“It was June 20, 1989, a warm summer night; by all accounts a perfect occasion for dreaming.”
So begins Chapter One of political scientist Matthew Longo’s “The Picnic,” an elegantly crafted account of an extraordinary but largely forgotten August 1989 gathering. Conceived on that night in June by an eclectic set of dreamers — including a direct descendant of Hapsburg monarchs — the eponymous picnic, held on the border of Hungary and Austria, brought together revelers from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain united by the hope of a different, more integrated Europe in the future.
For the titular event to take place, a ragtag set of organizers — of whom the most memorable in Longo’s account is Mária Filip, a young woman descended from “a long line of anti-Communist dissidents” — needed to find and maintain the support of influential figures, including reformists inside Hungary’s Communist establishment, who wanted to see things change in Central Europe. Based in the provinces and in positions with minimal prestige and power, intrepid outsiders like Filip had to somehow get backing from officials in Budapest at a time when traveling and even making calls between cities could be difficult.
Nothing was simple for Filip, who liked to say that Radio Free Europe broadcasts, for her, functioned as a “bedtime story.” A pair of historians she hoped would be sympathetic mocked her as an “amateur meddling in politics,” a rebuke that made her “livid.” (“Lucky you historians only write history, rather than do it,” she told them.) She managed to get a crucial permit for the event, but only through machinations that “bordered on farce,” including a stolen phone line and a call to the Hapsburg family. A friend of hers, recording the moment in a diary entry, wrote: “If Ottó Hapsburg saw this! That he received a phone call from a stolen line in a small office of a construction company in Debrecen from the 4th floor, room 411! Do these important people take our amateur ideas seriously?”
Longo, in illuminating efforts by both organizers like Filip and reformers within Hungary, quickly proves himself an unusual sort of political scientist, evincing a philosophical bent, a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and a knack for gaining the trust of widely varying interview subjects, from former officials to restless teenagers to discontented bureaucrats. Romance abounds in both senses of the word: “The Picnic” is peopled with united and divided lovers, like Katja and Oskar, an East German and West German who met in the Soviet Union in 1987. Longo also captures the romantic notions of cockeyed idealists like Ferenc Mészaroes, a young man who had been “in and out of gangs in his teenage years” and finally found a sense of purpose by joining the Hungarian Democratic Forum.
Throughout, there is the nagging sense that chance has as much to do with outcomes as any political or moral ideal: What if a border guard had not risked letting people through the gate he was supposed to keep shut? What if Filip had not managed to make her way through the bureaucratic labyrinth in order to gain approval for permits?
The way that Longo tells the tale also, however, makes it natural to ponder what-if questions that go far beyond the event itself. He tells a gripping tale, for example, of a tense June 1989 summit of Warsaw Pact leaders in Bucharest. Miklós Németh, a leading Hungarian liberalizer, heads to the summit knowing that “his aggressive pace of reform” is opposed by Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Romanian dictator hosting the gathering, and others. Németh’s advisers, afraid that the summit is a trap, insist the delegation sleep in the garden rather than in the villas assigned to them. What if the rumors of a nefarious plot had been true and they had not taken the precaution of staying outside? Longo also stresses the fluky fact that Németh and Gorbachev had met and liked one another before either rose to power — a fact that was crucial in giving Németh the courage and ability to take Hungary down a distinctive path.
“The Picnic” illuminates the curious alchemy through which structural forces, personalities, contingency, minor miscalculations, and lucky little choices can combine to lead to unusual results. Longo’s focus could hardly seem more microscopic, returning continually to what happened in a few hours on a small piece of ground in an obscure borderland.
And yet, by zooming in and then zooming out to register the larger picture , he provides food for thought relating to both timeless questions of struggle and agency, and topics in the headlines today. Like many good works of history, it can be mined for sources of hope — and lead to dark reflections about ironic shifts. What lessons can we take away from the actions of people like Filip if we too want to do our part in trying to loosen the power of borders and chip away at confining walls?
And, on the flip side, how did Hungary change from a place for idealistic dreaming about democracy and diversity — that “warm summer night” — to a country ruled by strongman Viktor Orban, with his anti-democratic “reforms” and hardline calls to block migrants, “especially Muslims”? Longo, poignantly, describes two former picnic planners witnessing such sentiments at a 2019 event marking the end of 30 years of Communist rule, who are rightly disturbed, not only by the disdain for migrants, but “something broader: that we might celebrate the past but not learn from it.”
THE PICNIC: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain
By Matthew Longo
Norton, 320 pp., $28.95
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and the author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.”