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How a feast paved the way to freedom

Pan-European PicnicOn 19 August 1989, a joint picnic of Austrian and Hungarian citizens was to take place in the Sopron border area. The reason for this joint picnic was the custom that there had already been several celebrations in the border area by Austrian and Hungarian citizens, to which another celebration was now added. Originally, the celebration was planned by Hungarian opposition members and the Austrian Pan-Europa Union to symbolise the historical closeness between Hungary and Austria. The Hungarian-Austrian border was to be opened briefly for several hours. The organisers had obtained the necessary permission for this from the Hungarian and Austrian authorities, so the Hungarian border guard Arpad Bella was to maintain border protocol during the festival. This was connected to an orderly celebration with the guests who were to ceremoniously cross the opened border on the occasion of the opening of the border.

Unexpectedly for the organisers, more than 600 East Germans suddenly arrived to take advantage of the opening of the border and flee across the Austro-Hungarian border to the West. Through leaflets distributed by West German embassy staff and other opposition members, the news of the imminent opening of the border reached everyone’s ears. In 1989, East German refugees continued to spend their well-deserved summer holidays in Hungary, as East Germans were only allowed to travel to the Eastern brother states, such as Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia. Voluntary departure to the West, however, was inevitably persecuted. Therefore, many East Germans used their stay in Hungary to look for new escape routes.

For the Hungarian leadership, the East German mass flight during the picnic meant a confirmation of the previous political course. After all, the flight during the picnic was a test, according to which not only the previous border demolition since 2 May 1989 now found its political recognition, but also the further political development was looking for its confirmation. For Nemeth and Pozsgay, the opening of the border in retrospect was a test that showed how far one could go in opening borders. A good two weeks after the picnic, it became clear that the border would be opened completely, so that on 10 September 1989 Gyula Horn opened the Hungarian western border completely to East Germans who wanted to leave the country. For various actors, such as Helmut Kohl, the Pan-European Picnic was considered the event that knocked the first stone out of the Berlin Wall.