“Hungary was where the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall” ~ former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, speaking to mark the reunification of Germany on October 4th 1990.
Today marks the anniversary of another key event linked to the collapse of communism across East Europe in 1989. Twenty years ago today, 19th August 1989, was the date of the Pan-European Picnic organised along the Austro-Hungarian border, in a field just outside the Hungarian city of Sopron.
The premise of the picnic was fairly simple: organised by members of the growing anti-communist opposition parties in Hungary, the event was planned as a peaceful event to demonstrate increasing Hungarian freedom under Glasnost, and to promote friendship between East and West. Austrian and Hungarian authorities agreed to open a small stretch of the common border at Sopronpuszta for just three hours, at 3pm, in order to allow small delegations representing both countries to conduct ‘an ordinary exchange of greetings between local populations’ on either side of the Iron Curtain. On the day, however, hundreds of East Germans arrived at the picnic to attempt to walk across the border into Austria. A sizeable group of around 600 people made it across the border that afternoon, in the first large-scale exodus of East German citizens to the West since the construction of the Berlin Wall back in 1961.
Cracks in the ‘Iron Curtain’ between Austria and Hungary were increasingly evident in the months leading up to August 1989 – most notably demonstrated on 27th June when then Austrian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn were photographed using bolt cutters to tear holes in part of the barbed wire fence marking the border between their countries:
However, the border between Austria and Hungary was not officially thrown open until September 11th 1989, and at the time of the Pan European Picnic, the Hungarian border guards were still officially working under orders to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone who attempted to cross into Austria illegally. Thus the events of 19th August were seen (as former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth described earlier this week) as ‘a test of Gorbachev’s word‘ that he would not intervene militarily to prevent the cross-border movements of people, as the Hungarians remained unsure how Moscow would react. When confronted with the large group of Germans intent on attempting to breach the border, Lt. Col. Arpad Bella, acting commander of the Hungarian border guards on duty at Sopronpuszta that day, described how he had “just a few seconds” to decide what course of action to take in the absence of any clear orders from above. He decided that he “did not want to be a mass murderer” so he would “do the right thing“, and ordered his guards to stand aside and allow the people to pass, observing the reactions of those who had made it safely onto Austrian soil:
“What I saw on the other side was amazing. There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land. There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just either cried or laughed”.
Laszlo Nagy, one of the main organisers behind the picnic, has claimed that at the time ‘we didn’t feel like we were making history‘ describing the events of 19 August 1989 as ‘just the world’s greatest garden party‘. In the intervening twenty years however, and in the context of events that took place later in 1989, the significance imbued on that day has increased. Earlier this week, Jose Manuel Barroso (current President of the European Commission) issued a statement claiming that the events at Sopronpuszta had ‘helped to change the course of European History’ marking ‘the beginning of the end of the division of Europe by the Cold War‘, while Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (representing the current EU Presidency) also referred to the anniversary in his online blog, where he stated that:
“What happened attracted enormous attention and set in motion the process which saw the wall fall in Berlin on November 9 … for the appearance of a hole in the Iron Curtain means that the curtain in its entirety became worthless. It was like a gigantic dam which suddenly had developed a little hole somewhere. And it was at Sopron where everything really begun to crack in all seriousness”.
To mark the anniversary of the Pan-European picnic an official ceremony is being held today at Sopronpuszta, where Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel are making commemorative speeches, meeting with some of the East Germans who crossed the border twenty years ago, and unveiling a monument called ‘Breakthrough’ to formally mark the 20th anniversary of events.
You can read more about Border Guard Arpad Bella’s account of the events of that day here, in a recent article from The Times Online, (published on 14th August 2009):
While former Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth spoke to the BBC World Service about his decision to open the border here:
And the BBC Website also hosts this video clip, of the first East Germans to cross from Hungary to Austria twenty years ago today: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8210356.stm
Twenty years on, will present-day tensions overshadow past glories in Poland?
Tomorrow (4th June) marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Polish elections of 1989, the first ‘semi-free’ elections in communist Eastern Europe, and the day when representatives of trade union-come underground dissidents-come political opponents Solidarity dealt the final fatal blow to communism in Poland, sweeping to victory by winning 99% of all seats in the upper senate and all contested seats in the Sejm. As Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first post-communist democratic prime minister in Poland recalled earlier this week: “Twenty years ago, what seemed impossible became possible”.
Today, the majority of Poles remain rightly proud of their role in the revolutions of 1989, seeing themselves as the standard bearers of anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe. Many claim that it was the success of Solidarity in the June elections that finally opened the floodgates for meaningful reform across Eastern Europe, inspiring their communist neighbours to follow their lead and take decisive action to cast off Soviet rule. As a result, over 120 events are being organised throughout Poland to celebrate and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the June 1989 elections, including re-enactments of communist-era protests and numerous exhibitions, conferences and concerts, with the anniversary celebrations receiving widespread media coverage both within Poland and internationally. CNN, for example, are showing a series of programmes about the Polish role in the events of 1989 entitled ‘Autumn of Change: The New Poland’, and I found this short video on YouTube:
Some however, have been left disenchanted, feeling that Poland’s part in the events of 1989 was too quickly over-shadowed by the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, an event which, for many people today, remains the defining symbol of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I recently wrote about Polish complaints about their perceived under-representation in the EC video ‘Twenty Years of Freedom’ (see ‘Video Commemorating 1989 Revolutions Creates Controversy’ (18th May) @ http://thevieweast.wordpress.com/2009/05/18/ec-video-commemorating-1989-causes-controversy/ ), and earlier this week, former Solidarity leader and former Polish President Lech Walesa also expressed some resentment at the lack of recognition generally given to Poland’s role in the events of 1989 in comparison with events in Germany, in an interview with the Financial Times where he complained that: “They shouldn’t be ridiculous with that wall, and made into heroes because they [East Germans] were running away [to the west] while Poland fought”.
Polish anniversary celebrations have also been marred by domestic quibblings, with the recent economic downturn taking its toll. The central festivities commemorating the 4th June elections were originally planned to take place in Gdansk, whose shipyards were famous for the anti-communist strikes of the 1980s and the birth of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. However, the threat of violent protests by the modern-day Solidarity trade union led Prime Minister Donald Tusk to recently announce that, in the name of national unity, the official celebrations would be moved to Krakow, stating that ‘Solidarity … wants to carry the symbolism of history, but Solidarity today is a medium sized trade union, and June 4th is a national day. It cannot be highjacked by any political movement’.
While Krakow may be a safer, less controversial and – arguably – a far more picturesque location for official dignitaries to quietly celebrate Poland’s ‘twenty years of freedom’, it lacks the same kind of resonant symbolism as Gdansk, which is still remembered as the raw cradle of anti-communist dissent in Poland. Today however, the prevailing mood in Gdansk is one of anger at the current economic failings rather than nostalgia for the past. Mismanaged and heavily subsidised under communism, Polish shipyards have found it increasingly hard to restructure and adjust to function in a competitive global economy during the last twenty years. An EU investigation launched in 2005, recently ruled that the Polish government had breached EU rules by providing state aid to keep their domestic shipyards in business. As a result, two such yards, at Gdynia and Szczecin have already been sold to foreign investors leading to the loss of thousands of jobs. EU officials announced yesterday that they were committed to saving the historic Gdansk shipyard, which was awarded a European heritage label in January 2009. While the past significance of Gdansk will doubtless be remembered across Poland tomorrow however, its future currently remains uncertain.
The European Community has produced a short (if slightly saccharine) video to commemorate the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989. The video, just under three minutes in length and entitled ‘1989-2009: 20 Years of Liberty’ begins by showing images of oppression in communist Eastern Europe: the crushing of the 1956 revolution in Hungary, the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the 1981 declaration of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski in Poland. The video then shifts focus to 1989, covering anti-communist demonstrations in the Baltics and Romania before showing the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Footage of the wall crumbling is interspersed with the birth of a baby, representative of the birth of a ‘free Europe’. The rest of the video covers important landmarks in post-communist Eastern Europe: the last Soviet troops are shown leaving Hungary in 1991 along with the first democratic elections in independent Lithuania, and the removal of internal border controls in the EU in 1995. As the child grows, he is presented with birthday cakes marking pivotal years in the twenty year period since 1989 and for one birthday he receives a camera, which he then uses to record other momentous developments, such as the enlargement of the EU in May 2004, when the slogan ‘Europe Reunited’ and the number ‘25’ is flashed up on screen alongside images of celebrations in some of the countries joining the EU. The video ends in the present day, when the boy born in 1989 (now grown to adulthood), snaps a photograph of the Brandenburg gate in a (now united) Berlin – at very same the place where US President Ronald Reagan famously entreated Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall!’ in 1987 – before celebrating with friends.
The EC Website had this to say about their short video:
“The Fall of the Berlin Wall was a unique event that mobilised public opinion across Europe. It inspired strong emotions, including optimism for change. The 20th Anniversary of this event marks the coming of age of a generation, which has grown up in a Europe that is whole and free. This is also the 5th anniversary of EU-10 Enlargement, and with this enlargement, Europe became truly re-united in peace and security”.
However, the video has provoked something of a backlash in some former communist states. In Poland, the video has been roundly criticised for its lack of focus on events there in 1989 with no mention of the Polish round table talks and the election of the first non-communist government in the Eastern bloc, or any reference to Polish-born Pope John Paul II who inspired opposition to communism. In addition, footage purporting to show a Polish demonstration against Martial Law in 1981 has been revealed to actually be a clip taken from a reconstruction of the original demonstration which was filmed in 1993, organised by the Civic Responsibility Foundation in Warsaw, with students acting the parts of both the demonstrators and the riot police.
Jan Tombinski, the Polish ambassador to the EU, has written a strongly worded letter to Margot Wallstrom, the EU communication policy chief, demanding changes to the video and alleging that the ‘simplistic image’ of 1989 presented in the video could ‘introduce needless controversies during the European Parliamentary elections this June’, while Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, the Chair of the Polish Committee for European Integration, has stated that the video’s lack of focus on the role played by Solidarity in the events of 1989 is ‘like showing France’s history with no mention of the French Revolution’. Controversy over the video’s content has even reached the upper echelons of Polish politics, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk describing the video’s inaccurate portrayal of events in Poland as a ‘stupid blunder’ by the European Commission.
Bulgaria are also unhappy, as they are the only EU member from the former East Bloc not included in the video, which lacks any reference to either events in Bulgaria in 1989, or the most recent EU enlargement including Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.
An EC spokesman responded to criticism of the video with the claim that it is an ‘artistic video’, adding that ‘this is not a historical programme, this is not a documentary’ – which seems rather a naive view, given the historical weight and meaning that the events of 1989 still hold for many across Central and Eastern Europe today.
Sunday 31 May – UPDATE
The European Commission have now edited the original video, making a number of changes to the content in response to some of the criticisms raised. Bulgaria still isn’t featured at all, but the clip showing the re-construction of Martial Law era demonstrations has now been replaced with genuine clips from the original 1981 protests, while some footage related to the Solidarity movement has also now been added, so that ‘Solidarnosc’ banners are prominent. The title of the video has also been changed to reflect the primary focus on events in Germany, and so the film is now called “1989 – 2009 The Berlin Wall: Symbol of a Divided Europe”.
You can view the edited and updated EC video here:
And, if you are interested in comparing this with the original video, which created the initial controversy, it is still available here (with some independent commentary added at the beginning):