It was 19 years ago today that a picnic on the Hungarian side of the Austria-Hungary border near Sopron helped cause the Iron Curtain to fall.
Never heard of the Pan-European Picnic? Here's the short Wikipedia version:
The Pan-European Picnic was a peace demonstration held on the Austrian-Hungarian border near the town of Sopron on 19 August 1989.
In a symbolic gesture agreed to by both countries, a border gate on the road from Sankt Margarethen im Burgenland (Austria) to Sopronkőhida (Hungary) was to be opened for three hours. On the same spot on 27 June 1989, Austria's then foreign minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn had together cut through the border fence, in a move highlighting Hungary's decision to dismantle its surveillance installations along the border, a process started on 2 May 1989.
More than 600 East Germans seized the opportunity presented by this brief lifting of the Iron Curtain, and fled into the west. In the run-up to August 19th, the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic had distributed pamphlets advertising the event. The Hungarian border guards, however, reacted judiciously to the growing number of people fleeing, and, despite their orders to shoot anyone who attempted to cross the border, did not intervene.
Slightly further away, thousands more East Germans were waiting for their chance to cross to border, not believing that the border would be opened, and not trusting the procedures in place. The number of people who crossed the border into the west on the day of this event was therefore limited to no more than a few hundred. Over the next few days, the Hungarian government increased in the number of guards patrolling its western border, so that only a relatively small number actually reached the west successfully. On 11 September 1989, Hungary finally opened its borders for citizens of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for good.
The Pan-European Picnic is considered a highly significant milestone in the efforts that led to the end of the GDR and to the German reunification. Commemorative ceremonies are held each year on 19th of August at the place where the border was opened.
The picnic was organised by members of the Hungarian opposition party Democratic Forum and the International Paneuropean Union. The event's patrons were the President of the Paneuropean Union, CSU MEP Otto von Habsburg, and the Hungarian Secretary of State and reformer Imre Pozsgay. The Secretary-General of the Paneuropean Union, Walburga Habsburg Douglas, carried out the ceremonial cutting of the barbed wire.
East Germany's Erich Honecker gave the following statement to the Daily Mirror on the Pan-European Picnic:
"...Habsburg distributed pamphlets right up to the Polish border, inviting East German holiday-makers to a picnic. When they came to the picnic, they were given presents, food and Deutschmarks, before being persuaded to go over to the west.."
The following weeks saw a definite change in the perception of the previously impenetrable Iron Curtain.
Today the place of the picnic is marked by a large sculpture symbolizing a Cross and a barbed wire. The sculpture was made by Gabriela von Habsburg, a daughter of Otto von Habsburg
And now you know.