When the end finally came for the iron curtain, it was not bulldozers or hammers that struck one of the first decisive blows, but a picnic.
The iron curtain was a boundary that divided Europe from the end of the second world war in 1945 to the late 1980s/early 1990s, during the Cold War. The western side consisted of mostly democratic countries that sided with the United States or remained neutral, while the eastern side was connected to - or in most cases, part of - the Soviet Union (now Russia). Although the name "iron curtain" was meant to refer to a metaphorical divider, there were often physical borders separting the countries as well.
A map of Europe during the Cold War.
Thirty years ago today, on August 19, 1989, thousands of Hungarians and Austrians gathered at the border fence between the two countries, which also marked the dividing line between the Communist bloc and the west. They had come for a “pan-European picnic” of solidarity and friendship across the iron curtain, as momentum for political change increased and the eastern bloc regimes struggled to keep up with rising popular discontent.
They were joined by hundreds of East Germans who took the opportunity to rush across the border into Austria and from there to West Germany. Hungarian border guards declined to shoot, and in the subsequent weeks thousands more made the crossing. Three months later the Berlin Wall - which separated Berlin into a democratic west and Communist east - fell and the path to the end of communism in Europe and the continent’s unification was irreversible.
Today the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, will travel to Sopron, a Hungarian town near the border, to mark the event together with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Merkel, born in East Germany, has spoken repeatedly about the importance for her personally of the fall of the wall and the events leading up to it.
Thirty years after the opening of the border and the tearing down of the fence, it is hard not to view the symbolism of the event through the lens of the present. Merkel has been outspoken against present-day walls, both real and metaphorical, using a Harvard University commencement address this year to call on people to “tear down walls of ignorance and narrow-mindedness”, a thinly veiled disapproval of Donald Trump’s politics.
Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, is well-known for welcoming immigrants into the country.
Orbán, meanwhile, is the European champion of modern-day walls, having built his popularity in Hungary on promising to keep refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East out of Europe. His government constructed a fence along the country’s southern border with Serbia after hundreds of thousands of people crossed into Hungary in 2015, many of them with Merkel’s Germany as their final destination.
Orbán’s media empire railed against Merkel’s decision in 2015 to extend a welcome to those fleeing war, and he has been the most extreme of the many anti-migration politicians in central Europe, warning of a Muslim “invasion” of Europe and calling for strongly guarded borders.
Hungary's prime minister, Viktor Orbán, holds a hardline stance on immigration and has declared his fear of a 'Muslim invasion of Europe'.
“I had an uncle who escaped in 1956 and most of us knew the terrible things that had happened on the border, so it was very exciting to cut down the iron curtain,” said Ditte Preznánszky, who was a 22-year-old languages student in Budapest in 1989 and who attended the picnic on a bus arranged by a summer camp she was attending. Pliers were handed out and people set about dismantling the fence, which until not long before had been electrified.
Nowadays there is heavy traffic in both directions across the border. Sopron is well-known in the region for dental tourism, with Germans and Austrians travelling to the town to receive cut-price treatment, while thousands of Hungarians go the other way in search of higher salaries.