Hungary Is Happy to Be Germany's Gatekeeper

Leonid Bershidsky

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a friendly meeting with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to celebrate an open border.

This may look like a great occasion to discuss how Orban’s current anti-immigrant stance has subverted the legacy of the Hungarians who opened the first breach in the Iron Curtain on August 19,  1989 –  months before the Berlin wall became useless. But history doesn’t lend itself to such facile juxtapositions. After all, both in 1989 and in 2015, during the recent refugee crisis, Hungary was merely a transit country for people seeking a better life.

In February 1989, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, one of the softest and most reform-minded Communist parties in the Warsaw Pact, decided to dismantle the fortifications on Hungary’s border with Austria. It intended to take two years to remove the electrified wires and other defenses. Yet after the Hungarian government made the policy public in May, something happened that neither the Hungarians nor the Austrians had expected: East Germans started traveling to Hungary en masse in hopes of crossing the border into Austria and then moving on to West Germany. 

At the same time, a group of Hungarian activists were working on a small-scale idea: a joint picnic for the Hungarian and Austrian residents of the border area to promote friendship and openness. Both countries’ governments were fine with opening a wooden gate on the border near the Hungarian city of Sopron for three hours on Aug. 19, to let people move back and forth so they could eat and drink together. But the East Germans crashed the party. 

Why exactly that happened on depends on whose story you hear. One thing is for sure: Leaflets had been distributed to East German “tourists” in Hungary, telling them about the picnic and the opportunity it provided to slip into Austria. The East German government would later accuse West German intelligence and Otto von Habsburg, a descendant of the Austro-Hungarian monarchs who at the time represented Germany in the European Parliament, of having spread the word. Hungarian activists did their part, though, and the Hungarian government, worried about the growing number of restless East Germans gathered on its territory, at least turned a blind eye. 

Since the border guard contingents had been weakened on picnic day, with just five guards present on each side, some of the East German “tourists” simply pushed past them into Austria even before the gate opened. By the time the picnic began, chaos reigned: Local activists had made the event popular, so more Hungarians than expected had arrived, and hundreds of Germans were attempting to mix in with the crowd. Arpad Bella, the commander of the Hungarian border guards, was worried about being blamed for the mess, but he let the Germans through – about 600 of them.

Like the opening of the Berlin wall on Nov. 9, 1989, what happened at the “Pan-European Picnic” was largely spontaneous; at  least, Laszlo Vass, the highest-ranking Hungarian official at the picnic, insisted there had been no plan to let the East Germans through to Austria. But after the event, it became clear that the rapidly liberalizing Soviet Union wouldn’t use its 60,000 troops in Hungary to punish the small country’s government for letting the refugees go, and in September, Hungary allowed thousands of the “tourists” to cross into Austria.

Orban’s Fidesz party, formed just a year before the picnic, was among the event’s organizers, so some of the gratitude for helping bring down the Iron Curtain, which Merkel expressed at the commemoration on Monday, is due to him. And yet Orban is one of the harshest critics of Merkel’s 2015 decision to open Germany’s borders to asylum seekers, mostly from Syria and Iraq, who had crossed the Mediterranean and were making their way to central and northern Europe from Turkey and Greece. Since these refugees swarmed into Hungary, Orban has fortified his country’s borders with Croatia and Serbia, made it illegal to help asylum seekers (the law is being challenged by the European Union) and turned applying for asylum in his country into a near-impossibility.

At the commemoration on Monday, Orban said this behavior is “completely compatible” with what happened 30 years ago. I find it hard to disagree. In 2015, Hungary initially bused the asylum seekers to the Austrian border; even later, when the busing stopped, the Hungarian authorities only ever wanted the “migrants” to leave without filing asylum applications there. That, essentially, was the Hungarian authorities’ approach in 1989, too: They wanted to be rid of a problem. On their part, the refugees – both East German in 1989 and Middle Eastern in 2015 – had no intention of staying in Hungary: Both groups wanted to go to Germany, where they hoped to find a better life.

The difference, of course, is that Hungarians were mostly sympathetic toward the East Germans in 1989 but not toward the Muslim newcomers in 2015. Hungary, with its long history of resisting the Ottoman Empire, has long seen itself as a bulwark against Muslim conquest, and it wasn’t just Orban who saw the refugee wave as yet another invasion. The cultural factor is important; for similar reasons, Poland’s nationalist government happily accepts Ukrainian immigrants but not Middle Eastern or North African ones. 

The discussion of xenophobia, however, overshadows a deeper truth. Smaller countries are often destabilized and overtaxed by political upheaval in bigger ones; both in 1989 and in 2015, tiny Hungary became an arena for German crises – one caused by East Germany’s inhumanity toward its citizens, another by the humanistic impulses of Merkel, a former East German. Hungary wasn’t equipped to handle either disruption – it was the innocent bystander thrust into the center of events by its geography. The world has changed dramatically, but Hungary the Soviet satellite was too poor to attract East German refugees – and Hungary the relatively recent EU member is still too poor for Middle Eastern asylum seekers to want to stay. 

So both in 1989 and in 2015, Hungary sent the refugees on their way. And when Orban built his fences on Hungary’s borders with Croatia and Serbia, he only did so out of fear that Germany would stop accepting the asylum seekers and saddle his government with them. Even before Merkel caught on to the toxic political fallout of her decision, Orban knew Germany soon would seek to limit the inflow, and so it did.

“We believe that we are the fortress captains of the Germans,” Orban said on Monday. In a way, he’s right: At least twice in a generation, Hungarians have served, willy nilly, as Germany’s gatekeepers. Only now, Germany doesn’t really want them to rupture the new Iron Curtain, the one between the world’s poor south and its affluent north. For all the official disapproval of Orban’s tough anti-immigration policies in Germany and in the EU, for all the distaste about his illiberalism and his clumsy propaganda, he’s just the guy at the door.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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