. Nemeth reorganized the cabinet to include technocrats and colleagues from the reformist wing of the ruling MSZMP [Communist] party, most notably Gyula Horn, who became Foreign Minister. Hungarian citizens were already often permitted to travel to the West, and Nemeth and Horn were inclined to abolish the heavy, Iron Curtain control of the Austrian border. But they moved with caution, uncertain and fearful of the reaction from their overlord, the USSR. The progressive and peace-loving USSR, with 80,000 troops then stationed in Hungary, had after all sent its tanks before into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to fraternally assist them with their internal affairs.
In June, 1989, Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock posed for cameras as they cut through a barbed wire frontier fence, in a symbolic act of rapprochement between the two countries.
The USSR, under Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika, did nothing.Then, on August 19, the border near Sopron was officially opened temporarily for a "Pan-European Picnic." The Picnic was jointly sponsored by Imre Pozsgay, Minister of State of Hungary, and Otto von Hapsburg, an Austrian member of the European Parliament and descendent of the former monarchs of Austria-Hungary. For three hours, Austrians and Hungarians gathered together on a border meadow to enjoy camaraderie, speeches, and grilled sausages (or kolbasz in Hungarian). During that summer, thousands of visitors from the DDR (East Germany) and some from Romania had travelled to Hungary, ostensibly for "vacation" but actually in hopes of slipping across the border into Austria. Many showed up at the Picnic, and about 660 walked across the border, never to return.
A participant in the Picnic --- Laszlo Nagy --- later reminisced,
The few thousand guests of the popular feast, gave not much thought to the arguments that were going on in the background --- they did not pay much attention to it --- they were in a high mood, enjoying the picnic. They were cooking the gulyas, roasting the sausages, and gammon; there was beer, wine-and-soda, everything that could be wished for, while in the meantime the kilometer long barbed wire was slowly disappearing, having taken our slogan was taken very seriously: dismantle it and take it? Till heaven fell!
The force of heavens, a thunderstorm, brought the Picnic to the end, which would have gone on till morning. I got into my car quickly and started off for home. This was the time when I noticed the mass of abandoned Trabant and Wartburg cars, with the marking of DDR number plates on them, along the roadside, in the direction of the prisons towards Kohida. The owners of the cars were not to return to them.
The USSR did nothing.
The border remained only nominally policed afterward, and in subsequent days more East German vacationers arrived and enjoyed a holiday stroll into Austria. One supposes that many Hungarians living near the border suddenly came into possession of Trabant or Wartburg automobiles.
The USSR still did nothing.
Finally, on September 10, Gyula Horn officially opened the entire border between Austria and Hungary to ordinary travel. Thousands more East German refugees began pouring through Hungary into Austria. Gyula Horn told the East German government that international treaties on refugees took precedence over a 1969 agreement between Budapest and East Berlin that had proscribed freedom of movement.
The officials in East Berlin (and in Prague and Bucharest) turned blue with outrage, but there was nothing they could do. Mass demonstrations against the Communist governments gathered force in East Germany and in Czechoslovakia, and quickly became irresistable. In October, Erich Honecker, the universally detested boss of East Germany, was removed from all his Party and government positions. In early November, the Berlin Wall fell. In late November, the entire Praesidum of the Czechoslovak Communist Party resigned, and then the Party officially abandoned power. In December, Vaclav Havel was elected President of a free Czechoslovakia.
In Hungary, where this extraordinary sequence of events began, Gyula Horn and others led the transformation of the MSZMP into a normal Social-Democratic party in a multi-party, parliamentary democracy. As Foreign minister, in 1990 Horn negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. In 1994, he led his party (now named the Socialist Party) to a smashing parliamentary victory, winning 209 out of 386 seats. [This was, I think, the only victory by an ex-Communist party in a free election in Europe.] The party lost its majority in 1998, returned to power in coalition in 2002, but in 2010 was decisively defeated by the center-Right/populist Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orban.
Mr. Orban, a long-time nationalist politician and football enthusiast, is supervising the current, alternately confused and mean-spirited treatment of refugees from the MidEast trying to go through Hungary to Germany. The contrast of this disappointing performance --- one should perhaps call it Orban planning --- with the spectacular events of 1989 is unmistakable. Hungarians ought to be thoroughly embarrassed.