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Opening doors to the past

The fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification: Szilárd Mészáros from Hungary responded to our call and told us why East-West German history not only plays a role in his home country – but also motivates him personally.

In the summer of 1989, a remarkable event took place near Szilárd Mészáros’ home town in Hungary which helped to pave the way for German reunification. Members of opposition groups had invited people here to Sopron (Ödenburg) for a “Pan-European Picnic”. At this location in north-west Hungary, a border gate between Hungary and Austria was symbolically opened for a few hours on 19 August 1989. The organisers of the picnic had planned to use the event to promote the idea of a Europe without borders, and the Hungarian government had given its approval for the gathering. Around 700 East Germans took advantage of the opportunity to cross the border and reached the West that way.
“Thirty years later, the picnic is still a very important topic in Sopron,” explains Szilárd Mészáros. There are commemorative events to mark its anniversary and the symbolic opening of the border is frequently discussed in schools and at home, says the 34-year-old Hungarian.

Designing interesting and meaningful exhibitions

But East-West German history not only plays an important role in Mészáros’ home town – it also motivates him. In summer 2019, as a scholarship holder, he spent time at the Agency of the Federal Commissioner for the Records of the State Security Service (Stasi) of the former GDR, or Stasi Records Agency for short, in Berlin. As a participant in an exchange programme run by the Federal Foundation for the Study of Communist Dictatorship in East Germany, he visited museums and memorials, analysed concepts for exhibitions and studied supporting materials for use in schools, all with professional supervision from the agency.

During his time in Berlin, Mészáros wanted to learn more about how exhibitions could be designed to be interesting and meaningful. The visit proved worthwhile for him: “My stay in Germany taught me a lot about content and methods,” says Mészáros.

He now plans to put everything he learnt to good use in his voluntary work with Hungary’s Common Ground Foundation. Through its work, the foundation aims to encourage citizens to come to terms with important events in Hungary’s history. One of the ways it is doing this is with a travelling exhibition, in which Szilárd Mészáros is also involved.

Doors to the past

The exhibition consists of a series of doors which are set up by the foundation in public spaces and schools. Each door is linked to a historical event or an important chapter of 20th century history in Hungary. “With this exhibition, we literally want to open doors into the past and invite people to engage with it,” says Mészáros. Hungary is still very cautious in its efforts to come to terms with the past, he says. “However, it is vital to do this in order to live together in society,” says Mészáros, who has a doctorate in law and works as a translator and interpreter at the Austrian embassy in Budapest.

The situation is quite different in Germany, he says. “I get the impression that many people there are genuinely willing to make an effort to deal with the past,” says Mészáros. In Berlin and in other places, you encounter the history of the 20th century practically everywhere you go, he says, be it at memorials, at places of remembrance or in museums.

Almost 30 exhibitions and memorials in Berlin visited

This summer, Mészáros spent a month in the German capital during his scholarship, visiting nearly 30 exhibitions and memorials relating to various chapters of German history. “They are often very well designed in terms of their topics and methods,” says Mészáros. He was particularly impressed by the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial. The Stasi’s central remand prison used to be located here.
In a special exhibition currently at the memorial, visitors can explore the hidden infrastructure of surveillance and persecution in the GDR era by walking across an aerial photograph of Berlin, on which places with a Stasi connection are marked.

For example, the photograph shows the location of more than 4,000 secret apartments where Stasi officers met up with informants. Using tablets, visitors can view videos, photos and documents and find out more about the fates of people who fell into the clutches of the secret police.

The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin
  • The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

    The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

  • The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

    The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

  • The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

    The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

  • The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

    The Stasi Records Archive in Berlin. © bstu

Communicating information more effectively

In Berlin, Mészáros also examined detailed concepts for exhibitions, which enabled him to learn more about how these could be designed and implemented. One of the exhibits that particularly inspired him was part of the Stasi Records Agency’s “Access to Secrecy” exhibition – an interactive computer screen on which visitors could piece back together a torn-up Stasi file. “While I was in Berlin, I saw lots of interactive resources like this which are able to convey information more effectively,” says Mészáros. He is hoping to incorporate some of these ideas into his work for Common Ground. Mészáros also learnt a great deal about how to make exhibition texts more understandable.

Walled in: The inner German border | DW English

A strong relationship with Germany

Mészáros has had a connection to Germany since his childhood. His mother is a German teacher and he learnt the language thoroughly at school. He went to Berlin for the first time in 2008. During that visit, he followed the former course of the Wall in the once divided city. He later returned to the German capital to undertake a work placement at the German Bundestag. And his visit this year will probably not be the last. As he could only take time for the scholarship during his holiday, his stay in Germany was limited. “If at all possible, I would love to come back and learn even more,” he says.

Author: Hendrik Bensch

Tell us your story!

Do you also have an interesting story that connects you to Germany? Tell us about it! Send an email to redaktion(at)alumniportal-deutschland.org.

October 2019

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