A World-Changing European Picnic

An empty strip of land between two borders become a stage for reconciliation

News | Christian Cummins | September 2009

Laszlo Nagy laughs modestly and brushes off the suggestion that he is a Hero of Democracy. Despite the many honors bestowed on him over the two decades since he helped organize the Pan European Picnic at Sopronpuszta near the Neusiedl Lake, he insists he had no idea at the time that the event would unfurl into one of the most dramatic and defining events in the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

Nagy tells anyone prepared to believe him that on Aug. 19, 1989, as a young member of the pro-democracy movement in then-communist Hungary, he just wanted to grill sausages near the still militarized border with Austria. Towards the end of a long summer of glasnost, the gradual softening of Cold War antagonism, the picnic had been designed as one more step to a more open Hungarian society, a further gesture of protest against the absurdity of barbed wire and watch-towers separating people who shared a common history and culture. But that day, Nagy and his co-organizers ended up with a lot more than they bargained for.

Sensing that Hungary was liberalizing far more quickly than their own austere GDR government, many East Germans traveled to Hungary that summer. Ostensibly, they were holiday makers, but nearly all carried the hope of using the country as a transit route to the West – and to freedom. They had been living in makeshift shelters in Budapest, much to the embarrassment and annoyance of Erich Honecker’s GDR government back in Berlin.

Marta Pio was a young Hungarian TV journalist at the time. Her state-run employer didn’t want her to cover the picnic, insisting it was not on their agenda. But as she recalls, "So many GDR people had gathered in the area. I felt in the air that something would happen."

The young journalist’s instinct was spot on. Several hundred GDR citizens took advantage of the picnic to flee to the West when the authorities allowed a symbolic opening of the border for three hours. It could have been a massacre. But Arpad Bella, the Hungarian border guard commander in charge that day, told his men to hold fire and the Germans crossed to Austria unharmed.

Martin Schindler, from the nearby Austrian village of Mörbisch, recalls seeing the East German refugees arrive across the border vividly. He remembers the young children, some of whom arrived with no shoes. And he remembers seeing an East German Trabant car rolling into Burgenland – a vehicle which has since become symbolic of the failure of the GDR and the fall of the Berlin Wall three months later.

So a Trabant and a small stretch of barbed wire were placed on the border for the day of commemorations held to mark the 20th anniversary of the picnic.

Held under clear blue skies and in the stifling Pannonian heat, both Hungarian President Laszelo Solyom and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attended the ceremonies. The events of the Pan-European Picnic had given "wings to the East Germans’ desire for freedom," Merkel told the assembled crowd of Hungarians, East Germans and Austrians.

As Merkel spoke, she looked out over the site of the picnic, a sun-drenched green field, towards a gleaming white monument designed by Miklos Melocco. The brightness of the Melocco’s stone seems to symbolize hope and joy.

Carved into it, a handsome young couple embraces in front of a crumbling Grecian temple, clearly representing the collapse of the rigid communist system. To the left side of the couple another young man raises his arms in a gesture of peaceful protest. An old man with a walking stick looks dismayed – perhaps representing a fear of change. The engraving reads "Breakthrough."

Recent evidence has emerged suggesting that the Hungarian authorities were happy to let this breakthrough happen, seeing it a chance to see how far the Soviet Union would let them go in their interpretation of "Glasnost."

The necessity of a small-scale test of Soviet tolerance had been glaringly obvious. Moscow had 80,000 troops stationed in Hungary, where the memories of 1956 were still painfully vivid. In that year the Hungarians moved to introduce more civil freedoms and had been ruthlessly stamped out by Moscow with the loss of many lives. Thousands had been deported or arrested that day. A reform-minded government in the Soviet sphere of influence knew it had to tread carefully.

What had been intimated by years of journalistic investigations was made explicit ahead of this 20th anniversary, when Miklos Nemeth, Hungary’s last prime minister of the communist era, told a press conference that the border-breakthrough at the picnic had been "a planned process on behalf of the government."

But whatever was going on behind the scenes, it was clear that most of the East Germans truly believed that they were risking their lives that day. Some were dismayed as information about political-maneuvering came to light; they felt they had been used, they said, as potentially expendable human guinea pigs. Laszlo Nagy, the picnic’s co-organizer, insists he was genuinely taken by surprise by the events on the Aug. 19: "You are always wiser 20 years in the future!" he said smiling.

The communist regime in Hungary fell, peacefully, within a few months of the events of the Pan-European Picnic. Today, the line of the former Iron Curtain, once a fearsome and ugly chain of barbed wire and machine-gun manned watch towers, is a shady bike path through the quiet beauty of the Neusiedl national park.

Since the extension of the Schengen agreement two years ago, you can cycle between the leafy-court yarded wine taverns on the Hungarian and Austrian sides of the park without even showing your passport, you can order a deliciously cool, local white wine and toast the day, twenty years ago, when, in this same lush green countryside, the desire for freedom defeated the fear of a repressive system.

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