Isten Aldd Meg a Magyart

Many of you know that I speak Hungarian.  I spent two years living in Budapest beginning when I was 19, learned to love the country and the people, and to speak the language fluently.  Natively, almost.  I still follow Hungarian politics and (especially) sports, which means that my heart swells with joy to note that Videoton (Fehervar) is leading NB1 with 9 points from the first 3 games played this year.

But enough of that.  I want to tell you about one of my heroes.  His name is Bella Arpad (Hungarians reverse the given and family names, like the Chinese, so you’d call him Arpad if you were his friend, and Lt. Colonel Bella if you weren’t), and you’ve never heard of him.

August 20 is St. Istvan Napja (St. Stephen’s Day) in Hungary, also once called Felszabadulas Napja (Liberation Day) when the country was a Soviet satellite, the day, Hungarians joked in that fatalistic way of theirs, that Hungary was liberated from its freedom.  Twenty years ago today, on the eve of the biggest holiday on the Hungarian calendar, the Hungarian anti-communist opposition decided to hold a picnic.

The idea was that after the picnic the Hungarians would cross the border into Austria at Sopronpuszta, a crossing that had been closed since 1948, go to some historic sites – most of Austria at that crossing was once a part of Hungary – and come home.  Hungarians could, and did, cross the border into Austria fairly simply, though doing it often was not recommended, and of course some couldn’t do it at all, but as a symbolic gesture it was to have been a demonstration of growing power on the part of the opposition.

Then something wonderful happened.  Well, it’s wonderful now.  Then, it was mostly brave, and scary.

Some East Germans came to the picnic.  “Some” means 600 or so.

Now, as Hungary was definitely the most liberal, most West-leaning of the Soviet Bloc countries, so East Germany was the most conservative, the most East-leaning of them.  Getting out of East Germany to West Germany was next to impossible without a bullet in the back.  But the East Germans could go from Soviet Bloc country to Soviet Bloc country with only minor paperwork, so they came to Hungary for a picnic.  And when the time came for the Hungarians to cross the border, a whole bunch of the East Germans said they were going, too.

Here’s where my hero comes in.

Lt. Colonel Bella Arpad was on duty that day, guarding a border crossing that no one had crossed for over 40 years.  Up the road came about 150 East Germans, leaving their cars, their possessions, everything they had behind them.  They had no permission to cross, no visas, nothing but determination.

Now, to you and me, this sounds rather simple.  What’s the problem?  Just let the people go.  But you have to understand that to Arpad, this was not simple at all.  He was in charge there.  His superiors were, interestingly, on vacation or suddenly unavailable.  One of his 5 men was almost certainly an informant of the secret police.  He had no orders about any East Germans.  These were people from another country trying to use him as a bridge to get to the West, and as refusing them might lead to trouble, so letting them go could precipitate an international incident.  There were 80,000 Russian troops stationed in Hungary.  If the Soviets decided that Hungary was losing commitment to the Glorious Revolution, it would take them all of a day and a half to go through and kill everyone insufficiently committed.  There was precedent.

In 1956, Hungarians staged a great uprising against the Soviets.  Led by Prime Minister Nagy Imre and others, Hungarian students and protesters took over Budapest and had a brief – one week – festival of liberation.  Then the Soviets came back with their tanks, and crushed the rebellion.  25,000 Hungarians died.  Even owning newspapers from that event was enough to get one arrested.  I know.  I saw some of these papers, showed to me in the strictest confidence, with whispers and gestures, papers buried in storage, hidden under other, more innocuous paraphernalia.  The Hungarians didn’t forget 1956.  Hungarians still remember Mohacs, for crying out loud.  They’re still bitter about World War I.

The BEST that was likely to happen was that Lt. Col. Bella would lose his job.  And never get another one.  He could end up in prison (very likely).  His family could end up in prison, because communist governments resemble the Mafia – they take out everyone that might be contaminated by you, just as a precaution.  So here he is, at the end of a gravel road, and coming toward him is the Seventh Circle of Hell.

His weapon was loaded.  All his men were armed.  He only had to give the order.

So he didn’t.

In fact, he waved them through.  He gave directions, for crying out loud.  East Germans were running around, screaming, crying, unable to believe that they were, for the first time in most of their lives, free.  To do whatever they wanted.  Shop, work, travel, anything.  And it became obvious right away that this wasn’t some sort of aberration, a lucky break for this group that wouldn’t be tolerated again.  The East German people heard about this in about .4 seconds, and they started coming in droves.  You remember the amazing pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down?  That was three months later.  All dams eventually burst, and this one came down like all the others, but it was at Sopronpuszta that was the first serious leak.  Lt. Colonel Bella Arpad was there, and he could have plugged it.

He’s one of my heroes because he didn’t.

Hajra Magyarorszag!

P.S. Here’s the AP story on this, and it has this great passage in it:

Laszlo Nagy, one of the organizers of the picnic, was startled by the East Germans’ actions, who left behind hundreds of cars and other possessions near the border for the chance to make the short walk to a new life in the West.

“Some of them were waiting for this moment for 20 or 30 years,” Nagy said. “They left behind everything … because freedom has the greatest value.”


Thank you, my friend.

6 Responses to “Isten Aldd Meg a Magyart”

  • I love people who do the right thing just because it’s the right thing.

    Normally this is the kind of post that I skip on someone’s blog (after all it’s not about me so really I have trouble paying attention) but, you know, every once in a while you teach me something cool.

  • Paul Valenzuela says:

    Great story – I read about it yesterday in my wanderings and it is fun to see your perspective. One question – you wrote “because communist governments resemble the mafia” why use an adjective?


  • Rich Wiltbank says:

    I didn’t know this man’s name, but I definitely remember the day. I was living in France at the time and the arrival of these East Germans was covered extensively on French news. All of the French that I knew were ecstatic about the freedom that their former enemies were gaining! We became more and more surprised and gleeful as subsequent groups poured over the border.

    While growing up, I participated in many bomb drills and the fear of a nuclear war was very real, at least for a child. Later, studying International Relations and personally going through Check-point Charlie confirmed my belief that citizens of the Eastern Bloc would never walk across the border to the West.

    This day obliterated all of those long-held beliefs, as well as my belief that the French and Germans could never cheer for each other!

    I believe that this little leak which eventually caused the iron dam to break was the beginning of an out-pouring of increased goodwill towards the Germans and cooperation among all Europeans. I’m not sure where Europe would be now (sans Euro? a bloody war with the Soviets?) if this man had not listened to his conscience and let them through.

    “The gate of history swings on small hinges” – Thomas S. Monson

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