In the fall of 1989, people around the world turned their televisions on to watch astonishing scenes. Hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Europe congregated in streets and squares and demanded the end of communist rule.
These are indelible images deeply impressed in the memory of anyone old enough to remember: the round-table talks in Poland where the word "opposition," unheard of under communism, was expressed publicly; the dismantling of the barbed-wire border fences in Hungary; the East Germans triumphantly waving their passports or fleeing to the West in sealed trains; and the candlelight vigils and public masses in Leipzig and elsewhere.
And then the world shook. Overnight, the Berlin Wall—that seemingly permanent symbol of a dangerously divided world—collapsed. Crowds in Budapest, Prague, and Sofia chanted, sang, and rang their key chains in protest against the communist regimes that seemed so obsolete, and in solidarity with opposition leaders that took center stage.
Resignations of Communist Party officials and talk of free elections followed. By the end of the year, what seemed immutable throughout eastern Europe had collapsed. Holding its breath, the world watched how, with very little violence, the Iron Curtain fell and the Cold War was over.
There was so much hope, joy, and promise in the air that 1989 is also known as annus mirabilis, or the year of miracles, which put an end to communism in Europe.
Throughout 2009, countries from the former Soviet Bloc have attempted to recapture some of that miraculous moment with anniversary celebrations. But, twenty years on, the magic of 1989 feels more than a bit faded.
November 9 brought the "Freedom without Walls" celebration in Germany, with 1,000, eight-foot, painted foam dominoes spread along the former path of the Berlin Wall and knocked over in reenactment. But elsewhere, the celebrations have been somewhat muted. In Poland, where much of 1989 began, the anniversary brought discord. People could not agree on a single celebration and the festivities were split between two cities.
The celebrations reflect the myriad troubles and mood of foreboding that confront the countries of Eastern Europe today. The global economic recession has hit countries like Hungary and the Baltic states, which had been previously lauded for their successful transitions to free-market economies. Despite German unification in 1990, the territories of the former East Germany continue to experience brain drain and economic dislocation.
Ethnic tensions have become rampant, not only in the former Yugoslavia—where war after war in the 1990s gave new and painful meaning to the phrase "ethnic cleansing"—but most recently in disputes between Slovakia and Hungary over a controversial law mandating the use of the Slovak language in Hungarian-minority areas. Vicious attacks against the Roma, or Gypsy, minority in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Romania have highlighted the persistence of intolerance and exclusion in the new democracies.
Controversies regarding the purging of the state apparatus of secret service functionaries and communist party apparatchiks continue. In Poland, a large percentage of the Catholic clergy, once considered an unwavering opponent of the communist regime, has been exposed as secret service informants. Until recently, deeply entrenched interest groups with links to the past did not allow access to the files of the notorious Securitate in Romania.
In Bulgaria, a number of high-profile, mafia-style assassinations of prominent businessmen and the judicial system's inability to handle corruption led the EU to freeze integration funds for its new member-state.
What has happened, then, to the unprecedented energy, boundless excitement, and desire for change that the events of 1989 generated?
In 1989, people were united in their desire to break with the past and see the end of communism. They cherished visions of freedom, civil activism, equal opportunity, and prosperity, and longed to transform the former Soviet satellites into democracies and free-market economies, two phrases that seemed to offer so much promise.
However, there was no clear vision of the future once the elation of "revolution" subsided. As in so many revolutions, it was much easier to tear down the old than to agree on, or even envision, the new.
Instead, the period of post-socialism followed a tortuous, "refolutionary" path, to use Timothy Garton Ash's term that combines "reform" and "revolution." The residues, people, and institutions of the past continued to haunt efforts at change.
Despite the end of communism, the optimism and hope for a better life in 1989 gave way all too quickly to widespread cynicism and pervasive feelings of unfulfilled promises. Today, very few people in eastern Europe talk about "revolution," or can muster the energy to celebrate the government-sponsored festivities.
Twenty years later, to make sense of this shift from wonders to worries, one must revisit the history of communism, explore its collapse, and scrutinize the legacy of post-socialism in eastern Europe.
Eastern Europe Becomes the Soviet Bloc
The countries of eastern Europe—including Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, and the republics of the former Yugoslavia—fell into the Soviet sphere of influence following the Cold War division of Europe.
With Stalin's help, Communist Parties established "people's republics" that gradually dissolved all alternative political organizations. With the expansion of the internal security services, most notoriously the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate, detention camps and show trials became the symbols of Stalinism in eastern Europe.
The new regimes worked to abolish capitalism and private property by nationalizing and directing all industry, agriculture, and trade. They banished organized religion and created state-controlled systems of media, the arts, and entertainment that enabled constant surveillance over people.
Lacking a civil society, an independent foreign policy, political opposition, and economic autonomy, the eastern European countries under Soviet control transformed into overt dictatorships by the late 1940s.
Opposition simmered and seethed where it could—at kitchen tables, on private walks, in clandestine groups, and through certain intellectual, cultural, and sports organizations—occasionally bursting out into mass movements.
Discontent among the population grew following the death of Stalin in 1953 and the 1956 speech of Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's successor as Soviet leader, which condemned Stalinist crimes. Rallying behind the Hungarian Communist Party reformist, Imre Nagy, demonstrations in Budapest in October 1956 transformed into a revolution that demanded multi-party elections and declared Hungarian neutrality from the Soviet Union. Unwilling to tolerate these measures, the Soviet Union crushed the revolution militarily.
Twelve years later, in Czechoslovakia, the communist reformist Alexander Dubcek proposed the introduction of "socialism with a human face," or democratized socialism, which led to the lifting of press and literary censorship during the "Prague Spring" of 1968.
But the new Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, sent some 165,000 Warsaw Pact troops to suppress the movement. The Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty, threatening the use of military force against eastern European countries that turned away from communism, destroyed all hopes that truly reformist socialism was possible among the Soviet satellites. [Click here to read more on the Prague Spring]
From Satellites into Independent Nations
The years of late socialism in the 1980s saw the exacerbation of key social, economic, and political problems.
The regimes became economically unsustainable because they had expanded military and consumer spending without adequate industrial development. Unable to reform their economic systems, communist leaders turned toward policies of austerity, exemplified in "energy rationing" and increased prices for essentials. However, shortages and price increases fed working-class discontent and led to strikes, demonstrations, and riots.
Moreover, given the inability of reformist communists to carry out changes, new opposition movements arose that focused on environmental issues and human rights and protested everything from the building of dams and the emission of poison gasses to the suppression of rock bands and hippies.
In Poland, the election of the Archbishop of Krakow as Pope John Paul II and his public masses in 1979 provided an opportunity for the expression of dissent on a world stage. As the economic situation continued to deteriorate, strikes in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk led to the establishment of Poland's first independent workers' union, Solidarity. In December 1981, with Soviet urging, the Polish government suppressed Solidarity and declared martial law, but in many ways this action marked the beginning of the end of the communist regimes.
The ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev to power as the chairman of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 was an epochal moment. With the introduction of glasnost and perestroika, or political openness and economic restructuring, in the Soviet Union, opposition to communist rule in eastern Europe spread.
Gorbachev emphasized that "there is no model of socialism to be imitated by all" and, in a sharp reversal of the Brezhnev doctrine, proclaimed that threats of force were unacceptable.
With the continued economic decline, diminishing appeal of socialism, and the emergence of a new generation of dissidents, by the late 1980s it became increasingly difficult for the Soviet-bloc states to avoid reform. Nevertheless, the possibility of a radical transformation of the existing system was far from people's mind.
And then the walls came tumbling down. In Poland, following strikes and riots over declining living standards in 1988, the Communist Party leadership decided against using force once Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not intervene. Instead, the regime started negotiations with the trade union Solidarity led by the electrician Lech Walesa.