The return of barbed wire

A new Iron Curtain in Europe

Two generations, one story

26 years ago, Hungary was the first country to break open the Iron Curtain: this event formed a prelude to the fall of the Wall and the unification of Europe. One generation later, Hungary is also the first European country to close itself off again with a fence – and the number of countries that are following suit is growing. However, this time, the fence isn’t there to keep people in but to keep them out. How did this happen? A tale in video and text of two men at the border, who suddenly find themselves in the centre of historical attention.

40 minutes By Adinda Akkermans, Emmie Kollau, Catrien Spijkerman, Mira Zeehandelaar

1. The good guys of Western Europe (2015)

The chance to make his childhood dream come true has vanished. He had wanted to become the prime minister of Hungary, but now it is unlikely that that is ever going to happen. In his office in the city hall of Kübekháza, a small town on the vast border with Serbia and Romania, Mayor Robert Molnár (46) establishes that fact with a forced smile. It is quiet outside; the cashier is staring at her painted nails, and an old man is sweeping the pavement. Even in the small refugee centre, that Robert recently had built, it is still. The only disturbances of the apparent peacefulness are the columns of army trucks on the nearby highway.


Robert has just come back from his English class. He had started the course a number of times, but since dozens of international camera crews have come by to interview him in recent months, he is particularly motivated to improve his English this time. Robert hangs his sporty coat over a chair and sits down behind the desk, filled with odds and ends: a stack of handkerchiefs, photographs of his three children and a trumpet. The instrument is there for a reason: it reminds him that he has to make some noise when he sees injustice around him.

Among the piles of papers, the French newspaper Liberation lies open at a full-page article about himself. The picture with the article shows an angry mayor, arms crossed, standing in front of a new fence. The article’s headline reads: ‘In Hungary, Robert Molnár goes into battle with barbed wire.’

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Chancellor Angela Merkel calls him ‘a great man’. At conferences and celebrations, he is dubbed the ‘hero of peace’. It is not Robert Molnár who receives these words of praise, but 69-year-old Árpád Bella, one of Robert Molnár’s fellow countrymen. In terms of age, he could have been Robert’s father. What they have in common: Árpád, too, owes his fame to the border. But in his case, it’s the old frontier, the Iron Curtain.

Árpád never asked for them, those journalists from Australia, the camera crews from the US and even some from Japan. Sometimes they stay a whole weekend, rearranging things in his house until the light finally falls in the lens the right way. He does not care for it at all, the way they ask him to walk back and forth or to ‘just pour the coffee’. Nevertheless, he gives them what they ask for; it feels like his duty. Tirelessly, he complies with yet another request, because he cannot let go of the story either, even after 26 years. He could have used this attention for going into Hungarian politics, but he’s just not like that.

Árpád Bella is a quiet man, always has been. For half of his life, he seemed to just float along the stream of history, until he became a part of it. He was a border guard at the exact place where the Iron Curtain gave way for the first time, and where a vanguard, the first pack of hundreds of DDR citizens, ‘broke through’ to the free West. The great European turmoil in which he himself would be swept up was quite different to the tranquillity, or rather, the complete standstill that had characterised his career up to that point.

In the 70s and 80s, not far from the house he grew up in, he worked as a guard at the border between Hungary and Austria, a piece of no man’s land near the Hungarian town of Sopron. This is where the Iron Curtain could be found, miles and miles of fence full of barbed wire that split Europe in two: on one side the free West, on the other side the communist East. Hungary was under a communist regime; nobody could leave the country easily – Árpád made sure of that. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers that guarded the border.

Still, his work wasn’t heroic or exciting. Hunting down smugglers or people who tried to cross the border illegally – that’s what other soldiers did. Until the mid-60s there had been mines along the borderline. They were replaced by an iron fence that ran parallel to the border, a few hundred meters inland towards Hungary. It was an electric fence, and as soon as it was touched by a person or animal, the soldiers received a signal. The soldiers had a German Shepherd that was specially trained to find anyone attempting to escape. If they had to, they would shoot at the refugees to prevent them from crossing the border.

Árpád wasn’t part of that. His post was at the official border crossing, where the Austrian cars came into the country and where the Hungarians with special travel visa would leave the country. Árpád checked their documents. Now and then, East-Germans or Romanians with forged passports would come along, trying to get to the West, and occasionally Árpád would find someone crammed into one of the cavities of a car. Árpád talked to drivers and passengers, trying to figure them out. Were these people really visiting family? Did that guy have a funny accent? It was like a game of chess in which it did not always become clear who won. Árpád enjoyed the work. If he found a forged passport, he would call the police. He was aware that the refugees would be arrested and extradited to their own country. And that a long prison sentence lay ahead of them – or worse. But then, he wasn’t part of the Salvation Army. He was a soldier, and he would do what was expected of him. Every soldier knows how important that is. If you don’t abide by that principle, everything will go wrong. Who can you trust then?

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In July 2015, going against all European treaties, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán placed a 175-kilometer long fence along the border with Serbia. Two months later, the government also declared a state of emergency in the province where Robert is mayor. The standard metaphor was used: the refugee flood must be contained. However, unlike decades earlier, people aren’t streaming out of Hungary but Hungary risks being engulfed by non-Hungarians, by strangers, Muslims even! This must be put a stop to. Hungarians won’t let these people ‘walk all over them’. Night after night, the consequences of Orbán’s actions can be seen on television: desperate families having fled the atrocities of war in their own country now run into the fence and the Hungarian army which doesn’t shun violence. Anyone still brave enough to crawl under the barbed wire awaits tear gas, arrest and prison.

Western Europe reacts with disgust. Everyone remembers the four-year-old Syrian boy, dressed in blue shorts and a little red t-shirt, who was washed ashore on the Turkish beach and thus became the symbol of the refugee crisis. An unprecedented number of people, that is, since the aftermath of World War II in Europe, are adrift. The only noticeable difference with the black and white photos of those days are the mobile phones, clutched in people’s hands. By crossing the Mediterranean Sea or using the Balkan route, the refugees are trying to find a safe region. ‘Merkel, Merkel, Deutschland, Deutschland!’ they chant. The cries do not leave Merkel indifferent to what is happening. She herself originated from Eastern Germany and thus the German chancellor feels a kinship with the refugees. ‘Wir schaffen das,’ is what she says, but European politics has reached an impasse. Hungary refuses to cooperate with agreements regarding the mandatory number of refugees each member state has to take on, as proposed by the European Commission. Orbán, in fact, sees himself as a guardian who defends the European culture and the external borders of the European Union. It has made him popular with a large part of the Hungarian population: after being ruled by the Ottomans and Russians in the past, many Hungarians are afraid of new invaders.

It is this atmosphere that has made journalists from Western Europe seek out Robert, on a quest for a ‘good guy’ in a nationalistic country. The mayor of Kübekháza is viewed as a hero and leader because he is just about the only Hungarian openly opposing the new fence. His actions are not without risk: when they are amongst themselves, some fellow mayors admit to agreeing with Robert, but they are afraid to speak out, in fear of reprisals from the government. At the moment, the barbed wire at Kübekháza ends at the border between Serbia and Romania. It is a surreal image: the abrupt end of the huge, hostile-looking fence.

Any minute now, Prime Minister Orbán could give the order to resume building the separation along the border with Romania. That would be very unpleasant for the village because its ties with the neighbouring Serbian and Romanian villages are excellent. Moreover, they were just about to build a major thruway. However, more than anything, it is the symbolism of the fence that bothers Robert. For him, it represents the beginning of the demise of Hungary and Europe. He used to be proud of Hungary as the first country to break open the Iron Curtain in 1989. How is it possible that of all places in the world, it is this country that is the first to build another wall? What is happening in Europe? Did we forget its past?

2. An opening in the barbed wire (1965-1989)

It hadn’t been Árpád’s idea, a military career in the service of the communist regime. As a 16-year-old boy, he had loved trees, flowers, and playing football outside. He had wanted to learn about biology and maybe become a gardener or forest ranger. But his best friend Joska had a better idea: they would become soldiers. Just like Joska’s older brother, who Árpád and Joska looked up to, they would get a gun and shoot. Árpád liked the sound of that. Besides: as a border guard or police officer he would also spend most of his time outside, in nature.

It didn’t take long for the first bad sign to appear. After three days of entrance tests, it turned out that Joska hadn’t been admitted. But Árpád had. The second bad omen presented itself on Árpád’s first workday. He was not allowed to go into the woods but had been assigned a post at the official border crossing. Not birds and plants but cars and asphalt would be his work domain.

Until he had to guard it, he had never even seen the border up close. Nevertheless, he knew very well what the border signified. When he was ten, he had seen how neighbours, friends of his grandparents and many others had left the country in a frenzy. They had been carrying large backpacks and were taking children his age with them. It was the autumn of 1956. In Budapest, the people had tried to start a revolution. They had taken down the statue of Stalin, and the old government was deposed. But the Russians had brutally repressed the insurgency, and now everything was dominated by fear. Many Hungarians decided to flee. Little Árpád didn’t understand everything, but he felt the panic. If those people were leaving their homes for good, things had to be better on the other side of the border.

However, at school and on the street he was told that the people in the West were bad, that they were capitalists, and wanted to invade Hungary. That’s why they needed an army and guards at the border. The country had to be protected against those evil people.

On one of his first work days, he discovered that that was a lie. His commander urged Árpád to be polite to the people from the West. After all, they were the ones who were bringing money into the country. They were not bad. They had friendly faces, drove nice cars and made small talk.

Árpád quickly understood that the barbed wire was not to protect the Hungarians but to keep them inside the communist utopia. He did what was asked of him: he followed orders.

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On the other side of the country, the 7-year-old Robert Molnár is standing with his grandfather in the garden of their small house. They are secretly listening to the forbidden station Radio Free Europe. The voices on the radio squeak and creak as the communist intelligence service is trying to disrupt the broadcasts. Robert leans forward and tells the forbidden world news to his hearing-impaired grandfather.

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ the teacher asks at school the next day. ‘A pilot,’ ‘a car mechanic,’ ‘a fireman,’ ‘a soldier,’ - the answers of Robert's classmates. ‘Prime minister,’ little Robert says resolutely. The teacher is alarmed by this answer and immediately visits Robert’s parents. What is going on with their son that he has such ambitions? Robert’s mother casts down her eyes.

His parents want Robert to keep quiet from now on, but he can’t. He is angry. His grandfather has told him how his German parents came to Kübekháza as migrants to help the tobacco production get started; through their work and that of others, Kübekháza grew into a beautiful and thriving village. However, since the arrival of the communists in the forties, the village has been completely neglected. The roads are muddy and treacherous, the houses are in disrepair, and things that are broken do not get repaired.

A few years later, when he is collecting signatures against the communist village leadership’s rule, he finds out that the communist system is far from democratic. The police arrest him and interrogate him at the station; they intimidate him and threaten to send him to a reformatory. Once outside, Robert travels as quickly as possible to Szeged, the nearest city, and joins an underground resistance movement. They have illegal meetings where they come up with protests. They create a monument commemorating the people who died in 1956 during the invasion of the Soviet troops, they read each other anti-communist poetry, and they wrap a statue of Lenin in cloth. One night, Robert travels back to Kübekháza, climbs the Soviet sculpture standing in the middle of the village square and knocks the red star off with a hammer.

On 19 August 1989, he hears on the radio that there is a breach in the Iron Curtain on the Austrian side of Hungary and that a ‘Pan-European Picnic’ is being held on that spot. He is overjoyed. It’s a sign that confirms something that he and his friends have been waiting for for so long. Sooner or later, the communist regime will come to an end.

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19 August 1989. In Árpád Bella's garage, he keeps a bouquet of twenty carnations. Today, it’s the twentieth wedding anniversary of Árpád and Anna, his wife. Tonight they are going to celebrate, together with their two daughters and Árpád’s and Anna’s parents. Hopefully, he will be able to leave his work on time, allowing him a long evening with his family.

But first, work needs to be done. At Árpád’s border post an event has been planned. A ‘Pan-European Picnic’, that’s what the organisers have officially called it. It had started as a joke, just a passing thought of one of the members of the local opposition parties, which since a few months have been condoned in Hungary. A picnic on the border, where both Hungarians and Austrians can freely roast a sausage and have a drink together. As a statement. As early as 2 May 1989, the Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gyula Horn, had cut a hole in the barbed wire on the border between Hungary and Austria, as a symbolic act. The reformist Prime Minister, Miklos Nemeth, had been clearing away the barbed wire along his country's borders for some time. It had been a practical solution: the electronic warning system wasn’t working properly anymore, and the renewal costs were much too high for the nearly bankrupt Hungary.

The barbed wire would not keep the Hungarians inside any longer. The quiet dismantling of the Iron Curtain didn’t make much of a difference for the Hungarian citizens: they had been given a passport in 1988, which allowed them free travel. But the opposition in the region of Sopron was indignant. The regimes in other East European countries were still as suffocating as they had been during the past twenty years. Poland was plagued by poverty, the people of Romania were terrorised by Ceausescu, tens of thousands of East Germans were trying to flee the GDR dictatorship every month. If Hungarian citizens could cross the border, why was the world keeping silent? If this was possible, why was the Berlin Wall still there? After forty years, a 280-kilometer long hole had emerged in the Iron Curtain, and nobody seemed to know or care.

And then there was something else. Wasn’t it strange that the Soviet Union had not yet intervened while the Hungarians acquired one freedom after another? The picnic organisers, a group of about twenty politically engaged enthusiasts from Sopron and the surrounding area, were worried. The Hungarian revolution of ’56, the revolt in Danzig, Poland, the Prague Spring – every attempt at reform had been violently squashed. The past had taught that you could not make it alone as a state. For that reason, the Pan-European Picnic was intended to inspire the opposition in other countries to join. The picnic would show the rest of the world that you could do whatever you wanted on the Hungarian border. Austrians and Hungarians, roasting sausages together: they would ridicule the Berlin Wall and the rest of the Iron Curtain. At least, that is what the picnic organisers were hoping for.

Árpád Bella isn’t concerned. For him, it is just another working day, and the picnic merely an item on the agenda to settle. The programme is as follows: at three in the afternoon, there will be a delegation of local dignitaries and journalists to open the border ‘officially’. Árpád is going to manage that. A permit is issued to keep the border open for three hours, exactly. At six in the evening, it will have to be closed again, and then everything will go back to normal.

Árpád and his men collect their stamps and check the names on the delegation list. No suspicious names, no criminals - it all looks perfectly fine. Yet there is one thing that is troubling Árpád a bit: the national commander has written in a telex message that groups of people from the GDR might attempt to cross the Hungarian border. These East Germans are on holiday at Lake Balaton using a temporary visa, but they have let their travel permits expire and are refusing to go back. They might want to use Hungary to get to Austria, from where they will try to reach West Germany. In his telex message, the commander is even talking about hordes, but he writes that the government has everything under control.

Árpád has tried to obtain more information. The headquarters in Budapest, the regional commander, his colleagues in nearby villages – nobody knows anything about the East Germans. And thus Árpád does what a soldier is supposed to do: he trusts his national commander. He knows what to do.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, Árpád arrives at the border post. Strange, on the Austrian side of the borderline it’s busy already. He sees photographers, journalists, and day trippers. ‘Shouldn’t you visit Sopron for the official part with the speeches?’ he asks a group of Austrians standing at the border. He even sees a few Germans among them. ‘No,’ somebody replies. ‘We’re much more interested in what’s going to happen here.’

It’s a beautiful August day. There is nothing left for Árpád to do than to wait for the delegation to arrive. He’s enjoying the sun and talks to his colleague on the Austrian side, Johann Göltl. The two men have known each other for many years and get along very well. Johann feels considerably less relaxed; on his side of the border, it’s getting busier. Nevertheless, the mood of the waiting crowd, as well as that of the guards, is cheerful: today, it’s time to celebrate.

Árpád knows what’s expected of him: to stop the East Germans. He’s been carrying a weapon for a long time - now the time has arrived to use it. He could command his men to start shooting. The law regarding the use of violence has only recently been changed. In the past, border soldiers had to use their weapon against anyone who tried to cross the border illegally. Since 30 November 1988, this has been forbidden, unless refugees use physical violence against the border guard or form a group. In this context, a group meant more than three people.

Árpád realises that the Germans fall into both exception categories. They are with many, and they are not going to stop. The Germans may not be armed, but their determination and large numbers undeniably make them a threat. Should Árpád cause a bloodbath? There is little time to decide. There are hundreds of them, Árpád only has five soldiers. He makes a decision. No shots will be fired here.

The border gate has two wings. The delegation was going to open these up in a symbolic ceremony, but now a group of determined Germans is rushing towards the wings. On the Hungarian side, the Germans are pushing against the fence, while on the Austrian side, the barrier is being pulled by relatives and bystanders. The lock breaks open. Árpád manages only just to grab a wooden crossbar on the fence, and thus avoids being pressed into the iron wiring or trampled.

On the Austrian side of the border, people are crying and falling into each other’s arms. Árpád does nothing but watch. He hears loud cheers; people are opening up champagne bottles. If he hadn’t been a border guard, Árpád would have considered it a wonderful party. Now he feels troubled. And alone. He immediately calls his boss, the regional commander. He is on holiday in the Crimea and won’t be back until tomorrow. He calls other bosses, but only manages to speak to one boss’s wife. He telephones Budapest, to talk to the national commander. Nothing. Árpád’s Austrian colleague, Johann, is furious. ‘Why didn’t you warn me?’ he snaps at Árpád. He thinks that Árpád is part of the conspiracy.

Árpád’s soldiers just stand there, despondent. Árpád orders them to ‘Turn around and check the Austrians’ documents.’ He continuous: ‘Put a stamp on their passport, and don’t worry about the people from the GDR – they are my responsibility.’ It’s Árpád’s job to protect his men. If they have to deal with refugees, they will certainly get into trouble. That is why he gives them something to do that is legal. Useless, but legal. Nobody objects.

That afternoon, some six hundred refugees from the GDR cross the border. From now on they are free. Austria receives them with open arms. 19 August 1989, the largest exodus since the construction of the Berlin Wall.

And Árpád is responsible.

That night he comes home at seven o’clock. He is determined not to tell his wife and children: the wedding anniversary celebration should continue as normal. But they know everything already. All afternoon the Austrian television channels that the family can receive have been reporting about the picnic that got out of hand. His daughters and Anna have seen Árpád on television. They are waiting for him with tense faces. ‘What’s going to happen to us when you go to prison?’ his wife asks. Árpád is looking for words of comfort, but cannot find them. Anna is right. What Árpád did this afternoon – or rather failed to do – could send him to prison for eight years.

3. Euphoric Europe (1989-2004)

Euphoric, that’s how Robert feels in the days and months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Only 26 years old, he has already been elected a member of the Hungarian parliament. As a member of the Commission for Foreign Affairs, he attends meetings in which a NATO membership is discussed. The political mood is optimistic, Europe is gradually becoming a unity. He feels important, earns a high income, everybody wants to be his friend and he marries a beautiful lawyer.

But then things go wrong. Robert’s party only receives a small number of votes in the elections, and he loses his mandate. To make matters worse, his wife also loses her job. For months they have to get by on a small student grant she still receives. Robert sits at home. Nobody visits, nobody calls. His so-called friends fail him now he isn’t successful anymore. He starts to feel depressed.

When he hears mayoral elections will be held in his hometown of Kübekháza, he immediately seizes this opportunity to start a new life. He is up against four other candidates, but Robert holds a trump card. Thanks to his grandfather, he knows that Kübekháza was a flourishing village before the communists came and that everything came to a standstill after. Since the fall of the Wall nothing has improved, the village looks as if there has just been a war: there is a lot of debris and scarcely any facilities. Many people have problems with alcohol and the general mood is one of lethargy.

As part of his electoral platform, Robert promises to build up the village so the people can be proud again of the place where they live. His plan works, he obtains three-quarter of the vote and the very next morning at seven o`clock he is ready to get started. Mud roads are asphalted, in the village square a picturesque little park is built with a small bridge over a pond, surrounded by fresh, green grass. Together with the villagers, he builds a new school and next to it a well-maintained community centre. There, children play games after school, and the elderly have their blood pressure measured or just come to drink a cup of tea. He hangs security cameras on the streets, and on the site of the cafe where alcoholism used to be rampant, he places an actual fitness centre.

After a few months, he can walk on the neatly laid pavement, feeling satisfied with how things have improved. In the mayoral residence, he calls his wife who is still living with her parents in Szeged to do her PhD. It’s the day before Christmas. ‘Sweetheart, what time will you get here tomorrow?’ he asks. Her answer cuts through his soul: ‘I’m not coming. I won’t ever come again. I want a divorce.’ He has worked so hard in Kübekháza that he forgot to pay attention to his own wife! The days after that he is sitting alone, with their small dog at his feet, while the village celebrates Christmas and New Year’s. He drops to his hands and knees, and bangs his head against the hard floor.

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Árpád became one of the walking symbols of a united Europe with open borders by chance. And it certainly hasn’t done his own town any harm: tourism in Sopron is flourishing. From all over Europe – and beyond – people come to visit the small border town, and not just for the picturesque streets. Sopron is bursting with dental clinics, one more luxurious than the next. The city prides itself on having more dentists per capita than any other city in the world. Not surprisingly, most clinics have more foreign than Hungarian clients. Because no matter how luxurious the practice is, a treatment in Hungary always still costs much less than in Austria, Germany or the Netherlands. Travel agencies even offer actual 'dental holidays' to Sopron: travel, root canal treatment and hotel stay together in one package.

Sopron may have heralded the end of the Iron Curtain with the historic picnic in August 1989, but this did not mean that the borders were now simply open or that Hungarians could just go to Austria to work. It was not until 2007 that the free movement of goods and persons between Hungary and the other European countries would begin. The run up to it was long and had already started just after World War II, when Winston Churchill, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer and other politicians began talking about their almost utopian ideal of European unification. Not that Hungary had anything to do with it at that point – there was still a long way to go. The talks did concern Austria, just like Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

In June 1985, these five countries came together in a castle in the small Luxembourgian village of Schengen, near the tri-border area of Belgium, Luxembourg and France. They discussed a plan so ambitious that it had long seemed impossible: they wanted to more or less eliminate the borders between their countries. It wasn’t that long ago that the same boundaries had been established through bloodshed, and now these five countries – former enemies even – wanted to get rid of barriers and passport checks.

Of course, their motives weren’t wholly idealistic. The five states were looking forward to all the economic benefits that the freedom of movement would bring them. But this prospect did go hand in hand with the idealistic dream of a united Europe.

On 14 June 1985, the Ministers of these countries signed a historic treaty on a ship in the Moselle, near the castle. The Schengen Area became a reality. At first, it was only an agreement between five countries, but in fits and starts, the area of open borders was expanding. Just before Christmas in 2007, it led, for example, to another meeting of leaders in their best suits in another tri-border area, this time in Zittau near the border of Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. Chancellor Angela Merkel opens, together with the then Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk (now President of the European Council) and José Manuel Barroso (then President of the European Commission), a red and white barrier. Children, warmly dressed in hats and scarves, fly balloons with the European flag.  From that day on, EU citizens are free to travel from Gibraltar near the south of Spain to the Arctic Circle in Finland; and from the westernmost tip of Brittany to Kübekháza in Hungary. The Iron Curtain that had divided Europe into East and West for such a long time has now been definitively evaporated, the remaining barriers pointing redundantly to the sky. 

4. The barbed wire is back (2015/2016)

After six therapy sessions with a spiritual father, Robert Molnár’s marriage eventually survives. His wife moves to Kübekháza, and although she initially seems to be barren, they have three children. However, his marriage crisis has set him thinking. No longer does he want to be ruled by prestige and appearances. One day, his Bible opens at ‘Turn not to the right hand nor to the left: remove thy foot from evil’. He takes this as a new mission. Until then he had been a right-wing politician, now he wants to focus on the people who really need him.

On Monday 13 July 2015, Robert is called by a farmer’s wife on the outskirts of the village. ‘Mayor, they are destroying my land!’ she shouts through the receiver. He is startled and asks her what is going on. ‘The soldiers! They are driving with large trucks over my yard.’ The trucks are full of Concertina wire, the fearsome barbed wire topped with razor blades, which is ironically named after a small, sweet-sounding accordion. The job is done fast and efficiently. Three rows deep and four meters high, the soldiers roll out wire miles a day, completely closing the border.

Robert immediately starts writing a letter to the Minister of the Interior, Pintér: ‘They come here, unannounced, to build a fence on municipal land, destroying the farmers’ estates along the way, whereas you have to apply for planning permission for every single dormer.’ Robert is furious. But there are more than just practical concerns. Of course, he had already heard about the government plans to protect Hungarians with barbed wire against Muslims. It immediately made him think of the history of Europe: the Gulag, Auschwitz, but especially the Iron Curtain.

A fence against others always brings a curse upon the people, he is convinced of that. During Communism, he saw how isolation leads to hate, not just against the people outside but also among the people themselves. ‘If we just leave the fences there, if we don’t crush them, we brand Hungary’s future,’ Robert writes to Prime Minister Orbán. He does not receive an answer.

Robert does understand how fear can take hold of people like Viktor Madarász: he thinks the government paints a picture of hostile hordes outside the Hungarian borders, to divert attention from internal troubles. Politics and media tell lies about refugees: they are said to come here to plant bombs and that they are carrying diseases. Prime Minister Orbán has, for example, ordered television makers only to film young men, and no women or children. And what about those enormous billboards along the highway reading ‘If you come to Hungary, you must uphold Hungarian culture’. That’s really a government PR-campaign at the expense of people in need. The government is only concerned with power and the next elections. The migrants are just extras. Robert is convinced that, since the fall of the Wall, Hungary has never sunk so low.

When a society is not based on charity and public spirit, it will collapse. Granted, for Robert, God is a crucial source of inspiration in this regard, yet he is also critical of the church. He lowers a big screen that is used for film nights in the community centre. The screen shows the image of a German village after World War II. A train full of Jews on its way to a concentration camp stops near the small church for a few minutes. The churchgoers hear desperate screams coming from the train, but the pastor urges his congregation to sing louder to drown out the cries for help. When the clip is finished, tears well up in his eyes. He is touched by the similarities with the present: people are in need and the government and church are shouting them down by spreading fear.

When Árpád sees on television the flow of refugees that want to enter Europe, it makes him think of the Árpád of thirty years ago. Just like that day in August, many years ago, the soldiers at the European borders nowadays have to deal with massive crowds, with panic, with people carrying children. Those people don’t listen; they are coming, and they are unstoppable. Árpád feels connected with the border guards at the new fences because he knows how it feels to have to decide the fate of desperate people.

And yet, the man who, disobeying orders, opened the largest barrier of Europe – the Iron Curtain – one generation ago, even this man supports Orbán’s decision to close off Hungary with new fences and barbed wire. Árpád calls it a necessary evil. And he isn’t the only one: 87 percent of the Hungarian population stands behind that decision, according to independent polls. The fences around Hungary are necessary to protect the country – or even the whole of Europe – against the hordes of refugees that would otherwise flood the nation, Árpád thinks. How can you guarantee the security of your country when you have no idea who is roaming around in it? If someone wants to come in, they have to follow the rules of the country. Therefore refugees must register – but they don’t want to do that. They don’t listen. Why do they insist on going to German? Are they really here because they had to flee their own country?

Árpád had expected that the EU would have come up with a plan. He can still get worked up about it: while Hungary was flooded with strangers for months, Europe did nothing. So Hungary had to make up its own mind. The country made a decision and Árpád supports it. What else could it have done? And thus, while in Árpáds army years the border posts and barbed wire served to keep the Hungarians in, nowadays, they are there to keep the unknown out.

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Robert walks through the mud to the new fence. The coils of barbed wire, the watch tower: no one can deny the similarities with the Iron Curtain. The soldier standing guard is looking bored: the last couple of days hardly any refugees have arrived. His arms hang loosely around his big weapon. Robert lets his hand rest on the soldier’s shoulder for a moment. Behind him is a portable toilet, which Robert has arranged to be put there. The mayor might be against the fence, but he still wants the situation to remain decent for the soldiers. Days when many refugees arrive are difficult, the border guard says. He saw desperate families walking towards him, but had to stop them. At such moments, he just turned off his feelings.

The soldier’s phone goes off. A call from the watchtower in Romania. The heat sensors have detected people on the border, maybe a refugee? ‘No, no, it’s just the mayor. No worries.’

Robert stands still at the place where three stones symbolise the tri-border area. Since he became mayor, he has organised a Pan-European picnic for Hungarians, Serbs and Romanians, every year in May. He thinks it is important to maintain warm relationships and is, therefore, good friends with the mayors on the other side of the border. But the main goal of the picnic is to symbolise an open Europe, just as the first Pan-European picnic did, 26 years ago. It is very doubtful whether the European Picnic will continue next year. At the moment, Hungary’s fence ends in the empty fields around Kübekháza, but it can be extended along the Romanian border at any moment. The posts have already been placed in the ground.


Eleven months after the barbed-wire fence was erected in Kübekháza, a lot has changed in Europe. The mood is very different: Angela Merkel’s slogan ‘Wir schaffen das’ has started to sound weak, even when it comes from her mouth, as an invocation against everyone’s better judgement. Merkel’s popularity in her own country and her position as the moral compass of the entire free West has crumbled.

In the Netherlands, too, only a faint echo of the warm ‘Refugees Welcome!’ can be heard. Refugees are met by people with boxes of used shoes and sleeping bags, but also by protestors who have started to use a pig’s head as a mascot.

In the meantime, Viktor Orbán has extended the fence along the border with Croatia. The Concertina wire proved effective: it had become almost impossible for refugees to get into Hungary. All this was followed by a chain reaction. Germany reintroduced border checks; the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark followed suit. Slovenia built a fence along the Croatian border and Austria is openly talking about gates at the Brenner pass with Italy. It would be the first border gate between Schengen countries.

Early 2016, the estate agent Engel & Völkers put a building with a ‘rich history’ on the market on their Luxembourgian website. The castle of Schengen was for sale, and it is difficult to ignore the symbolism. In February this year, ‘Château de Schengen’ was sold for 11 million euros.

Amsterdam, June 2016


Text: Adinda Akkermans, Catrien Spijkerman
Video: Emmie Kollau (direction, camera, edit, sound), Mira Zeehandelaar (direction), Fabian Krausz (camera) 
Music: Bram Kniest
Text editor: Frank Westerman
Corrections: Else Kemps
Interpreters: László Nagy, Katarina Durica
Translations: Hermien Lankhorst
Thanks to: Árpád Bella, Róbert Molnár

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