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East German protest emigration and Hungarian solidarity, 1989
“The pulling down of the Berlin Wall began in Sopron,” stated Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany’s last prime minister.
On the outskirts of Sopron, a small town on the border between Communist Hungary and democratic Austria, they had a picnic – a most unusual picnic. The organizers wanted to “act out the future in the present.”
Tired of the Iron Curtain, that heavily guarded, electrified fence that separated Communist East Europe from capitalist West Europe, some Hungarian reformers decided to hold a picnic on both sides of the border and invite thousands of Austrians and Hungarians to come and mingle.
They called it a Pan-European Picnic. Because Hungary was at that time liberalizing, the reformers used their connections into the circle of powerholders to get permission to cut the Iron Curtain near the town of Sopron. Sponsorship was gained from the Pan-European Union, a non-governmental organization run by Otto Habsburg, the son of the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and the committee got the Hungarian Undersecretary of State to be a headline speaker.
Music and food were organized for thousands of people for the August 19 event and the Sopon Mayor was delighted. The border guard unit was primed to be ready to cut the fence for the three-hour picnic and to check the passes of the Austrians and Hungarians who flowed back and forth to eat, chat, and listen to music and speeches.
The unexpected “guests.” While the picnic was being organized pressure for democracy was mounting in the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, often called “East Germany”). Although the committee members publicized the picnic far and wide (including to Germany), they were surprised to find hundreds of East Germans showing up. (It was fairly easy for citizens to travel from one Communist country to another, as long as they stayed behind the Iron Curtain.) Committee members were even more surprised to find the East Germans crossing to the Austrian side with every intention of escaping to freedom! The committee members silently cheered them on while busily reassuring the officials and keeping the music and speakers going. In spare moments they tried to reassure each other that prison would probably be the worst they could expect for what was happening.
The border guards stood aside. Regulations state that border guards should shoot to kill if necessary to prevent people from Iron Curtain countries from fleeing. The guards checked the passports of the Austrians who patiently stood in line to cross the border and participate in the picnic, while an estimated 600 East Germans walked around the Austrians and guards and crossed the border without challenge. The fence was repaired as expected when the picnic ended.
For the next few days the Hungarian government responded to this local surprise by tightening the border patrols along the Austrian border, but East Germans continued to come into Hungary and Hungarian reformers increased their pressure for opening the border. On September 11 Hungary opened its border and an estimated 13,000 East Germans flowed through Hungary into Austria and on to West Germany.
Back in East Germany massive demonstrations for democracy grew through September. Government leader Erich Honecker was replaced in October by a slightly more liberal Communist but people power continued to mount. To reduce the pressure for democracy the East German government itself opened a few sections of the Berlin Wall, allowing heightened protest emigration: East Germans poured into West Berlin. Overwhelmed by the nonviolent action of East Germans, the governing Communist Party resigned.