In the latest issue of the Budapest Times (volume 7, issue 33-35, dated 10-30 August 2009) there is a long interview with Walburga Habsburg Douglas, youngest daughter of Otto von Habsburg, the last Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince, in which she talks about the role she played in the 1989 revolution.
On 19 August that year, Walburga Habsburg as secretary-general of the Pan-European Union and her father’s representative, arranged a “Pan-European picnic” in Sopron where she symbolically used a wire cutter to make cuts to the fence separating Austria from Hungary, literally cutting open the Iron Curtain. The event had been planned as a symbolic meeting between Austrians and Hungarians by Walburga, her father, Hungarian human right groups and the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum. The fact that they were joined by Imre Pozsgay, leader of the reformist communists, turned it into a larger event. He persuaded the Hungarian government to let a gate at the border stay open for four hours and that border guards would pretend not to notice those illegally crossing the frontier.
A large numbers of refugees from East Germany were at this time stuck in Hungary and many of them took the opportunity to escape through Austria to West Germany. An estimated 660 refugees escaped through the “symbolic gate” at Sopron that day, while some 1,400 managed to cross the border elsewhere that day. The event has been considered a trial for the general opening of the Hungarian border on 11 September.
In the interview, Douglas rejects the journalist’s suggestion that she may have been concerned that events might get out of hand and turn ugly: “I am not somebody who is afraid. The evening before we considered whether everything could get out of hand. But then we said: ‘Even if it gets out of hand, the main thing is that the broad direction is right.’ Together with other organisers we simply didn’t have the feeling that anything bad could happen. We intuitively sensed that there was no danger. In that respect we relied not least on our Hungarian co-organisers”.
She also claims that it was only later when she heard of the GDR leader Honecker’s rage that she realised the significance of what they had done: “We didn’t realise that our border opening would ultimately lead to the opening of the Iron Curtain. In the concrete situation my primary aim was to help as many people as people [sic, should be: possible] out of their difficult situation. I didn’t anticipate the possibility of doing politics on the world stage. I was happy that I could help people in need based on the principles of my organisation and not least my inner conviction. When I gradually realised what it could all lead to I was even more enthusiastic. For many years my social involvement had been directed towards finally getting rid of the dreadful Iron Curtain. On 19 August I was not yet fully aware of the significance of the events. It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. I simply did what my conscience dictated. I only really realised the significance of the event two days later when by chance I heard a German-language broadcast by Radio Moscow. An interview with SED chairman Honecker was being broadcast in which he spoke incredibly angrily and disparagingly about our picnic. That’s when I realised what a major blow the event was to the East German regime and that it must have really hit home”.
Now married to a Swedish count, Walburga Habsburg Douglas was elected to the Swedish Parliament for the Conservative Party in 2006. Her father, the former Crown Prince, will be 97 this autumn. The interview in its entirety can be read here: