On August 19, 1989, people from both sides of the Iron Curtain came together to demonstrate the common will for a united Europe. Near Sopron, on the border of Hungary and Austria, the events of the so-called “Pan-European Picnic” marked the beginning of the end for the decades-long separation of East and West.
The coming of spring
Already by August 1989, cracks were showing in the communist bloc’s resolve to maintain their hardline approach to emigration and integration with the West. In April, the first session of the roundtable debates was held in Poland, legalizing the Solidarity Union, and opening the way for competitive elections.
Likewise in the Soviet Union itself, Mikhail Gorbachev’s dual-reforms of perestroika (reconstruction) and Glasnost (openness) signaled a turn away from the repressive policies or “doctrine” of Brezhnev, which had crushed reformist sentiment previously. This new approach cast doubt on whether the Soviet Union would rally again in defense of the Eastern bloc.
Real change may have seemed imminent but for the moment, inertia of the system continued to stifle freedom of movement, especially in East Germany where repression was still actively pursued, and the borders remained closed. However, in Hungary the communist government took a more moderate approach to border control and was well known for its market reform oriented New Economic Mechanism (NEM) and so-called “Goulash Communism.”
The Pan-European picnic in Sopron
It was convenient then that Hungary, particularly the region around lake Balaton, had become a popular tourist destination within the Eastern bloc. Every year, the area close to the Austrian border drew travelers from across Central and Eastern Europe, and was particularly popular amongst East Germans.
Perhaps owing to this confluence of relaxed rule and summer vacation, that border region appeared as an ideal location to host a pan-European picnic which would gently test the limits of totalitarian resolve. The plan itself for the picnic was conceived by the then president of the Pan-European Union Otto von Habsburg, who himself was the former crown-prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
By all accounts the picnic itself did not get off to an auspicious start with heavy rains dampening the mood, however, one main event not affected by rain was the symbolic opening of the wall which separated not only Hungary from Austria, but East from West. During the course of the day, Hungarian border guards looked away as some 600 East Germans made their way across the border into Austria.
The fear had been that such a flagrant breach of long held border policy would provoke the ire of the Soviet authority, who at that time still stationed large military contingents in Hungary. Yet no reaction came, and Gorbachev continued the detente.
Although the crossings of the picnic were short lived and the number of people who actually crossed was minimal, the picnic succeeded in demonstrating the lack of will to uphold the Iron Curtain. Even the Soviet Union balked at another crackdown in the bloc. Over the next months the Hungarian authorities officially opened the borders, and allowed many more people to flee into the West.
By the fall of 1989 the communist government in East Germany was quickly losing control of the situation, on October 17, Erich Honecker the long time hardliner who had brutally enforced the closed border was relieved as head of state of East Germany. Only weeks later, on November 9, the Berlin Wall finally fell as the communist bloc disintegrated.
The Pan-European Picnic was a milestone in the gradual reunion of two halves of Europe. The event demonstrated that the will to enforce separation had passed and the ruling powers were ready to accept a new organization of Europe. To this day the picnic is a testament to a united Europe without borders, and may serve as a reminder of the futility of arbitrary boundaries.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
By Nathan Alan-Lee
Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.