Book Review: “The Picnic: A Journey to Freedom and the Fall of the Iron Curtain” by Matthew Longo – A Getaway Across Borders
At a point in history where it has become common for politicians to use the militarization of borders and construction of barriers as a means of gaining power, it is refreshing to come across a book that focuses on the possibility of an alternative. The Picnic delves into the events that took place in Hungary in 1989, which ultimately led to the collapse of Soviet influence in central Europe. Through personal accounts and first-hand recollections, the book captures how a small, idealistic protest – a picnic held in a field near the Austrian border – sparked a chain of peaceful revolutions that brought together the continent.
The initial concept for the summer event was conceived by a young Hungarian rebel, Ferenc Mészáros, during a meeting arranged by a prominent European figure from a completely different era: Otto von Habsburg, successor to the now-defunct Austro-Hungarian empire and president of the pan-European movement in 1989. While visiting the Hungarian city of Debrecen as a guest lecturer at a university founded by his ancestor, Habsburg took advantage of the opportunity to connect with undercover groups opposed to the communist regime. During their dinner conversation, Mészáros proposed to “Uncle Otto” his idea of hosting a gathering near the border, potentially an afternoon picnic, where Hungarians and Austrians could come together as a small gesture towards a new spirit of pan-Europeanism.
Originally, Mészáros’s idea was considered unimportant in the serious realm of underground Hungarian democracy, but it gained momentum and backing over the summer, ultimately becoming a crucial and thrilling moment in late 20th-century history. As depicted in Matthew Longo’s book, major geopolitical changes always occur on both a large and small scale. The potential for loosening border restrictions was first set in motion in March by Hungary’s communist leader Miklós Németh during a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow, where the Soviet leader indicated he would not impede greater transparency.
The Németh administration made several cautious moves to assess their dedication, starting with symbolically cutting off electricity to a portion of the electrified border fence in May. This was followed by a ceremony to rebury Imre Nagy, who was executed by the Soviets for his involvement in the counterinsurgency of 1956. These actions had political repercussions and set the stage for the suggested picnic, an impromptu event that would have seemed impossible just a year earlier. However, it now received implicit approval from Németh’s cabinet members.
Longo, an American politics professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, brings a thoughtful and sometimes vivid perspective to the inside story of this history. His latest book serves as a prequel to his previous work, The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security and the Citizen After 9/11, which delved into how the progress of freedom that marked the end of the cold war was reversed in the name of the “war on terror”. In both books, Longo closely examines postwar discussions on individual and collective liberty, drawing from the works of Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin. He uses these insights to shape his narrative and contemplate on what has been gained and lost.
The author traces events from 1989 and delves into the impact of dreams of freedom in Hungary and beyond. He conducted interviews with influential political figures, including Németh, who he spoke to at his home near Lake Balaton. He also spoke with organizers of the picnic and individuals whose lives were changed by it. While some of these interactions may have been frustrating due to the reluctance of old party members like Németh to fully disclose their secrets, the book remains an engaging example of how local activism can have a significant global impact.
When Mészáros suggested his summer party, he didn’t expect that by the time it happened on August 19, 1989, thousands of East Germans would take advantage of the changing political atmosphere in their neighboring country and use the opportunity to “vacation” in Hungary, while being watched by Stasi agents, in hopes of escaping to the West. Longo recounts the brave stories of some of these couples and families who ended up at a campsite near the picnic site in Sopron. These stories are contrasted with those of the border guards, who were also interviewed by the author. These guards were initially ordered to relax their posts for a few Austrian officials’ picnic, but instead found themselves facing a stampede of hundreds of East Germans seeking freedom.
During the tumultuous moments of making a decision – whether to fire or not – the responsibility fell upon a man named Árpád Bella, who currently resides in a nearby village to Sopron. As the commanding officer at the checkpoint, he was faced with a mass breach on the day of the picnic. Even now, he is still affected by the weight of that historic event, where he unintentionally became a hero by stepping aside. In just three months, the breach he permitted at Sopron ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In his later chapters, Longo discusses the current state of Hungary. While he cannot cover every detail between dreams and reality, he focuses on a significant irony in contemporary history. One of the individuals who participated in the picnic protests was a passionate young person who publicly called for the removal of Soviet troops, the opening of borders, and fair elections. This person was Viktor Orbán, who now serves as Hungary’s authoritarian president and has constructed hundreds of miles of razor wire along the southern border, as well as threatened to veto EU aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression.
It is well-known that freedom is fragile, and it is unnecessary for the author to remind you that Orbán continues to exploit the anniversaries of the pan-European picnic to advance his oppressive agenda, even after three decades.