Sopron in detail

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Feature: The Pan-European Picnic

At the celebration of the reunification of Germany in 1989, Helmut Kohl famously said: 'The soil under the Brandenburg Gate is Hungarian soil'. Yet Sopron’s pivotal role in the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain is little known, as the Pan-European Picnic tends to be overshadowed by the events that followed.

The year 1989 was one of transition. Even though Central Europe still lived under the yoke of Soviet power, there were bolder and bolder calls for democracy and freedom of speech. In Hungary, the benign Communist government under Miklós Németh decided to address the issue of border control between Austria and Hungary, since Hungarians were allowed to travel freely by that point. Inspired by a speech by the visiting Otto van Habsburg, an Austrian Euro MP, members of Hungarian opposition parties came up with the idea of a picnic, with citizens of Hungary and Austria meeting, hanging out and dismantling the barbed-wire fence between the two countries (a process which started in May 1989 with the symbolic cutting of the fence by the respective foreign ministers of the two countries).

The chosen spot for the picnic on August 19 was several kilometres from Sopron, on the road between Sopronkőhida and Sankt Margareten im Burgenland. A number of East Germans, allowed to holiday by Lake Balaton, heard of the picnic, and on the day several hundred of them rushed through the gate into Austria. The border guards not only did not stop them, but some helped them through. In the turbulent weeks that followed, thousands of East Germans camped outside the West German embassy in Budapest, having heard from Hungarian border guards that it would be possible to obtain West German passports there. On 11 September Hungary opened its borders to the GDR and their other Eastern European neighbours, and as a result more than 70,000 people fled to the West via Hungary. The East German government collapsed within weeks and the Berlin Wall soon followed.

Today the site consists of a park with picnic tables, displays on the events of 1989, an old watchtower and a marble monument commemorating the event. The picnic’s role in the unification of Germany was marked on its 20th anniversary in 2009 by a visit from Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.