The 20th Anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic

Paneuropeanpicnic This year marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. On this Sunday, May 3, the Extremely Hungary Festival and PEN World Voices 2009 will host PanEuropean Picnic Redux in New York City, a free public commemoration of the event that opened the gates that keep the East from the West. Stefany Goldberg in The Smart Set:

The destruction of the Berlin Wall is now the iconic image of ’89, but the Wall was already beginning to crumble earlier in the year. One of the less celebrated events was a picnic held on August 19 at the border between democratic Austria from Hungary. The event was concocted by an alliance of young opposition organizations — the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz), and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), to name a few. The idea at first was simple: They would picnic at the border in a peaceful, public demonstration against the Iron Curtain, which in Hungary was a pathetic barbed wire fence rigged up with high voltage. There would be Austrians on one side and Hungarians on the other. And despite the fact that these Hungarian youth groups hardly knew any Austrians, the idea started to grow. They decided that the border should be temporarily opened for a few hours on the pretense that it would make the picnic more accessible to Austrians. And amazingly, they convinced both the Austrian and Hungarian governments to allow it. Their next move was to inform visiting East Germans that for a short period on this day, the border would be open. On August 19, among the thousands of people who showed up for this picnic — including international press, government dignitaries, and curious participants — were around 700 East Germans who bum-rushed the border, weeping and elbowing their way into Austria and into freedom. The day set the stage for further incursions through the Wall, with East Germans continuing to use Hungary as a gateway to Europe’s other side for months to come.

The Pan-European Picnic has largely been forgotten. But even for those who remember, it’s hard to believe it actually happened. Pictures of the day are a stunning amalgam of tears, goulash, laughter, and diplomacy: guards smiling gently at passports, dignitaries snipping off souvenir pieces of the border fence, rows and rows of Trabants and Wartburgs (crummy little East German “people’s cars”) left abandoned in the fields of Sopronpuszta. But in retrospect, most miraculous is how it all happened in the daylight, right there where everyone could see it. There were no underground tunnels, no secret passageways. The only violence was essentially an accident brought on by the fading light. When a thunderstorm covered the picnic in darkness, bringing it to an end, Kurt Werner Shultz from Weimar made a late attempt to cross into Austria and ended up being shot dead not far from his wife and 6-year-old child by a spooked border guard who later regretted it. Kurt Werner Shultz was the only person harmed that day. The lights went out and quickly the old fear crept back onto the scene.

Perhaps it was always a mistake to think that the shroud of Communism was going to be replaced by the glorious “light” of Western democracy and capitalism. It’s not that Eastern Europeans are naïve (if anything, they are too savvy). It’s just that many people wanted to believe — deserved to believe — that their troubles were finally over. But light doesn't end your troubles. It can, however, allow you to see them more clearly and create the space to talk about them more openly. In a funny way, light allows you to really get a good look at how ugly you are. That’s why the ethos of the Pan-European Picnic is better than any specific ideology. It doesn’t present a ready-made solution, but it does give you a chance to lay your potato salad out on the blanket.

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world,” Vaclav Havel once said. “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” It might be tempting to dismiss the present melancholy as good-ol’ Eastern European pessimism. Yet to say Eastern Europeans aren’t capable of hope and optimism is to call the events of ’89 a lie. Maybe it was fleeting. Hope is always fleeting, but that doesn't mean it’s not real. Importantly, hope isn’t merely the dazzle of the revolutionary moment, as Havel implies, the grandiosity of idealism and dissent. As the great Polish intellectual Adam Michnik told The New York Times on the 10th anniversary of Communism’s fall, “My obsession has been that we should have a revolution…that [is] for something, not against something…A revolution for a constitution, not a paradise. An anti-utopian revolution. Because utopias lead to the guillotine and the gulag.”