1989 – 2019: From Open Europe to Fortress Europe

by Maria Baldovin

The former Berlin wall in December 1989 Photo: Jerzy Durczak / CC BY-NC 2.0

"On November 9th 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, marking what many hoped would be a new era of cooperation and openness across borders. [...] 30 years later, the opposite seems to have happened." 
Building Walls report by the Transnational Institute.

1989 is remembered in Europe as the year of freedom — freedom of movement, the victory of democracy, the moment when civil society helped to achieve seismic change. It was a time of unity, of solidarity.

The dramatic events of that year were seen as a fresh start for Europe. The expectation was that these changes would pave the way for a new and united continent. The divisions of the past would be overcome and a more diverse, inclusive Europe would emerge. At least that was the hope.

Instead, the ideas and principles, which drove the momentous changes of 1989, are now under threat. The Hungarian case illustrated below is a fitting (though not unique) example of what has gone wrong over the past 30 years. It suggests that for many, this is not the Europe they imagined during those heady months of 1989.

Old and new walls in Hungary

Memorial park on the Austro-Hungarian border Photo: Maria Baldovin

On 19 August 2019, Hungarians celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic. The original event was a peace demonstration jointly organised by Austrian and Hungarian civil society groups to draw attention to the ongoing dismantling of the militarised border between the two countries. It is often considered to have been the first breach in the Iron Curtain, which eventually led to the reunification of Germany.

The removal of the fence on the border between Austria and Hungary began in early 1989. On 27 June, Austria's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alois Mock, and his Hungarian counterpart, Gyula Horn, cut the barbed wire at the Sopron border crossing as part of an official ceremony. However, this event did not provoke the strong reaction the Hungarian opposition wanted. Some activists were in favour of a larger event, which would show the world what was happening.

"We just wanted to demonstrate that, if they were demolishing the Iron Curtain in Hungary, it could [also] be done elsewhere," says Laszlo Nagy, one of the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic and secretary of the Paneuropai Piknik Foundation. "If it was possible at this border, then why was it not possible at Check Point Charlie, between East and West Berlin?"

Invitation-Leaflet to the Pan-European picnic Photo: Maria Baldovin

"With this in mind, on 19 August several civil society groups organised a joint picnic across the border, calling for a continent without fences and hoping to get international attention. The response was sensational. Thousands of people joined the picnic, sending a clear message to the Hungarian government that the fence on the border with Austria should be removed. However, even more astonishing was the wider impact of the picnic, which ultimately helped to change the fate of East and West Germany.

Taking advantage of the opening, hundreds of Eastern Germans crossed the border into Austria, on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Many more of their fellow citizens crowded into refugee camps in Hungary and were given directions to Austria. Whether this was always the hope of the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic or a completely spontaneous moment, is still unknown.

This was the first wave of Eastern German migrants to the West. It helped to install a desire for change in the minds of many of the citizens in what was then known as the German Democratic Republic. Time was running out for Erich Honecker's oppressive communist regime.

30th anniversary celebrations

On the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic the city of Sopron turned into a party site. Exhibitions, installations and concerts were held all over the city centre to commemorate those historic events.

The Ferenc Liszt centre hosted a two-day conference as part of a summer school for German and Hungarian young people. This was a chance to hear from those who lived through those dramatic moments – former East German refugees, organisers of the picnic, a Hungarian border guard and others.

The event was well attended and the speakers all agreed on one main thing – this was a unique and memorable event, which helped lead to a free, united Europe.

Today the actual site of the picnic, at Sopronkohida on the Austro-Hungarian border, is a memorial park.

One of the key features there is an installation of limestone-sculptured figures named The Breakthrough - The Monument of European Freedom. This work by Miklós Melocco was unveiled in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the Picnic.

Another monument depicts a group of people behind a fence, representing the opening of the Iron Curtain and the escape of hundreds of East German citizens to the West.

All around the park there are plaques, which describe the stages of both the fall of both the Iron Curtain and the communist regime in Hungary.

The return of fences in 2019

With the explosion of the so-called “migration crisis” in Europe in the summer of 2015, Hungary built a fence on its border with Serbia, with the aim of preventing asylum-seekers and immigrants from entering the country. The erection of the fence as a measure to stop migrants was accompanied by violence and cruelty by the Hungarian police and was internationally criticised by several human rights organisations. In 2019, the Hungarian authorities were accused of denying food to asylum seekers, who were being detained in the border transit zones.

Thus, Hungary was once again imposing restrictions on freedom of movement by building barriers, long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This time, these rules were introduced on newcomers from outside the EU with the aim of "protecting" Hungarians.

When I ask Laszlo Nagy, one of the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic, whether he saw any contradiction in celebrating freedom, open borders and solidarity towards Eastern German refugees in 1989, while keeping out today's refugees with new walls, he says that the two situations "are two different pairs of shoes", meaning that no comparison could be made.

Organisor of the picknick Laszlo Nagy Photo: Maria Baldovin

 "Back then the wall was built to defend [the world] from us, Hungarian citizens, while now the fence in the south of Hungary protects us," says Nagy, adding that in his view, "60-70% of Hungarian people think so too." According to Nagy, the majority of people seeking to enter the EU are not "real" refugees, nor are they fleeing war. One could argue that neither were East Germans when they fled the brutal Honecker regime.

A day later, international journalists asked Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban the same question and he answered along the same lines. According to him, the opening of the border with Austria in 1989 was about uniting Europe, while fencing the border with Serbia was a way of protecting the EU and the security of its citizens. This was another way of saying that Europe should once again be thankful to Hungary for its actions.

Celebrating the fall of one fence while erecting another is not a contradiction in the eyes of many people in Hungary. Both actions are seen in the context of national sovereignty.

In 1989 Hungary was freeing itself from Soviet rule. Today, it is asserting its sovereignty vis-a-vis the EU and its power to decide what happens on its own territory.

The so-called "national interest" is an idea, which has been abused by several nationalist politicians. It often prevails over individual rights, while violations of civic rights are justified by the need to protect national interests from external threats and malign influences.

The battles of laws and propaganda

The supremacy of the “national interest” is directly related to the Hungarian government's battle against NGOs. Several laws adopted in the past few years pledge to protect the national interest, while aiming to undermine organisations which, according to President Orbán, pursue foreign interests in Hungary.

A number of laws have been introduced to try to stop those helping, what the government calls as “illegal migration”.

In June 2017, a new law introduced a special registry for NGOs, which receive foreign funding of more than 24,000 Euros per annum. Critics saw this as an intimidation campaign against those organisations, which risked closure for non-compliance.

This law brought Hungary closer to President Putin's Russian model, where a similar law regarding so-called "foreign agents" has been in operation since 2012.

Photo: Martin Fejer. Courtesy of the author

In 2018, so-called "Stop Soros" measures were introduced, which contained rules aimed at limiting the capacity of NGOs to assist migrants. They were named after George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist of Hungarian origin and the founder of the Open Society Foundation, a liberal grants-giving organisation.

In addition to strict border controls and the criminalisation of organised assistance to asylum-seekers, the Hungarian government has been working on a powerful propaganda campaign targeting immigrants.

Photo: Martin Fejer. Courtesy of the author

 "The responsible authority is the cabinet office of the Prime Minister, but many refer to it as the propaganda ministry," says Aron Demeter, who works at the Hungarian office of Amnesty International.

Through a loyal media, the government portrays its fierce critic, George Soros, and some other opposition politicians, as evil.


Photo: Martin Fejer. Courtesy of the author

The slogan on the billboard reads, "They will demolish the fence together", which appears to be an attempt to discredit the opposition and to argue against migration at the same time. Furthermore, it seems to refer back to a famous picture, portraying the above-mentioned foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria cutting the fence in 1989.


From the picnic to the fortress

How did Europe, which in 1989 seemed so happy to embrace ideas such as open borders and inclusion, become so hostile to newcomers?

"We Hungarians would like to keep Europe for the Europeans, and we also wish to keep Hungary as a Hungarian country," said Viktor Orban in his address to the European parliament in 2015.

What is the difference between the East Germans, who had been striving for freedom and a better quality of life in the 1980s, and those who try to enter the gates of "Fortress Europe" today?

"The reasons are usually cultural," believes Gábor Egry from the Hungarian Institute of political history. "In 1989 it was about recovering freedoms for the people who essentially belonged to the same Europe, while today the fence on the Southern border of Hungary is defending against something which is alien to Europe". At least this is the perception of the majority of Hungarians, according to him.

"The reason why Hungarian people are not seeing any similarities with 1989 is simply based on race - these are not white people," agrees Aron Demeter of Amnesty International.

Furthermore, there is a sort of "moral hierarchy," as Egry calls it, differentiating the two groups. In 1989 the migrants were the "oppressed" whereas now they are allegedly people from abroad looking for an "easier" life.

The change in perception of refugees between now and then might be, in part, attributed to images, used in some media, which paint the newcomers as an army ready to attack.


Crossing the border, summer 1989 Photo by Tamas Lobenwein.

Courtesy of Paneuropean Picnic '89 Foundation

On the Balkan Route, summer 2015 Photo by Luigi Ottani.

Courtesy of the author


The pictures on the left were taken by the Hungarian photographer, Tamás Lobenwein, and show Eastern German refugees crossing the border at Sopron in August 1989.

The photographs on the right, taken by the Italian photographer Luigi Ottani, are much more recent and show groups of people walking the so-called "Balkan Route" in the summer of 2015.


Crossing the border, summer 1989 Photo by Tamas Lobenwein.

Courtesy of Paneuropean Picnic '89 Foundation

On the Balkan Route, summer 2015. Photo by Luigi Ottani.

Courtesy of the author


Lobenwein's shots, on the left, captured moments of joy, of rediscovered freedoms. In Ottani's pictures, the pain and hope in people's eyes are just as palpable.


Crossing the border, summer 1989 Photo by Tamas Lobenwein.

Courtesy of Paneuropean Picnic "89 Foundation"

On the Balkan Route, summer 2015 Photo by Luigi Ottani.

Courtesy of the author


Juxtaposing these pictures highlights two major things: All of these images show human beings as equals with the same right to freedom and a life of dignity. However, in the current political climate some human beings, to quote the writer George Orwell’s famous allegorical Animal Farm novel, "are more equal than others".

After three decades there seems to be a huge gulf between our current reality and the hopes and ideals, which inspired 1989. The Hungarian case is just an example of a more general and widespread trend. According to a recent report from the Transnational Institute over 1,000 km of walls have been built across Europe since the 1990s.

According to the same report, a total of 13 walls have been built on EU borders or inside the Schengen area, with immigration being the main cause for the construction of the majority of them.

However, Europe does not only experience physical walls. So-called mental walls, which are built on fear and prejudice, are even harder to dismantle. Far-right parties and their narratives criminalise the movement of refugees and migrants, depicting them as extremists and driving xenophobia. These feelings eventually lead to the construction of physical walls and the further securitisation of Fortress Europe.

All this is accompanied by contradictory moves from the EU. In theory the EU rejects a policy of walls, but at the same time it adopts security practices, which criminalise the movement of people who migrate. The European Commission's recent creation of a portfolio for the "Protection of our European Way of Life" does not mean a real change in attitudes. Instead of protecting the founding values of the EU, such as freedom, equality, diversity and democracy, the portfolio will apparently deal with migration issues.

Tearing down the walls, again

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke of how the events at the Picnic, "reflected the values of solidarity, freedom and a humane Europe" and that, "Sopron is an example of how much we Europeans can achieve, if we courageously stand up for our indivisible values."

But where is the solidarity and humanity in Europe at a time when thousands of people in need are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea on the way to European shores and where many of those who survived the journey are now being denied entry? Or when others are brutally beaten in the forests between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, or are starved in the transit zones at the Hungarian/Serbian border? And who will courageously stand up for our "indivisible values" if co-operative actions to help migrants are criminalised?

 "In every ethnic community one needs to bring to the fore those people and forces that are capable of self-critique with regards to their own community: real traitors of ethnic compactness."  

Alexander Langer, 1994

 The Italian politician and intellectual, Alexander Langer wrote about the importance of mediators, bridge builders, wall vaulters and frontier crossers. As he put it in his work, The Origins of Contemporary Conflict, "this is an activity which in times of tension and conflict may seem like contraband, but which is decisive to soften rigidity, make borders relative, and favour interaction."

Langer, who was deeply concerned about the conflict in the Balkans and took part in pacifist demonstrations, wrote these words in 1994, but they still apply today.

In 1995, only one week before he took his own life, Langer wrote that, "Europe will indeed either die or be reborn in Sarajevo."

The reference to Sarajevo and the war in the Balkans is not here by chance.


Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1995 Photo: Holdosi Máté



The war in the Balkans showed that the new European Union was incapable of reacting to and solving the conflict. It came to an end with the Dayton peace agreement of 1995 but only after the genocide in Srebrenica and numerous other massacres. The conflict also showed us the terrible consequences of propaganda based on ethnic and religious fanaticism.

Nowadays in Europe we still experience increasing propaganda based on ethnic and religious extremism.

Although Europe did not die in Sarajevo, the fundamental principles on which the European Union was founded are under attack every single day.

"The time has come to take sides and work together to replace the seeds of hate with those of respect" Dunja Mijatović 2019

In 2019, while commemorating the Srebrenica genocide, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, wrote that, "we must defend the values and principles of equality, respect, diversity and inclusiveness on which Europe is based."

If we are to celebrate 1989 in an honest, consistent way we must reflect on those values and be prepared to take sides.

It might be time for the EU to drop its contradictory positions and stop praising itself for the successes of the past. Something is going wrong inside and outside the fortress.


About the author: 

Maria Baldovin is a freelance journalist. Born in Italy in 1991, she now lives Brussels. Her educational background is in foreign languages and Eastern European studies (international relations). She writes for an Italian online newspaper and since 2018 is part of the editorial team of a radio programme on Eastern Europe. She is interested in civil society issues, social movements, human rights, as well as memory politics, migration and identity.