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The pan-European picnic

WHILE ALL THE WORLD’S ATTENTION IS FOCUSSED ON ATHENS THIS WEEK, the fifteenth anniversary of an event that triggered the fall of the Iron Curtain will slip by almost unnoticed. But not in Sopron, on the Hungarian-Austrian border.

I first heard about this event just a few months ago while attending the European Apologetics Network conference in Sopron. A tour guide mentioned a ‘pan-European picnic’ in passing as she was taking a small group of us through the Jewish district which had been cordoned off as a ghetto during the war, before thousands of Jews were taken off to the gas chambers. I purchased the book she mentioned about this picnic and began to discover an amazing story that is so little remembered in the west. Claudia, a Hungarian friend, kindly agreed to take me and two Romanian friends out to the outskirts of town to the ‘picnic’ site.

Twenty minutes later, the forest road led us to a red-and-white boom across the road, manned by a small group of lounging border guards. On a sign nearby, we later read the words of former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl: “History has been written on this forest road.” A large grassy field stretched out to the left and rising above the trees was the ominous silhouette of an unmanned border tower.

We had reached the place where on August 19, 1989, over 10,000 people had responded to an invitation to attend a picnic to celebrate a future Europe without borders. The idea had been born in May that year over a dinner in Debrecen, eastern Hungary, with members of the Hungarian Democratic Forum opposition party and Otto von Hapsburg of the European Parliament. Change was already in the air and on this spot the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain had already been partially cut through on June 27 by the foreign ministers of Austria and Hungary. The rusty barrier had been in poor repair, and often the electronic alarm was set off by birds. Rather than replace it, the Hungarian authorities had decided to liquidate the obsolete Curtain, making it a ‘green border’ with patrols. The picnic celebrated this step but also aimed to demand an open border and free travel.

An air of jubilee prevailed as the thousands – both Hungarians and East Germans – streamed towards this border crossing. They began to help pull down the barbed wire, some stuffing it in the trunks of their Trabants to take home as souvenirs. “Baue ab und nimm mit!” (Break it down and take it with you) became the slogan of the picnic. A symbolic opening of the border was planned, with a brief walk on the other side of the border by a delegation. A press conference seemed to delay proceedings too long for many of the East Germans, who had begun to gather in the thousands in Hungary where without visas they could often share holidays at Lake Balaton with their West German relatives.

At about 3.20pm, as the press conference was still dragging on, several hundred East Germans began to surge against the wooden border gate, suddenly breaking through and running towards Austria. The Hungarian guards were still under orders to shoot anyone attempting an illegal border crossing. Young people with only the summer clothes on their backs and clutching handbaggage, couples with young children, began to run with the crowd, tears streaming down their cheeks. Some jumped in ecstacy as they passed through the barbed-wire covered gate. Others stopped to kiss the Austrian soil. The moment of their dreams had unexpectedly become reality. The guards held their fire. One stooped to pick up a small child dropped in the rush, and handed him back to his mother. Six hundred or so passed through before the guards managed to get the gate closed again.

Claudia, my two Romanian friends and I wandered along the edge of the picnic site where photo displays told the story of this dramatic puncturing of the Iron Curtain, caught by a photographer on the Austrian side of the border (you can see these same photos on www.sopron.hu/paneu-piknik).

We saw photos of the picnic car park, littered with East German Trabants – purchased after years of hard saving – gladly abandoned by their owners all too willing to pay the price of freedom; and photos of smiling young people waving their newly acquired western passports issued by officials from Vienna. We read about the steady stream of some 200 East Germans who successfully crossed the ‘green border’ nightly in the weeks following the picnic; and about the 60,000 who refused to go back from Hungary to East Germany, choosing instead to endure the deprivations of refugee camps in the hope that soon Hungary would open her borders.

The Hungarian government faced pressure from East Germany and Russia to tighten the border, and at the same time from western governments to continue her reforms. Finally on September 11, 1989, the Hungarian government opened its borders for free travel. The thousands of East Germans in Hungary were allowed to cross into Austria and finally into West Germany. In East Germany mass demonstrations, encouraged by events in Hungary, demanded freedom from Erich Honecker’s government. In October Honecker steadfastly declared that the Berlin Wall would last another hundred years. It didn’t even last another hundred days. On November 10, demonstrations involving several million finally pulled the Wall down.

When Germany celebrated her reunification, Helmut Kohl declared that “the soil under the Brandenburg Gate is Hungarian soil”. At the first anniversary of the picnic, East Germany’s last prime minister, Lothar de Maiziere, also acknowledged that the pulling down of the Berlin Wall had begun in Sopron.

In the words of one observer, the pan-European Picnic was the pin-prick that burst the communist balloon.

As we drove back towards town, we were very conscious that history had indeed been written on that forest road.

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

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