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.