The Wrong & Right Side of the Middle – Hungary & Austria from 1867 to the Present

Fertorakos is a small village on the Hungarian side of the country’s border with Austria. It is hard to get much further west in Hungary than here. It is also a place to contemplate why Hungarians have been the lesser partner in their historic relationship with the Austrians. In one sense this is understandable since the Habsburgs ruled over parts or all of Hungary for over three hundred years. This was mainly due to the cataclysmic one-hundred and sixty year Ottoman Turkish occupation of middle and lower Hungary in the 16th and 17th centuries. The relationship between the Hungarians and the Austrians did not begin to change until the latter half of the 19th century. After the Austrians suffered a stinging defeat to Prussia in 1866, they chose to offer the Hungarians an equal partnership. In 1867 the Dual Monarchy was created. Suddenly, the Hungarians were in the ascendant, while the Habsburg led Austrians were just trying to keep the empire afloat.

Austria-Hungary - common coat of arms

Austria-Hungary – common coat of arms

Deals With the Devil – From a Golden Age to World Wars
Over the next 50 years Budapest boomed. It was the fastest growing city in Europe, a hive of economic and cultural activity. Meanwhile, Vienna’s glittering reputation was beginning to fade, beset by the dark forces of radical ideologies and counter-culture. The aristocracy tried to fight off the vicissitudes of mass suffrage, labor movements and democratic socialism. Darker forces lurked on the fringes. There is a reason Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin both spent time in Vienna during 1913. Meanwhile, Hungary became the breadbasket of the Dual-Monarchy, its fertile lands feeding the Empire. Even in smaller, out of the way places, Hungary’s vast natural resources were supporting the Austrians. Vienna, that sparkling showpiece of Central Europe, had two massive construction projects, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the famed Ringstrasse built from stone quarried in Fertorakos.  As Hungary experienced a belle époque (Golden Age) from 1867 up to the outbreak of World War One, the Austrians watched their power dwindle. The end of the Habsburg’s as a ruling dynasty seemed as though it might not be far away.

Nevertheless, World War One put an end to the short, meteoric ascent of Hungary. History turned again. Two-thirds of historic Hungary’s population and people were taken away due to the provisions of the post-war Treaty of Trianon. Oddly, though the Habsburgs were dethroned and Austrian chauvinism had been a main instigator in starting the war, they got off rather lightly. Austria actually gained territory at the expense of their former imperial partner. The Hungarians must have felt this to be one of the unkindest cuts of all in a treaty that left their kingdom drawn and quartered. Both Austria and Hungary were on the wrong side militarily during the Second World War. At first it seemed the Austrians had received the worse end of the deal, annexed as it was by the Nazis, while the Hungarians actually gained lands in Slovakia and Transylvania.

Fertorakos - an unassuming town that witnessed incredible events in 1989 - Credit: Attila Pellinger

Fertorakos – an unassuming town that witnessed incredible events in 1989 – Credit: Attila Pellinger

A Cold Day In Hell – Hungary from 1945 to 1989
The Hungarians though had made a deal with the devil and in the end they paid by losing nearly their entire army on the Eastern Front. The upshot of all this was a heavy handed Soviet occupation. The Austrians got the same, but theirs turned out to be less than long term. By the 1950’s Austria, through an ambiguous bit of neutrality, was left free to prosper. Meanwhile the Hungarians ended up on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. A geographical situation where they were considered part of Eastern Europe and thus under the Soviet sphere of influence would decide Hungary’s fate for decades to come. Hungary became a buffer nation. As part of the Warsaw Pact, like Czechoslovakia and Poland further north, they were used to keep NATO and the west far away from the borders of the Soviet Union.

One might think that Fertorakos would have been all but forgotten during the Cold War. Ideological power struggles and geo-political machinations would seem to have little to do with such a sleepy place. Unfortunately, Fertorakos found itself as a border village in a border nation. It was a place where east met west, both physically and politically. No longer was Fertorakos part of the centuries old drama of Austria versus Hungary or Austria-Hungary. Now the stage had been reset for communist versus capitalist, with Fertorakos stuck on the wrong side of the middle.  Lake Ferto, just a few minutes from the town center, became a playground for communist elites. This new governing class was the only ones allowed exclusive use of the strand. Thus the “representatives of the people” had their own private holiday resort within site of the decadent west.

Pan-European Picnic Monument by Gabriella Von Habsburg - Credit: Tamas Kiss

Pan-European Picnic Monument by Gabriella Von Habsburg – Credit: Tamas Kiss

A Historic Picnic & the Short Walk to Freedom
All that changed in 1989 due to an event so historically sublime, it could have scarcely been imagined. By the middle of 1989 communism was in trouble all across Eastern Europe. Restless populations yearning for freedom were beginning to take matters into their own hands. In Hungary, reformers had gained control of the government. The year before Janos Kadar, who had ruled the country for thirty-two years, was forced into retirement. In June 1989, the barbed wire that for decades had cordoned Hungary off from Austria was severed. Then in the strangest of circumstances the situation really took a quixotic turn. In August, activists in Hungary planned the Pan European Picnic on the Hungarian-Austrian border. This was to symbolize the two peoples coming together. In one of history’s ironic twists, Otto Van Habsburg who was the heir to the defunct Habsburg throne, helped conceive the idea.  Both countries agreed to open the border gate between the two nations for three hours on August 19th. The border post was about 2.5 kilometers (1.5 miles) from Fertorakos.

What happened next was nothing less than historic. Hundreds of East Germans, who had learned about the event from flyers, arrived on August 19th not for the picnic, but to cross the border. The Hungarian guards allowed them to pass freely and enter Austria. This was just the start. From that point onward, there was no going back. A little more than three weeks later, on September 11th, the border was opened between Hungary and Austria for good. In the following months, 70,000 people headed west to gain their freedom.

Border breakthrough Memorial - Credit: Fekist

Border breakthrough Memorial – Credit: Fekist

Full Circle – Rulers & Liberators
Today, at the entrance to the Fertorakos cave theater – part of the same quarry complex that provided the stone which helped build Vienna – stand monuments, symbolizing a cross and barbed wire. These were created by Gabriella Von Habsburg, the daughter of Otto. Now the Austrian Habsburg dynasty has come full circle, from ruling over much of Central and Eastern Europe to celebrating its liberation. And it was their old friend and foe the Hungarians who helped make this possible. Hungary is not a lesser partner in its historic relationship with Austria. It is an equal and freedom loving one.

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