Fertőrákos, on the Hungarian – Austrian border, is a good place to contemplate why the Hungarians have always been seen as the lesser partner in their historic relationship with the Austrians.
In one sense this is understandable since the Habsburgs ruled over much of Hungary for several centuries. Conversely, this relationship changed radically in the latter half of the 19th century.
Hungarians were gaining in such strength (while Austrian strength was waning) that they were given an equal role in what came to be known as the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.
Budapest was the fastest growing city in Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. Vienna’s gleam was fading. After the turn of the century, the home of the Habsburg’s was becoming a hotbed of counter-culture and radical ideologies (both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were hanging around Vienna in 1913).
Hungary became the breadbasket of the Dual-Monarchy, while the great power status of Austria was shrinking before the rising might of Germany. Meanwhile, Hungary’s resources were quite influential in helping make Austria’s capital a showpiece of Central Europe.
Both St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna and its revered Ringstrasse were built from stone quarried at Fertőrákos. Even during the upheaval of World War One, while food riots were breaking out in Vienna, the Hungarian capital’s citizens were relatively well fed.
Nevertheless, history was much rougher on the Hungarians than the Austrians during most of the 20th century. Hungary was not only on the wrong military side during the Second World War, it was also on the wrong side of Europe, situated in the eastern rather than the central or western part of the continent.
This decided its fate for decades. While Austria was able to stay neutral, Hungarians felt the boot of Soviet power on their throat more than once. It became part of the Warsaw Pact with the iron curtain dividing it from Austria
. Fertőrákos which sits close to the shores of the border straddling Lake Fertő became a playground for communist elites. They were the only ones allowed exclusive use of its strand. All that changed in 1989 due to an event so historically sublime that it could have been dreamed up.
By the middle of 1989 communism was in trouble all across Eastern Europe. Restless populations were beginning to take reform into their own hands. In Hungary reformers had gained control of the government.
They had sent the 32 year long leader of the nation, Janos Kadar into forced retirement. In June 1989, the barbed wire that cordoned Hungary off from Austria was severed. Activists in Hungary planned a picnic in August on the Hungarian-Austrian border which would 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 facilitate this 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 Fertőrákos.
What happened next was nothing less than historic. Hundreds of East Germans who had heard about this event from flyers distributed by the picnic’s organizers arrived on August 19th not for the picnic, but to cross the border.
The Hungarian guards allowed them to entry to Austria. 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. In the following months, 70,000 people headed west to gain freedom.
At the entrance to the Fertőrákos cave theatre – part of the same quarry complex that provided the stone for some of Vienna’s structural wonders – stand monuments, symbolizing a cross and barbed wire. They were created by the daughter of Gabriella Von Habsburg, the daughter of Otto.
It seems the Habsburgs had come full circle from celebrating their rule to celebrating Eastern Europe’s liberation. And it was the Hungarians who made this all possible. Hungary is a not a lesser partner in its relationship with Austria, it is an equal and freedom loving one.
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