It was exactly 30 years ago, on August 19, 1989, that - in a symbolic gesture agreed to by Austria and Hungary - a border crossing was opened on the 'Iron Curtain' for three hours. It was an event that eventually allowed hundreds of East Germans to flee to the West.
In the summer of 1989, popular sentiment in central and eastern Europe was nearing a critical juncture. People in the Eastern bloc, sealed off by the Iron Curtain, were raising their voice, demanding democratic elections, freedom of speech and travel, better living conditions. Hungary’s reform-oriented government authorized an informal gathering of Austrians and Hungarians along the border on August 19, so people from both countries could share the experience of a Europe without borders.
In June that year, Otto von Habsburg, the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, visited the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen to hold a lecture on Europe without frontiers. During a dinner that followed his lecture, Ferenc Mészáros, a member of the newly formed political party Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), suggested that a ‘picnic’ be organized along the border with Austria, according to a study by László Nagy, secretary of the Board of Trustees of the Pan-European Picnic ’89 Foundation. Mészáros eventually persuaded Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay to act as the sponsors of the event. Pozsgay was a member of the collective presidency of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, the communist party that ruled the country until the free elections in March-April 1990.
Picnic with an unexpected turn
In an effort to promote the notion of a united Europe, the Austrian and Hungarian governments agreed to open a crossing point at Sopronpuszta for three hours on August 19, almost two months after Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart, Gyula Horn, had cut the border fence about 6 kilometers from that spot.
Tipped off to the event, hundreds of East German citizens rushed to the border in an attempt to escape to West Germany through Austria. In the absence of clear instructions, Hungarian border guards were at a loss as to how to handle the unexpected situation. In what later proved a historic decision, Lieutenant Colonel Árpád Bella, the local commander of the border post at the time, forbade the use of the weapons, thus preventing the celebration from turning into a tragedy.
The presence of the East Germans at the picnic site was no coincidence, Bella tells Diplomacy&Trade in a telephone interview. The former commander believes that Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh used the occasion to test Moscow’s reaction to East German citizens crossing the border to the West ‘all of a sudden’.
If the Soviet leadership turned a blind eye to the events of that fateful day, Hungary’s borders could then officially be opened to about 15,000 East Germans gathering in Budapest, at Lake Balaton and near Hungary’s western border.
“The problem was that even the officials most concerned – like myself – were not notified about this official intent while unknown people distributed flyers in refugee camps in the country saying East Germans should go to the border near Sopron as there might be a chance for them to get to the West. Some 600 of them believed in this opportunity and showed up at the frontier.”
The picnic was part of a process, an episode in a series of events that led from the erosion of the bipolar system to its disintegration, Imre Tóth, historian and the Director of the Sopron Museum, tells Diplomacy&Trade. The events of the day clearly showed that “history and politics do not take place in government quarters only. Civilians, private individuals find themselves sometimes in situations where they have an impact on the process,” Tóth says.
Only seconds to decide
A few days before the picnic, Bella received an official telegram warning him that a large number of East Germans may show up at the event and attempt to cross the border illegally. “For me, this meant that I should make plans to prevent this illegal activity. However, there also came a command, which turned out to have originated from the Prime Minister, that no uniformed personnel should be present in the one-kilometer vicinity of temporary border crossings, apart from those handling passports,” Bella says. The order applied to the entire strip of the Austro-Hungarian border and when Bella tried to get information, on the morning of the picnic, on how to perform his duties as commander of that particular crossing station, he received no instructions.
“At 3 p.m., we were supposed to let a hundred-strong Hungarian delegation through the border to Austria and later let them return with some Austrians. The crossing would be opened at three and closed at six and that would be it,” Bella says.
A few minutes before 3 p.m., Bella and his people caught sight of a large group of people moving toward the crossing point. At first, they thought it was the official delegation but as the group came closer, the guards realized they were East German civilians. “What crossed my mind immediately was that I had to stop these people from crossing the border. We were authorized to use firearms and I only had about 20 seconds to decide what to do before 100-130 people reached the six of us. It would have been hopeless to stop them and if we used our firearms, it would have been a shame for the country. However, if I had not tried to stop them, it would have been a violation of my duties as a guardian of the border. Fortunately, the crowd solved my dilemma by pushing open one of the wings of the border gate and swarmed to the other side.”
The rest is history. Hungary’s decision to let some 600 civilians from East Germany flee to Austria and eventually on to West Germany was an instrumental moment in the crumbling of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe over the following years. Dubbed by the German press as the ‘the first brick from the Berlin Wall’, the Pan-European Picnic was a harbinger of historical changes that would mark the end of an era.
Tóth strongly believes that “we make a mistake if we teach that Hungarian history was decided in the Buda Castle or in Visegrád. No, it is the people who shape history. The Pan-European Picnic is a typical example of that.”