History is often remembered in an iconic photograph, and so it was when the Foreign Ministers of Austria, Alois Mock, and Hungary, Guyla Horn, met on June 27, 1989 on the border near Sopron, and with giant lopping shears, cut through the high barbed wire fence strung between cement pillars that was the Iron Curtain.
It was a seminal moment – captured by Austrian AP photographer Bernhardt J. Holzner, – a full six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, underscoring Hungary’s growing independence from the Soviet Union and the durability of Austro-Hungarian ties.
It was also staged. According to Holzner, the electricity had been turned off in April and in May, border guards began removing the fence in sections. But Mock, with a keen sense of political momentum and the power of an image, persuaded Horn to reenact it for the camera, and thus for newspaper readers around the world. Over the summer, some 900 East Germans vacationing in Hungary, escaped through the gap to Austria.
A month later, on July 17, 1989 – 28 years to the day of this writing – Mock personally delivered the “Letter to Brussels”, Austria’s formal request for membership in the European Community. Now vice chancellor, Mock (ÖVP) had convinced socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky that joining the EU, and thus giving up the neutrality that had defined the country since WWII, was in Austria’s best interest.
A tenacious Mock then lead years of intense negotiations – all 12 member states had to agree to the terms – as well as a campaign for public support, ending in a referendum in March, 1994. A sensational two-thirds majority voted in favor of membership, setting up Austria’s formal entry into the now “European Union” the following year and earning Mock the nickname “Mr. Europe”.
The same year, Alois Mock was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, forcing his retirement from active politics, although he remained a valued advisor and elder statesman for years afterward. He died on June 1, 2017, at the age of 82.