Washington, DC – Twenty-five years ago, a dramatic turn of events in western Hungary precipitated the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe – as commemorated this week at an international conference in the city of Sopron.
On August 19, 1989, with its Communist regime still in place, Hungary temporarily opened its border to Austria to allow thousands of East German refugees, who had massed there at a “Pan-European picnic”, to escape to the West. This decision set in motion, over the next few months, the complete disintegration of the Iron Curtain.
Pan-European Picnic on August 19, 1989 – photo by Tamás Lobenwein
In August of 1989, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), a democratic opposition group, organized a Pan-European Picnic in Sopronpuszta, at Hungary’s western border. The chief organizers were MDF leaders Mária Filep and Dr. László Magas, who had been inspired by a lecture delivered by Otto von Habsburg, Member of the European Parliament and President of the International Pan European Union.
The MDF organizers contacted Hungarian Minister of State Imre Pozsgay to secure official government permission for the picnic. The picnic was billed as an informal gathering of Austrians and Hungarians at the border, in the spirit of “pan-Europeanism”. While both Imre Pozsgay and Otto von Habsburg agreed to serve as patrons, neither attended in person, lest their presence impel nervous Party officials to revoke their permission for the event. Instead, Pozsgay and Otto von Habsburg were represented by Deputy Minister László Vass and Walburga von Habsburg.
Meanwhile, thousands of East Germans – fueled by hopes that the Iron Curtain would soon fall – had sought asylum in Hungary, where political change was proceeding much faster than in hard-line East Germany. Minister Pozsgay and Hungarian social service providers, including Rev. Imre Kozma, seized upon the picnic as an opportunity to speed things along: they advised the East Germans refugees to proceed to Sopronpuszta and keep going West, into Austria.
Before the picnic began, the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior ordered the border guards to open the border on August 19, 1989, between 3:00 PM and 6:00 PM, and not to interfere with the tide of refugees. That afternoon, several thousand East Germans flooded West over the Hungarian border. This government-sanctioned breach of the Iron Curtain set in motion a chain of events which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall just a few months later.
This week, exactly a quarter-century later, organizers and participants of the Pan-European Picnic recalled the events at a two-day international conference in Sopron. The conference was sponsored by the Foundation for a Civic Society in Hungary, the Antall József Knowledge Center, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the city of Sopron. Coalition members Zita Mirk and Zsolt Szekeres represented the Hungarian American Coaltion at the conference.
Speakers at the conference included Dr. Imre Pozsgay, Mária Filep, Rev. Imre Kozma, President of the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta, and other contemporary witnesses.
Detailed program of the conference and list of speakers is available at: