The situation in the year 1989 in Warsaw. On 4 April 1989 the historic Round Table Agreement was signed legalising Solidarity and setting up partly free parliamentary elections to be held on 4 June 1989 (coincidentally the day following the crackdown on Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square). A political earthquake followed. The victory of Solidarity surpassed all predictions. Historians talk about the "revolution at the negotiation-table".
However, there remained orthodox hardliners who did not believe in democracy and human rights, but proclaimed the leading role of the communist party and thus their dictatorial regime. These regimes relied upon border controls to retain their dissident population, allowing citizens to travel to the "West" every three years and with only a small amount of cash. In Germany, this led to the Berlin Wall (1961-1989), which only pensioners could pass through. While these backward forces were predominant in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, the Hungarian situation was more relaxed: since 1988, Hungarians possessed so-called "world-passports", enabling them to travel relatively freely.
Developments in Hungary in 1989
Starting in 1989, many Romanian citizens escaped the dictatorship in their country and were filling refugee camps at the Hungarian-Romanian border, near Debrecen. In early summer 1989, some 30-40,000 people were seeking asylum in Hungary. As the Hungarian government was bound by a bilateral agreement, it legally should have sent these people back to Romania, certainly exposing them to revenge by the Romanian authorities. A solution was found by Hungary formally joining the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR) in 1989, giving a legal base not to deport them back to their country of origin.
Since the financial situation was tense in Hungary, and Prime Minister Miklós Németh decided that his government could not afford to maintain the automatized border control along the border against Austria, since the spare parts would come from the west and had to be paid for in hard currency. Németh believed it was no longer necessary to lock down the country as Hungarians were allowed to freely travel anyhow and the leadership did not intend to renew the "anachronistic" massive and brutal border protection at the country's Western borders. The control system was thus dismantled by the Hungarians. This was, however, not the case at the West German-East German border, which was a virtual dead zone, where several hundred people were killed, and border guards were instructed to shoot escaping people. The last such victim was Chris Gueffroy who was killed in February 1989.
Simultaneously, East German citizens – who often spent their summer holidays in Hungary, at Lake Balaton, where they could meet their relatives and friends from Western Germany – accumulated in Hungary during the course of summer 1989, obviously not intending to return to East Germany.
On 20 June 1989, Otto von Habsburg, heir apparent of the former Habsburg dynasty and long-time MEP from 1979–1999, visited the university in Debrecen, where he addressed the interested Hungarian audience about the question of how Europe would look without borders, and what impact the European Parliament elections had on the people of Central Europe. The speech, which was warmly welcomed, was followed by a dinner where two representatives of the local MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum, the conservative party of later Prime Minister József Antall), Mária Filep and Ferenc Mészáros surprised the attendees with the idea of arranging a picnic at the Austro-Hungarian border to celebrate, under strict supervision, the old bonds between the Austrians and the Hungarians with plenty of goulash and lots of wine. The event was intended to be attended only by the locals.
While the national leadership of the MDF had doubts as to whether this might really be a good idea, Mária Filep took intensive action to recruit participants and to find the exact location suitable for such an event. She was supported by local groups of FIDESZ and MDF. Her suggestion was to involve the guests of the "common destiny camp", a gathering of intellectuals and opposition activist from the CEE countries taking place in Martonvásár (close to Lake Balaton) with a planned end date of 20 August 1989. Finally, it was agreed to host the picnic next to Sopron, in Sopronpuszta, at the old Bratislava Road, which has been a border since 1922.
From its conception, the picnic was intended to be an informal gathering of international participants, with special regard to Austrians and Hungarians who should be coming together directly at the border, at the meadow, to grill, eat and interact. Permission to open a short-time border station for just three hours was granted so that pedestrians from both sides of the border could meet and share their dream of a European continent without borders. The organisers even managed to engage Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay (a reform-oriented member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers´ Party MSZMP and Minister of State) as patrons of the event, which clearly demonstrated the will of all sides involved to work for the goals of the event (open borders, free Europe).
Former prime minister Németh explained in a 2014 documentary, that the picnic offered the Hungarian government a way out of a difficult situation that had arisen viz-à-viz the East German tourists that had been having holidays in Hungary during that summer:
No one of us forecast it that during the summer [of 1989] we will have another hot potato in our hands, namely the German refugee problem. I got the first news that, interestingly, after the 2–3 weeks long holiday, some of the GDR citizens decided to stay, and it was clear to me, that this is now very, very serious. In Budapest, around the Lake Balaton, all the camping sites were fully, fully packed, even along the road, without any facilities around them, of course. End of September, and the cold weather arrives, we did not have facilities to provide, these people will die here, frozen, during the winter. So, why didn’t I just send them home?
For years we were obliged to pick up East Germans and send them [home] on special airplanes, organized by the infamous Stasi, to take them home, in many cases to prison or serious harassment. We couldn’t keep doing that, certainly not with 100,000 people. We had to find a clear solution. We could not keep them here, and we could not send them back. The only remaining option was the unthinkable: to somehow send them to the west, but this was bound to provoke not only Honecker and his regime in East Germany, but also the hard-liners in Moscow, so what to do, what to do?
Though it is unclear how, a flyer was produced, advertising the picnic and containing the map of the site, showing the exact location of the border, and distributed to East German citizens planning to somehow find a way to defect to Western Germany via Austria. Under communist German law, they were not allowed to travel to the "West" at any point, but had to write an official "petition" to the East German authorities; they observed the rapid developments in Hungary with curiosity and growing hopes. They saw the picnic as an opportunity to act. The destiny of these approximately 100,000 people was the top news story in prime-time news broadcasts for several months, showing Europe the urgent need to find a suitable way out. The East German rulers, planning to celebrate the 40th birthday of the "GDR" on 7 October 1989, were keen to hide the problems and were silent about the mass exodus of their own people.
In the film 1989 by Anders Østergaard, in a re-enacted scene, Prime Minister Németh is shown saying to an aide, “Gyuri, I think this could actually be a very good thing. I think it would be good if some of the East Germans used this opportunity and fled. — Fled? — Yes. And we would not interfere with it. — I see.” Németh explains in the documentary:
|“||This was really a great opportunity to us to assess the Russians’ reactions, to test the tolerance of the Soviet Union. So we sent out an order to the border troops, ‘Please instruct your guards, if you see any East Germans on the border, let them pass. Do not intervene.||”|
Given all this, the picnic was just the seam where the pressure cooker would burst. Several hundred "GDR" citizens conducted a "run" to the picnic site, literally overrunning the old wooden gate and getting to Austria. The border guards around Árpád Bella did not hinder them, thus enabling them to fulfill their dreams to live in a free world. The picnic organisers made history – the gate was opened and the first brick from the Berlin Wall was knocked out in Hungary. "The soil under the Brandenburg Gate is Hungarian soil", Helmut Kohl rightly pointed out. Subsequent events led to a total and unconditional opening of the Hungarian borders on 11 September 1989, to the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989, and, finally, to the end of the Iron Curtain.
The picnic events
In a symbolic gesture agreed to by both countries, a border gate on the road from Sankt Margarethen im Burgenland (Austria) to Sopronkőhida (Hungary) was to be opened for three hours. About 6 km (3.7 mi) away from this spot on 27 June 1989, Austria's then foreign minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn had together cut through the border fence, in a symbolic act, in a move highlighting Hungary's decision to dismantle its surveillance installations along the border, a process started on 2 May 1989.
More than 600 East Germans seized the opportunity presented by this brief lifting of the Iron Curtain and fled into the west. In the run-up to 19 August, the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic had distributed pamphlets advertising the event. Before the event started, Hungarian border guards received an order from the Ministry of the Interior of Hungary not to intervene in it and not to bear any arms on the day of the event. At the time, the Hungarian border guards even helped people to flee across the border.
In Budapest and around the Lake Balaton, thousands more East Germans were waiting for their chance to cross the border, not believing that the border would be opened and not trusting the procedures in place. The number of people who crossed the border into the West on the day of this event was therefore limited to no more than a few hundred. Over the next few days, the Hungarian government increased the number of guards patrolling its western border, so that only a relatively small number actually reached the West successfully. But in fact the reason that a relatively small number of people went through the border after the picnic is that the East Germans were informed by the Hungarian guards that they could obtain West German passports issued by West German diplomats working in Hungary. As a result, many East Germans temporarily stayed in Hungary waiting for the issue of passport and the event to unfold. On 11 September 1989, Hungary opened its borders for citizens of the German Democratic Republic and other Central European countries. This was the first time that the border of a Central European country officially opened for the citizens of the Soviet bloc states. It marked the start of the fall of Iron Curtain. Only a few months after the opening, more than 70,000 East Germans fled to West Germany (soon to be united Germany) through Hungary.Prime Minister Németh related the following in the film 1989:
|“||I was in my office all day, I was nervous, very nervous. Luckily, there was no knocking on my door by the Soviet ambassador, no telephone calls from Moscow.||”|
The picnic was organised by members of four Hungarian opposition parties, the Hungarian Democratic Forum the Alliance of Free Democrats, the Fidesz, and the Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party. The event's patrons were Christian Social Union of Bavaria MEP Otto von Habsburg (then head of the house of Habsburg and claimant of the Austro-Hungarian throne) and Hungarian Minister of State and reformer Imre Pozsgay.
- "Habsburg distributed pamphlets right up to the Polish border, inviting East German holiday-makers to a picnic. When they came to the picnic, they were given presents, food, and Deutschmarks, before being persuaded to go over to the West."
Later developments in August 1989The Hungarian government decided to implement normal border control again after the picnic. The paramilitary party organization participated in the border control. For a few days, they helped the border guard in their duties. In August, 1989, 6,923 persons were arrested at the border, and out of those, 5,527 were East Germans, and it was obvious that the picnic made people think that the border would be open for at least some days to come. The border guards did not know what to do with the people who were trying to cross the border illegally. The Hungarian government was afraid that laxness on the part of the Hungarians could lead to hard-liners assuming control in the Kremlin, and they thought it was only a matter of time before there would be a coup d’état against Gorbachov. No one questioned this in the Hungarian government. Thus, it was decided to step up the control again. However, this led, on night between August 21 and 22, to the killing of Kurt-Werner Schulz, an East German man from Weimar, born in 1953. Prime Minister Németh told later:
|“||We dediced to get back to the rule books on the border control, but at the same time, we, or I, created a trap for myself. […] One of the advisors quite clearly told me that ‘Look, this is a very risky business now, Miklos, do you know what this means? It means that from now on every single murder will be your fault. Do you understand?’ — I felt ashamed that it had happened. I made the conclusion in one sentence. ‘We are opening up.’||”|
On August 22, Németh flew by helicopter to the Gymnich castle new Bonn in order to meet with the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his foreign secretary, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. There Németh “landed a bomb on their table”:
|“||Esteeemed Chancellor, an important decision has been made in Budapest. Returning the refugees to East Germany is out of the question. We shall open the border, and by mid-September, all East Germans should be able to leave our country. […] — I will never forget his eyes. Kohl, the big boy, was caused to tears.||”|
Németh assured Kohl that the border question was one that the Hungarians would handle themselves, and that compliance from Gorbachov was not needed. He assured Kohl that the Hungarians would be able to handle the situation. Kohl, however, phoned Gorbachov immediately, and informed him of Németh’s decision. Gorbachov assured Kohl that the Hungarian premier “was a good man.” It was a silent blessing. On September 11, the border was opened, and 30,000 East Germans fled to the west.
The East German regime tried to block the route to Hungary, but after that thousands of their citizens fled to the west via Czechoslovakia. This led to a massive popular uprising in East Germany. On October 17, Honecker was relieved of his duties as the head of state. In a confusing situation, the East German border guards had to make decisions for themselves, unsupervised by their superiors. On November 9, they opened the gates to West Berlin.
The Pan-European Picnic is considered a highly significant milestone in the efforts that led to the end of the GDR and to the German reunification. Commemorative ceremonies are held each year on 19 August at the place where the border was opened.
In 2009, Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany, visited festivities marking the 20th anniversary and thanked Hungarians for courage and foresight: "Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement... and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans' desire for freedom."
- This article incorporates information from the equivalent article on the Deutsch WorldHeritage.
- Lech Walesa. The Struggle and the Triumph: An Autobiography. Arcade (1991). ISBN 1-55970-221-4. Page 157–174.
- Østergaard, Anders (2014). "1989". Shown in Finland by
- "Hungary marks 1989 freedom event". BBC. 2009-08-19.
- "Das Paneuropa-Picknick vom 19. August 1989, das Ende der Teilung Europas" (in German). Páneurópai Unió. Archived from the original on 2007-10-08. Retrieved 2009-08-10. Longer article on the Pan-European Picnic
- The picnic that changed European history