Europe and the East. Decade of the Eastern Partnership

The Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park

Publication: 3 April 2023

NO. 35 2019

European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018

The Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park


NO. 33 2018



Minutes before the official program was set to begin at 3 p.m. on 19 August 1989, refugees from East Germany, who had heard of the planned temporary opening of the border, appeared at the site, abandoned their vehicles and broke through a gate in the Iron Curtain with their bare hands at 2:57 p.m.


The historical events of 1989 have resulted in significant changes in Europe. The Pan-European Picnic and the opening of the border was one of the most important changes and became the symbol of the European unification.

After the end of the Second World War (1945) Europe had been torn in two in both political and physical terms. Iron Curtain was a political, military, and ideological barrier dividing Europe into two separate areas. The barrier was erected by the Soviet Union after the Second World War to seal off itself and its dependent Eastern and Central European allies from open contact with the West and other non-communist areas. The term “Iron Curtain” had been in occasional and varied use as a metaphor since the 19th century, but it came to prominence only after it was used by the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in a speech at Fulton, Missouri, US, on 5 March 1946.

Communism is a political and economic doctrine that aims to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of at least the major means of production (mills and factories) and the natural resources of society. For Hungary communism was a foreign and repressive system which broke Hungary’s European development. During this time the country was oppressed in political and military terms. This is why the regime change is so important for Hungary and the Pan-European Picnic is a symbolic point of terminating the oppression.

In the late 1980s it became even more difficult for the Soviet Union to keep their socialist system functioning and change became inevitable. In 1989 increasing numbers of East Germans fled as they trusted that they would be able to reach West Germany by going through Hungary. It turned out to be not so simple. Although in May 1989 the first steps to dismantle the Iron Curtain on the Austrian-Hungarian border were taken, the Hungarian border police continued to detain individuals who tried to cross the border and even instituted controls at a greater distance from the actual border.


The Pan-European Picnic

This situation gave a special meaning to the initiative of the Hungarian opposition, which organised a happy meeting to strengthen the friendship between Hungarian and Austrian citizens along the border near Sopronpuszta under the name “Pan-European Picnic”. Within the framework of the event, a border crossing which hasn’t been used for 45 years was symbolically opened for 3 hours.

Minutes before the official program was set to begin at 3 p.m. on 19 August 1989, refugees from East Germany, who had heard of the planned temporary opening of the border, appeared at the site, abandoned their vehicles and broke through a gate in the Iron Curtain with their bare hands at 2:57 p.m. The Hungarian border police had been abandoned by their superiors and did not attempt to stem the tide of refugees. Breaking through the Iron Curtain became the first truly spectacular action of not just the German reunification but also the eastern expansion of the European integration process.


The Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park

The scene of the historical event is now a popular tourist destination and a place of pilgrimage for the former East German refugees and their relatives. The Pan-European Memorial Park is a landscaped area which is free to visit. The main purpose of the Memorial Park is to preserve the spirit of the place and to make young people understand what exactly happened at that time and what the consequences have been. In addition to the original memorabilia, information boards and works of art help to present the dramatic events and their effects.

In 1991 a board was erected in the Memorial Park by the organisers of the Pan-European Picnic. Shortly afterwards the park also received a bell from the city of Debrecen. A memorial was set up in 2004 at the breakthrough point, with a memorial plaque describing the historical event. On the 20th anniversary, in 2009, a sculpture composition was made by Miklós Melocco, a famous Hungarian sculptor.

The Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park has already taken many measures in the last few years to achieve the above-mentioned goals, but we aim to put more emphasis on the role of the site in European history and to incorporate further developments, high-quality pedagogical and cultural activities.

The Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park was awarded the European Heritage Label in 2015 as the first Hungarian site. In order to secure an important place for the Memorial Park in both Hungary’s and Europe’s spiritual and tourist life, it is necessary to increase its attractiveness. By joining the European Heritage Label, we hope to be able to promote the park more widely and to cooperate with other EHL sites in the future.


Europe starts here

Three years have elapsed since the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park has been awarded the European Heritage Label and the park has developed a lot since then. We do not have any information on the number of the park’s visitors as it’s free to visit, but there is a host of new programmes which intend to increase the number of people visiting the park.

One of our most important tasks is to familiarise younger generations with the former events and the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park plays a great role in reaching this aim. The park is an excellent venue for special history lessons that are held outside. This pedagogic method is very effective because young people can learn about the historical events through their own experiences.

Therefore, we are glad that The European Year of Cultural Heritage toolkit for teachers, one of the educational deliverables for the Year, has been launched in all 24 EU official languages. It contains really useful elements such as 2 lesson plans, 16 project proposals, an online game, and even a teachers’ guide so that primary and secondary school teachers can make a good use of it.

Another educationally significant development is the memory game based on the pictures of the European Heritage Label sites. This game not only facilitates teaching smaller children but also allows us to promote the park as well as the other European Heritage Label sites outside the school environment.

Young generations play a major role in preserving European values. Therefore, we are also trying to involve the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park in the cooperation with Sopron’s twin cities, helping to promote the European Heritage Label and our site.

The year 2019 is highly important for the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park and for Sopron, considering it marks 30 years since the breaking through the border. We are preparing for the 30th anniversary with a large series of programs throughout the whole year.

As part of the several program elements, we are looking forward to welcome students from Sopron’s twin cities in the spring of 2019. The event aims to reinforce European civic spirit and the awareness of our European values and shared history.

In addition, to develop our networking and collaborate with other EHL sites is also a really important goal. It was a great honour to have the chance to introduce our site within the framework of the latest conference, held in Kraków. The conference was a great opportunity to get to know the representatives of many other European Heritage Label sites personally. We would like to cooperate with both Hungarian and foreign sites in the future, so taking part in the project of design and management of networking and capacity building activities for European Heritage Label sites is also one of our future plans.

As a result of the conference in Kraków we successfully got in touch with the representatives of other sites and we are planning to collaborate with some of them during the 30th anniversary programmes.

Our communication activity is currently mainly related to anniversary events. Especially the jubilee events get significant attention from the national and international press. As one of the European Heritage Label sites we would like to actively cooperate with other sites and we hope to reach a wider audience as well. In keeping with the European significance of the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park, the communication activities are carried out in three languages, which are Hungarian, German, and English. However, we plan to involve other languages such as French, Italian, Slovak, and Dutch as well.

We want to put more emphasis on online publishing to promote international recognition of the site. To this end, we are working on a new website that meets the expectations of young people, one where all the information about the Memorial Park can be found easily. The website is also going to host news about the European Heritage Label.


Future developments

In order for the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park to occupy an adequate place on the intellectual and tourist map of Europe, it is necessary to develop its attractiveness. The Pan-European Picnic had a big influence on Europe’s history, thus we would like to commemorate these events in a worthy way. We are preparing for its 30th anniversary with various programmes as well as with important developments.

A tourist visitor centre will be created in the park with the use of European Union resources. In the visitor centre there will be an information desk where visitors can get acquainted with the historical events of the Pan-European Picnic and can find more information about the Memorial Park. In addition to the information desk, a café will also be placed in the visitor centre with a beautiful view of the entire Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park. The primary purpose of the café is to encourage people to spend more time in the park drinking coffee with their friends or family members. According to preliminary plans the café will be open only during the tourist season, which runs from April to September. The visitor centre will allow us to organise high-quality programmes and events regardless of the weather. Our goal is to provide a catering unit and a variety of leisure facilities that will make the park attractive to visitors and tourists alongside anniversary events. The construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2019.

We also plan to create additional tourist attractions on site, and the preparations have already begun. One of our plans is to renovate the old watchtower and make it accessible for tourists. From the top of the watchtower, there will be a beautiful view of not just the Memorial Park but also of the settlements near the park and of the lake Fertő.

Another plan is to build a “time capsule” on the site. The building will be placed right next to the border line and will have 3 entrances. On one side it will be bounded by a piece of reconstructed Iron Curtain and the inside of the building will evoke the moment of the border breaking. Walking between the life-sized figures which are about to break through the Iron Curtain will make the visitors feel that they are back in time in the middle of the events. The main aim of the “time capsule” is to provide memorable experiences for the people who visit the Memorial Park and to give people a good place to think about how the breakthrough affected both Hungary and Europe.

We would like to commemorate the events of the Pan-European Picnic not only in the memorial park but also in the city of Sopron. We are organising a permanent exhibition in the city centre that will guide you through the historical events, the border crossing and its effects.

We are trying to provide the opportunity to get to know the events of the Pan-European Picnic not only for Hungarians but also for those youngsters who are from abroad. Therefore, we are contacting local and international organisations and locations. By publishing new books and publications, staging exhibitions and creating new attractions, we would like to make the past events and their effects understandable for young people.

We are preparing for the 30th anniversary with a wide range of programmes so we expect Europe’s leading politicians, the representatives of other European Heritage Label sites, delegations from Sopron’s twin cities, and people from all around Europe to visit not just the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park but our city as well and to take part in the celebration.



About authors

Zsuzsanna Szijártó

She is a press referent at the City Hall of Sopron. She presented the Pan-European Picnic Memorial Park on the European Heritage Label conference in Krakow.


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