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

20 January 1841: Britain takes possession of Hong Kong
This day in history

20 January 1841: Britain takes possession of Hong Kong

On this day in 1841, Hong Kong island was ceded to Britain following the Chuenpi Convention, along with a resumption of the opium trade.
20 Jan 2021
19 January 1986: the world’s first PC virus infection
This day in history

19 January 1986: the world’s first PC virus infection

On this day in 1986, the first IBM personal computer was infected with the “Brain” virus, spread on floppy disks.
19 Jan 2021
16 January 1991: Operation Desert Storm begins
This day in history

16 January 1991: Operation Desert Storm begins

Coalition forces led by the US launched an operation to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi forces on this day in 1991, sending the oil price soaring.
16 Jan 2021
15 January 1892: the rules of basketball are published
This day in history

15 January 1892: the rules of basketball are published

Canadian PE instructor Dr James Naismith, working at a YMCA training school, published the 13 rules of basketball on this day in 1892.
15 Jan 2021

Most Popular

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021
House prices

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021

Lockdown sent house prices berserk as cooped up home-workers fled for bigger properties in the country. And while they won’t rise quite as much this y…
18 Jan 2021
Prepare for the end of the epic bubble in US stocks
US stockmarkets

Prepare for the end of the epic bubble in US stocks

US stocks are as expensive as they’ve ever been. How can you prepare your portfolio for a bubble bursting?
18 Jan 2021
The best investment trusts to buy for 2021
Investment trusts

The best investment trusts to buy for 2021

Sectors ranging from emerging markets to student accommodation look poised to do well this year, says David Stevenson, as he picks the best investment…
19 Jan 2021