The beginning of a long weekend in Hungary: the Pan-European Picnic

A four-day weekend awaits Hungarians, starting tomorrow. The occasion for such an extended holiday is August 20 which on the Catholic liturgical calendar is the day associated with St. Stephen. This day has, according to "history," been remembered ever since Stephen was made a saint in 1083. In 1990 parliament decided to make it the most important national holiday, trumping March 15, which celebrates the 1848-1849 revolution and the war of independence. The choice of August 20 was predictable from a conservative parliamentary majority. The liberals and socialists would most likely have picked March 15, the day symbolizing freedom and progress. In any event, tomorrow there will again be celebrations all day long, culminating in a spectacular fireworks display over the Danube.

Today a celebration of a different kind took place in Sopronpuszta to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Pan-European Picnic held on a field in the middle of nowhere on the Austro-Hungarian border on August 19, 1989. A memorial park now commemorates the event that allowed about 600 East Germans to cross into Austria and to freedom while the Hungarian border guards looked on. The Pan-European Picnic was the brainchild of Walburga Douglas-Habsburg, the daughter of Otto von Habsburg who from early childhood on showed a great interest in politics. Between 1989 and 2004 she was secretary-general of the Pan-European Union and in this capacity was one of the organizers of the Pan-European Picnic. Her father, Otto von Habsburg, was one of its sponsors. The picnic was made possible by the joint effort of the Hungarian government of Miklós Németh, the Austrian government, and the then opposition parties. A border gate on the road from Sankt Margarethen in Burgenland to Sopronkőhida was opened for three hours. East Germans on the scene ran across the border. Less than a month later, on September 11, the picnic gesture became official Hungarian governmental policy; the more than 60,000 Germans waiting in Hungary were allowed to cross into Austria, to "the West."

The celebration today was organized by one of those so-called civic cells that claim to be independent but in reality are closely allied with Fidesz. Although it was known for a long time that Angela Merkel would be present at the anniversary celebration, the "politically independent" organizers announced that they didn't want to see politicians at the gathering and therefore suggested to Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai that he stay at home. He didn't oblige. The important dignitaries at today's events, in addition to Angela Merkel and Gordon Bajnai, included László Sólyom, president of Hungary, and Carl Bildt, foreign minister of Sweden who was representing the European Union.

In his speech Bildt not surprisingly mentioned Walburga Douglas-Habsburg's role because at the moment she is a member of the Swedish parliament. How did she end up in the Swedish parliament? She married Count Archibald Douglas, a Swede with a decidedly Scottish name and presumed lineage, in December 1992. By the way, the wedding took place in Budapest.

After the speeches Miklós Melocco's statue called "Breaking Through" (Áttörés) was unveiled. As soon as I heard who the sculptor was I knew I wouldn't like it. Indeed, I didnt.Melocco But it seems that President Sólyom doesn't share my taste because he praised the statue as the everlasting symbol of freedom. Angela Merkel talked about Hungary's role in glowing terms: "Hungary twenty years ago gave wings to the East Germans' desire for freedom." "Germany will never forget what Hungary did," said Merkel.

Merkel and Bajnai also had a fairly lengthy private conversation, mostly about the financial crisis and what the Hungarian government is doing to lessen the economic hardship on the population. Angela Merkel was especially interested in the state of the Hungarian banks and was pleased to hear that Hungarian banks didn't need any financial assistance from the central government.

The Hungarian president, as is his wont, added controversy to today's events. Merkel's speech was on target; László Sólyom once again strayed. He used the occasion to castigate the Slovak language law that, according to him and to the Hungarians, discriminates against the Hungarian minority of Slovakia. Sólyom said that the European Union mustn't turn its attention elsewhere when one of the member states limits the use of the language of its minorities. The barbed wire that divided Austria and Hungary is by now a bad dream, but "we must prevent building other kinds of borders within the European Union." I'm not sure that the foreign visitors actually understood what Sólyom was talking about. But these remarks came at a most unfortunate time. Tomorrow Sólyom is going to Révkomárom (Komárno) for the unveiling of a statue of St. Stephen! The Slovaks are not happy that the Hungarian president "celebrates the establishment of the Hungarian state on Slovak soil." But more about that tomorrow.