Looking back: The picnic that destroyed the Iron Curtain

19th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

On August 19, 1989, a few hundred East Germans fled the communist bloc to Austria after breaking through a closed border gate near Sopronkohida in western Hungary.

Budapest -- The events that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago started curiously on a field near the Austro-Hungarian border, at a picnic.

On August 19, 1989, a few hundred East Germans fled the communist bloc to Austria after breaking through a closed border gate near Sopronkohida in western Hungary.

Next week, this field will be the site of an international anniversary ceremony with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom due to attend.

Hungary was where "the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall," former German chancellor Helmut Kohl said in Berlin on October 4, 1990, on the day East and West Germany were reunified.

But even before this bold step in the summer of 1989, the Soviet-style communist systems in most of Eastern Europe were already starting to crumble.

When Budapest started deviating from the Communist party line, the Soviet Union did not stir.

As the Hungarian communist party's political steering group decided to dismantle the 246-kilometre (153-mile) barbed wire fence on the border with Austria -- partly because maintaining it was so costly -- Moscow again raised no objections.

As a result, on June 27, Hungary's Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock took giant pliers in hand and ceremoniously cut through the wire that had marked the border with Austria since 1966 and established a physical and ideological boundary between East and West.

In fact, the dismantling had already been going on since May 2.

But while Hungary was edging towards independence from its Soviet comrades, the leader of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Erich Honecker, proclaimed in early 1989 that the "Berlin Wall will continue to stand for 100 years.,"

For East Germans, the easiest way to flee communism thus seemed to be through Hungary, where the Iron Curtain separating East from West was starting to come down.

"(This) set off a flood of rumours that Austria could be reached after only a short walk" from Hungary, noted historian Imre Toth.

In the summer of 1989, Hungary offered refuge to tens of thousands of East Germans heading for the West, and the Soviet Union again remained silent.

It was in that atmosphere of joy over the disappearance of the fence that an initiative came from the already influential Hungarian opposition, to organise a celebration of European unity on the Austro-Hungarian border near Sopronkohida.

August 19 was the day of the Paneuropean Picnic, under the patronage of Imre Pozsgay, a prominent reformist member of the Communist party Politburo, and Otto von Habsburg, the president of the International Paneuropean Union and son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor.

As part of the event, the border between Austria and Hungary was to be opened for a few hours at this spot as a symbolic gesture that Hungary was rejoining the West.

"We had planned to open the border at 3:00 pm but we could not follow an orderly procedure because the crowd of East German citizens gathered here rushed to crash through the border at 2:57 pm ," recalled Laszlo Magas, one of the organisers of the picnic.

Over 600 people dashed across to Austria that day, the first massive exodus by East Germans since the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

Without any orders from their superiors, the Hungarian border guards refrained from shooting and the gates were closed three hours later.

They remained locked for less than a month.

On September 11, the Hungarian government officially opened the border, allowing an estimated 50,000 East Germans to flee to Austria.

Two months later on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell.

By that time, Hungary's communist party had officially ceased to exist, the first to do so in the Eastern bloc.


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