Cracking the Iron Curtain: Remembering Hungary’s ‘Pan-European Picnic’
“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
2 Comments »