7:30 a.m., Budapest, Keleti Station
Mohammad Zatareih has woken up early. Ever since he's been forced to spend his nights inside the train station in Budapest, the 25-year-old Syrian has had difficulties sleeping. A muscular man with a fashionable goatee, Zatareih set off on his journey across Turkey to Europe six months ago and now, the strain he is under is readily apparent. For the last four days, he has been stuck here and his impatience is growing. The Hungarians have suspended all rail traffic to Western Europe and provisions at the station are getting worse and worse. What if his journey ends here? What if the Hungarians lock him up, or even send him back to Greece? Or even Turkey?
Some 3,000 refugees are camping out in the souterrain level of the train station: in tents, on mattresses and between mounds of plastic garbage and walls of cement. And with small groups of refugees singing or talking loudly late into the night, rest is at a premium.
More than 150,000 refugees had been officially registered in Hungary by the middle of August. But two weeks ago, something changed. On August 25, Germany's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) sent out a tweet, 134 characters long, saying that Germany was now accepting unregistered refugees from Syria — and since then, people have been refusing to register in Hungary. Instead, they are showing the tweet to police on their smartphones and insisting that they want to continue onward to Germany.
Mohammad Zatareih doesn't even have a sleeping bag, but he slowly stretches himself awake, gets a cup of water and begins looking around for Ahmed, who he met the day before in the crowded train station. A slight man who used to be a teacher in Damascus, Ahmed is a good talker — and he is plagued by the same impatience as Zatareih. While talking yesterday, the two began considering their options. Simply head off to the north toward Austria? Zatareih once served in the Syrian army and says "we sometimes marched 150 kilometers, even in the heat of the day. Why don't we just head for Vienna? Including breaks, we could make it two or three days."
It is an idea that will ultimately transform history, but the two didn't know that yet.
8:30 a.m., Berlin, Chancellery
In Angela Merkel's office on the seventh floor of the Chancellery, the chancellor is meeting with her closest advisors as she does every morning. Once the meeting has finished, Merkel plans to fly to Munich to visit a school in the nearby town of Landshut and then drop by a few start-ups in Munich. That afternoon, she is to make an appearance in Essen ahead of municipal elections there before delivering a speech in the evening at the 70th anniversary celebration of the North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Cologne. From the looks of her calendar, it would seem to be a normal day for the chancellor: flights back-and-forth across Germany, files to read and phone calls to make, hands to shake and photos to pose for.
But the mood this morning is tense. Two days ago, the lifeless body of a three-year-old boy in a red T-shirt was found on a Turkish beach, his face pressed into the sand. He had drowned in the Mediterranean in a failed attempt to reach Europe. Eight days before that, a truck packed with 71 dead bodies was found on the shoulder of the A4 highway in Austria: 59 men, eight women and four children, all of them suffocated. And then there are the images from the train station in Budapest that have been broadcast on German television for the last several days. To make matters worse, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said yesterday that the refugee crisis isn't a European problem, but a German one.
That view, of course, is not one shared by those inside the German Chancellery and such mutual incriminations will recur throughout the weekend. Merkel's staff believes the Hungarian government "swindled" the refugees by allowing a group of them to buy train tickets to Austria only to stop the train in Bicske, just outside of Budapest. In the morning meeting, they decide that Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert should say something about it in the government press conference later that day.
And because she has the feeling that the situation could quickly become more pressing, Merkel decides that Bernhard Kotsch, her deputy office manager, should stay with her that day. She says merely: "Kotsch has to come along."
10:30 a.m., Budapest, Keleti Station
Mohammad Zatareih is finally able to locate his new friend Ahmed, who he finds pleading with a group of refugees to start marching westwards. If at least 1,000 of us set out, nobody will stop us, he says to enthusiastic nods from Zatareih. The megaphone bought by a Hungarian aid worker the day before suddenly appears and Ahmed rides through the crowd on the shoulders of a companion shouting: We're marching! We're marching! We're leaving at 12 o'clock!
11:30 a.m., Berlin, Federal Press Conference
In early September, more than 100,000 refugees are traveling along the Balkan route between Greece and Hungary, but in Berlin, the government has completely underestimated the importance to those refugees of the tweet sent out by BAMF. Merkel is still insisting that those refugees who have reached Hungary be registered there — but they no longer want to be. Every day, chants of "Merkel! Merkel! Merkel!" or "Germany! Germany! Germany!" echo through the souterrain level of Keleti Station in Budapest.
Nevertheless, in accordance with the discussion during the morning meeting in the Chancellery, Steffen Seibert once again insists to journalists in that day's press conference that Hungary has "the legally binding obligation" to "properly register the refugees, to provide for them and to carry out asylum proceedings in Hungary in accordance with European standards." The German government, Seibert says in a tone that for him sounds almost threatening, "assumes that Hungary, as a part of the Western community of values, will meet its legal and humanitarian obligations just as Germany has."
Prevailing law, European standards, humanitarian obligations — such are the terms being invoked by German politicians during these turbulent days. Because for Germany, prevailing law is rather useful.
Prevailing law holds that every asylum-seeker must be registered, provided for and sheltered in the EU member state where they first enter European Union territory. Germany, though, is situated in the middle of Europe, surrounded on all sides by EU member states. That means it is impossible for refugees to arrive in Germany without having first passed through another EU member state, unless they fall from the sky. Prevailing law also holds that those who have managed to make it to Germany must be sent back to the country where they first entered the EU. By definition, these are countries on the European periphery like Greece and Italy.
Were this law to still apply, there wouldn't be any refugees in Hungary at all. They would all still be in Greece, properly registered, appropriately provided for and humanely sheltered. And truth be told, officials in Berlin are perfectly aware of that fact.
12:30 p.m., Budapest, Keleti Station, Forecourt
Increasing numbers of refugees are pouring out of the souterrain level of the train station onto the square out front. They are initially blinded by the sun as they emerge into temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and aid workers, police officers and reporters are all scurrying around. Without much effort, Mohammad Zatareih is able to line up the refugees in rows of five, just as he learned in the army, and by 1 p.m., almost 100 rows of five have been set up and the mass of people slowly begins to move out in the direction of the Danube River. Many additional refugees join them, including families with children, until the group ultimately swells to over 2,000 people. This is the moment when the refugees become key actors in European history — protagonists who take their fate into their own hands. It is the moment when political leaders in Berlin, Vienna and Budapest become followers, reacting to events instead of initiating them.
A Hungarian accompanying the group of refugees advises Zatareih to head for the highway: "There, we'll remain visible to the media," he says. Zatareih nods. But where's the highway?
12:30 p.m., Luxembourg, Kirchberg
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier climbs out of a black sedan in front of the conference center in the Kirchberg district of Luxembourg. Twice a year, the foreign ministers of the 28 EU member states meet for an informal, two-day gathering known as the Gymnich meeting. Steinmeier has brought along a paper that he drew up together with his French counterpart urging that Europe do something about the migrant smugglers who are bringing so many refugees across the Mediterranean to Italy from Libya — as though hundreds of thousands of refugees weren't at that very moment making their way to Europe along the Balkan route.
And even as refugees in Hungary begin their march to Austria and Germany, European foreign ministers in Luxembourg stick to their agenda: the Middle East, relations with Russia and the Iranian nuclear program — the standard fare. Only on Saturday morning does the agenda call for the refugee crisis to be addressed.
1 p.m., Röszke Refugee Registration Center
Not far from the Hungarian village of Röszke, there is a gap in the Serbian border fence allowing the train line to pass through. But day after day, innumerable refugees are also taking advantage of the opening. After passing through, they are taken to a hopelessly overcrowded tent camp, jam packed with thousands of people who have come before. At noon, some 300 refugees break through the fences surrounding the camp and head north.
Around 3:45 p.m., Highway M1, near Budaörs
Mohammad Zatareih is growing uneasy. The parade of refugees has crossed the Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube and reached the M1 onramp heading toward the town of Budaörs. Residents are waving from their windows, bringing fruit and water to the refugees and distributing huge, blue IKEA bags full of bread and blankets. But after just nine kilometers of marching, the first participants are tiring and families with children are falling behind. The group is becoming increasingly fragmented.
To make matters worse, a Hungarian police unit suddenly appears before the refugees, apparently intending to divert them to a side road. It marks the final attempt for the time being to stop the march and reestablish state control. Had it been successful, this day and all that hinged on it would have ended quite differently — and Angela Merkel would have been spared the most difficult decision of her time in the Chancellery.
Zatareih brings the refugee march to a halt a certain distance from the police. The hot sun beats down from above and nerves are raw. The leaders of the march talk excitedly amongst themselves, none of them have ever experienced such a thing before and nobody knows what the police intend to do. In the countries the refugees come from, the consequences of such a standoff with police are myriad, including beatings, gunshots and deaths.
But Mohammad Zatareih and Ahmed agree that they have to stay on the main highway and keep moving. Otherwise, everything will have been in vain. After a brief but intense debate, the men in the first rows of the march form a chain and run at the police and the crowd behind them follows. Several camera teams film the clash and the shoving that ensues, but then the police give way. Their position is immediately overrun by the crowd of refugees and the path to Vienna appears to be open.
5 p.m., Nickelsdorf, Police Station
The landscape at the Austrian-Hungarian border is flat as far as the eye can see, and Hungarian territory begins just behind the Nickelsdorf police station. When police lieutenant Manfred Schreiner starts work, he is expecting a quiet shift. The 44-year-old has been scheduled as deputy head of the night shift. Ever since the truck full of suffocated refugees was found on the shoulder of the Austrian highway, Schreiner's officers have been told to intensify their checks on the search for migrant traffickers, but that has already largely become routine. There is no indication that this will turn out to be the longest and most intense day in Lieutenant Schreiner's career. Only after 24 hours on duty will he be able to return home.
5:15 p.m., Essen, Burgplatz
Despite a light rain, a few hundred people have gathered on Burgplatz, Essen's central square, to see the chancellor. She holds a formulaic campaign speech praising local CDU candidates and criticizing Social Democratic policies in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. Several refugees have also turned out and are holding up signs reading "Thank You Germany." There is also a poster reading "Refugees Welcome" — and several calls of "Merkel Must Go!"
After the appearance in Essen, Merkel flies onwards by helicopter to Cologne, and somewhere between Essen and Cologne, she turns on her iPad and sees for the first time images of the refugee march on the Hungarian highway. They are images that immediately trigger memories of history — memories of World War II, of flight and of expulsion from the East.
5:20 p.m., Bicske Train Station
A banner on the engine of the train that has been held at the Bicske station since yesterday reads: "Europe without Borders for 25 Years." Inside are 350 refugees. They had hoped the train would take them north all the way to the Austrian border, but officials stopped the journey and are now seeking to transfer those inside to a tent camp. In response, train passengers have barricaded themselves inside and haven't even accepted water from the police. Now, some of the passengers are jumping out of the train with the intention of continuing onward to Vienna on foot.
A short time later, the dead body of a Pakistani refugee is found not far from the tracks. Paramedics spend more than three-quarters of an hour trying to revive the man before finally giving up. It isn't initially clear if he died in a crush, from exhaustion or from a fall.
6:30 p.m., Cologne, Flora Köln
Angela Merkel seems relaxed, almost cheerful, as she enters the Flora Köln, an event location in the center of Cologne's botanical gardens. She is there to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the North Rhine-Westphalia chapter of the CDU together with senior party members and she shakes hands and poses for photos as she walks in. Her speech is full of praise for the party she leads along with a few jokes about local party politics and a bit of campaigning for the Cologne mayoral candidate Henriette Reker. But Merkel also has a few serious words to say about the refugee crisis and repeats her message that "we can do it." Never since World War II have so many people come to Germany, the chancellor says. "In such a situation, we have a duty to help." But she also says: "We must tell those who come to us purely for economic reasons that they cannot stay." She also launches a sharp attack on Hungary: "It is difficult to watch as those who opened the border for us 24 years ago are now showing severity to those who are obviously fleeing from distress."
Merkel is still receiving significant applause for such sentiments.
6:30 p.m., Hungary, M1 Highway
The journey from Budapest to Vienna is about 250 kilometers — and the group of marching refugees is now being led by a man waving the EU flag. Another marcher up front has pinned a photo of Merkel to his sweater and a third is pushing a man in a wheelchair. Images of the trio will become iconic of the march and they are shared extremely rapidly across Twitter and Facebook. Even as the refugees continue putting kilometer after kilometer behind them, the march is christened in social media as the #marchofhope.