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The Iron Curtain first opened with a picnic

Twenty years ago, thousands gathered in a field near Sopron, on Hungary's border with Austria, for a "Pan-European Picnic" to protest the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for four decades.

world Updated: Aug 18, 2009 16:58 IST

Twenty years ago, thousands gathered in a field near Sopron, on Hungary's border with Austria, for a "Pan-European Picnic" to protest the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe for four decades. As Hungarian border guards turned a blind eye, on Aug 19, 1989, over 600 citizens of East Germany seized the opportunity to flee from the Communist East to the capitalist West.

However, the exodus of East Germans, which became a defining moment on the road to the eventual reunification of Germany and Europe, was not part of the original plan. The picnic had been intended as an expression of pro-European spirit by citizens of one of the Soviet bloc's most liberal countries.

"The event was not intended to be a mass movement of East Germans over the border," says Walburga Habsburg Douglas, then secretary general of the Pan-European Union, a pro-European integration movement.

Now a member of the Swedish parliament, Habsburg Douglas told DPA how she came to be one of the keynote speakers on the day.

On June 20, 1989, a week after being re-elected as a West German member of the European Parliament, Otto von Habsburg - president of the Pan-European Union and Habsurg Douglas' father, as well as head of the Habsburg dynasty that once ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire - spoke in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen.

An activist with the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum, Ferenc Meszaros, then had the idea of holding a protest picnic, with Austrians and Hungarians on either side of the border.

Von Habsburg and Imre Pozsgay, a reformist member of Hungary's Politburo, were appointed patrons of the event, but they did not attend.

"It was clear that people would have come to see my father, but we wanted to focus on the European question," says Habsburg Douglas, who was asked to stand in on the day. "I was living in Budapest trying to learn Hungarian, and I was general secretary of the Pan-European Union at the time," she says.

"When I arrived, I was surprised that everyone around me was speaking German, and their Trabant cars filled the roads to the border," she says.

East Germans used to flock each summer to Lake Balaton in Hungary, where they could meet relatives and friends from the West.

"But that summer the East Germans came in far greater numbers, with no intention of returning," recalls Father Imre Kozma, then the head of the recently established Hungarian Maltese Charity Service.

Kozma, now 69 and still head of the charitable organisation, said how he found himself looking after these refugees in 1989.

"By the beginning of August there were about 30,000 refugees in Budapest alone. They pitched their tents in parks, or slept in their cars, which lined the streets," he says.

Refugees crowded into the West German consulate in Budapest Aug 7. The West German consul came to see Kozma Aug 13, asking for help. He agreed without hesitation.

The following day a consignment of tents came from Munich, organised by the head of the West German Maltese Charity Service, Csilla von Boeselager, who also brought a team of volunteers.

A large refugee camp opened on the grounds of the parish church in Zugliget, a leafy suburb of the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

"On the first evening 920 people were given shelter," says Kozma. Further camps were quickly set up by the Maltese Charity Service and the Red Cross.

Meanwhile, the Pan-European Picnic loomed, and Kozma and his associates helped those who wanted to travel to Sopron.

The number who crossed the border - 661 according to the West Germany Embassy at the time, says Habsburg Douglas - seems small compared to the thousands of East Germans who remained in Hungary.

Kozma believes many were not ready to take the risk.

"They had very painful experiences with border guards in East Germany, and knew about the Berlin Wall and how many were murdered there," he says.

"Stasi agents must have been present in our camps, naturally," says Kozma, referring to the feared East German secret police.

On Sunday, Sep 10, 1989, Kozma was surrounded by dozens of East German families as they watched the evening news on a large television.

Just three weeks after the Pan-European Picnic, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn announced that East Germans were officially free to cross the border from midnight.

"There was an enormous roar, so loud that it must surely have been heard in Berlin," says Kozma. Some 5,000 crossed the same night, up to 15,000 within three days. The roar may not have been heard in Berlin, but the news was.

When Habsburg Douglas returned to Budapest after the Pan-European Picnic, she was content simply to have "dealt a blow to Communism."

"I realised that I had witnessed something far more important some days later, when I heard (East German Communist leader Erich) Honecker speaking in very derogatory terms about the picnic on Radio Moscow," she says.

"In the eye of the storm it is not easy to see what is happening around you," she says.