Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 11
6 September 1999

Ten years ago: picking apart the carcass of Communism T E N   Y E A R S   O N
It All Started with a Picnic...
Hungary remembers the picnic that tore down the Iron Curtain

Paul Nemes

When Mikhail Gorbachev, then leader of the Soviet Union, launched his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), he did not anticipate that he would also do away with the only factor that ultimately held the Soviet empire together - fear. A key moment in the breaking of this grip of terror on Central and Eastern Europe was a picnic arranged on the Hungarian-Austrian border on 19 August 1989.

The event was organised by the Pan-European Union, under the presidency of Otto Habsburg, the son of the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, in co-operation with the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF). The Hungarian government, eager to break the bonds imposed on it by Moscow, was also present, represented by Imre Pozsgay's Undersecretary of State. The picnic had been planned as far ahead as June, with the intention of holding a symbolic opening of the border. Inhabitants of the border-town of Fertorakos outside Sopron were to be allowed to visit their Austrian neighbours in the town of Morbisch-am-See and vice versa.

Neither the Hungarian government nor the organisers of the Pan-European picnic had fully anticipated the developments taking place in East Germany. Unlike in Hungary, where Communism in the 1980s was said to have been humane, East Germany was ruled with an iron hand. Erich Honecker, while following Moscow's directions, attempted to simultaneously keep the temptations of economic prosperity and freedom in West Germany as distant as possible. Communism was the underlying principle of East German society. Therefore, when the threat of repression, and Communism itself, was removed, any East German identity that might have existed quickly evaporated.

The lure of prosperity in West Germany ultimately proved too strong. East Germans on holiday, weary of Honecker's Marxist-Leninist doctrines and obedience to Moscow, saw their chance. Ironically, Honecker's loyalty to Moscow began to waver when he was faced with Gorbachev's reforms, especially when told that he should be seen to go with the times. East Germans, who had besieged Western embassies and consulates in neighbouring countries in the hope of acquiring exit visas, now saw a real opening.

In the summer of 1989, when the Iron Curtain of the Cold War still existed, the organisers of the picnic had been given permission to cut down the barbed wire next to the gate which was the actual border crossing. Permission was not hard to receive; earlier that year, in May, Gyula Horn, Hungary's Foreign Minister, had already scored a propaganda victory by cutting a hole in the barbed wire of a border fence and thus making the first hole in the Iron Curtain. If Horn had done exactly the same thing three months previously, who could now forbid anyone from following his example?

But, this time, as the wire was cut, East Germans, gate-crashers at the picnic, flooded across the border into Austria. The Hungarian border patrol stood aside and made no attempt to stop the East Germans participating in the Pan-European Picnic. By any means they could find, 661 East Germans crossed the border. Not since the Berlin Wall had been built had such a large number of people escaped across the Iron Curtain. Hungary had for the first time since the Soviet "liberation" opened its border with Austria and in doing so allowed East Germans eager to leave for the West to escape from the Communist Bloc.

The Hungarian government decided to defy Honecker and let the East Germans through for their first glimpse of the free world. It was the beginning of the end for Communism. It was the pivotal point in the course of events which would gain momentum during the autumn of 1989 and lead to the final collapse of the system which held Central and Eastern Europe in an iron grip. The Berlin Wall fell, the Warsaw Pact fell apart and despised dictators were overthrown in one country after another.

In his opening speech at the tenth anniversary of the event, FIDESZ Parliamentary Faction Leader Jozsef Szajer called the Pan-European Picnic a central event in eliminating a border that had kept Hungary away from freedom and said that the changes that had taken place since then had given Hungary its independence and had brought political freedom to all.

And it all started with a picnic.

Paul Nemes, 6 September 1999




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