Today marks the 20th anniversary of an event that symbolises the hopes of that European year of miracles, 1989 – the Pan-European Picnic at the Austro-Hungarian border. “It was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall,” said the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. On Wednesday, Angela Merkel went to the Hungarian town of Sopron to thank the country for opening its border 20 years ago. That decision led to the fall of the Wall three months later.
After Hungary had begun dismantling its border installations on the Austrian side on May 2, 1989, the Pan-European Union, a European unity movement founded in 1922, organized the Pan-European Picnic at the Austro-Hungarian border near Sopron on August 19, 1989. The idea was to spread the notion of a common Europe without borders.
During the event, one of the frontier barriers was symbolically opened. About 600 GDR citizens who had traveled to Hungary availed themselves of this opportunity to cross the border into Austria unhindered and thus reach the West. The photo above shows two Hungarian frontier officials opening the barrier.
Originally the organisers thought the event would be a small-scale affair. But on 19 August, 1989 truly enormous crowds appeared at the site (according to contemporary estimates 15-20,000) and took part with enthusiasm in pulling down a section of the Iron Curtain. Disguised as holidaymakers, hundreds of East Germans made their way to the town. Several hundred East-Germans broke through the barrier and streamed into Austria. This unforeseen event made the Pan-European Picnic an event of world history; newspapers around the world covered the story.
Dietmar Poguntke was 26 years old at the time. He learnt about the protest in Budapest and came in the hope of making it across the border into Austria. “I crossed through this hole and there is this Austrian who says: “Welcome to Freedom”, holding a piece of barbed wire like a rose. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
Bela Arpad was the border guard in charge. He had received a vaguely worded warning about the possibility of East German refugees arriving, but had no instructions as to how to deal with them. His decision led to the first mass exodus towards the West since the Wall went up. “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 cried or laughed.. So there was an incredible range of emotions bursting out.”
By autumn 1989 there were about 60,000 GDR citizens in Hungary according to official estimates. Several thousand people were housed in temporary refugee camps. Although the mass border-breakthrough at the Pan-European Picnic was an isolated case, East-German citizens tried to get over the border several hundred times in smaller groups or on their own – mostly with success.
By the end of the summer, thousands of East German ‘tourists’ were living in tents on the grounds of the West German embassy in Budapest and in several other locations around the city, including church yards and the site of a communist youth camp. After allowing some East Germans to leave for West Germany via Austria in August and then some more a few weeks later, Hungary finally decided to let all East Germans out from September 11, 1989.
Within two months, on Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany’s reunification was formalized in October 1990.
The place where the Iron Curtain first fell: Hungarian video 2009
- How Hungary let East Germans go: BBC News
- Hungary marks 1989 freedom event: BBC News
- The Pan-European Picnic through a Hungarian teenager’s eyes: BBC
- Pan-European Picnic remembered: video report from Euronews