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19 August 1989 – A picnic for freedom

20.08.2014 - Article

On 19 August 1989, Hungary opened the border to Austria for the 1st time for a few hours: at the "Pan‑European Picnic", several hundred GDR citizens seized this opportunity to flee to Austria.

The first cracks in the Iron Curtain became evident in summer 1989 at the border between Hungary and Austria. On 19 August, Hungary opened the border near Sopron for the first time for a few hours: at the symbolic Pan‑European Picnic, several hundred GDR citizens seized this opportunity to flee to Austria.

Austrian border guards open a gate between Sopron and St. Margarethen
Austrian border guards open a gate between Sopron and St. Margarethen© picture alliance/dpa

In summer 1989 at the border between Hungary and Austria: the Hungarian Government had an increasingly liberal border regime. On 27 June 1989, the Austrian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers symbolically cut through the barbed wire fence at the border near Sopron.

Escape to freedom via Hungary

Hope thus grew among many Germans in the GDR that they would be able to reach the West via this route. It was possible to travel to Hungary without any problems, for the two sides had agreed back in 1969 that no‑one from the GDR would be allowed to leave Hungary for the West.

The Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Budapest became a refuge for many wanting to leave the GDR. In the mission’s extra‑territorial grounds, they thought they were very close to fulfilling their dream.

Symbolic opening of the border for a few hours

German Embassy in Budapest mentions the “cross‑border procession near Sopron” on 19 August 1989
German Embassy in Budapest mentions the “cross‑border procession near Sopron” on 19 August 1989© AA/Politisches Archiv

Around this time, the Paneuropean Union, together with Hungarian reform forces, organised a symbolic Pan‑European Picnic close to the border near Sopron on the Hungarian side of the border. The Paneuropean Union, founded by the son of an Austrian diplomat in the 1920s, is one of the oldest supranational associations dedicated to the idea of European integration. Quite unexpectedly, some 600‑700 Germans from the GDR took advantage of the brief opening of the border to cross over to Austria. The Hungarian border guards did not stop them.

“Cross‑border procession” near Sopron

Jubilant GDR refugees: They crossed the border between Hungary and Austria on 19 August 1989
Jubilant GDR refugees: They crossed the border between Hungary and Austria on 19 August 1989© picture alliance/dpa

The incident is mentioned in a report by the German Embassy in Budapest of the previous day, 18 August 1989. The report “for the information of the Federal Minister [for Foreign Affairs]” mainly deals with the situation of the refugees in the Embassy and the organisational measures taken to provide them with basic necessities. It was a top priority report: An official German document stamped “citissime [Latin for “extremely urgent”] nachts” means that the addressee is to be woken if necessary to read the report. Towards the end of the text there was an inconspicuous but important reference to the planned picnic: “Many of the guests want to watch the cross‑border procession near Sopron tomorrow.”

Hungary opens border to Austria permanently

No assurance for GDR refugees: extract from the minutes of the talks between Foreign Ministers Horn and Fischer
No assurance for GDR refugees: extract from the minutes of the talks between Foreign Ministers Horn and Fischer© AA/Politisches Archiv

The Hungarian Government subsequently went much further. The talks between Foreign Ministers Gyula Horn and Oskar Fischer at the GDR Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 31 August 1989 are famous. Fischer had sought the backing of Erich Honecker who expressed his agreement by initialling the Minister’s letter. In response to Horn’s inquiry as to “whether the GDR was prepared as on earlier occasions to assure the GDR citizens that their applications to leave the country would be approved”, Fischer refused to give an assurance. Hungary regarded the matter as a problem to be sorted out by the two German states and also wanted to take humanitarian aspects into account. On 11 September 1989, the border between Hungary and Austria was then opened permanently.

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