Matthew Longo, "The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain" (Norton, 2024)


The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and The Collapse of the Iron Curtain (Norton, 2024) is a truly fascinating narrative—exploring a little-known event that happened in the border area between Hungary and Austria in August of 1989, and ultimately contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. This Pan-European Picnic, attended by Hungarian pro-democracy advocates and East German vacationers on one side, and Austrians on the other, took place in the shadow of the Iron Curtain that had cut through Europe since the onset of the Cold War. This Iron Curtain between East and West was militarized, dangerous, and, as the title makes clear, iron in quality. The border, during the Cold War, between the Eastern Bloc and the West was one that operated more to keep citizens inside as opposed to trying to keep others out. Longo’s work here is distinct from his previous work on the U.S./Mexico border and the way that borders are distinct wherever we encounter them. The Picnic is still exploring borders, but it is an examination of a particular event at this hardened and ideological border, and how that event, in the planning for it, and the repercussions from it, led to the opening of many borders, both real and mythical. Longo also takes a different approach to his writing and narrative in The Picnic, providing the reader with an understanding of all of these events from the words and experiences of those who lived through the events and some who had a hand in them as well.

The thread that traces through the entire story in The Picnic is this more elusive and complex idea of freedom. Freedom was at the heart of the activities that were planned and took place in August 1989, since the Hungarians and the East Germans were hoping to push on the literal and figurative constraints under which they lived in these Eastern Bloc countries. The understanding of the Cold War, at least from many in the West, was the denial of individual freedom, liberty, and autonomy—to have one’s life circumscribed by the state. And as we consider what happened in 1989—in June in Tiananmen Square, at this picnic in the backwoods of Hungary in August, and in the streets of Berlin in November—we often consider these events as the human drive towards freedom and against confinement. Longo tells part of this story, but through the words of those who were advocating for these political and ideological changes. The narratives also reflect on what happened after the end of the Cold War in Europe, what freedom ushered in, some of which was just as had been imagined. But there is also the underbelly that came with these openings of borders—the inflow of predatory capital, the rocky shifts away from socialism that have led, in a variety of places including Hungary, to a different form of authoritarianism. The Picnic: A Dream of Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain weaves together a variegated narrative telling a particular story from 1989 but also a longer, more complex consideration of the idea of freedom and liberty and the power of the state.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-host of the New Books in Political Science channel at the New Books Network. She is co-editor of The Politics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (University Press of Kansas, 2022), as well as co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012). She can be reached

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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