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Pan-European Picnic remembered

Pan-European Picnic remembered
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A monument to freedom is all that suggests something significant ever happened on a small road separating Hungary and Austria.

In 1989, an event took place that is believed to have made the first crack in the Berlin Wall – the Pan-European Picnic. Up to 800 East Germans broke through the border gate and made their way to the West from one of the most oppressive of the communist regimes. The small town of Sopron played host to the gathering. Disguised as holidaymakers, hundreds made their way to the town for what was meant to be a peace demonstration. Dietmar Poguntke was 26 years old at the time. He learnt about the protest in Budapest and came in the hope of making it across the border into Austria. “I crossed through this hole and there is this Austrian who says: “Welcome to Freedom”, holding a piece of barbed wire like a rose. I couldn’t believe it,” he says. Bela Arpad was the border guard in charge. He had received a vaguely worded warning about the possibility of East German refugees arriving, but had no instructions as to how to deal with them. His decision led to the first mass exodus towards the West since the Wall went up. “What I saw on the other side was amazing. There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land,” says Arpad. “There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just cried or laughed.. So there was an incredible range of emotions bursting out,” he adds What happened that day helped pave the way for the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of Germany. But Hungary had taken some vital steps before – like breaking the isolation pact regarding relations with the West. It has also ordered the removal of hundreds of kilometres of barbed wire on the border with Austria. For most of those invoved, what actually happened, was unexpected. The day began as a demonstration to highlight the division of East and West – an informal picnic to demonstrate different conditions along the western borders of east European countries. Two and half months later, the Berlin Wall came down.