1989 Twenty Years On: The End of Communism and the Fate of Eastern Europe

Editor's Note

For those in the former Soviet Bloc, 1989 has been called an annus mirabilis—a year of miracles. With astonishing speed, communist rule ended in Eastern Europe, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and the nature of Europe was changed entirely. In 2009, those countries, from Germany to Bulgaria to Poland, have all mounted celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of this hope-filled year. Yet, two decades after the collapse of communism, many in those countries found themselves unsure of what, precisely, they were celebrating. Did 1989 really mark a moment of out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new, and how much had really changed in the intervening years? This month historian Theodora Dragostinova explores the impact of 1989 on the region and the legacy of history in today's Eastern Europe.

Readers interested in this article may also want to see these recent Origins articles on the breakup of the former Yugoslavia (pdf), on Kosovo's independence, on the Czech and Slovak Republics and the EU, and on recent Russian politics.

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.

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.

Audio Version of Article
Suggested Reading

Ash, Timothy Garton. (1993). The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of '89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. Vintage Books.

Drakulic, Slavenka. (1999). Café Europa: Life After Communism. Penguin.

Kenney, Padraic. (2006). The Burdens of Freedom: Eastern Europe Since 1989. Zed Books.

Mayer, Michael. (2009). The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Scribner.

Offe, Claus. (1997). Varieties of Transition; The East European and East German Experience. MIT Press.

Tismaneanu, Vladimir, ed. (1999). The Revolutions of 1989. Routledge.

Tismaneanu, Vladimir. (1993). Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel. Free Press.

Special Issue "Revisiting 1989: Causes, Course and Consequences." (August 2009). Contemporary European History, vol. 18, no. 3.

Making the History of 1989, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University

1989 – Europe's Revolution, BBC Special Reports http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/europe/2009/1989_europes_revolution/default.stm