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30 January 2024

Ripping up the Iron Curtain

How a mass picnic party broke open Hungary’s Austrian border and foreshadowed the fall of the Berlin Wall.

By William Boyd

It was one of the most curt and succinct screenplay commissions I had ever received: “Spies. Berlin. 1961,” the producer said. Two words and a date and that was it. Make of it what you will, was the challenge. The wider context wasn’t hard to grasp, however. At dawn on Sunday 13 August 1961 the city of Berlin was divided in two – West and East – in a matter of hours. At first the barrier was barbed wire entanglements, anti-tank Czech “hedgehogs” and armed troops, but very swiftly a wall was erected – a bit gimcrack, initially – but in the decades thereafter endlessly enlarged and strengthened into a fearsome obstacle, 3.6m high, with machine-gun towers, “death zones” and anti-vehicle ditches, and it was constantly patrolled and surveilled.

My terse commission eventually became a Cold War spy thriller, Spy City, starring Dominic Cooper, that focused on the day the wall was created. However, the research required made me very familiar with the full history of the Berlin Wall – die Mauer – and its dark, mythic place in the minds of those separated by it. The wall became the totemic symbol of the Cold War and its breaching and its fall on 9 November 1989 took on an instant global significance. The “End of History” was even declared. Prematurely, as it turned out.

All this is by way of preamble to Matthew Longo’s The Picnic,in which the Berlin Wall and East Germany loom large. It is a book that constructs a fascinating and revelatory narrative focused on another, wholly forgotten, rupturing of the Iron Curtain that took place two and a half months before the Berlin Wall was rendered redundant. This breakout occurred on 19 August 1989, near the town of Sopron in communist Hungary, close to the border with democratic Austria.

Of all the Eastern Bloc countries, Hungary was the least unbendingly, diehard communist, and it was this relative tolerance and easing of the strict party line that encouraged two Hungarian political activists, Ferenc Mészáros and Mária Filep, to come up with the crackpot idea of hosting a vast picnic somewhere on the Austro-Hungarian border. Their aim was to allow both populations to meet each other, converse, eat and drink, and generally have as good a time as possible. That this notion could have any currency at all was a sign that things were beginning to change in the world order, particularly thanks to the Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev’s concepts of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reforming). These twin ambitions were encouraging signs in the Soviet world, and as Mészáros and Filep’s concept took further shape it gained a grand title: the Pan-European Picnic. The plan and its organisation achieved further traction when the Hungarian government unilaterally de-electrified the border fences with Austria in May. What seemed like a crazy, madcap dream might now actually be feasible.

Word about the picnic began to spread. The news was nowhere more welcome than in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Not only was the border between East and West effectively impregnable there, but the country was also sclerotic in its rigid adherence to the old principles of communism. Even worse was the overwhelming presence of the country’s secret police, the Staatssicherheitsdienst, the Stasi, with its tens of thousands of informants. Today it is hard to imagine what life must have been like in East Germany then. No one could be fully trusted: no friend, no neighbour, no colleague. Every form of communication could be intercepted and the slightest sign of liberal opinion – watching Western television or talking politics with friends – could land you in prison. The idea of escape was in almost everybody’s mind. But how? Where? Hungary and the Pan-European Picnic perhaps offered a way out.

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Soon, East Germans began to travel in their thousands to Hungary in search of the country’s modest freedoms, some also seeking a more porous border to cross. It became a genuine refugee problem for the Hungarian government. By the summer of 1989, there were close to 50,000 East Germans in the country.

One of the paradoxical aspects of the Berlin Wall and its adjunct, the so-called inner German border, was that, unlike most walls that are designed to keep the enemy out, this wall was built to enclose and keep a population in. Between 1949 and 1961 more than 2.5 million East German citizens had fled to the West, many of them the GDR’s best and brightest. It was this enormous and relentless population brain-drain that forced the GDR government’s hand and explains the building of the wall and the rise of the Stasi and the surveillance state.

Matthew Longo writes in an engaging and pacy style, sometimes switching to the present tense to add extra vivacity to his narrative. He is also very much a presence in the book as he seeks out locations, researches in the Stasi archives, meets former members of the picnic’s organisation, tracks down attendees – mainly East Germans – and the Hungarian officials and border guards who were meant to be policing it.

I wonder if this type of writing is an example of a new form of historiography that is emerging. At the end of his book Longo looks back at the range and number of voices he has listened to and remarks: “These stories are not unique; history is always, implicitly, a question of counterfactuals – events that never occurred; decisions unmade, actions not taken. All the more reason to be humble about what we know and what we don’t.”

Similarly, in his recent superb book November 1942, a history of the watershed month in the Second World War told through the testimony of 45 people, the Swedish historian Peter Englund claims that writing history in this way “arises from a sense that the complexity of events emerges most clearly at the level of the individual”. The result is an aggregation of micro-histories, all partial and subjective, all with a limited point of view, but which, collectively, create a more detailed, more “true” macro-history. Whether it does or not, it certainly makes for a stimulating read.

On the day itself, 19 August 1989, in a huge meadow by the border, thousands gathered for the picnic. There was a huge tented village, hundreds of neatly parked Trabants, mobile kitchens where huge pots of goulash were simmering, a stage for speeches and a concert. But then, spontaneously, hundreds of the picnickers decided to leave the site and head up a track to the actual Austrian border – about 5km away – where, under the eyes of the border police, who happily did nothing, they broke through a fence and poured into Austria.

“The last metres felt endless,” Longo writes. “Annette sprinted towards the gate, crashed into it with all her might and the force of those beside her. She felt the compression, the firmness of the wooden crossbars, the sweaty oneness of their bodies… When the gate gave, she pushed through and kept running. She couldn’t bring herself to stop.”

No one really knows how many crossed the border into Austria that day. Longo calculates that between 600 and 1,000 made it through. The guards stood to one side and let it happen, exactly as the guards at the Berlin Wall would do two and a half months later, exercising “the everyday morality of looking the other way”, as Longo puts it. At the time, it was an extraordinary, unprecedented mass escape from the communist East, and Longo sees the Pan-European Picnic as the catalyst for the greater breach of the Berlin Wall – the Mauerfall. The significance of the picnic has never before been documented, certainly not with this level of diligence and testimony, and Longo’s engrossing and dramatic book adds a new, captivating chapter to the history of the Cold War.

William Boyd’s Cold War spy thriller “Spy City” is available to stream on Amazon/Britbox

The Picnic: An Escape to Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain
Matthew Longo
Bodley Head, 320pp, £22

Purchasing a book may earn the NS a commission from Bookshop.org, who support independent bookshops

[See also: The dictator’s best friend]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State

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