Sunday, 6 March 2016


One of the major cities of Austria-Hungary was situated only shortly down the Danube from Vienna. During the long two hundred year Turkish occupation of upper Hungary it was indeed recognised as the capital of Hungary and, although the Hapsburg role in the final lifting of that occupation at the end of the eighteenth century brought with it a significant German presence, in 1910 this city's population was still 42% Hungarian 41% German and 15% Slovak. The name of this city was Pressburg.

Today it no longer exists.

Sure, geographically, it is still there. But its name is no longer Pressburg, it is now Bratislava. More significantly, more than 90% of the population is now Slovakian, only 3% of the population is Hungarian and the Germans have gone completely. Along with the 10% of the poulation: Hungarian, German, Slovakian or whatever which, in 1910, also identified itself as Jewish.

The Hungarians or Germans did not suffer the terrible fate of the Jews, indeed they bear their share of the blame for that fate, but they, the Hungarians and the Germans, nonetheless, as a result of the terible events of the twentieth century, had to move. To be with their own. In Hungary, or Germany. Wherever that now was.

For you cannot understand central Europe without understanding that it is not a place of fixed borders. More than 60% of 1910 Hungary now lies in one or other different Country. Slovakia certainly, but Slovenia, Romania, Ukraine as well. And the Hungarians who once lived there, admittedly generally as a minority, albeit not an insignificant minority, no longer live in these parts of their former lands. They live together with other  Hungarians. In Hungary. Because to some degree they wanted to do so but much more so because they were forced to do so. Because other nationalities wanted to live with their own as well. Somewhere. Such as in Bratislava.

We, the Brits, don't really get this. We are an Island. We know our boundaries. We have long since abandoned a claim on any part of France as our own: To force the French inhabitants there to speak English, or abandon Catholicism, or drink warm beer or, if they were not so inclined,  to baiser quelque part ailleurs.  . Equally, our major geopolitical rivals in modern times have made no serious attempt to reciprocate in malignancy. While France from Louis XIV to Napoleon and Germany from the Kaiser to Hitler were undoubtedly deadly serious about defeating us miltarily, neither had any interest in turning Kent or Sussex into part of their wider realms.

Even within the UK, while this might be a benign product of our own longstanding Union, no matter what can be said about the Independence Referendum, everyone understood where the Border would be. Exactly where it had been since long before even 1707. We talk about English people in Scotland but we really mean only those who have relocated here in adulthood and haven't yet assimilated. There is no longstanding, generations old, "English" population just as, beyond the occasional Caledonian Club or Rugby team, there is no distinctive, let alone resentful, "Scottish" minority in England, even at the border. No-one suggested, outwith the wider fringes of Scottish Nationalism, that a Yes vote would require anyone to move home (in either sense of that word) for ethnic, if not neccesarily for economic, reasons.

Even with the UK's one external land border, in Ireland, the argument has long been over whether there should be a border at all, rather than where exactly it should be drawn, and in modern times few have suggested that the border's abolition would involve any part of the current population of the North being required to leave. Indeed, more enlightened Republicans have been at pains, naively or not, to assure the North that unity could still respect their different tradition.

But central Europe is different and you can't understand the current refugee crisis in central Europe without understanding that. And the significance to the national psyche of that need to move in the past in order to stay together. Having moved, and settled, to be with their own, none of them, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Slovenians, want to be other than with their own, Not exclusively alone but certainly not in an enforced multiculturalism, a devaluation of their own distinctiveness, that they have long fought against in their struggle for "national" survival against the behemoths of Russia and Germany to their east and west.

Even more so, having themselves been driven out of elsewhere, they are fearful, perhaps irrationally, perhaps not, that if they do not defend that distinctiveness, then, one day, they might have to move again.

I'm in Hungary for the weekend and the word everywhere in the news is "határ", meaning border. Not, yet at least, the Hungarian border but the closed border between Greece and Macedonia. Last Summer, Hungary was almost overwhelmed by refugees travelling from the south. Few wanted to stay and the Hungarians were happy  to pass them on, via Austria, to their more willing recipients in Germany. But this year the Germans are not as willing, yet Hungary is still on the route. This year, with the virtual collapse of Schengen, who is to say that those who get from Macedonia to Serbia and then Serbia to Hungary will just as easily pass on into Austria?

So few here want the Macedonian border opened. They see the same pictures of misery as us, but they have hardened their hearts to it. This, as far as they are concerned, is a fire in respect of which they had neither part in starting nor say over Merkel's decision to pour fuel on the flames.

You will have gathered from the above that I am not completely unsympathetic to the central European states.

But equally we can't simply ignore the humanitarian crisis the refugees represent. It can't however be Hungary's crisis and it certainly can't be Greece's crisis either. Patently, the refugees don't want to come to Greece, or even Hungary. They want to come to Northern Europe. That's where, no matter how unwisely, with the benefit of more than hindsight, they were told they would be welcome. And that's where the welcome is being withdrawn. That's where the money is that is drawing them. And, no matter how inadequate that solution will be for the refugees compared to their desired resettlement in the rich north, that's where the money for an at least palatable solution needs to be found.

Not in wishing the central Europeans to be more "British" or in suggesting, hypocritically, that if Britain was shrunken in size and relocated to the Danube basin, endowed with an impossible language as the chief mark of our nationality and fearful of the disappearance of our already minority culture, that we would nontheless find ourselves being altogether more sympathetic to the refugees. People, with respect to them,  with no knowledge of our history, culture or tradition; indeed with no desire to be among us at all other than the fact that, potentially having arrived here, they then might not be able to get to somewhere else.

Refugees need to be dealt with at the first point at which they arrive safely, And if we acknowledge our humanitarian obligation as we ought to then the whole of the world community that can afford it should be bearing the cost of that. And certainly not looking away while turning our noses up at the only choices then open otherwise to those left in the front line.

So, as I've said before the solution lies on the borders of Syria or, if all else fails, in Greece. But with us all paying for it.

The Hungarians are right. There has to be a határ. And sometimes borders do need fences.


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