> Skip to content
Play sample
  • Published: 30 January 2024
  • ISBN: 9781847927804
  • Imprint: Bodley Head
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $36.99

The Picnic

An Escape to Freedom and the Collapse of the Iron Curtain

An extraordinarily dramatic reconstruction of the greatest border breach in Cold War history

In August 1989, a group of Hungarian activists did the unthinkable: they entered the forbidden militarised zone of the Iron Curtain - and held a picnic.

Word had spread of what was going to happen. On wisps of rumour, thousands of East German 'holiday-makers' had made their way to the border between Hungary and Austria and packed the nearby camping sites, awaiting an opportunity, fearing prison, surveilled by lurking Stasi agents. The highest state authorities were choosing to turn a blind eye - but that could change at any moment. The stage was set for the greatest border breach in Cold War history: that day hundreds would cross from the Communist East to the longed-for freedom of the West. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet Union - the so-called end of history - all would flow from those dramatic hours.

Drawing on dozens of original interviews with those involved - activists and border guards, escapees and secret police, as well as the last Communist prime minister of Hungary - Matthew Longo reconstructs not only this remarkable event but also its complex and bittersweet aftermath. Freedom had been won but parents had been abandoned and families divided. Love affairs faltered and new lives had to be built from scratch.

The Picnic is the story of a moment when the tide of history turned. It shows how freedom can be both dream and disillusionment, and how all we take for granted can vanish in an instant.

  • Published: 30 January 2024
  • ISBN: 9781847927804
  • Imprint: Bodley Head
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $36.99

About the author

Matthew Longo

Matthew Longo is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Leiden University and the award-winning author of The Politics of Borders. He lives in The Netherlands.

Praise for The Picnic

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

Philip Gourevitch

Matthew Longo's writing reanimates the heady days of freedom of 1989 and reflects on what was missed in that extraordinary year

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

A compelling, poignant, beautifully textured retelling of the collapse of communism 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

Clarissa Ward, author of On All Fronts

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 Best of Non-fiction 2023

Stunning ... Longo traces the heart-wrenching stories of these freedom-seekers ... impressive research ... This captivating narrative brings an underreported Cold War turning point into focus

Publishers Weekly

Brilliantly researched and endlessly fascinating, The Picnic is history at the human level. A compulsive and compelling read

Giles Milton, author of Checkmate in Berlin

Revisits in captivating detail the actions of ordinary people during that heady summer of 1989 . . . Longo recounts the drama in a vivid, fast-paced narrative [which] never lacks verve

The New York Times

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 that changed the world

Wall Street Journal

An elegantly crafted account of an extraordinary but largely forgotten gathering … He tells a gripping tale … relating to both timeless questions of struggle and agency, and topics in the headlines today

Boston Globe

A terrific work of history that also becomes a meditation on what freedom means and how tyrannies fall

Slate 10 Best Books of 2023

A pivotal – and exhilarating – moment in late 20th-century history . . . Matthew Longo’s thoughtful and vividly realised book skilfully 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 oversentimentalise it

Houman Barekat, Guardian

Fascinating and revelatory . . . The significance of the picnic has never before been documented, certainly not with this level of diligence and testimony, and Longo's engrossing and dramatic book adds a new, captivating chapter to the history of the Cold War

William Boyd, New Statesman