Sopron is among the few Hungarian towns where history literally can be traced. From the Celts through the Romans to the Hungarians left their imprint here to the future. Memories of the recent events can be detected during a walk in the downtown, as well.
Findings from the early stone, copper and bronze ages prove that the region was settled in prehistoric times. In the Roman era a city named Scarbantia stood at the crossroads of the north-south Amber Road and the old east-west main road.
This city’s forum lay at the location of today’s Main Square. During the period of mass migration the once prosperous Scarbantia declined to become a lifeless city of ruins; a new settlement was created here only after the Hungarians took over the territory of their future country.
From the 9th to the 11th centuries the old Roman city wall was completed and a castle built. During this period the city acquired the name Suprun after one of its sheriffs. The locality is mentioned as an important fortress as early as 1153. In the 13th century the settlement that grew up below the fortress acquired the status of a city. The legal document – the patent – proving this and contains the privileges awarded to the city dates back to the Czech-Hungarian war. In 1273 the Czech king Ottokar II occupied the castle by treacherous means. Although King Ottokar took the children of the leading townsmen as hostages, in 1277 Sopron opened its gates to King László IV, who thus succeeded in winning the city back, in return for which he made Sopron a royal free city. The document was an important step in the developments that eventually led to Sopron becoming in the 15th century one of Hungary’s most important cities.
Neither could the wars against the Turks restrict the city’s growth. In 1529 the Turks devastated the city, but it did not fall under Turkish domination. Many were those who fled to Sopron from the surrounding occupied territories. The city thus gradually became the focal point of those territories that had not fallen under Turkish rule and its role was to absorb European culture and pass it on to the country which had disintegrated into three separate parts. The importance of Sopron at that time is shown by the fact that theNational Assembly was held here in 1553, 1622, 1625, 1635 and 1681. Moreover, Sopron became a centre for the spread of the Reformation in Hungary. The city became the home of a Protestant lyceum as early as 1557, the spiritual influence of which spread throughout Transdanubia. This intellectual strength was characterised by Kristóf Lackner, the learned mayor of Sopron, who in 1604 founded the first Hungarian scientific society. Sopron’s frontier location did not however offer only advantages. The troops of István Bocskai devastated the city in 1605, and in the ensuing decades the citizens of Sopron strengthened their city even more, building new fortifications and walls around it.
In 1676 Sopron was afflicted by a great fire which destroyed large parts of the city. The old mediaeval buildings were thus replaced by buildings in the Baroque style. It was then that city centre as we know it today was constructed together with the new watchtower for advance warning of fires. The basically homogenous Baroque city was renewed not merely outwardly. In the 18th century the city advanced in culture and living style just as much as it progressed in its architectural development.
In the following century the achievements of the Hungarian age of reform and of the leading political figures of the time era hastened the city’s development. On the initiative of Count István Széchenyi, Lord of Nagycenk, the first railway line in Transdanubia was built linking Sopron and Wiener Neustadt. As Sopron lay close to the (Austrian) border, it was occupied by Austrian troops at an early stage in the 1848 war of Independence. After this was the city’s administrative authority was extended to cover the whole of Transdanubia. The administrative functions that moved to Sopron contributed to an upswing in the period of the double monarchy that culminated in the celebration of the thousand year anniversary of Hungary’s accession to statehood. Sopron continued to develop steadily until the beginning of the 20th century, although this development was slower than in other cities of Transdanubia, so that Sopron’s economic importance declined.
In 1921, after the Treaty of Trianon, a referendum was held on the question of whether Sopron should remain with Hungary or become part of Austria. The people of Sopron voted to remain with Hungary, and from that moment on the city bears the name of “the most loyal city” (Civitas fidelissima). Since then the date of the vote – December 14th – is known as the day of loyalty and is celebrated in Sopron and in the rest of Hungary.
The redrawing of the frontier and the loss of a part of its comitat, caused the city serious problems which however were mitigated by the transfer of the academy from Schemnitz (now Slovakia) to Sopron and outstanding municipal policies in the period between the wars. During this period the city was led by Mihály Sopronyi-Thurner, the mayor who had done most for Hungary’s success in the referendum.
The city and its residents suffered terribly during World War II, in 1944-45 the city suffered several air raids. For the city and its surrounding districts the war ended on April 1. Immediately after the war Sopron was subjected to a number of coercive measures. Most of the German minority was expelled. Its location in the shadow of the Iron Curtain prevented the city from further development. In 1950 Sopron lost its role of capital of the comitat and became a district centre, but lost this status as well and ended up as the supply centre for about 40 communities in an area that could hardly be distinguished from the earlier district.
The “Iron Curtain” did not only separate Sopron and its surrounding communities from Austria, but also from the other Hungarian regions. It was not until the seventies that this isolation slowly diminished. In spite of the extensive industrial development that Sopron experienced after World War II, the city succeeded in preserving its Baroque character. In the sixties and seventies important works were carried out for the preservation of Sopron’s architectural monuments, and for the spectacular results, and for its efforts to preserve the traditions and the values of past centuries, the city was deservedly awarded the gold medal of the European prize for the preservation of monuments. To this day the public image of Sopron is that of a city of historic monuments. Sopron takes second place only after Budapest for the number of its historic monuments. The city is known far and wide for its fire tower, its enchanting Main Square from which rises the column of the Trinity, the “Goat Church”, the General’s house and the Fabricius house – all of them architectural jewels of past centuries – and these are but a fraction of all the monuments the city has to offer.
In 1991 Sopron became the principal city of the comitat in which it is located. In accordance with this special function the range of municipal services it offers is extremely wide.
Author: Dr. habil. Tóth Imre PhD.
Loyalty and freedom! – these are the two noble ideals enshrined in the history of Sopron. Sopron has proven its loyalty not once, but twice. For many years however its striving for freedom was however shackled by the Iron Curtain right before its gates.
In the Communist era the city was surrounded by barbed wire until finally this whole system collapsed, on August 19th 1989 on the Pius Puszta close to Sopron.
The remembrance of this date and place is inextinguishably engraved on the hearts of many. And the name: Pan-European Picnic. Several hundred citizens of the GDR, huge numbers of East German families broke through the frontier during the event and reached the West, that for them meant freedom. In retrospect it is perhaps not too bold to view this event as the end of one era and the beginning of a new one. For the first time – and for ever - the Iron Curtain was torn down. And this opened the door to the reunification of Europe.
Today, at the scene of the forcing of the frontier, close to the road to St Margarethen, stand the monumental sculptures named “Breakthrough” created by Miklos Melocco, that were inaugurated in 2009. The message graven on them is the following: “On August 19th 1989 an enslaved people opened the gates of its prison so that another enslaved people could walk out into freedom”. This is the first public monument in Hungary to the change of regime.
In 2011 the Commemorative Park “Pan-European Picnic” was refurbished: a stage was built, footpaths were laid, information boards were installed, and tables and benches were provided. In 2014 Hungary submitted the park as a candidate for the European Heritage prize. The scene of this historic event is not only a favoured destination for tourists, but also a place of pilgrimage for the East German refugees of that time and their relatives.
This year we are celebrating the 25th anniversary, and a special organising committee comprising representatives of several ministries and specialised agencies has assumed responsibility for a dignified celebration.
Further interesting information can be found at www.paneuropaipiknik.hu