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

On this day in 1989 thousands of people flocked to a picnic in Hungary. Many kept going straight across the border into Austria.

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 Ceauescu'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.

Recommended

Britain’s ten most-hated shares – w/e 20 May
Stocks and shares

Britain’s ten most-hated shares – w/e 20 May

Rupert Hargreaves looks at Britain's ten-most hated shares, and what short-sellers are looking right now.
23 May 2022
Britain's most-bought shares w/e 20 May
Stocks and shares

Britain's most-bought shares w/e 20 May

A look at Britain's most-bought shares in the week ending 13 May, providing an insight into how investors are thinking and where opportunities may lie…
23 May 2022
Director dealings w/e 20 May: what company insiders are buying and selling
Stocks and shares

Director dealings w/e 20 May: what company insiders are buying and selling

Directors’ share dealings can often give investors an insight into the sentiment of company insiders. Here are some of the biggest deals by company di…
23 May 2022
Amazon’s shares have fallen hard – value investors should take note
Share tips

Amazon’s shares have fallen hard – value investors should take note

Investors have dumped Amazon shares as post-pandemic life returns to normal. But it still has plenty of competitive advantages, says Russell Hargreave…
23 May 2022

Most Popular

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?
Share tips

Imperial Brands has an 8.3% yield – but what’s the catch?

Tobacco company Imperial Brands boasts an impressive dividend yield, and the shares look cheap. But investors should beware, says Rupert Hargreaves. H…
20 May 2022
Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest
Investment strategy

Barry Norris: we’re already in the 1970s. Here’s how to invest

Merryn talks to Barry Norris of Argonaut capital about the parallels between now and the 1970s; the transition to “green” energy; and the one sector w…
19 May 2022
Share tips of the week – 20 May
Share tips

Share tips of the week – 20 May

MoneyWeek’s comprehensive guide to the best of this week’s share tips from the rest of the UK's financial pages.
20 May 2022