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Iron Curtain Border Guard Watches New Walls Rise

As a border guard in 1989, Arpad Bella personally opened a portion of the Iron Curtain between Hungary and Austria to a crowd of East German refugees. Today, while migrants rush to the gates of Europe, he sadly watches history run backward.

Arpad Bella, the man who first opened the Iron Curtain
Arpad Bella, the man who first opened the Iron Curtain
Doan Bui

SOPRON Sometimes photographs speak for themselves. This one, for instance, in black and white in an old yellowed issue of Stern magazine that retired border guard Arpad Bella has kept safe all these years. There he is, a much younger version of himself, standing in uniform next to a barrier at the border between Hungary and Austria, in Sopron. The wall is open and Bella allows through a crowd of people lining up to cross. They are Eastern Germans, and that was in 1989.

These pictures of crowds crossing through barbwire gates resemble other, more recent photographs — from this year, in fact. From Syria and Iraq come the same scenes of distraught exodus, but 26 years later.

Bella has changed. He's aged and his hair has gone gray, his uniform now boxed away with mothballs. He still lives in Sopron, at the border with Austria, the same border that refugees are desperately trying to reach to make it to the West.

"Every evening, we watch the news with my wife," he says. "These images that are shown over and over again haunt me. It's as if the past has suddenly returned."

Albert Camus wrote, "History repeats itself, like a bleeding mouth that merely vomits forth a wild stammering." History stammers, jolts, cries, those exiled have another face, but it's as if the film were rewinding.

In the home of the man who long ago opened up a first section of the Iron Curtain, there's a entire series of official photos. Bella with Angela Merkel, Bella with Helmut Kohl. And there's a "without borders" diploma for the border guard who helped open one up.

Grenzenlos, or European utopia, seems so far away today. Border. The word is now on everyone's lips, from Paris to Berlin to Budapest in a Europe that is imploding, facing the most serious crisis in its post-war history.

El Dorado

On Aug. 19, 1989, Arpad Bella was on guard at Sopron's border post. The air was very heavy that day, and there was a stormy, almost electric atmosphere. There had been East German refugees around the city all summer. Tens of thousands of them were camping there, at the foot of the wall. So close to their El Dorado. Hungary had been known for being the "merriest house" of the Soviet camp and for the past few years it was here, in this pretty region of lakes and forests, that people found themselves between East and West, where Trabant cars made in East Germany mixed with Mercedes of West Germany.

The Iron Curtain, that wall of electrified barbwire, was still there, of course. But it already had a considerable number of holes: in July, the government had discreetly started dismantling portions of it, all the while saying it was monitoring the borders.

That day, the pacifist "Pan-European Picnic" association had decided to invade the Sobron post and symbolically open its gate for two hours. It was just one small delegation that would make the return trip from Austria with a brass band. In any case, that's what Arpad Bella's superiors told him, elliptically ordering him to "handle the situation." Later that morning, Bella saw them arrive. The "small delegation" was in reality a long line of men, women and children, hundreds of people, all hurtling towards the Austrian border.

"Normally, my job was to defend this border, prevent them from crossing," Bella remembers. "Even if it meant using force, or even opening fire." That day, he was taken by surprise and hadn't really had time to think. But his heart decided not to shoot. As many as 600 East German refugees crossed the border, and photos of the event traveled around the world.

Bella was upbraided the next day, and the border guard management even opened an investigation on him for "helping Germans illegally cross the border and not ensuring order." Bella feared he would be sent to jail, but his decision preceded history. In the following days, the stream or refugees continued, and the Hungarian government kept quiet. In the following months, 100,000 East German refugees crossed the border. The first wall fell, and the one in Berlin would follow in September.

A European fortress

Today, after the passage of 26 years, the same Hungary that once solemnly thanked Chancellor Helmut Kohl, declaring that "the land on which the Brandenburg Gate stands is Hungarian," has become the leader of a European fortress. Government spokeman Zoltan Kovacs retorts: "The historical comparison is ridiculous," he says. "The German refugees were European, Christians like us. Unlike these migrants who come from the Middle East."

Read that: Muslims. "They don't even have identification documents," he adds. "Who can say they aren't terrorists?"

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, backed by his Slovakian or Czech counterparts, tirelessly repeats that the country must say no to refugee quotas that Europe wants to impose, "defend ourselves" against the "invasion," and thus barricade the country from the rest of Europe.

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Refugees in Hungary marching towards the Austrian border — Photo: Joachim Seidler

The countries of the former Eastern Bloc, which used to be locked up behind walls, fear refugees, forgetting that hundreds of thousands of their own citizens were also once refugees who obtained the right to asylum in France or Germany. Slovakia has declared that the EU is no longer safe because of the "flood of migrants." The Czechs are campaigning for the reinstatement of borders in the open-border Schengen Area. And Hungary is building walls.

Apart from what has been broadcast on television, Bella hasn't seen the new wall at the Hungary-Serbia border. "When I was little, my father told me that over there, too, there had been a wall," he says. "The entire zone was mined. After World War II and the clashes between Tito and Stalin, the border became militarized, with bunkers. The army was constantly patrolling." There were mines around Sopron, too, and many people died. They also say that an entire herd of goats once exploded on a minefield, which is now covered in pines. The Iron Curtain was impassable.

"There were many escape attempts by East German citizens. Almost none managed to cross. The entire zone was locked down," Bella says.

The wall had two parts. A lower fence and, above, a row of electrified barbwire. "The lower fence was to prevent animals from getting near, which would have continuously triggered the alarm," he says. "Every time it rang, a patrol showed up." There were watchtowers every 10 kilometers. Some are still there, abandoned, like sinister silhouettes disfiguring the green countryside. The now-empty barracks where the border guards slept are also ghosts of the Iron Curtain era.


Today, the new wall at the Serbian-Hungarian border, which runs across 175 kilometers, was also built in two parts. A first fence of barbwire and a three-meter-high wall. For now, it's not electrified. "Someone will try to climb it," Bella says. "When there's a wall and people who want to cross on the other side, it's inevitable."

We met him on Sept. 4, and the following days proved him right. On Sept. 6, at the Serbian-Hungarian border, thousands of anti-riot policemen turned up to patrol with loud sirens. On Sept. 14, the government declared a state of emergency and the army was called to the rescue, to "secure" the place. On Sept. 15, in front of cameras from all over the world, the border, the last passageway still open around the railway, was "sealed."

"The border will be impassable," Orban said. He also announced he would build a second wall, at the border with Romania, for fear that refugees would try to cross further north. On Sept. 17, Hungary announced it would even erect a wall at the border with Croatia. There were incidents between police forces and refugees blocked behind the barbwire. There were grenades, water cannons and injuries on both sides. Asked whether the police will be allowed to open fire, Orban eluded the question. "They won't have to. The wall will be hermetic."

Bella doesn't believe that. "Of course they'll be led to open fire," he says. "Their job is to defend the territory. They'll have to make a choice. And I wouldn't want to be in their shoes."

Once again, Bella was right. The Hungarian Parliament authorized them to shoot "on the condition that the shots are not deadly."

Bella sometimes has the impression that history sank too quickly for him. "I was born with the wall," he says. "I never imagined I'd see the Iron Curtain fall. And then 1989 came long. It all changed so fast. I didn't think my children would work in Switzerland or Austria, that we'd be able to cross borders as we please. That something like the Schengen Area would exist. We've now entered a new cycle. Maybe we're back to the era of walls."

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