The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain (Hardcover)
One of Slate's Ten Best Books of 2023 • A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice • A Kirkus Reviews Best Nonfiction Book of 2023
The gripping story of a collective passion for freedom that shook the world.
In August 1989, a group of Hungarian activists organized a picnic on the border of Hungary and Austria. But this was not an ordinary picnic—it was located on the dangerous militarized frontier known as the Iron Curtain. Tacit permission from the highest state authorities could be revoked at any moment. On wisps of rumor, thousands of East German “vacationers” packed Hungarian campgrounds, awaiting an opportunity, fearing prison, surveilled by lurking Stasi agents. The Pan-European Picnic set the stage for the greatest border breach in Cold War history: hundreds crossed from the Communist East to the longed-for freedom of the West.
Drawing on dozens of original interviews—including Hungarian activists and border guards, East German refugees, Stasi secret police, and the last Communist prime minister of Hungary—Matthew Longo tells a gripping and revelatory tale of the unraveling of the Iron Curtain and the birth of a new world order. Just a few months after the Picnic, the Berlin Wall fell, and the freedom for which the activists and refugees had abandoned their homes, risked imprisonment, sacrificed jobs, family, and friends, was suddenly available to everyone. But were they really free? And why, three decades since the Iron Curtain was torn down, have so many sought once again to build walls?
Cinematically told, The Picnic recovers a time when it seemed possible for the world to change. With insight and panache, Longo explores the opportunities taken—and the opportunities we failed to take—in that pivotal moment.
About the Author
Matthew Longo is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Leiden University and award-winning author of The Politics of Borders: Sovereignty, Security, and the Citizen after 9/11. A native New Yorker, he lives in the Netherlands.
Blending oral history and political theory (including cameos by Plato and Isaiah Berlin), Longo recounts the drama in a vivid, fast-paced narrative.
— Andrew Meier - New York Times
Longo’s engaging account of the fall of the Soviet empire focuses on ordinary protesters like the organizers of a picnic attended by hundreds on the border between Austria and Hungary in 1989.
— New York Times Book Review
The true charm of Mr. Longo’s book, and its greatest historical value, lies in his accounts of ordinary citizens—mostly East German—who sought to throw off their Communist shackles by fleeing west at great personal peril. We also owe him a debt for resuscitating the Picnic, now 'largely omitted from history books, pushed aside by the macroscopic politics of the end of the Cold War.'
— Tunku Varadarajan - Wall Street Journal
A terrific work of history that also becomes a meditation on what freedom means and how tyrannies fall.
— Dan Kois - Slate
A pivotal—and exhilarating—moment in late 20th-century history…Matthew Longo’s thoughtful and vividly realised book skillfully dramatises the extraordinary chain of events at a summer party in Hungary that led to the end of Soviet power…it recreates, through intimate personal histories and eye-witness recollection, the ways in which one idealistic, grass roots protest…became a catalyst for the dramatic peaceful revolutions that reunited the continent…gripping.
— Tim Adams - Observer
This little gem of a book tells the story of…a key Cold War moment…Longo’s vivid narrative captures the tension of the moment…an intensely moving story that explores the nature of freedom.
— Victor Sebestyen - Sunday Times
Longo covers the Picnic at ground level, evoking the dramatic events in vivid colour…Anecdotes and impressions…are woven through the historical narrative, providing an insight into how deeply this history still matters today…the chain of events in 1989 and its historical context are outlined with clarity and verve. The narrative is spiked with Longo’s commentary and anecdotes from his trips, making The Picnic a deeply personal account of a fascinating milestone of Cold War history.
— Katja Hoyer - Telegraph
[A] brisk and engaging account, told in a lively blend of novelistic narration and reportage and featuring interviews with a number of people closely involved in these historic events…It’s an uplifting tale, but Longo takes care not to oversentimentalize it.
— Houman Barekat - Guardian
Longo's engrossing and dramatic book adds a new, captivating chapter to the history of the Cold War.
— William Boyd - New Statesman
Matthew Longo’s writing reanimates the heady days of freedom of 1989 and reflects on what was missed in that extraordinary year, on how inarticulate solidarities have since eroded to the detriment of everyone, and on how confining walls could fall even as durable institutions of freedom were not built in their place.
— Samuel Moyn, author of Humane
Full of insight and empathy, The Picnic is beautifully written and ingeniously plotted. Like all the best books about the past, it brings the present compellingly to life.
— Patrick McGuinness, author of The Last Hundred Days
A compelling, poignant, beautifully textured retelling of the collapse of communism in Central Europe through the personal ordeals, trepidations, longings, and disenchantments of its participants—culminating in a heartfelt rethinking of the meaning of 1989 for the world today.
— Stephen Holmes, coauthor of The Light that Failed
Exhilarating…A gem of a book, filled with timely and compelling insights into the power of ordinary people and the limitations of authoritarianism.
— Clarissa Ward, author of On All Fronts
A fascinating reconstruction of the extraordinary moment in 1989, when the spontaneous actions and inactions of a few individuals made history swing wide open on its hinges. With the gifts of a fine documentarian, Matthew Longo makes that great moment of collective hopes newly vivid, and the extent to which those hopes remain unfulfilled freshly urgent.
— Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
One of the best books out there on Cold War history.
— Nelson DeMille
Extensively documented, well written, and thoughtful in its consideration of what freedom means, this book is an informative and engaging history of the event, its origins, and the aftermath...A much-needed reminder of the inexhaustibility of the human quest for personal and collective freedom.
— Kirkus (starred review)