Monday 14 April 2014

Hungary: The Picnic That Changed the World

"[It was in Hungary that] the first stone was knocked out of the Berlin Wall." (Helmut Kohl)

The Berlin Wall did not come down with hammers and chisels.  It came down with sandwiches and hot dogs, served at a picnic in Hungary on August 19, 1989.

A Pan European Picnic was suggested by the Austrian Euro MP, Otto Von Habsburg (remember the Habsburg Empire?) and Hungarian Minister of State Imre Pozsgay.  The plan was to open the border between the two countries for a few hours to test the tolerance of the Soviet Union.  The suggestion came on the heals of a gesture by two foreign ministers who had clipped the barbed wire, which represented the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary, two months before.  The incident was caught on film and viewed around the world.  

Ten thousand people attended the historic picnic which was held in Sopron, Hungary, a town of medieval and baroque architecture dating back to Roman times.  Lieutenant Colonel Arpad Bella was on duty that day at the Sopron Park.  His orders were to wait for the official delegation to arrive and then open the wooden gate, giving the picnickers free access to Austria.  But to his surprise, it was not an official delegation that arrived at 3 pm but a group of six hundred East Germans, who had been camping in local campsites, parks and churches, intent on gaining entrance to the West.  Bella's orders were clear:  if anyone tried to pass through, he was to fire warning shots, and then shoot them.  

But on the day of the picnic, Bella did not shoot:  he simply let the East Germans pass through the gate to freedom.  The picnickers who remained inside the gate that day enjoyed sandwiches and hot dogs.  But it wasn't the food that they remembered.  It was the kindness of the Hungarian border guard.  While the guards re-closed the border later that day, a chain of events was set into motion that could not be altered.  As Laslo Magas explained:  

"It was a stroke of luck that the East Germans could flee in this way.  At that time, we were threatened with prosecution, but by the next day, I already felt that we'd set the world on fire."

Soon, the barbed wire marking the Iron Curtain between Austria and Hungary was permanently removed. What remained was only a wild woodland and a solitary watchtower where soldiers used to fire at anyone who attempted to flee.  

Three months after the Pan European Picnic, the Berlin Wall fell.

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