19 August 1989: The Pan-European Picnic brings down the Iron Curtain

Food has long been used to smash down barriers and bring people together. But the Pan-European Picnic was no sumptuous banquet between bloated heads of state. It was, as its name suggests, a picnic to bring reformed-minded people together on an August afternoon in 1989.

The air was heavy with change that summer. The communist eastern bloc still faced off against the West over the ‘Iron Curtain’ – the border that separated eastern and western Europe, of which the Berlin Wall was part.

But cracks were appearing. In Hungary, the reformist government had started to issue ‘world passports’ that made travelling easier.

That summer, masses of East Germans travelled down to Lake Balaton in western Hungary for their holidays – as they had done for decades. But this time, many weren’t counting on going back. At the same time and less than an hour’s drive from the lake, opposition activists had gathered to exchange ideas.

Over in the eastern part of the country, thousands of Romanians fleeing Nicolae Ceaușescu’s brutal regime streamed into Debrecen. At the town’s university, Otto von Habsburg, member of the European Parliament and the Paneuropean Union, gave a speech raising the idea of a Europe without borders.

The speech struck a chord. Two members of Hungary’s opposition, Mária Filep and Ferenc Mészáros, suggested holding a picnic on the Austro-Hungarian border, inviting the activists at Lake Balaton. The venue for the picnic would be Sopron on the border with Austria.

Crucially, the minister of state, Imre Pozsgay, was sympathetic. The border crossing was to open for three hours during the picnic, while the unarmed guards were stood down.

In East Germany, word spread of the picnic and thousands more travelled to Hungary, despite efforts by the authorities to promote the country’s 40th birthday celebrations.

On 19 August 1989, the Pan-European Picnic passed off peacefully. Hundreds of East Germans grabbed the opportunity to cross into Austria, and weeks later, Hungary opened the border for good. The Iron Curtain had been breached, and on 9 November, the Berlin Wall came down.

Also on this day

19 August 1612: the Lancashire witch trials

Ten people were convicted and sent to the gallows on the evidence of a nine-year old girl on this day in 1612, in the infamous Lancashire witch trials. Read more here.

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