Gleaning the Wrong Lessons from 1989

REVIEW: ‘The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain’ by Matthew Longo

January 21, 2024

The annus mirabilis of 1989 was truly a marvelous year. Decades of Communist oppression ended with a chaotic series of events, leaving the members of the various politburos from Moscow to Berlin puzzled and the freed people euphoric. The Berlin Wall crumbled, the Communist border guards did not shoot, the Soviet Army did not take over control, and the captive nations were soon free to figure out how to govern themselves. The history is at this point well known as many tomes have been written on the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire in Europe. But there is still room for more analysis especially as the generations are passing away and today’s youth seems again enamored of Marxist ideas dressed in woke garb.

Matthew Longo, an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, tackles 1989, seeking the moment when the fear, which kept the totalitarian edifice in place, broke. He chooses to do so through a microhistory, telling the story of a relatively small event that put in motion much bigger ones, unexpected to all the participants.

The book title, The Picnic, refers to a peaceful demonstration in Sopron, Hungary, on the border with Austria in August 1989. The idea of a gathering was born in a meeting between Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor Karl, and Ferenc Mészáros, a member of a Hungarian center-right opposition group. Why not organize a picnic on the Austro-Hungarian border, with Austrians on one side of the fence and Hungarians on the other, to celebrate Europe, to remember the old borderless fields, and simply to have a moment of levity in an otherwise gray existence under the Communist boot? It was not unusual to engage in off-the-wall actions, ranging from a theater of the absurd to a culture of jokes that remains unmatched, as a form of protest that by and large escaped dumb censors and did not justify full out violence by communist goons.

This time, however, the picnic on the Iron Curtain became more than just a picnic. First, the Hungarian prime minister, Miklós Németh, supported the idea, sensing that the Soviet overlords, led by Gorbachev, would not intervene. Hardliners in Budapest were opposed but he was eager to try something new, including a symbolic opening of a border gate for a few hours. Second, there were hundreds of East Germans, apparently vacationing in Hungary but really seeking a way to cross the border to Austria and then to ride to freedom in West Germany.

The gate was opened, East Germans ran, and the picnic became the window to freedom for a few hundred from the GDR. A few days later, the Hungarian prime minister flew to Bonn and told Kohl that he was opening the border for good because, after all, it was Hungary’s border and neither East Germany (ruled by a geriatric Erich Honecker) nor the USSR had the right to decide.

On September 11, 1989, Hungary opened its border with Austria, the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain. As Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor in Bonn, said a year later, the "first stone was knocked out of the wall" in Hungary. In fact, two months after Budapest’s decision, on November 9, the Berlin Wall fell, also in a chaotic and unexpected way when an East German official, Günther Schabowski, announced that new regulations were going into effect allowing permanent emigration. When asked when these regulations would take effect, he replied "immediately." A few hours later, people were climbing over the wall.

The story is fascinating, even exhilarating. But the book falls short, alas. For some reason, perhaps to make these events more appealing to readers, The Picnic is, as described on the jacket, "cinematically told." It is a "non-fiction narrative," weaving the stories of various individuals, from East Germans escaping in their Trabants to Hungarian politicians, recounting what they did, what they thought, and how they felt then and, if still alive, now. The outcome is a convoluted narrative. Much verbiage is expended on thin attempts to make history more personal, giving impossibly intimate details. Do we really need to know that in May 1989 an East German lady "was sprawled on the couch with her husband … illegally watching West German news"? It is unclear how historically accurate this and other conversations are.

The choice of a first-person narrative is also puzzling. On two randomly chosen pages, there are 11 "I’s": "I find the space moving … I am left with an unresolved feeling … I leave Sopron … I return … I am on a train … I am in Dresden," and so on. There is certainly a place for the presence of an author in the telling of history, even if not personally witnessed by him. But in this case the reader is blinded by the author’s self-reference in the story. The author reminisces about his time spent in archives ("I am in Berlin. I have come to the archive to find out what Stasi officials were looking for.") but the book has no footnotes, as if the fact that he was in the archives is more relevant than the boxes laboriously examined. Perhaps more than the author, it is the editor who should be scolded for such a sloppy job.

There are many attempts to elevate the narrative by making observations that should then lead to deeper insights about history and man’s role in it. The prose is high, the ideas behind it pedestrian. A sample: "In Eastern Europe, the past doesn’t linger, it lurks." "Politics is often like physics: for every force a counterforce, equal and opposite"—followed by "I am in the archives again." "Often what we think of as a wave isn't wavelike at all; it's just a million compounding ripples, gathering force" (but isn’t the latter a wave?).

The book’s ending is where the argument coalesces around the idea that borders are bad and that freedom is not all that it’s sold to be.

The Iron Curtain, built by Communist regimes to prevent their oppressed people from escaping, is portrayed to be analogous to today’s Western support of border security. Nineteen eighty-nine was the year of tearing down walls. But by turning a page, the reader is transported to today, when seemingly a new Iron Curtain is being erected in the country, Hungary, that took down the old one. Freedom, in this view, was truly expansive in 1989 because it was for everyone. Now, apparently it is a "bounded construct," a phrase that I am sure is popular in graduate seminars on postmodern thought but remains a puzzle to most others. Presumably, it indicates that freedom is now seen as only "for people within the polity" while those outside of it are somehow condemned not to enjoy its benefits.

In 1989 East Germans were refugees, while now the thousands of people coming into Europe are considered migrants, and the author condemns the difference in terminology. Walls are now "reimagined as instruments … to bar passage of those who needed it most." The point seems to be that the states have a responsibility to keep their borders wide open because others need to come in. A vision of a harmonious borderless world permeates this story, a vision threatened by misguided politicians who want to wall off their countries. In this view, national borders of Western countries—and more specifically, "between Israel and Palestine, along the US-Mexico border, around the EU"—are akin to the Iron Curtain built by Communist dictators. The reader is justified to be puzzled. Borders alone do not create problems, and in fact they allow countries to engage in democratic politics and to create security. I suspect many Israelis wish that the wall with Gaza had been thicker and higher on October 7 when terrorists entered Israel and butchered 1,200 people. In Europe much political turmoil could have been avoided over the last years had the EU’s external borders been more difficult to cross, preventing unchecked migration.

Finally, there is a certain wistfulness toward the end of the book. The 1989 euphoria of the gained freedom is tempered now because, according to the author, freedom must be one of the many other values we must also pursue. It is unclear what these other values are, but in one of the last chapters Longo suggests maybe we should experiment with democratic socialism and bring back welfare institutions to mitigate inequality. Looking at the size of the modern welfare state in Europe as well as in the United States, one is left wondering what else the West can afford without going totally bankrupt.

As for experimenting with socialism, let’s recall that it has been tried and, in the attempt to succeed, the experimenters had to build a big wall, the Iron Curtain, to force people to enjoy equality. As we know from the book, this experiment failed and the Iron Curtain fell after a Hungarian picnic. Let’s not pine for another round of this bloody ideology.

The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain
by Matthew Longo
W.W. Norton, 320 pp., $28.95

Jakub Grygiel is a professor at The Catholic University of America, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and senior adviser at The Marathon Initiative.