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30 Years of Freedom: Testing Moscow With a Picnic

Last year, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán celebrated together the anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic, when Hungary allowed thousands of East Germans to flee to Western Germany. Looking back, the event was an enormous risk for an Eastern Bloc country, but these were times when events changed at an incredible pace.

Cutting the fence at the Austro-Hungarian border, June 27, 1989. Photo by Fortepan/Szigetváry Zsolt

Before looking more deeply at the Pan-European Picnic and the dismantling the Iron Curtain, it’s worth briefly summing up the historical context, some of which has been outlined in our previous issue (see “Laying the Groundwork for Democratic Hungary”).

For decades, the political and administrative institutions in Hungary had been controlled by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP), led by General Secretary János Kádár. It was an “authoritarian system which had been disintegrating from the beginning of the ’80s” (as sociologist Erzsébet Szalai told the Budapest Business Journal in our last issue).

An important catalyst in the process was the gradual easing of the grip of the USSR on countries in its sphere of influence, culminating with the public statement of the General Secretary of the Communist Party Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev in February 1988, saying that every socialist land has the “freedom to choose” its own societal system.

By that time, Kádár’s political influence had significantly diminished and his health deteriorated. In May 1988 he resigned and was officially replaced by Károly Grósz. While Soviet troops were still stationing in Hungary and the secret police continued to watch over the Socialist order, Grósz never managed to acquire the same power as Kádár had.

In the meantime, two figures from within the MSZMP’s second echelon advanced: Miklós Németh, who became Prime Minister in November 1988 and Gyula Horn, Minister of Foreign Affairs from May 1989. The question of who was in charge would play an important role in later events, as we will see.

The Refugee Question

At this time the Hungarian administration was confronted with another difficult challenge, this time from abroad. The largest Hungarian ethnic minority was living in neighboring Romania, enjoying, for a while, a wide range of opportunities to preserve their cultural and ethnic identity.

In 1971, the President and Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party, Nicolae Ceaușescu, visited North Korea. He was deeply impressed by the unlimited power he saw and the combination of ultra-nationalism with communist ideology promoted by Kim Il-Sung. Upon his return to Romania, Ceaușescu immediately began transposing North Korea’s system locally.

By the 1980s, the ideological domination was not enough, and he started rebuilding the country, under a so-called “systematization plan”, a forced urbanization of rural areas, in parallel with the “homogenization” of the population. For the Hungarian minority, this meant total destruction of many villages inhabited mostly by Hungarians and a redistribution of Romanians to areas with a largely Hungarian population.

Ceaușescu presented his plans publicly in April 1988 and they stirred outrage in Austria, the Federal Republic of Germany and Hungary. A protest organized by a Hungarian civil organization in Hősök tere (Heroes Square) in Budapest gathered 60,000-70,000 participants. Three days later, the Hungarian Parliament issued an official statement calling on the Romanian Assembly to stop the plans for demolishing Hungarian villages. In response, Romania closed down the Hungarian Consulate in Cluj-Napoca.

As a result of the exacerbated situation, thousands of Hungarians living in Romania started to flee to Hungary. Grósz and Ceaușescu met in Romania in August 1988, but with humiliating results for Grósz, who came home empty-handed.

The situation was embarrassing for the Hungarian government. Ceaușescu insisted that the situation of the Hungarian minority was a domestic affair and he would not accept any demands regarding them. Despite the international protests against the village systematization, there was nothing Budapest could do, while the exodus of Hungarians from Romania was intensifying day by day.

Based on the treaties within the Socialist block, Hungary was expected to return any Romanian citizen, be it ethnic Hungarian or Romanian. So in June 1989, Hungary signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees in order to be able to protect Hungarians fleeing Ceaușescu’s Romania.

Tourists from East Germany (GDR) waiting outside the Consular Section of the embassy of West Germany (FRG) in a fleet of Trabant cars in Nógrádi utca, Budapest, in the early summer of 1989. Photo by Fortepan/Szigetváry Zsolt

Hands Untied

On July 6, 1989, János Kádár died, but by then, the political transformation had long begun. As described in our previous issue, in March 1989 the Opposition Roundtable was formed, and the official negotiations with MSZMP about the political transition started. The MSZMP leadership were desperately trying to cope with the situation and remain in charge; society already tasted freedom and was determined not to let it go; the government led by Miklós Németh was desperately trying to rebuild a rapidly deteriorating economy and a huge budget deficit.

Under these circumstances, in June 1989, Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gyula Horn and his Austrian counterpart, Alois Mock, together cut the barbed wire at the Austro-Hungarian border, the real life representation of what Winston Churchill had called the “Iron Curtain”. As romantic and hugely symbolic this image might be, the reasons behind were much more prosaic.

The physical obstacles at the border had been built in 1949 and later modified several times, with landmines installed, removed, then installed again. A new stage began with the installation of a Soviet electronic signaling system in 1971. Ten years later, the system started producing errors and required substantial funds for maintenance, while political relations with Austria had improved over the years.

In February 1989, the Politburo of the MSZMP decided to dismantle the electronic system. In an anniversary program broadcasted by Deutsche Welle, Németh recalls that at that time, “Hungary was close to an abyss, it was bankrupt.”

He was continuously looking to cut expenses. Checking the budget draft for 1989, he noticed a line marked with a secret code. He called the Minister of Domestic Affairs and asked what it was. The minister said it was the money required for the refurbishment and reconstruction of the border fence. So he deleted the line. The electricity in the fence was cut and the system was halted. Of course, this did not go unnoticed, but nobody reacted, Németh said. Not even the USSR ambassador to Hungary.

What is more, shortly after that Németh had a telephone conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev, who told him what had happened in 1956 would not be repeated again.

“Miklós, your hands are not tied anymore,” Németh recalls Gorbachev saying.

The removal of the fence was completed on December 31, 1990, but parts of it were gradually being eliminated from May 1989. The news quickly spread among East Germans, who had been coming to Hungary since the 1960s, officially, to spend their vacation at Lake Balaton. Unofficially, to meet their West German relatives.

But in the summer of 1989, something changed. Many GDR citizens remained in Hungary, hoping to cross the border to Austria, now that it was seemingly easier, and then into West Germany. By August, thousands of them were stranded in Hungary in camps, tents, caravans, cars.

The good news was that, as stated above, Hungary had joined the Geneva Convention on Refugees in June, so the East Germans could apply for refugee status. The bad news was that Hungary was reluctant to risk an open conflict with a fellow Socialist country, much less with Moscow. Gorbachev may have allowed the cutting of some wires at the border, but permitting East Germans to flee en masse to West Germany, with the Berlin Wall still standing, was surely a different story.

The Hungarian Ministry of Domestic Affairs warned unequivocally: “We will not allow for anyone to use our country as a means to go to a third country.” In other words, a stalemate situation. Some East Germans succeeded in crossing the border, allegedly with Hungarian border guards turning a blind eye to the situation, but obviously this was not a long-term solution.

A Silent Kremlin

Among Hungarians, the mood was one of euphoria and hope. What was unthinkable even a year before – cutting the fence at the Austrian border and a political opposition accepted openly – had come true. The idea of a unified Europe, at least in a spiritual sense, gained shape.

This idea had been promoted since 1923 by the International Pan-European Union and in 1989, its president, Otto von Habsburg, the head of the Habsburg dynasty and former Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, was allowed to hold a speech in Debrecen.

A local member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF, one of the participants at the Opposition Roundtable), suggested to von Habsburg that a talk on this subject should be continued at the Austro-Hungarian border, as a picnic, with some of the guest sitting on the Austrian side, and the others on the Hungarian.

The project met no obstacles with the authorities, on the contrary, the Minister of State Imre Pozsgay agreed to be one of the patrons and the date was set for August 19. A border gate on the road from Sankt Margarethen im Burgenland, Austria to Sopronkőhida, Hungary opened for three hours, and no limit was set for how many could attend.

From here, historical facts mix with hint and speculation and urban myth. The news about the event spread among East Germans, especially through German-language leaflets distributed all over Hungary, allegedly with the active support of the Hungarian secret service.

On that day, hundreds of Germans gathered on site and started crossing the border. The guards were taken by surprise. The event was official, the border was open, but no procedures were set for a mass situation, except for a specific order not to open fire. The officer in charge tried to reach his superiors for guidance, but no one answered.

Allegedly, the Hungarian leaders tried to ascertain from Moscow whether the Kremlin would intervene. The phone lines remained silent, and the further steps were taken by West Germany, Hungary and East Germany. The GDR dictator, Erich Honecker, was severely ill and no one dared to inform him about the situation, while thousands of East Germans were still stranded in Hungary. On August 25, Németh and Horn met with their German counterparts, Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher at Gymnich, a castle near Köln.

Two weeks later, the Hungarian government decided to suspend the agreement with the GDR regarding the border crossing. The decision was announced by Horn on September 10. Within two months, about 60,000-70,000 East Germans had left for West Germany via Hungary.

“We will never forget the good deed,” Genscher later wrote.

Delight that the border crossing is open at Hegyeshalom, Hungary. The sign is an invitation to put up a pair of teachers or doctors travelling with children overnight. Photo by Fortepan/Urbán Tamás

Timeline for the Pan-European Picnic

1988

February: USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev proclaims “freedom to choose” societal system for all Socialist states

April: Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu announces rural systematization plan, threatening to demolish many villages inhabited mostly by ethnic Hungarians

May: Secretary General of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) János Kádár resigns, Károly Grósz appointed

November: Miklós Németh becomes Prime Minister of Hungary

1989

February: MSZMP politburo decides to dismantle the fence at the border with Austria for financial reasons

March: Opposition Roundtable is formed

May: Gyula Horn is appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs

June 12: Hungary joins the Geneva Convention on Refugees

June 27: Gyula Horn and Austrian counterpart Alois Mock symbolically cut the fence at the Austro-Hungarian border

July 6: János Kádár dies

August 19: Pan-European picnic at the Austro-Hungarian border, several hundreds of East Germans flee to West Germany via Austria

August 25: Hungarian and German officials meet at Gymnich to discuss solutions for the release of thousands of East Germans stranded in Hungary

September: Gyula Horn announces publicly the Hungarian decision to suspend the agreement with the GDR on border crossing.