Accessibility links

Events Being Held To Mark Day That Iron Curtain Began To Rip

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Miklos Nemeth, the Hungarian prime minister in 1989, speaks to journalists during a press conference on the 20th anniversary of the "Pan-European Picnic" in Sopron.

Miklos Nemeth, the Hungarian prime minister in 1989, speaks to journalists during a press conference on the 20th anniversary of the "Pan-European Picnic" in Sopron.

It's just an ordinary-looking farm paddock in the countryside of Central Europe. But it's the spot where the Iron Curtain, which had divided Europe so cruelly for more than four decades, began to crumble.

The paddock lies along the Austro-Hungarian border just outside the Hungarian city of Sopron.

Twenty years ago, on August 19, 1989, it was the site of a "Pan-European Picnic" organized by the Hungarian opposition.

Under the spirit of glasnost introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, both Hungary and Austria had agreed to open their common border at Sopron for three hours on that day, to allow an orderly exchange of greetings between the local populations on both sides of the frontier.

But, tipped off by the Hungarian organizers, hundreds of East Germans arrived at the border post.

'What I Saw Was Amazing'

The commander of the Hungarian border guards on that day, Arpad Bella, says he saw a mass of people walking toward him from the Hungarian side, including women and children, and old people. Their intention was obviously to cross the border.

An East German Trabant decorated with reproductions of newspapers bearing stories of the 1989 "Pan-European Picnic."
Given that the guards were still under orders to shoot anyone trying to cross the frontier illegally, Bella said he had "a few seconds" to decide what to do -- to shoot or not to shoot. He obeyed the dictates of his conscience and let them pass.

His guards studiously looked the other way as the crowd surged across to the West.

"What I saw on the other side was amazing," Bella recalls. "There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land. There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just either cried or laughed. So there was an incredible range of emotions bursting out."

One of the East Germans present during these dramatic moments was Dietmar Poguntke, a 26-year old student at the time.

"I crossed through this hole, and there was this Austrian who said, 'Welcome to freedom,' while holding a piece of barbed wire like a rose," Poguntke remembers. "I couldn't believe it. In my mind, I was expecting a first wall, then a second wall, a third one like here. But he said, 'You are already in Austria!' I told him, 'No way.'

"So I turned back one more time and crawled across the border pretending to have a really tough escape. Everybody was applauding and really happy."

Statue To Be Unveiled

Today, an official commemoration ceremony is being held at the site, with Hungary's President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Solyom is to unveil a statue to mark the anniversary.

East Germans who crossed the border in 1989 stand beside a section of barbed-wire fence on the Austro-Hungarian border.
The Hungarian prime minister at the time, Miklos Nemeth, said in Sopron this week that the event was a test of Gorbachev's word that he would not intervene militarily to stop crossborder movements of people. In the event, the Soviet leader stuck to his word.

Hungary's western border eventually opened for good on September 11, 1989, allowing about 50,000 East German refugees to flow through until October 7, without any Soviet intervention.

Just a short time afterward -- in November 1989 -- the Berlin Wall separating West Germany and the Communist East, fell.

The contribution of the fateful picnic to the fall of communism was praised by then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who said the soil under Berlin's Brandenburg Gate was "Hungarian soil."

Writing on August 18 on his blog, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, representing the current EU Presidency, said: "What happened attracted enormous attention and set in motion the process which saw the wall fall in Berlin on November 9 and that artificial state formation, the DDR, cease to exist within a little more than a year."

He added: "For the appearance of a hole in the Iron Curtain means that the curtain in its entirety became worthless. It was like a gigantic dam which suddenly had developed a little hole somewhere. And it was at Sopron where everything really begun to crack in all seriousness in just this sense."