How a picnic became a seminal milestone of Cold War history

Monument to the Pan-European Picnic at St. Margarethen, Burgenland
Monument to the Pan-European Picnic at St. Margarethen, Burgenland - GmbH & Co. KG / Alamy Stock Photo

“F--- the 20th Century” proclaimed a sign behind the Hungarian rock band Beatrice. An East German Trabant car dangled above the stage. It was August 2019 and Beatrice, who had been vocal critics of communism during the Cold War, were giving a concert celebrating an event that helped free Eastern Europe from the Soviet yoke: the Pan-European Picnic.

Thirty years earlier, on August 19 1989, something remarkable had happened. The Iron Curtain was lifted for a few momentous hours at a picnic held by Hungarian reformers at the Austro-Hungarian border. Between music, beer and goulash, hundreds fled to the West while the wind of change blew into the East. When the Soviets didn’t react, Hungary opened its borders for good a few weeks later. On November 9 the Berlin Wall fell and with it the last pillar upholding European communism.

While the events in Berlin in the autumn of 1989 have become emblematic, the Pan-European Picnic is less well known – but Matthew Longo’s The Picnic seeks to change that. An Assistant Professor of Political Science at Leiden University, Longo’s fascination with the Iron Curtain is as a divide of systems. His previous book The Politics of Borders (2018) argued that borders are “political institutions in their own right” with enormous ramifications, and what better subject to prove the point than the fall of one that divided the world for much of the 20th century?

What role the Pan-European Picnic played in the dissolution of the Iron Curtain is still disputed. The fact is that nearly 700 East Germans escaped to West Germany via Austria, the single biggest exodus since the Berlin Wall had been erected in 1961. Leaflets had informed them of a peace demonstration in Hungary at which its border with Austria would be symbolically opened for three hours. Many got the hint and made their way into Hungary on holiday visas.

It is also a fact that the event was no spontaneous breach. The idea of allowing a large group of people passage came partly from Otto von Habsburg, the last crown prince of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, alongside Hungarian reformers and opposition groups. It was sanctioned by Prime Minister Miklós Németh, who had already begun to loosen security at the border. Journalists stood ready to take pictures. The picnic was a test: how would the Soviet Union respond? When Moscow did nothing, it accelerated the path to reform.

Matthew Longo, author of The Picnic
Matthew Longo, author of The Picnic - Matthew Miziolek

Longo covers the Picnic at ground level, evoking the dramatic events in vivid colour: “A brass band boomed across the field. Goulash cooked in giant pots over open flames; beer and wine were there for the taking. People danced around a bonfire… ‘For all our friends in Europe!’ Ferenc [Mészáros, one of the organisers] bellowed above the din. ‘The only chance of worldwide peace… is the demolition of barbed wires and cultural barriers.’”

Travelling in Germany and Hungary for four years, Longo conducted interviews with ordinary East Germans who fled on August 19 1989, and he spoke to many of the key figures in Hungary involved in organising the Picnic. Anecdotes and impressions from these meetings are woven through the historical narrative, providing an insight into how deeply this history still matters today.

Németh, Hungary’s last communist prime minister, seemed “upset” when the author met him in 2019. A man of “integrity and equanimity”, Németh refused to attend the 30th anniversary of the Picnic because his panel was titled “Breakthrough and Collapse”. To him, neither term captured all the work he had put into enabling peaceful change in Hungary. In his view, there had been no “breakthrough” as his government had allowed the opening of the borders, and there had been no accidental “collapse” of communism in Hungary but a careful dismantling under his leadership.

A print showing photos from the Pan-European Picnic in 1989
A print showing photos from the Pan-European Picnic in 1989 - ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Two other actors of 1989, however, did appear at the anniversary in 2019, both as leaders of the countries that were in rapid transition then: Angela Merkel and Viktor Orbán. Merkel was in Berlin when the Wall fell and immediately embarked on a steep political career that was to take her to the top of German politics. Orbán was a 26-year-old firebrand promising to “bury communism” in a speech delivered in 1989 at the rehabilitation and reburial of Imre Nagy, who had been executed for his leadership of 1956 Hungarian Revolution. At the anniversary of the Picnic, he spoke of national sovereignty while Merkel talked about refugees. “Politics: always,” Longo concludes.

As a political scientist Longo isn’t entirely immune to the politicisation of history himself, but he is refreshingly honest about that. Readers are treated to the author’s views on borders today. Orbán’s policies to reduce illegal migration into Europe in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, for instance, are described as a “whiplash-inducing” turnaround: “Hungary: the place that demolished walls, was now building them up.”

While nuance is occasionally sacrificed on the altar of narrative effect, the chain of events in 1989 and its historical context are outlined with clarity and verve. The narrative is spiked with Longo’s commentary and anecdotes from his trips, making The Picnic a deeply personal account of a fascinating milestone of Cold War history.

The Picnic is published by Bodley Head at £22. To order your copy for £18.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

Katja Hoyer’s latest book is Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990

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