By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife reporting from Sopronpuszta
SOPRONPUSZTA, HUNGARY (BosNewsLife)-- German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the site Wednesday, August 19, where exactly 20 years ago Hungary briefly opened its border with Austria, allowing over 600 refugees to flee to the West.
Ahead of Merkel's arrival, an elderly Hungarian man, dressed as a Soviet soldier and playing an old hand-cranked organ, welcomed guests on their way to the Sopronpuszta, a field where once watchtowers and barbed wire separated communist Hungary from neighboring Austria.
The man wasn't allowed through the security lines because he refused to hand over his huge iron hammer and sickle, long a symbol of the Soviet-led communist states.
Times have changed.
Merkel, came to the Sorpronpusta field where, she said, exactly 20 years ago Hungarians organized a peace demonstration that led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the reunification of her country.
During the demonstration, known as the Pan-European Picnic, Hungary briefly opened its border with Austria, allowing hundreds of East Germans to flee to the West.
Soon after in September 1989, Hungary gave permission to tens of thousands of refugees to leave, despite protests from East German leader Eric Honecker.
Merkel, Germany's first chancellor from former East Germany, told ex-refugees and others braving scorching summer temperatures to hear her, that the Pan European Picnic of August 19, 1989 was risky, but courageous.
"What Hungarian organizers and many others did here was very brave. Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement ... and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans' desire for freedom,” she said. "The opening of the borders became irreversible and in a few months, the walls of the Cold War were razed," Merkel added.
Freedom was also a theme from Reformed church leader and politician László Tőkés who spoke on behalf of the organizers. He said Hungarians acted in the spirit of "Apostle Paul who reminded us about the freedom we have in Christ."
Merkel later met many of those who fled through the gates to freedom on that historic summer day.
Among them was the now 40-year-old life jackets developer Jorg Meisner. He told Worthy News that he spoke with Merkel about his escape. “I still recall how we walked along a muddy road for at least half hour. I was lucky to be among the first to cross the border. However I was very fearful that family members back home would suffer because of my action,...“ he said.
“I was amazed to see small children here as well. Everything went fine, but it could have become much worse,” Meisner explained, referring to the orders that border guards had to shoot people fleeing to Austria.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country currently holds the rotating European Union presidency, made clear to former refugees that he is pleased that Germany is now re-united and that former East Block countries like Hungary are part of the EU.
However he urged Hungarians and other Europeans not to forget other countries that still want to join the European Union. “The European Union remains a work in progress. We must not forget those still knocking on our doors, and wanting to be part of our freedoms, our integration and our security.”
At Wednesday's commemoration a large marble statue incorporating a piece of the Berlin Wall was inaugurated. It shows men, women, and children, some embracing each other.
History could have been different if Hungarian border guards had obeyed their orders to shoot at fleeing refugees. One of them has said that sometimes decisions “taken in a few seconds can change your life.” And Europe. (Parts of this BosNewsLife News story also airs via Deutsche Welle, Germany's international broadcaster).