Night Train To Freedom

by Jane Yager


Schengen is a sleepy, well-groomed village set against the vineyards of the Mosel wine region, where the borders of Germany, France, and Luxembourg meet. To reach it by rail, visitors must take the Regionalbahn from Trier to Perl, a German town on the opposite shore of the Mosel River, then walk over a bridge, crossing the unchecked border into Luxembourg. It was under this bridge, aboard a riverboat, where officials from Germany, France, and the Benelux countries signed the Schengen Agreement in 1985, establishing a five-country borderless zone at the heart of Western Europe that has since ballooned to include twenty-five countries. The word Schengen has become a global synonym for open borders.

The town draws modest crowds of day tourists. People on bicycle tours of the wine region, many of them still dressed in their gear, stop by for the town’s border-themed attractions. Visitors can stroll past commemorative pillars and a lone slab of the Berlin Wall along the riverside Europe Promenade, or add “love lock” padlocks to an EU-themed sculpture to show their affection for the idea of open borders. Until recently, the region only produced Riesling grapes, but global warming has made its summers hot and dry enough for other white varietals. Cheerful travel articles declare Mosel vintners “winners in climate change,” praising the sweetness of the CO2-fattened grapes and looking forward to a future when the region is warm enough for Mediterranean reds.

The main attraction is the European Museum Schengen, which opened in 2010. Its permanent exhibit on the history of borders displays boundary stones, border control officers’ caps, and passport pages filled with European stamps — all displayed as if they were Neolithic artifacts. In a looping video montage, smiling people from around the word utter the word “Schengen” one after the other; it’s a bit like Disney’s It’s a Small World as drably reconceived by Brussels bureaucrats.

The museum comes across as a shrine to free movement and a blithe assertion that borders are relics of the past. In a phrase typical of the subtle oddness of E.U. English, the museum proclaims the “collective we-feeling” of the 400 million residents of the Schengen area. Two of the items behind glass have been assigned to the display-case past especially prematurely: a Hungarian border police uniform, complete with riot vest and baton, and a looped coil of barbed wire from the Iron Curtain. Both seem less like vestiges than reminders of how quickly the Schengen countries have lost their “we-feeling” toward the refugees now arriving in Europe.

When Keleti Station in Budapest opened its wrought-iron gates on September 3, 2015, to the Syrian and Afghan refugees who’d been camped outside it for days, people rushed inside to board waiting trains. Faced with announcement boards, police, and conductors who refused them information, they simply guessed. One train seemed especially promising: adorned in silhouettes of jubilant people skipping past severed barbed wire in a summer meadow, it bore the logo “Pan-European Picnic 1989–2014: 25 years of Europe without borders.” The exhausted refugees crowded onto this auspicious-looking train, and it departed westward.

The train was designed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of when the border near Sopron, Hungary — an Iron Curtain in metaphor, a barbed-wire fence in reality — opened for a few hours so that locals from both sides could enjoy a picnic together. (The event, in 1989, was inspired by a speech given by Otto von Habsburg, the son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor and leader of the pan-European movement, invoking a soaring vision of a Europe without borders.) A group of East German refugees took advantage of the event to crash the border. In the European popular imagination, the moment those refugees rushed through the wire fence not only triggered the series of events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but also marked the beginning of an era of the European dream of free and open travel.

The train bearing the commemorative image of that picnic never made it to the border, stopping after minutes in the Hungarian town of Bicske, where riot police ordered the passengers down onto the platform. Fearing they would be taken to camps, some refused to get off, and others flung themselves onto the tracks. European leaders bickered about what to do. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Hungary had “no option but to defend our borders” to protect “Christian” Europe from Muslims. German Chancellor Angela Merkel retorted that Europe had a shared duty to take in refugees. “No camp. No Hungary. Freedom train,” a refugee wrote in shaving cream on the side of a train car. After a day and a night, refugees broke through police lines and began walking westward; one man fell on the tracks, hit his head, and died. Another group of refugees was walking from Budapest to the Austrian border, a hundred and ten miles along the shoulder of the highway. Both groups spent the night outdoors in heavy rain until Hungarian authorities caved to international pressure and picked them up late at night in a fleet of Soviet-era buses that deposited them back out into the dark rain just short of the border. The quarter-century of open borders proclaimed on the side of the Picnic train had come to a close.

Systematic border controls and the notion of the refugee as a special legal category of migrant originated in the aftermath of World War I — before that, as writer Stefan Zweig later recalled fondly, “everyone could go where he wanted and stay there as long as he liked. No permits or visas were necessary… indeed I had never laid eyes on a passport.” As the redrawing of borders at the end of World War I caused massive population displacements and created “paper walls” that could only be crossed with the right passport, hundreds of thousands of expellees from former Hungarian territories poured into Budapest, where the city’s train stations became their long-term emergency shelters.

A century before people fleeing Middle Eastern wars slept outside the gates of Keleti Station, the world’s first modern refugee crisis converged on the train stations of Budapest. The city was “so crowded with refugees that its population [had] been doubled,” The World Tomorrow reported in 1920. “Entire families are living in one room, sometimes without any window. Railway cars have been occupied by refugee families…. Food and clothing are well-nigh unobtainable… Only as foreign aid is given can thousands of men, women and children be saved from starvation or disease.” The influx was so extreme that the stations struggled to keep functioning. In summers, the children among them boarded “child holiday trains” that carried them westward to vacations with prosperous families in Switzerland and the Netherlands. These refugees were ethnically Hungarian — they are, in Hungarian nationalist memory, “our” refugees, whereas today’s refugees are an intrusion of someone else’s problem.

In summer 2015, as the volume of refugees passing through Keleti Station grew, a state-endorsed exhibit on the plight of the Hungarian refugees opened in a the Trianon Muzeum, which is devoted to nationalist collective memory. In a salmon-colored baroque castle in Varpalota, a mining town west of Budapest, the exhibit commemorated the “life of the railway dwellers” a century ago. It restaged a cattle car where refugees lived without heat or running water, a period train station waiting room, a miniature train set and a tableau of railway workers. Photographs of thin sad-eyed children beside train cars stoked visitors’ compassion. It framed these tableaux in tricolor flag buntings, coats of arms, and a sweeping narrative of historical heroism and suffering.

The exhibit willfully ignored what was going on a short distance away in Budapest, as if to say, no, this is what refugees are, look at these children. The Hungarian government gave instructions to state-owned media not to broadcast images of refugee children, which leaked to the international press. This was a war of imagery, between hordes of young, single Muslim men (perceived as Islamists-in-wait, greedy for the spoils of European social welfare states) and innocent children fleeing war. The day after the Hungarian memo about images of children leaked, a photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi dead on a Turkish beach went viral, prompting a surge in support for the refugees’ plight that lasted for a few months. But after the Paris terror attacks and the New Year’s Eve assaults at a Cologne train station, the collective European imagination of a refugee shifted from a dead toddler to murderously religious and sexually menacing young men. E.U. policymakers began to murmur that Schengen was in question.

The central train stations of Mitteleuropa all look alike — fluorescent-lit kiosk display cases of open-faced salami sandwiches, blue announcement boards beside Germanically ubiquitous clocks, ugly mid-century mezzanines against soaring arches. It is easy to imagine Budapest Keleti and Vienna Westbahnhof and Munich Hauptbahnhof blurring together in the mind of a Syrian, were it not for the elaborate performance of contrast that these train stations had staged for arriving refugees. When those who boarded the Picnic train in Budapest eventually reached Germany and Austria several days later, through a combination of buses and trains, they received a heroes’ welcome. They stepped, bewildered, onto platforms lined with strangers who applauded them and rushed forward to shake their hands and foist foil-wrapped candies and pastel stuffed animals upon their children. Flats of bottled water and piles of donated clothes and shoes lined the stations’ walls.

These train stations set the stage for a dramatic inversion of Keleti, their kindness as a refutation of Orbán’s xenophobia. The signs that said refugees welcome also meant fuck you, Orbán. The stations’ Kids’ Corners, adorned with balloons and staffed by student volunteers who strummed guitars amidst heaps of donated toys, were a place for children to play, but they were also a jab at the Hungarian government’s ban on images of refugee children. “Watch this, Orbán! Austria says hello. Shame on you!” a German journalist tweeted late at night from a reception center in an Austrian border town where volunteers were waiting to greet rain-drenched arriving refugees with hot tea and blankets. In Dresden, where graffiti artists sprayed the words “warm welcome” in Arabic on the side of a train, a volunteer told the Telegraph he was there to help refugees because Hungary’s treatment of them was “shameful” and he was pleased that after the financial crisis, Germany was no longer being regarded as the villain of Europe.

The European night train had its heyday in the late Cold War, when borders were most explicit, when backpacking was synonymous with a Eurail pass. Iggy Pop and David Bowie rode the Berlin-Warsaw-Moscow express, and Kraftwerk infused European train travel with a dark thrill of passport controls and forbidden lands. The British new romantic group Visage’s single “Night Train” featured backing vocals by Francesca von Habsburg, daughter-in-law of Otto of the Pan-European Picnic. She crooned, “The passage / Of a carriage in the dark / On a foreign trip again.” The sense of slipping across a frontier by night was part of the train’s allure. Along the Iron Curtain, this frontier was the political line between East and West. Elsewhere, it was the boundary formed by different widths of rail gauge.

On the façade of Keleti Station, two statues flank the main entrance, positioned in arched alcoves like gods of technological progress. To the right is James Watt, inventor of the steam engine; to the left is George Stephenson, inventor of the standard-width railway gauge. Any place where two different gauges meet is a border; Stephenson’s standardized gauge was itself an early vision of borderless train travel. Today, most rail lines use the standard gauge, but narrower and broader tracks remain scattered throughout the world. Even within the E.U., the gauges still vary — most famously on the French-Spanish border. There are four crossings, all of them storied: Hendaye in the Basque country, where Franco secretly met with Hitler in the railway station in 1940; Portbou at the opposite end of the Pyrenees, where the refugee Walter Benjamin, trapped at the border, died the same year; and between them the little-used high-mountain Latour de Carol and the now-defunct Canfranc of “Dr. Zhivago” fame. Starting in 1969, new variable-gauge axles (“Talgo”) were used at Hendaye and Portbou, enabling passengers to cross the border without disembarking. The trains pulled into double-track facilities, the wagons were hoisted into the air with passengers onboard, and the axles were swapped between trains traveling in opposite directions. The Talgo gauge-changers were a technological and diplomatic marvel: an unlikely feat of cooperation between Spanish fascists and French socialists.=

In the post-Cold War era, these gauge-changing sleepers across the Pyrenees were arguably Europe’s most romantic cross-border night journey. The Paris–Madrid sleeper was called the Francisco de Goya. I took it southbound in winter 2012, down the darkened banks of the Loire and across southern France. I slept through my wagon’s suspension in the air at Hendaye, woke to the high brown plains north of Madrid and ate breakfast in the mustily white-tableclothed dining car. I could see Renaissance palaces and the walled city of Avila in the distance, and the abandoned half-built housing developments of the country’s financial crisis in the foreground. It was a great travel experience — it was cheaper than flying — and I recommended it to everyone I could, until it was permanently discontinued in 2013.

In the past three years, Europe’s night trains and cross-border day trains have suffered a massive die-off. The Francisco de Goya and all the other gauge-changers connecting Spain to France and Italy and Switzerland were gone by the end of 2013. The Sibirjak from Germany to Siberia ended service around the same time, as did the sleepers connecting Paris with Rome, Berlin and Munich. Connections from Amsterdam to Prague and Warsaw, the day train between Berlin and Vienna, the Bucharest-Sofia night train, and almost all international trains in the Baltics have halted in the past few years.

Some of these phase-outs have coincided with the opening of new high-speed lines, but the new high-speed trains are far more expensive and less numerous than the ones that have gone defunct. That cross-border routes are disproportionately affected is no coincidence. Studies of obstacles to getting more passengers on long-distance trains repeatedly cite problems with cross-border ticket purchasing and schedule coordination. When I took the sleeper from Munich to Rome a few years ago, I could not book my ticket more than a month in advance because Deutsche Bahn and Trenitalia could only agree on the line’s schedule for one month at a time. When I had to reroute my return journey because of freak flooding in the Alps, my original ticket could not be reimbursed because the German rail company insisted that my ticket be stamped at each leg of the journey with a type of stamp that Italian and Swiss conductors insisted they did not have.

In the years just before the refugee crisis, the rapid demise of cross-border trains foreshadowed something amiss in Europe’s open borders. The less the borders were said to exist, the harder it became for trains to cross them. Night trains that traversed gauge changes and border controls and the Iron Curtain could not survive the borderless Schengen area. What Spanish fascists and French leftists could coordinate together, EU member states could not; what Cold War enemies could keep running, they could not.

On December 5, 2009, several hundred European officials and environmental experts boarded a train in Brussels called the Climate Express, bound for the Copenhagen climate talks. A man in a Santa Claus suit, awkwardly balancing a golden staff and an inflatable globe, blessed the Climate Express before it pulled out of the station in Brussels. As the carbon-neutral train chugged across windmill-dotted soggy fields on its fourteen-hour journey, the mood onboard was carnivalesque. There was a magic show, and a discotheque, and a makeshift movie theater. Speeches in the snack car made heavy use of puns about the world being on the wrong track. The train was a symbol of the E.U.’s role as climate leader, and the optimism that it could save the world through diplomacy and responsible alternatives to the gas-guzzling American hegemony. It was supposed to represent the best of the European project: the iconic old-world romance of train travel, harnessed for a sleek, green future. But the Copenhagen talks were a spectacular failure, collapsing in a shitshow of espionage and national self-interest, shouting matches and accusations of sabotage. Far from providing a stage for the E.U. to shine as the world’s climate savior, Copenhagen mostly just exposed the depth of the rift between the rich countries that were disproportionately responsible for climate change and the poorer countries that were suffering from it.

However much the E.U. may self-identify as The Green Global Power, its practices now favor air and road travel over rail. (That same line of sleeper service between Brussels and Copenhagen ended in 2014.) Cross-border rail is subject to VAT, and cross-border flights are not. About $4 billion in E.U. subsidies goes to airports each year, primarily for discounts to low-cost carriers. For the first time in European history, air travel is cheaper than train travel on most cross-border routes, which means that European aviation emissions have more than doubled in the past twenty years. On paper, the E.U. has committed to cutting transportation emissions drastically; in practice, transportation is the only sector that has seen emissions rise in the past two decades.

Climate change is inextricable from border closures and refugee flow. The Syrians huddled outside the gates of Keleti Station were fleeing a war aggravated by extreme drought. Refugees who cross the Mediterranean from northern Africa in rubber boats are escaping the crop failures, livestock deaths and local resource conflicts of a shifting climate. Current international law definitions of refugee status do not include those displaced by climate change, but projections of 50 to 350 million climate refugees by 2050 have countries nervously eying their external borders. Like the U.S., the E.U. is investing heavily in border control technologies, like robots and drones for its land borders and surveillance buoys for its maritime borders. Rather than riding the Climate Express into a carbon-neutral future, Europeans flit around their walled fortress on EasyJet while pulling up the drawbridges against those who bear the brunt of their emissions.

While the modern refugee crisis escalated, the Hungarian government ordered ten thousand rolls of razor wire for a fence along its border with Serbia. Razor wire is an especially nasty variety of barbed wire, with anvil-shaped barbs designed to cut more deeply during a struggle. It first came into widespread use at the perimeters of American prisons and mental hospitals in the 1970s and has since become popular around the world in private home security. One major U.S. manufacturer, Razor Ribbon, sells it under the slogan “Make sure that the other side isn’t an option.” In 2015, German suppliers — Hungary’s nearest option at the time — refused to sell it to the Orbán regime on moral grounds. So Hungary procured its razor wire from China.

The Western Balkan migrant route follows railway lines. The lines they walk are active, and people have been killed by trains along the way. In September, Hungary unfurled its ten thousand rolls of razor wire across the Serbian border. Two weeks later, the only hole left in the fence was amidst cornfields at the Röszke-Horgós crossing, where a train was still running. “The best time to cross is between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m.,” a Syrian named Yasser told the Wall Street Journal. “You wait for the police car, which comes every 10 minutes, to clear and then you dash into the forest. Everything is dark then.” As dusk fell on September 14, Hungarian police rolled a train car fortified with razor wire between two sections of fence to shut down the rail line and plug the final gap in the fence. The panel of wire mounted on the front of the train car looked like a face, its coils sagging into a grin like some dystopian Thomas the Tank Engine.

Once the Hungarian border was sealed, the Balkan route shifted to Croatia. Hungary launched its own razor-wire manufacturing industry to meet its future border-sealing needs and for export to its neighbors. At a high-security men’s prison north of Budapest, itself encircled by razor wire, 30 inmates stamp out wire coils in two shifts. They work for a hundred euros a month, half of which goes back to the prison to cover their living expenses. They have made rolls for the southern borders of Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria. Each prisoner makes a kilometer of wire per day; each man’s shift is another increment of Europe’s sealed perimeter.

The border region between Austria and Hungary is flat, humid, and prone to summer thunderstorms. Its main feature, the reedy and mud-colored Lake Neusiedl, bears little resemblance to the crystalline Alpine lakes of Austrian stereotype. Along one of the lake’s shores runs the highway where a smuggler abandoned a refrigerated truck in late August 2015 with the dead bodies of 71 refugees. On the opposite shore is a green meadow now lined with a bike path through a nature park, where the Pan-European Picnic convened in the glasnost summer of 1989. At the time, the Cold War order was wavering, and the Iron Curtain beginning to look permeable. East Germans, sensing that Hungary was liberalizing faster than the G.D.R., camped out there in growing numbers that summer, ostensibly on lakeside vacations but actually hoping to breach the western border.

The Pan-European Picnic began as a joke. After hearing a lecture by Otto von Habsburg, Hungarian students ironically suggested continuing their conversation over a bonfire right at the border, where they would roast meat with the Austrians sitting on one side of the Iron Curtain and the Hungarians on the other side. The idea of a picnic at the Iron Curtain turned serious over the summer. Organizers were surprised to receive official permission to open the fence for the afternoon, and invitations bearing images of roses and barbed wire were handed out to villagers on both sides of the border. They set up loudspeakers, tents and platforms as international journalists and a local brass band arrived.

Just as the picnic was starting, a large group of East Germans appeared — they’d been camping nearby. Arpad Bella, who was then the commander of the Hungarian border station recalled, “As I approached them towards the gate, it became clear that they wished to go over to Austria. They have not given the chance for a second question, they pushed aside the wings of the gates and rushed through with the speed of a fast train, causing tremendous upheaval.” The guards stood aside, and the picnickers carried on with their goulash and sausages. A scheduled speaker lectured on “Thoughts at the border.” Amidst all this, more waves of East Germans kept passing through the crowd to get through the hole in the fence. The picnic “would have gone on til morning,” organizer Laszlo Nagy recalled, but for a thunderstorm that ended it abruptly. Driving away in the heavy rain, he saw the road lined for miles with parked Trabants and Wartburgs, the abandoned cars of the refugees who’d crossed the border. “The owners of the cars were not to return to them,” he said.

There is uninvited and then there is uninvited. The East German refugee border-crashers of 1989 may not have been expected, but they were considered part of the pan-European polis. The picnic of open borders was perfectly fine to carry on, and it did so for 25 years. So when millions of refugees crash a massive European picnic with the speed of a fast train, causing great upheaval, they might be taken at their word. They might be remembered as families with children rather than hungry packs of young men. But if they are the wrong sort of uninvited, their arrival could scatter the picnic faster than a summer downpour, all the soggy paper plates and waterlogged meat left behind, the bonfire turned to damp ash, everything abandoned in the haste of panic.

Photo: Peter Tkac