Pan-European Picnic

Tree-lined road with gates and a guardhouse
Border crossing which was the site of the Pan-European Picnic

The Pan-European Picnic (German: Paneuropäisches Picknick; Hungarian: páneurópai piknik) was a peace demonstration held on the Austrian-Hungarian border near Sopron, Hungary on 19 August 1989, the day before the Hungarian holiday commemorating Stephen I of Hungary. Part of the Revolutions of 1989 leading to the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany, it was organised by the Paneuropean Union and the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum under the sponsorship of Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay.


In 1989, the situation in Central Europe was tense. Despite dictatorial governments, its peoples demanded democratic elections, freedom of speech and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The physical elements of the Iron Curtain were a dominant factor in the movement to unite Europe. Although some countries had a severe Communist power structure, others (such as Hungary) took a reform-oriented approach. Supported by Mikhail Gorbachev’s new policies, the communist leadership accepted the necessity for change. Non-governmental organizations and new political parties played a sizable role in the movement towards a democratic, multiparty system. That year, round-table discussions were held in several Central European countries to develop a consensus on changing the political system. In February formal discussions began in Warsaw and on 4 April the Polish Round Table Agreement was signed, legalising Solidarity and scheduling parliamentary elections for 4 June. Solidarity’s victory surpassed all expectations.[1]

Orthodox hardliners still proclaimed the role of the communist parties and their regimes, relying on border controls permitting citizens to travel to the West once every three years with a small amount of cash. In Germany this led to the Berlin Wall, through which only pensioners could pass. Although East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania had repressive regimes, in 1988 Hungarians were issued passports enabling them to travel more freely.

Developments in Hungary

Beginning in 1989, Romanian citizens were filling refugee camps at the Hungarian-Romanian border near Debrecen. In the early summer of 1989, thirty to forty thousand people sought asylum in Hungary. Although the Hungarian government had been bound by a bilateral agreement to return the refugees to Romania, Hungary signed the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR) in 1989.[2]

The financial situation was difficult in Hungary, and Prime Minister Miklós Németh decided that his government could not afford to maintain automated border control along the border with Austria; spare parts would come from the West and were paid for in hard currency.[3] Németh believed it was no longer necessary to secure the borders; Hungarians were allowed to travel freely, and the government did not intend to continue fortifying the country’s Western borders. At the border between East and West Berlin several hundred people were killed, with border guards instructed to shoot refugees. The last person shot to death was Chris Gueffroy, in February 1989.

East Germans, who often spent their summer holidays on Lake Balaton (where they could meet relatives and friends from West Germany), remained in Hungary during the summer of 1989. On 20 June Otto von Habsburg, heir apparent of the House of Habsburg and member of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1999, addressed an audience at the university in Debrecen about Europe without borders and the European Parliament elections' impact on Central Europe. His speech was followed by a dinner, at which two representatives of the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum party (Mária Filep and Ferenc Mészáros) suggested a picnic for local residents at the Austro-Hungarian border to celebrate the bonds between Austrians and Hungarians.[3]

Although the Hungarian Democratic Forum’s (MDF) national leadership of the MDF had reservations, Filep (supported by local Fidesz and MDF groups) recruited participants and searched for a suitable location. She wanted to include guests at the "common destiny camp", a gathering of intellectuals and opposition activists from Central and Eastern European countries in Martonvásár (not far from Lake Balaton) scheduled to end date on 20 August. The site chosen for the picnic was on Bratislava Road in Sopron, a border crossing since 1922.

The gathering was intended as an informal meeting of Austrians and Hungarians at the border meadow. Permission to open the border station for three hours was granted, so pedestrians from both countries could experience Europe without borders. Its organisers recruited Otto von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay, a reformist member of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party (MSzMP) and Minister of State, as patrons of the event.

Former Prime Minister Németh explained in 1989, a 2014 documentary, that the picnic offered the Hungarian government a way out of a situation which had arisen with East German tourists holidaying in Hungary that summer:[3]

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?

A flyer was produced, advertising the picnic with a map of the site, and was distributed to East German citizens wishing to defect to West Germany via Austria.[3] Under East German law, citizens were required to request permission to travel to the West; 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 a re-enacted scene in Anders Østergaard's documentary 1989, Prime Minister Németh tells 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 explained in the documentary:[3]

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."

At the picnic several hundred East German citizens overran the old wooden gate, reaching Austria unhindered by the border guards around Árpád Bella. The Hungarian borders were opened on 11 September, and the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November.[4][5]

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. On 27 June Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart, Gyula Horn, cut the border fence about 6 km (3.7 mi) from this spot (a symbolic act highlighting Hungary's decision to dismantle its border surveillance, which had begun on 2 May).[6][7]

More than 600 East Germans fled to the West. In the run-up to the picnic, its organisers distributed pamphlets advertising the event and Hungarian border guards were ordered by the Ministry of the Interior not to intervene or carry arms; the border guards helped people to flee.

In Budapest and around Lake Balaton, thousands of East Germans hesitated to cross the border. Over the next few days, the Hungarian government increased the number of guards patrolling its western border and a relatively small number of refugees reached the West. On 11 September 1989, Hungary opened its borders to citizens of East Germany and other Central European countries; this was the first time a Central European border opened to citizens of Eastern Bloc states. A few months after the opening, more than 70,000 East Germans fled to West Germany via Hungary.

Prime Minister Németh said in 1989,[3] "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 four Hungarian opposition parties: the Hungarian Democratic Forum, the Alliance of Free Democrats, Fidesz and the Independent Smallholders, Agrarian Workers and Civic Party. Its patrons were Christian Social Union in Bavaria MEP Otto von Habsburg (head of the house of Habsburg and claimant of the Austro-Hungarian throne) and Hungarian Minister of State and reformer Imre Pozsgay. East Germany’s Erich Honecker told the Daily Mirror about the picnic, "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 Deutsche Marks, before being persuaded to go over to the West."

Later developments

The Hungarian government normalised border controls after the picnic. In August, 6,923 people were arrested at the border; of those, 5,527 were East Germans. The Hungarian government feared that laxness would lead to hard-liners assuming control in the Kremlin, leading to a coup d’état against Gorbachev. During the night of 21–22 August Kurt-Werner Schulz, a 36-year-old East German from Weimar, was killed. Németh said later:[3]

We decided 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, "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 22 August Németh flew by helicopter to Bonn to meet with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Kohl's foreign secretary, Hans-Dietrich Genscher. There, Németh "dropped a bomb on their table":[3]

Esteemed 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 moved to tears.

Németh assured Kohl that the Hungarians would handle the border situation, and compliance by Gorbachev was unnecessary. Kohl telephoned Gorbachev, informing him of Németh’s decision, and Gorbachov assured Kohl that the Hungarian premier "was a good man". On 11 September the border was opened, and 30,000 East Germans fled to the West.[3]

After the East German regime tried to block the Hungarian route, thousands fled to the West via Czechoslovakia and there was a massive popular uprising. On 17 October Honecker was relieved as head of state, and on 9 November the gates to West Berlin were opened.[3]


White stone memorial, with steps and people escaping
Pan-European Picnic monument by Miklós Melocco

The picnic site is commemorated with a monument by Miklós Melocco, a bell from the city of Debrecen, a pagoda from the Association of Japanese–Hungarian Friendship and a wooden monument unveiled by the organisers in 1991. A large artwork of a cross and barbed wire by Gabriela von Habsburg (daughter of Otto von Habsburg) is at the Cave Theatre in Fertőrákos, a few kilometres from the site.

The Pan-European Picnic is considered a significant milestone on the road to German reunification, and commemorative ceremonies are held annually on 19 August at the border. In 2009 Angela Merkel (who grew up in East Germany) attended festivities commemorating the picnic’s 20th anniversary, thanking the Hungarians for their courage and foresight: "Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement... and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans’ desire for freedom."[8] Hungarian President László Sólyom unveiled a white marble monument in memory of those who risked their lives to cross the Iron Curtain,[8] and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said: "We must remain an open Europe of open societies and open minds, open to others beyond our present boundaries".[8]

See also


  1. Walesa, Lech (1991), The Struggle and the Triumph: An Autobiography, Arcade, pp. 157–74, ISBN 1-55970-221-4.
  2. Pan-European picnic: milestone in reunification of Germany, Radio Vatican, 4 November 2014, retrieved 23 May 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Østergaard, Anders (10 Nov 2014). "1989". Yle (broadcast). FI: Magic Hour Films, First Hand Films.
  4. The picnic that changed European History, DE: DW Akademie, 19 August 2014, retrieved 23 May 2015.
  5. "A World-changing European picnic", Vienna Review, 1 September 2009, retrieved 23 May 2015.
  6. "Sopron, Hungary: the picnic that changed the world", The Daily Telegraph, UK, 19 August 2014, retrieved 23 May 2015.
  7. "Hungary's peaceful revolution: cutting the fence and changing History", Spiegel Online, 29 May 2009, retrieved 23 May 2015.
  8. 1 2 3 "Hungary marks 1989 freedom event". BBC. 2009-08-19.
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