Sopron is known as the “most loyal” city in Hungary for good reason, almost two-thirds of the citizenry voted in a 1921 plebiscite to remain part of Hungary. It was the only area of “Historic Hungary” that reversed a territorial adjustment from the hated Treaty of Trianon which was imposed upon a defeated Hungary in the aftermath of the First World War. Hungarians have returned that devotion by lavishing Sopron with affection. In my experience, the city is second only to Budapest in mentions of the most beloved city in Hungary. Sopron has other attributes that add to its attractiveness. These include hundreds of historic structures and monuments, with a depth of history going all the way back to antiquity. There is also Sopron’s prosperity, which by Hungarian standards makes the city quite wealthy. It is wealth and loyalty that made Sopron what it is today, but those traits also lie deep in its past.
Roads To Wealth – Shopping In Scarbantia & Sopron
Over a thousand years before there was a Sopron, another city existed in the same location. That city was part of the ancient Roman empire and went by the name of Scarbantia. Just as modern-day Sopron is built upon commerce, so too was ancient Scarbantia. The latter could not rely on a nearby neighbor such as Austria to stimulate trade, instead the genesis of Scarbantia’s trade arose from more far flung regions. The city was located at an important junction where two roads, one each from the settlements of Vindobona (Vienna) and Carnuntum (to the north along the Danube River), came together on the Via Emilia, a Roman road that led onward to the Adriatic. This route, as well as Scarbantia, lay along the older Amber Road, that stretched from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. The Romans were imposing their imperial designs on a trade route which predated their arrival. Scarbantia’s wealth grew due to the volume of trade which passed along the roads and this route, much of which the city benefited from.
Present day Sopron is also focused on trade. Commerce comes to it via several different roads, most principally the ones from Austria. Since both countries are members of the European Union, traffic can flow across the border unimpeded. Hundreds of cars drive across the Klingenbach and Deutschkreutz border crossings each day, moving from west to east, in search of deep discounts in consumer products and highly affordable health care. It has been said that location is everything when it comes to business, that is certainly true of the economic prosperity of Sopron past and present. Modern Sopron enjoys a fabulous location for commerce, as it is tucked up close to the Austrian border. For Austrians, Sopron is just minutes or at most a few hours away. A cross border trip is worth the savings they will incur by going to shop in Sopron. Prices are anywhere from 20% to 50% lower. On weekends, Austrians come to enjoy the beauty and ambiance of Sopron’s Belvaros (Inner city), but also more importantly to shop. Sopronites may have voted to stay in Hungary, but they are more than happy to welcome Austrians.
Fierce Attachment – A Habsburgian Hungarian City
Just as Sopron’s economic basis as a trade hub aligns with both its past and present, so too does its loyalty to the homeland. The plebiscite vote in 1922 was not the first time in the city’s history when Sopron’s citizenry voiced their fervent support to stay part of Hungary. Almost 650 years earlier the same decision faced the Magyars who made up the bulk of Sopron’s population. It was in 1273 that military forces led by the Bohemian King, Ottokar II captured Sopron’s castle. He then took sons and daughters of the nobility as hostage in the hopes of forcing the population into supporting him and submitting to his rule. This strategy backfired. When the Hungarian King Ladislaus IV brought his troops to the city walls. The citizens threw open the gates to them. Sopron was recovered and for its faithfulness was rewarded with the designation of Free Royal Town (Szabad királyi város). This limited the Hungarian nobility’s privileges, while allowing the city to exercise self-government which manifested itself in greater freedom to develop and control its economy.
Sopron’s fierce attachment to Hungary is reflected in the events of both 1273 and 1922, but these were by no means the only times that the city showed its loyalty to Hungary. A fine example of this took place in 1529, when the city was looted by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were unable to occupy the city long term. After they left, the city was refortified and became one of the most important cities in Royal Hungary, as great multitudes of Magyars fled to it. It soon retook its place as a thriving economic hub. The Ottomans were never able to occupy it again, despite the century and a half of on again, off again warfare that plagued Hungary. Yet the famed loyalty of Sopron does come with some paradoxes. In both of Hungary’s Wars of Independence against Habsburg rule – Rakoczi’s from 1703 – 1711 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-49 – Sopron was firmly secured under the Habsburg yoke. This is understandable, since Sopron’s nearness to the seat of Habsburg power in Vienna meant that Austrian power could be easily imposed. Plus, Sopron had benefited more than most Hungarian cities from Habsburg rule, due to the same type of trade and economic connections which it still enjoys today.
Beyond Borders – The Economic Ties That Bind
Loyalty can also come with a cost. Sopron discovered just how high the price could be during the Cold War. For four decades it stood on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, this hindered the city’s economic development. In a classic case of faraway, so close Austria and the wealth of Mitteleuropa was just out of reach. Barbed wire, border controls and gun barrels stood in the way of progress and prosperity. Nothing could have been nearer or farther than the Austrian border. Sopronites waited, faithfully and fitfully for the border to reopen and the city to be reconnected with its economic hinterland. That moment finally arrived in 1989. Since that time, the most faithful city in Hungary has resumed its historical role as one of the nation’s most prosperous.