The round-table talks in early 1989 agreed on multi-party elections in June, in which Solidarity won a stunning 65% of the popular vote and the majority of the seats in the Senate. However, Walesa agreed to a compromise allowing a communist president to serve beside a non-communist prime minister. This previously inconceivable power-sharing arrangement put an end to communist monopoly, but many criticized Solidarity for its inability to carry out radical change in Poland.

Developments in Poland proved that the Soviet Union would not intervene to suppress opposition. In Hungary, memories of the 1956 revolution mobilized the population against the regime. When reformers within the Communist Party changed the rhetoric with which they described the 1956 events, transforming it from a "counter-revolution" to a "popular uprising," they signaled a major change.

On 16 June, 200,000 people commemorated the anniversary of the execution of Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 uprising, by reburying his remains in a hero's grave. Bowing to popular pressure, the Communist Party allowed the formation of opposition parties and declared Hungary a democratic republic. The free elections from May 1990 brought to power an opposition coalition, marking a clean break with socialist rule.

Unrest in Hungary caused a chain reaction in East Germany. In June of 1989, Hungary opened its border crossings, allowing vacationing East Germans to flee into the West, especially through Austria. When Gorbachev visited Berlin in the fall, he acted dismissively of the communist leader Eric Honecker who had resisted reform. As opposition groups started protests, Honecker contemplated a "Chinese solution" to the crisis, referring to the bloody suppression in Beijing's Tiananmen Square earlier that summer.

But candlelight vigils in Leipzig persisted, and protesters replaced their original slogan, "We are the people!" with the even more powerful, "We are one people!" to criticize the Cold War division of Germany.

On 9 November, when a party functionary hastily announced that East Germans could benefit from easier travel rules "immediately," thousands converged on the Berlin Wall. Lacking clear instructions, border guards opened the gates while people poured in both directions and began tearing down the wall. Awed viewers around the world sat dumbstruck at the improbable carnival scene around the disintegrating wall.

During the first free elections in East Germany in March 1990, the opposition removed the Communist Party from power and completed the re-unification of the two Germanies on 3 October 1990.

A day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, reformers in the Bulgarian Communist Party forced the resignation of their aging leader, Todor Zhivkov. Opposition groups organized anti-government demonstrations that persistently chanted, "Forty-five years are enough!" and demanded a "divorce" from communism. The communist reformers commenced round-table talks with the opposition, but divisions among the democrats allowed the communists to play a critical role in the restructuring of the country.

November also saw the "velvet revolution" in Czechoslovakia. In January 1989, student groups had commemorated the death of Jan Palach, the student who set himself on fire to protest the military suppression of the Prague Spring of 1968. Despite an official crackdown, following the fall of the Berlin Wall students renewed their demonstrations.

On 20 November, some 200,000 people filled Prague's central square and continued their rallies for weeks, chanting anti-government slogans and ringing their key chains in sign of protest. The Communist Party entered into negotiations with the opposition, and in early December the regime transferred power to a government led by the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, who had only recently been released from jail. [Click here for more on events in Czechoslovakia in 1989].

By mid-December, only Nicolae Ceausescu's regime in Romania had remained unchanged. On 17 December, when demonstrators assembled in the city of Timisoara, the security services opened fire on the crowd. On 21 December, Ceausescu called for a rally in Bucharest to demonstrate the strength of the Communist Party, but people started chanting slogans against him.

Representatives of Securitate fired against the demonstrators, which unleashed a popular revolution against the regime. Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled the capital but were soon captured by the army. On Christmas Day, Romanians watched on television how a tribunal found the couple guilty of treason, ordered their execution, and broadcast it live.

In the confusion of mass upheaval, however, members of the communist party and the secret services formed the National Salvation Front whose political control frustrated a final break with the communist past.

The darker side of change became evident in Yugoslavia. In 1989, when the Yugoslav president and Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic revoked the autonomy of two Serbian provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, alarm spread to the other Yugoslav republics that they might be next to lose power to an assertive Serbia.

By 1990, the Communist parties in all republics accepted the need for multi-party elections, but elections in Slovenia and Croatia brought to power nationalists who demanded secession from Yugoslavia. Reforms propelled to power democratically elected nationalists whose aspirations started the painful process of Yugoslav disintegration through civil war. [To read more about events in the former Yugoslavia, please see these articles on Kosovo and the breakup of Yugoslavia]

Revolution, Then What?

The "revolutions of 1989" did not follow the classic example of a revolution led by professional conspirators and advancing visions of perfect society. Despite the unprecedented popular mobilization, these were not disciplined political movements, but torrents of individuals longing for change.

In the words of Michael Mayer, the Newsweek correspondent in eastern Europe in 1989, it was "the logic of human messiness" that shaped the events. According to Timothy Garton Ash, it could all be summed up in the motto: "The goal is nothing, the movement is everything." Or, as the Czech dissident Jan Urban put it, "It's not that we won – it's that they collapsed."

No one can deny the emotional charge and breathtaking appeal of the 1989 events, which brought the end of communism and the Cold War. It was a momentous achievement that everyone recognizes. Their outcomes, however, have been more controversial because the years of "post-socialism" in the 1990s unleashed uneven socio-economic and political processes that made many citizens of the formerly communist countries wonder what the purpose of change is and whether 1989 was really an unmitigated success.

All eastern European countries sought the revival of the democratic political systems that the communists had abolished forty years prior and introduced competitive, multi-party elections. Yet, the new democracies never fully achieved a clean break with the old regimes because the "restructured," "reformed" and duly renamed communist parties re-entered political life under a "socialist" or "social-democratic" veneer.

As people became disillusioned with political reform, radical-authoritarian groups exploited the fluidity of the situation, espoused extreme views of intolerance, and spread paranoid conspiracy theories. New media empires served the interests of the political elites and attacked former dissidents.

Eastern Europeans nurtured visions of prosperity under capitalism, but the adoption of free-market economic mechanisms failed to fulfill their dreams. The new governments introduced "shock therapies" based on welfare cuts, the privatization of industry and land, and the opening of the economy to foreign investment. With the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank dictating the terms of economic transitions, many citizens felt that they had once again lost their sovereignty.

Relations with the West were strained in the 1990s. Despite NATO membership, which served to encourage the pace of reform in the former communist countries, long and humiliating lines in front of western European embassies to acquire travel permits shattered the dream of the "return to Europe."

In search of a better future, eastern European immigrants flooded the West, causing crises both in their home countries and host societies. Demagogues and nationalists exploited delays in the EU integration process, calling the West arrogant, and advancing authoritarian, populist agendas.

Euro-skeptics questioned the future of the EU in the area, even after its eastward expansion in 2004 and 2007, as evident in controversies over the European constitution in Poland and the Czech Republic. [See this 2009 Origins article for more on the EU and the Czech and Slovak Republics]. Further, the events of 1989 also unleashed an identity crisis in the West, with many questioning the purpose of NATO after the bloodless demise of communism.

Eastern European countries also experienced profound social transformations. While some benefited from the process of property redistribution, shadowy privatization deals and rampant corruption created distrust among the population. A new, capitalist elite emerged, often with connections to the old communist regimes or the security services, while at the same time the working-class and rural populations saw their incomes decline.

The vast rift between rich and poor together with the spread of unemployment and job insecurity, both unknown under communism, bred a feeling of social marginalization in a previously classless society.

This trend, in turn, produced a deep crisis of morality. Many felt betrayed by democratic politicians, nurtured nostalgia for the communist years of material security and full employment, and, with their vote, helped transform the former communist elites into legitimate participants in post-socialist political life.

Finally, democratic elections often put in power individuals with nationalist ideas, as it is clearer in Yugoslavia but evident in all countries. The split between Czechs and Slovaks, albeit peacefully, led to the end of Czechoslovakia; and Hungarian support for its minorities abroad generated tensions with Romania and Slovakia.

Polish-German relations strained due to the controversial legacy of the German expulsions from Poland after World War II; and the Bulgarian unwillingness to apologize to its Muslim minorities for their suppression under communism propelled to power extremists on both sides. Communist internationalism, for all its rhetoric of the friendship of peoples, had not managed to eradicate the explosive mobilization force of nationalism.

Making Sense of 1989 in 2009

It is true that the political, economic, and social transformations after the fall of communism created a crisis of values and authority in the new democracies.

Nevertheless, the events of 1989 had a colossal impact of global significance because they put an end to the bi-polar world of the Cold War and brought the demise of communist dictatorships in eastern Europe. In the words of the political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu, "what appeared to be an immutable, ostensibly indestructible system collapsed with breathtaking alacrity."

A vibrant civil society replaced the ideological party-state that allowed no dissent, and even if disagreements over the parameters of reform persist, the revolutions of 1989 initiated unprecedented change in the entire European continent, East and West alike.

Today, a new generation has emerged with no living memory of communism; young eastern Europeans have occasionally heard of the Prague Spring or the Hungarian revolution, but generally find the stories of their parents banal and irrelevant.

This generational disinterest is perhaps both the greatest triumph of 1989 as well as its most significant failing. The fact that pre-1989 communist life could be so quickly cast aside reflects the vast amount that eastern Europeans have changed since 1989. Certainly, twenty years ago, such a development would have appeared unthinkable.

At the same time, such conscious forgetting and indifference risks blinding the new generation to the buried tentacles of power that reach out from the past to constrain its current choices.

In either case, lack of interest in the communist years—and a greater concern with today and tomorrow—certainly helps to explain the ambivalence with which many in the former Soviet Bloc have met the 1989 anniversary festivities.