East German protest emigration and Hungarian solidarity, 1989

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Timing
Time Period:  
August 19,
1989
to
September 11,
1989
Location and Goals
Country: 
Germany
Country: 
Hungary
Location City/State/Province: 
Sopron, Hungary
Goals: 
To remove the “Iron Curtain” in Hungary which restricted cross-border movements from Eastern European/Communist countries to Western European/capitalist countries
 

“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.

Research Notes
Influences: 

See "East Germans Protest for Democracy (The Peaceful Revolution), 1988-90" and other campaigns in the wave of Eastern Europe Democracy Campaigns (1989).

Sources: 
“The Pan-European Picnic, and the opening of the border.” Laszlo Nagy, 11 September 1989. Internet source: www.berliner-mauer.de/laszlo-nagy/lazslonagy-en.html.

Central Europe Review, Vol. 1, No. 11, 6 September 1999 www.ce-review.org/99/11/nemes11.html.

Ralf Dahrendorf, George Soros, Yehuda , The paradoxes of unintended consequences, p. 285. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2000.

“Pan-European Picnic,” Wikipedia.

“East Germany,” Wikipedia

Gyula Kurucz (editor) The first border-opening. Budapest, 2000, p. 144.

Additional Notes: 
The context was increasing public opposition to the Iron Curtain, an electrified, heavily guarded fence where many had been killed trying to escape over the years. The picnic committee advertised the picnic far and wide (including in East Germany) but did not actually expect the protest emigration to happen at its picnic, although the committee supported it once the 600 East Germans showed up – at considerable risk to themselves.

“The pulling down of the Berlin Wall began in Sopron,” stated Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany’s last prime minister.

The route East Germans typically took was: crossing the "green" border via Czechoslovakia into Hungary, then on to Austria and West Germany.

Edited by Max Rennebohm (22/06/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
George Lakey, 17/08/2008