FROM THE VANTAGE of the present, outcomes of the distant past often seem self-evident. (When Archduke Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo in 1914 what could he be but shot?) But more recent history is riddled with contingency. We are still debating the cause of the financial crash of 2008, for example. When does this transition occur, such that certain historical moments become concretized as fact and muddying details fade away? And what role do we have in this process?
This year marks the 30th anniversary of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, a watershed in world history. Throughout the year there have been commemorative events speckling the old Eastern Bloc. It’s hardly a propitious time to celebrate, given our new age of walling and zealous authoritarianism, but a good time to ask how we got here.
For the last two years, I have been writing and thinking about the legacy of 1989. The focus of my research is on a critical, if little known, event called the Pan-European Picnic that took place on the Austria-Hungary border that August. It was organized by a group of young rebels, in the name of freedom, intent upon assembling people from both sides of the Iron Curtain for a night of revelry. The plan set the stage for the greatest breach of the border in Cold War history — hundreds of East German refugees dashing westward. This prompted Chancellor Helmut Kohl to remark it was in Hungary that the “first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall,” the day after German reunification.
My research included talking with East German refugees who braved the kill strips for the chance to make it west, Hungarian rebels who snubbed their nose at the border, and state officials who undermined the system from within, doing what they thought was right, even when it was against the law. For all the present attention paid to how walls get built up, it’s nice to learn about how they come down, to understand how people transition from a closed society to an open one, and whether lines, once drawn, can ever really be erased.
This summer I attended the 30th anniversary of the Picnic, held in Sopronpuszta, the field out in the Hungarian borderlands where the breach occurred. Three days of events celebrated the dream of freedom, culminating in speeches by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. It was all very showy, with simultaneous translations and decorative flags; security details shuttered the city of Sopron for several hours. The days were filled with tearful reunions of those whose lives collided on that fateful afternoon. At night, the crowds took to the streets for open-air concerts as a Trabant, the classic East German car, dangled from a crane above the stage.
It was a wonderful event. But put into the larger context of today, there is a lot to reconcile. The moment you turned away from the festivities, the reality of modern Hungary flooded your senses. It is not a land of freedom, but its opposite — a state fueled by nationalist rhetoric and new forms of exclusion, now against migrants walled out at their southern border. In some ways, life under Orbán is more closed today than it was under communism. Thinking about it like this, it is hard to grasp what the commemorative event signified to people in Hungary. And as with any question of history, whether by privileging this telling, other events or interpretations were being swept away.
1989 is simultaneously familiar and unrecognizable. Certainly there was no internet or cell phones, no Facebook or WhatsApp. But we were also deep in the throes of the Cold War. Europe was physically cut in half: on one side was the West, land of free movement and capitalism; on the other was the East, Soviet-style communism. And between them, an Iron Curtain of barbed wire, cameras, and steel tore from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
It’s hard to recall the feeling that the Cold War conjured in the West. It’s harder still to imagine what it would have been like to live on the other side — to have been a citizen of the Eastern Bloc under the watchful eye of the KGB or one of its satellites — most notably the Stasi in East Germany. Across the East, citizens were listened in on, tasked to be state informants, had relationships broken apart and families divided.
But in 1989, change was afoot. There was something palpable in the air. Since the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 and the rhetoric of glasnost and perestroika, there was a sense that the old Soviet Union was crumbling and something new was coming to the fore.
In the smoke-filled rooms of US military brass, this was the subject of constant debate. But so it was across the Eastern Bloc, from high-ranking officials down to student groups. At the top, this meant angling for the future, looking to capitalize on whatever changes might emanate from Moscow. At the bottom this meant trying things out, taking a few risks to see what the new order might allow that previously would have been forbidden.
In the fall of 1988, a group of students in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen gathered at a dinner presided by Otto von Habsburg — the would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At this encounter a young activist, Ferenc Mészáros, made a proposal. If Austrians and Hungarians could assemble for a dinner in Debrecen, why not attempt something bolder: perhaps there could be a gathering between Austrians and Hungarians at the border.
The idea began as a joke — surely the state would never allow it. And how could a group of young activists who lived about 400 kilometers east of the Austrian border set up such a thing? But at a meeting the following spring, Mészáros proposed the idea again. Here he found an ally, a strong-willed young woman named Mária Filep who, importantly, had access to a telephone — a rarity in communist Hungary.
Over the early summer of 1989, the organizers from Debrecen communicated with people from Sopron and performed the steady labor of party-planning. The date was set for August 19, and the event was named the “Pan-European Picnic,” with a logo of a dove breaking through barbed wire — the spirit of Europe rising above the Iron Curtain.
Still, challenges remained, notably geography — the Iron Curtain extended several kilometers into Hungarian soil, which was cordoned off military space where no civilians could tread. This meant that from the field in Hungary, Austrians could be neither seen nor heard. This could have been a fatal blow. But help came from an unexpected place: local officials agreed to allow a one-time-only opening at the border for three hours for designated Austrian visa-holders — a decision that came with support all the way from Budapest, although the organizers didn’t know this at the time.
From the outside looking in, the states of the Eastern Bloc looked similar — drab places with little growth and an absence of political freedom. But from the inside, Hungary was a kind of paradise, the most open of the authoritarian societies. It was a land of good food, wine, and at least some degree of freedom. By contrast, East Germany was the most clamped down. If Hungary was socialism’s pasture, East Germany was its prison.
By summer 1989, word had spread across the East about political changes in Hungary, which was liberalizing faster than anywhere else. As East Germany became ever more unbearable, families began packing up and going south, seeking the opportunity to escape. This was not easy. Would-be escapees didn’t even tell their families, usually saying they were going on a “vacation” to Hungary, hoping to contact them again from the West, if they made it that far.
The day of the Picnic kicked off with a press conference, after which the attendees would head to the border. The opening was set for 3:00 p.m., but at 2:57, rather than a gentle stream of picnic-goers from the West, the border guards encountered a fast-moving horde from the East. For Lieutenant-Colonel Arpad Bella, on guard that day, it became clear these were not Hungarians coming to celebrate, but East Germans seeking to escape.
Bella was under orders to stop transgressors. But he ordered his men to stand by, to let the tide of people push up to the gate and pass through. The Picnic was always about freedom. Freedom as a principle, as a bulwark of justice. Freedom not just for Hungarians but for everybody. And on that day at least, everyone from the state to the students seemed united in the belief of that principle.
Within three weeks of the Picnic, the Iron Curtain in Hungary had officially fallen. On September 11, 1989, the border was opened for good and long queues of Trabants headed west. East German head of state Erich Honecker was powerless. He called Gorbachev for help, but none came. Something big had happened, something irreversible.
There’s a saying popular in Hungary: “Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan.” If 1989 represented a high-water mark for peoples across the East, it was more the start of a chapter than the close of a book. In fact, the Soviet question was the easy one. The tanks could leave. But what about the system itself — all those Hungarians (and Czechs and Poles) who had run the former state? But for a few exiled antiheroes, the rest just assumed new roles, either drifting quietly into society or keeping old positions under a new name.
Such is the challenge of transition. You don’t just transition from something, but also to something else. Freedom is thus an incomplete dream. The peoples of Eastern Europe woke up free, still wearing last night’s clothing. Now, with new responsibilities and contestation points as everyone angled to take credit for, and profit from, the change in system.
In Hungary, transition came too quickly. At its outset, it was all novelty and joy, crossing into Austria and coming home for dinner. But even as this was true, there was a persistent ebb. Transition from socialism to capitalism was too underregulated.
Today, there is no significant national supermarket chain in Hungary. British chain Tesco holds the position as market leader, having taken advantage of the opening. Stories of this type are commonplace. In the newspapers, this was reported as growing pains. Capitalism was worth it. But people understand what they see — which was a bloodletting. This was a transition not from communism to capitalism, but rather from one form of servitude to another.
The West, as it turned out, was wild. Along with the economic costs came social ones. Socialist systems are better at many things, not just redistributing wealth, but also instilling in people the belief that they are part of something larger. Under socialism, your neighbor was your brother. Under capitalism, the neighbor is just someone to keep up with.
Many Hungarians today miss this sense of community they had under socialism — indeed, it was this feeling that gave life some of its meaning. Nationalism has that too. In the West, we dismiss nationalism as backward-looking. And in many ways it is. But there is also something profound in believing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And this is something which, for all its achievements, the West struggles to provide.
Most of the people I interviewed are now nationalists. Even those who rebelled against communism are now peeling back the liberties they once sought. This seems contradictory. But what they had fought for was independence. They did not want to be ruled by another state, as they were under the Soviet Union. But nor did they want to be ruled by Western banks — or, as they see it, by Brussels.
Thus their words today are tinged with a kind of melancholy — not exactly a longing for the past, but the stillborn dream of what might have been. At the center of this emotional landscape sits Viktor Orbán, and his rhetoric of self-determination. His is a dream of an imagined past — an impossible sovereignty — when Hungarians ruled themselves, alone.
The 30th anniversary of the Picnic was the biggest celebration of the end of the Iron Curtain in Hungary, but it was not the only one. In June, a rival conference honoring the changes at the border in 1989 took place in Hegyeshalom, a border town to the northeast of Sopron. Here, the focus was more technical: a historian gave a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the building-up and building-down of the electric fence.
From the outside, it seems strange that there were competing conferences. But Hungary is politically divided, and each side has a story to tell. The June conference was the story as told by the left — out of power and shamed in Orbán’s Hungary. Their story highlighted a different set of events of 1989, led not by forces against the state, but those within it. Chief among these was the prime minister himself, Miklos Nemeth, a reformer who had envisaged a future with free, multiparty elections.
I spoke with Nemeth after the June conference. The story of 1989 as he understands it doesn’t feature the Picnic. His account details a secret meeting with Gorbachev in Moscow in March 1989 during which he outlined his plan to dismantle the Iron Curtain to see if he would face resistance. When none came, Nemeth issued orders in May 1989, and on June 27, Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock posed for a ceremonial photo with giant wire cutters to clip the fence.
The left today celebrates this iconic photograph of Gyula Horn holding the great scissors, but the conference in Hegyeshalom received no national attention. By contrast, the Picnic celebration — supported by Orbán’s party, Fidesz, and validating Orbán’s nationalist narrative — was televised around the country.
Orbán’s claim to 1989 is not without basis. On June 16, 1989, Orbán, then a young revolutionary, spoke at the funeral for the reburial of Imre Nagy. Leader of the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet forces, Nagy was executed and buried in an unmarked grave in 1958. Reformers demanded his body be exhumed and given a proper funeral. Orbán was among the speakers, and his fiery appeal to reclaiming Hungarian soil from Soviet troops inspired passion in the crowds.
This year, the 30th anniversary of Imre Nagy’s reburial was also celebrated — twice. The main event — a free concert in Budapest — foregrounded Orbán, with Nagy barely mentioned (his legacy has been largely tarnished in nationalist eyes). A video installation set to the Scorpions’ 1991 classic “Wind of Change” depicted Hungary bursting from its Soviet shackles, visually reinforced by a shift from black-and-white images to polychromatic ones. At the heart of this narrative is the young Orbán speaking in 1989.
On the same day, a tiny gathering of leftists — mostly septuagenarians — held a vigil at Nagy’s grave. Those gathered were somber, dressed in sepia tones, as though their present reality was already fading into an old photograph, their bodies reflective of a past that is slipping away.
And there — on the outside, out of politics and out of time — is Nemeth. In September, I visited him again in his cottage outside Lake Balaton. I wanted to know why he didn’t attend the Picnic anniversary. For him, it was obvious: why be put on display, if it would give validity to the narrative he sought to resist? He felt insulted by the way the story was being told — diminishing his role, as though he were just one relevant figure out of many, not the principal figure that set the changes of 1989 in motion.
Nemeth finds the left and the right to be caught in a dangerous game of invention and re-characterization, utilizing the story of 1989 for their own political gain (and the country’s loss). They are building statues, he says. The left has built up Foreign Minister Horn, with his scissors. The right has built up Orbán. Nemeth is angry at this duel over truth. He is also angry, one surmises, because no one is building a statue for him.
Political concepts don’t always travel. They often carry local meanings that do not sound right to people elsewhere. For Hungarians, it is this way with freedom, often used to signify independence, being a self-determining community. This is something different than what we mean when we talk about freedom in the West. It is not the freedom of liberalism — the cult of individual rights — but the freedom of the nation.
For us, to call this freedom is perverse: look at all those civil liberties being downgraded, we say, the silencing of political voice. But many Hungarians don’t see it that way. They don’t see themselves as sacrificing freedom for unfreedom, but rather privileging one kind of freedom over another. The freedom to be self-governing, which no one can take away.
In his remark at the Picnic anniversary, Orbán depicted 1989 as the time of Hungary’s national independence. He reprised their role in precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall, and emphasized that a strong Europe is united under Christianity — shorthand for the view that Muslim migrants should be kept out. Orbán considers Hungary the bulwark of Europe — the new Iron Curtain — not between East and West, but between Europe and everywhere else.
The rhetoric here is important. By casting 1989 in such nationalist terms, Orbán justifies the mythology behind his rule. In so doing, competing narratives are papered over and real political issues — about domestic freedoms, for example — take second stage to the sanctity of the nation. Given the exclusionary, prejudicial legacy of nationalism, this seems dangerous. Once you make another the Other, it is not hard to see how they will be distrusted, reviled, and eventually eradicated. Here, Orbán’s invective against migrants is not innocent.
But the problem is not his alone. It points to a tension within the notion of freedom itself — whether it is due to all people, or only some in particular. This has hardly been resolved in the West, as evidenced by our own rising nationalism and exuberant walling. Nationalism and wall-building are two sides of the same coin: the need to keep the inside pure, the need to keep the barbarians out. The one is an ideology, the other a tool, but the underlying logic is the same.
In the United States, we like to speak in universalist language — about human rights, or liberal values — what we owe people by dint of humanity alone, irrespective of national membership. But this distinction is not as sharp as we like to believe. Certainly in Hungary, after the fall, it was liberalization that helped pave the way for the nationalism we see today.
Now that the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is upon us, the time is ripe for a reconsideration. The Mauerfall once embodied the triumph of democracy and liberalism over authoritarianism, and marked the end of the Cold War. But it’s hard to think of it this way now — 1989 is not cleanly a story of progress, nor is the West synonymous with freedom.
One cannot simply draw a through-line from 1989 to the present — history is too multifaceted and strange. But tracing one’s steps can give some order to the path. The time will come again to think about tearing down walls. Maybe next time we will take more care about what happens next — after they fall — to make sure they stay that way.
Matthew Longo is assistant professor of Political Science at Leiden University. His book, The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen after 9/11, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.