"Pan-European Picnic"

19 August 1989 - a step on the way to German reunification "Pan-European Picnic"

19 August 1989: For a few hours a gate on the Hungarian-Austrian border between Sankt Margarethen and Sopron, that had been locked for decades, was opened – with the authorisation of the Hungarian government. For many East Germans it was an opportunity to escape to freedom.

Austrian border guards open a border gate. About 700 East Germans used the Pan-European Picnic at the Hungarian-Austrian border, for which a border gate was symbolically opened, to flee to the West.

Pan-European Picnic - some 700 East Germans used the opportunity to flee across the Hungarian-Austrian border

Photo: picture-alliance/dpa

Symbolic border opening with consequences

The Hungarian Democratic Forum and the Paneuropean Union issued an invitation to a "Pan-European Picnic". They wanted to demonstrate for open borders and a reunited Europe. The MEP Otto von Habsburg and the Hungarian Minister of State Imre Poszgay were patrons of the event.

The news of the symbolic opening of the border spread like wildfire among the many citizens of the German Democratic Republic, who were waiting in Hungary for a chance to flee to the West. About 700 of them then managed to cross the border to Austria near Sopron.

Hungary lifted the Iron Curtain

On 2 May 1989 Hungary had already begun to dismantle the electronic surveillance equipment and barbed wire along its western border. By authorising the picnic the country demonstrated its readiness to lift the Iron Curtain. Only a few days later, on 25 August 1989, Hungary announced that it would be opening its border for East German refugees. The pledge became reality in the night from 10 to 11 September 1989.

Hungary’s decision forced the SED regime in East Germany to introduce new travel regulations.