Welcome to Debrecen!


Debrecen’s role in the Fall of the Iron Curtain on August 19, 1989

On August 19, 1989, a symbolic picnic to promote European Unity on the Austria-Hungarian border (at Sopron) became known as the event that led to the fall of the Iron Curtain, forever recorded as one of history’s great moments.  Much of the planning of this event took place in Debrecen by Mária Filep and her co-organisers.

In Helmut Kohl’s words “the first stone was knocked out of the wall” that at this Pan-European Picnic event.

President of the Pan-European Union Otto von Habsburg, met with Ferenc Mészáros where the topic of a cross border event was raised.

The idea of a picnic was first raised at a meeting on 30th June 1989 when a small group of co-organizers, – volunteers from Debrecen and Sopron met, – it took place in the garden of Old Vigadó Restaurant. Subsequently, Filep, a leading figure from Debrecen,  began to organize it. 

For Mária Filep, organising the event was an uphill struggle, finding little support at Government level, – outwardly at least, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) rejected her overtures as unprofessional. 

This small group of Hungarians and Austrians facilitated a symbolic opening of the border for the event (3 hours border opening), so that they could share a picnic on the Hungarian side in a meadow, the event would later be called the “Pan European Picnic” to reflect its initial purpose, – to support and raise awareness of the idea of a Europe without barriers.

One thing is clear about the event planned for that day, it did not go down as expected. What seems to have happened is that the word got-out about the event, and whether by design or as a random convergence of peoples, an exodus of around 600-700 East Germany (GDR) citizens, – on holiday in Hungary took the initiative to storm the border crossing of the Iron Curtain to flee to the west, – via the Austrian town of Sankt Margarethen im Burgenlandwhich.  According to Erich Honecker for an article in the Daily Mirror about the picnic, “Habsburg distributed pamphlets right up to the Polish border, inviting East German holiday-makers to a picnic.

From the perspective of the border guards, it was unexpected because although they were aware of the planned picnic, they were not expecting the flood of people.

To their credit, the Hungarian border guards chose to avoid bloodshed and decided not to prevent them crossing, even though they had standing orders to stop such situations from arising by shooting in the air and then by force.

The border guards claim no forewarning of the exodus, which seems to have arisen spontaneously, although some claim it was by design and that warnings were given.  Co-organiser Laszlo Magas from Sopron stated that it was pure luck that the East Germans were in the area, and that they were able to flee that way.

In the following month’s, 1000’s fled in the same way and eventually led to a permanent opening on Sept. 11, 1989, when the Hungarian Government at the time officially announced the border open proper.

It is clear that plans were afoot to take down the Iron Curtain long before the Pan-European picnic took place according to the ex-PM of Hungary, Miklos Nemeth, and it was public knowledge, but in his words, ‘Nobody thought it would go so fast’.  

The border wire and fencing was being removed for many months before the event (picture below).

Foreign Ministers Gyula Horn (R) of Hungary and Alois Mock (L) of Austria cutting the barbed wire fence on the Hungarian-Austrian border, 27 June 1989. Photograph: Karoly Matusz/EPA

The Pan-European picnic event raised awareness of border opening and, was reported globally, and consequently triggered the fall of the iron curtain across its entire length. What started as a small exodus became a flood, a mass movement of people travelling towards a better life.

The Guardian, 8 May 1989.
The Guardian, 8 May 1989.

In recognition for the part she played, as the leader of the Pan-European Picnic from Debrecen, Mária Filep received the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic, Officer’s Cross in 1999 and in 2004 she was awarded the Aphelandra prize for her contribution to the regime change.