Angela Merkel, Germany's first chancellor from former East Germany, on Wednesday praised Hungary for organizing an event 20 years ago that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of her country.
Merkel said Hungary's 1989 Pan-European Picnic, a peace demonstration near the Austrian border exploited by hundreds of East Germans to flee to the West, was risky but courageous.
"What Hungarians did here was very brave," Merkel said at a commemoration of the event's anniversary. "Two enslaved nations together broke down the walls of enslavement ... and Hungarians gave wings to East Germans' desire for freedom.
"The opening of the borders became irreversible and in a few months, the walls of the Cold War were razed."
Hungary planned to open its border with Austria symbolically for three hours at the picnic but hundreds of East Germans, who had gathered in the hope of a chance to flee, broke through before the official opening.
Hungarian border guards had orders to shoot but refused to intervene and kept the border open for several hours in an action now widely considered to be a milestone in the events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Less than a month later, on September 11, Hungary formally opened its border with Austria and historians estimate that more than 60,000 East Germans had left via Hungary by early November, when the Berlin Wall was torn down.
"It (the picnic) led to a brief opening of the Iron Curtain and contributed to its final fall and the peaceful unification of Germany," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a statement on Wednesday.
"The Sopron picnic thereby marked the beginning of the end of the division of Europe by the Cold War."
Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom said the picnic was a step forward for all of Communist East Europe in its efforts to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain.
"The Pan-European Picnic, like the opening of the gate for the East Germans to cross to the West, were parts of the political changes that accelerated through the summer of 1989," Solyom told the gathering.