On Fences, or the Reversal of Historical Roles

It is a rather cynical twist in the fabric of history that a country whose (communist) elites raised up wire fences in order to preserve the nation (from the brain drain as they said), is the same country whose (nationalistic) elites are raising up wire fences in order to preserve the nation (from instability, poverty, impurity or whatever else they say in order to legitimize it).

It was a year of turmoil. Many citizens rose as one, to fight for their freedom, against an unloved and illegitimate regime. External powers came to the regime’s help and quashed the rebellion, after which scores of the regime’s opponents fled the country into the open arms of their neighbours, and towards the extended hands of people in faraway places, which many never dreamed of ever reaching.

No, the year is not 2015 and our protagonists aren’t Syrians. It is actually 1956, the Hungarian Uprising has just been extinguished by joint forces of the USSR-dominated communist bloc, and thousands upon thousands of Hungarians have fled to Austria and Yugoslavia, who extended a helping hand and maintained open borders. Many of the refugees ended up in the US and Canada – countries as far away from Hungary as Hungary is to Syria.

How peculiar it is to watch now, in a perverted trick of historical (in)justice, as Hungary is being asked to extend a helping hand to thousands of economic, war and political migrants that are fleeing destruction, corruption, poverty and conflict in Kosovo, the Middle East, North Africa and beyond, and to see the hand not only not extended but firmly closed.

A migrant woman holds her child. Photo credit: ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP/Getty Images.

The wire fence that the rabidly nationalistic and increasingly xenophobic Fidesz government is erecting at the Hungarian-Serbian border, is reminiscent of another episode from recent Hungarian political history. Not satisfied with the Iron Curtain they erected in the minds of the people of Central and Eastern Europe, communist leaders of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary started building a true iron (well, wire) curtain that would stop constant flight of their citizens to Austria, West Germany and freedom. ‘Stopping brain drain’ was how the elites legitimized it. The collective memory of Croats, as well as other citizens of Yugoslavia (including some Kosovars whose children are maybe now among those trying to pass through Hungary in search for some better future) is full of stories of Eastern Germans, Poles, Hungarians and others coming to Yugoslavia for summer holidays, business or pleasure, only to “disappear” and cross the Yugoslavia-Austria border a few days later – as economic migrants allowed to claim political asylum.

It is, therefore, a rather cynical twist in the fabric of history that a country whose (communist) elites raised up wire fences in order to preserve the nation (from the brain drain as they said), is the same country whose (nationalistic) elites are raising up wire fences in order to preserve the nation (from instability, poverty, impurity or whatever else they say in order to legitimize it). Despite this deplorable policy being wrapped up in the narrative of the EU, the Schengen agreement, and the preservation of Europe’s external borders, the crudeness of it is entirely the work of the climate of paranoia and the irrational feeling of being under siege which Fidesz and their Jobbik friends are trying to drum up future support.

Citizens of Austria, the former Yugoslavia and other countries surely aren’t embarrassed by the memory of outstretched hands their compatriots offered to Hungarians when they needed it the most. Can contemporary (democratic and pluralist) Hungarian society claim the same?

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Dario Cepo

Dario Čepo is a political scientist, teaching Introduction to Political Science and Introduction to Sociology at the University of Zagreb's Faculty of Law. He is author of a book Political Institutions of the European Union, published by Plejada in Zagreb in 2013.