By the late 1980s, the continent of Europe had been divided in two for four decades. Since the end of World War Two it had been the epicentre of the ideological divide that defined the subsequent period that became known as the Cold War. The infamous "Iron Curtain", with its barbed wire, watchtowers and machine gun posts, snaked its way north to south from the Baltic to the Adriatic. To the west lay the capitalist states of the NATO alliance, led by the United States of America. To the east lay the Eastern Bloc, a repressed group of communist puppet states dominated by the Soviet Union. The two sides stood facing each other in a tense perpetual standoff which at any moment could have exploded into all-out war and a potential nuclear apocalypse. The people of the Eastern Bloc nations, meanwhile, lived their lives in a state of constant fear and near-poverty, utterly subservient to their leaders who were in turn utterly subservient to their Soviet overlords.
But then something changed. Over the course of a few short months in 1989, the long-standing communist regimes of Eastern Europe suddenly collapsed under a wave of popular protest and revolution. It had been coming for a long while but at the time it seemed almost to have come from nowhere, a bolt from the blue that turned the established international order on its head overnight and brought something like an end to the Cold War. Within five years of the revolutions of 1989, the Cold War was indeed over and the nations of Europe were facing a set of whole new political challenges.
The overthrow of the communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania in 1989 were largely peaceful affairs, relying extensively on campaigns of civil resistance which effectively demonstrated the people's opposition to single-party rule and their desire for change. Of all the countries involved, Romania was the only one to overthrow its government violently. To understand why all this happened in the first place, though, we must go back to the very beginning of the Cold War and chart the sequence of events and factors that led to the ultimate collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
The Eastern Bloc had its origins in the Second World War, specifically in the complicated political and military situation that it left behind on a shattered European continent. In the final months of the war the Soviet Red Army had swept into the countries of Eastern and Central Europe, liberating their people from Nazi rule. In the years following the war the borders of the east were extensively redrawn, with Poland gaining territory from a defeated Germany and millions of Germans being expelled from that territory in order to ensure that the changes stuck. As far as the victorious Allied powers (the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union) were concerned, it was all very "so far, so good".
It did not take long for things to start going wrong, however. Without the common enemy of Nazism to keep them united, the post-war relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union disintegrated into mutual distrust and suspicion. During the late 1940s the Cold War in Europe slowly took shape as the continent was wrenched apart into two armed camps. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, refused to pull his armies out of Eastern Europe as he now viewed that area as being part of the Soviet sphere of influence. His troops quickly stifled the newly-established democratic regimes in the areas where they had appeared and installed compliant communist regimes in their place. By 1950 communism reigned supreme in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia and the eastern part of Germany that Soviet forces had been allowed to occupy after the war. The Soviet part of Germany was established as a separate state, the ironically-titled German Democratic Republic (known informally as East Germany), in 1949. Barring that of Yugoslavia, which retained autonomy from the Soviet yoke, these governments were totally subservient to Moscow and were protected from their understandably cheesed-off populations by the Red Army.
|Soviet tanks in the Czechoslovak capital, Prague (1968)|
For four decades this arrangement persisted, with the Eastern Bloc serving the Soviets as a convenient anti-capitalist buffer between themselves and the west. In 1955 the communist states joined with the Soviet Union in forming a mutual defensive alliance known as the Warsaw Pact, which was intended as a counterweight to the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The various puppet governments benefited immensely over subsequent years as opposition to their rule was crushed by Soviet military intervention. That was exactly what happened to the popular uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and in Hungary in 1956. It happened again in Czechoslovakia in the "Prague Spring" of 1968, when Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in to put a stop to the liberalising policies of the moderate communist leader, Alexander Dubček.
Events took an even more confrontational turn in August 1961, the month that the Berlin Wall went up. Like Germany itself, the former capital had been divided between the Americans, Soviets, British and French after the war, splitting the city into four heavily militarised sectors. With the political ideologies and military forces of east and west in such close proximity within the city, the status of Berlin had become something a major headache in the complex world of Cold War diplomacy. The breakdown of relations between Moscow and the west split Berlin in two, with the Soviet sector becoming East Berlin (serving as the East German Capital) and the other three sectors becoming West Berlin, an isolated and vulnerable political exclave surrounded on all sides by the hostile German Democratic Republic.
The existence of West Berlin had been a source of irritation for the Soviets ever since the early days of the Cold War. Stalin had tried to starve the western powers out of the city in the 1948-49 Berlin Blockade but he had not counted on the resolve of the Americans, who had recognised the immense propaganda value of having this bastion of freedom deep inside communist-controlled territory. The success of the American-led Berlin Airlift doomed the blockade to failure and the humiliated Soviets relented, allowing relative freedom of movement in and out of West Berlin (the Inner German Border between East Germany and West Germany was closed in the early 1950s). Soviet and East German attitudes hardened during the 1950's, however, as it became clear that increasing numbers of people were escaping to the west via West Berlin. Approximately 3.5million people fled through this immigration loophole before 1961. Often these defectors were young and well-educated types from the technical, engineering, teaching, legal and medical professions, and their loss threatened the economic future of East Germany. It was the need to put a stop to this debilitating "brain drain" that was the crucial factor behind the building of the Berlin Wall. The East German authorities claimed that the wall's purpose was to keep out fascist western subversives but everyone on both sides knew that it was really built to keep their own people in.
For the next 28 years the Berlin Wall served its purpose effectively and brutally, closing what had been the final gap in the Iron Curtain between east and west. People still tried to escape via various ingenious and desperate methods. Around five thousand people managed to beat the wall during its existence but between 100 and 200 died in the attempt, most falling victim to the merciless border troops, guard dogs, barbed wire and land-mines. The wall became one of the iconic symbols of the Cold War and one which western media and politicians frequently used as a metaphorical stick to beat communism with. The leaders in the east were unmoved, and the tense situation persisted throughout the 1970s despite a general period of pleasant détente which eased the troubled relations between the Americans and the Soviets and resulted in a number of agreements to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals, which by now were easily large enough to wipe out human civilisation several times over.
The Winds of Change: Solidarity and Soviet Reforms
As the 1980s dawned, the Cold War entered its final and arguably most dangerous phase. The Soviet military entered Afghanistan in 1979 to defend the communist government against a rising tide of Islamist opposition. This development greatly unsettled the Americans, who elected the hardline anti-communist Ronald Reagan as their President in November 1980. In Moscow meanwhile, the long-serving Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982 and was replaced in quick succession first by Yuri Andropov and then by Konstantin Chernenko, both of whom were elderly, sickly, paranoid and deeply suspicious of the west. The world came close to nuclear war on several occasions during the 1980s (although most did not become public knowledge until years later) as Reagan's tough talk and foreign policy muscle-flexing pushed the jittery Soviets dangerously close to pressing the button. The period of détente was now well and truly over and the Cold War was getting hot again, too hot for many people's liking.
The revival of the Soviet-American arms race as a result of the increasing international tension presented major problems for the Soviet Union, which was already suffering from economic stagnation and now had to spend even more of its dwindling funds on defence just to keep up with the Americans and maintain the military balance of power (neither side desired to be on the wrong side of a so-called "missile gap"). The countries of the Eastern Bloc were also suffering and their populations were growing increasingly restless as their quality of life disappeared down the toilet. The first signs of trouble appeared in Poland in 1980, where labour disputes in the Lenin Shipyards at Gdańsk led to the foundation of an independent trade union movement known as Solidarity. The communist government under Wojciech Jaruzelski was initially tolerant of Solidarity but it wasn't to last as the union quickly developed under the leadership of Lech Wałęsa into a broad anti-Soviet movement that advocated non-violent opposition. A government crackdown was inevitable and it came in December 1981, when Jaruzelski attempted to destroy Solidarity by imposing martial law, suspending the organisation and temporarily imprisoning Wałęsa and its other leaders.
|Solidarity protest at the shipyards in Gdańsk, Poland (1980)|
Solidarity was not destroyed in 1981 but it was driven underground, continuing its activities as a secret organisation supported by the equally-suppressed Catholic Church (the fact that it was led at the time by the Polish-born Pope John Paul II was not a mere coincidence). For the time being, the people of the Eastern Bloc would have to look elsewhere for hope and inspiration. Deng Xiaoping's China, a communist nation which had never liked the idea of playing second-fiddle to the Soviet Union first began to implement economic reforms during this period, introducing a more free-market-based "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" which has allowed China to become the economic superpower that it is today. The Chinese leadership were not willing to relinquish political hegemony, however, and the one-party state remained intact.
By the mid-1980s it was clear that something had to change in Eastern Europe and indeed in Moscow, where the old communist grandees left over from the Brezhnev/Andropov/Chernenko eras at last realised that the current course of action was economically unsustainable. They conceded that reforms had to be made and that the best way to do that would be to hand over the reins to a younger generation of politicians. The man they chose was an obscure but promising junior politburo member, 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded the late Chernenko as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11th 1985. Gorbachev's rise to power marked the beginning of political and economic liberalisation in the Soviet Union, liberalisation that would ultimately bring about the end of the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War was still a fair way off in March 1985, however, and Gorbachev was faced with the monumental and unenviable task of hauling the moribund Soviet economy out of the doldrums. The country was technologically and financially backward despite its massive military strength. Indeed that massive military strength was part of the problem as the Red Army, the nuclear weapons programme and other overgorged state institutions such as the KGB continued to suck up precious resources while ordinary people queued in the streets for bread. The occupation of Afghanistan had degenerated into an unwinnable and debilitating guerrilla campaign against American-backed Mujahideen Islamists, prompting commentators to refer to Afghanistan as "Moscow's Vietnam". There was also the issue of the Eastern Bloc states, whose governments were totally reliant on Soviet subsidies and military backing for their continued survival. Gorbachev realised that fundamental reforms were needed and must be implemented soon, even if that meant the country having to swallow its pride by going cap-in-hand to the Americans for the money and goods that it desperately needed.
The most well-known aspect of Gorbachev's domestic reforms were his two major policy initiatives: Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring), which he pursued from 1986 onwards. The aim of Glasnost was to promote maximum transparency in all Soviet government activity, thereby making the government more accountable, reducing corruption and revealing formerly classified information both to the Soviet public and to the west. The relaxation of the strict censorship laws allowed for greater (but not yet totally unrestricted) freedom of speech and political debate, meaning that more and more people were now able to speak out against what they saw as a failed Marxist-Leninist system. The Communist Party also began to lose its grip on the Soviet media under Glasnost, giving a further platform to political opposition.
Perestroika was an equally significant policy, and one which is often cited at the direct cause of the collapse of Soviet communism. Although Gorbachev wanted to maintain the one-party system and state control of the economy, he nevertheless planned significant political and economic restructuring in order to make the existing system work more effectively and better meet the demands of the people. Although he often found himself caught between hardline anti-reform old-guard communists and radical reformers who did not believe that his changes went far enough, Gorbachev managed to implement a number of major Perestroika reforms during the late 1980s. In March 1989 the first multi-candidate (but not multi-party) elections were held in the hope that some progressive new blood might be elected to a newly-formed legislative body, the Congress of People's Deputies. On the economic front, Gorbachev's reforms did little to stop the slide but did manage to decentralise the Soviet command economy enough to allow foreign companies to invest in the country. Among the first such companies to tap into this new market was the American fast food chain McDonalds, which opened its first Soviet restaurant in Moscow in January 1990.
The goal that Gorbachev wanted to achieve most of all, however, was improved political, economic and diplomatic relations with the west. The first step towards achieving this aim was to end the conflict in Afghanistan. Gorbachev began pulling his troops out of the country in May 1988, completing the withdrawal by February 1989. The international situation still remained largely the same, however, and it would continue to remain so as long as the Iron Curtain existed. Those in the west who observed the changes in Moscow concluded that the division of Europe could not persist for much longer and the calls to open up the borders grew ever louder. On a visit to West Berlin in 1987, President Reagan famously called upon his Soviet counterpart to "tear down this wall!". There was also the issue of Moscow's Warsaw Pact allies in Eastern Europe. So long as the Soviet military continued to support their illegitimate communist governments, the chances of Gorbachev getting the American money he needed to finance his reforms properly were remote.
|"Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Ronald Reagan in Berlin (1987)|
In order to deal with this problem, Gorbachev began pressuring the Eastern Bloc leaders to implement Glasnost and Perestroika in their own countries, where the people were still threatened by secret police and political repression. This was not as easy as it sounds as most of these leaders were highly orthodox communists who had been in power for a very long time and, despite their past willingness to toe Moscow's line, had little respect for interfering upstarts like Gorbachev. Only the reform-minded regimes of Poland and Hungary took any notice. The other leaders, believing that the Soviet reforms were nothing more than a short-lived fad, ignored the calls for change, with one East German politburo member remarking that, "When your neighbour puts up new wallpaper, it doesn't mean you have to as well". This was a defiant gesture from the Eastern Bloc regimes but defying Gorbachev effectively sealed their fate, as the Soviet leader's later actions would prove.
The Seeds of Revolution
By 1989 the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc was barely holding together, with most Warsaw Pact leaders still determined to resist making any kind of Gorbachev-style reforms. One leader which was interested in pursuing some changes, however, was Poland's Wojciech Jaruzelski but his efforts to do so were being increasingly frustrated by the covert antics of Solidarity, which had regained its strength during the course of the 1980s. Nationwide strikes in 1988 demanding the re-legalisation of Solidarity forced the regime to begin negotiations with the organisation, negotiations that Jaruzelski only managed to secure backing for after threatening the resignation of the entire Communist Party leadership. The historic talks began at Warsaw's Hall of Columns in February 1989. On April 4th the Round Table Agreement was signed, legalising Solidarity and agreeing to partially free elections to be held two months later. A new bicameral legislature called the National Assembly was agreed upon, with the existing Sejm becoming the lower chamber and a newly-established Senate, elected by the people, becoming the new upper chamber.
An unrelated but nevertheless significant event in 1989 that deserves a mention here is the protest that rocked the Chinese capital, Beijing in the Spring of that year. This uprising against China's communist regime was unsuccessful but it added to the mood of popular opposition elsewhere and was something of an inspiration for what would happen in Eastern Europe later that year. The opposition movement had originated in 1986 when students protested against the slow pace of reform, demanding campus elections, the right to study abroad and the greater availability of western popular culture. Deng Xiaoping's government blamed the disturbances on the pro-reform Communist Party General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, who was forced to resign in January 1987. It was Hu's death on April 15th 1989 that triggered the large-scale protest in Beijing.
By the eve of Hu's funeral, more than a million protesters had gathered in Tiananmen Square. They stayed there for seven weeks until June 4th, when the tanks of the People's Liberation Army rolled in and cleared them out. It is not known how many people died as a result of the crackdown. Despite its failure, the protest attracted media attention from all over the world, especially when Gorbachev paid a visit to China on May 15th at its height. The media's sympathetic portrayal and iconic images of the protesters, such as those of the lone student blocking a whole column of PLA tanks, was instrumental in galvanising the people of Eastern Europe into organised non-violent resistance against their repressive governments.
|The unknown tank man of Tiananmen Square (1989)|
On July 7th 1989 Gorbachev provided the last peace of the puzzle that made the Eastern Bloc revolutions possible. On that day he explicitly renounced the use of Soviet military forces against other Warsaw Pact nations, stating that, "Any interference in domestic affairs and any attempts to restrict the sovereignty of states - friends, allies or any others - are inadmissible". The communist regimes of Eastern Europe were now on their own and could no longer rely on Moscow to protect them from their own people. The scene was now set for the fall of the Iron Curtain, but the show had already started in Poland, where the first (mostly) free elections for decades had produced a startling result...
On June 4th 1989, the same day that the Chinese army came down hard on the Tiananmen Square protesters, Poles went to the polls (see what I did there?) in the parliamentary elections called for by the Round Table Agreement signed two months earlier. Not all the seats were contested fairly (65% of the seats in the Sejm could only be contested by the communists and their coalition partners) but the elections were free enough to satisfy Solidarity, who ran as the main opposition to Wojciech Jaruzelski's communists. The election results left everybody stunned, most of all Solidarity, who won by a landslide. Solidarity candidates captured every seat that they were allowed to stand for in the Sejm while in the Senate they took 99 of the 100 seats (the remaining seat was won by an independent candidate). The whole thing was a major embarrassment and a damning verdict for the communists. Many of their prominent candidates had not even gained the minimum number of votes required to take the seats that had been reserved for them.
|Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa with Pope John Paul II|
The communists clung on to power until August, when two of their longtime coalition partners: the Democratic Party and the United People's Party, defected to Solidarity. On August 15th the communist Prime Minister, General Czeslaw Kiszczak announced that he would resign and make way for a non-communist administration, securing Solidarity's path to government. Four days later, a leading Solidarity member and devout Catholic, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was nominated as Prime Minister, ending more than 40 years of one-party rule. The Soviet Union sat back and did nothing, ignoring desperate pleas from the Romanian leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu for Warsaw Pact forces to intervene and "save socialism". On September 13th Mazowiecki's new government received parliamentary approval, making it the first official non-communist government in the Eastern Bloc. Jaruzelski retained the largely ceremonial office of President until December 1990, when he was succeeded by Solidarity's chairman, Lech Wałęsa.
Following Poland's lead, Hungary, Eastern Bloc another country with a more moderate communist regime, was the next domino to fall. Indeed, some reform and liberalisation had already occurred in the country before 1989 but major change had been resisted by its long-serving leader János Kádár, who had been in power since 1956. Kádár's forced retirement in May 1988 allowed the reform movement to gather further momentum under the new communist leader, Károly Grósz. In January 1989 the Hungarian parliament introduced a "democracy package" which legalised trade unions, pledged to revise the constitution, introduced new electoral laws and allowed greater freedom of association, assembly and the press. Another major breakthrough came that same month when politburo member Imre Poszgay publicly declared that the 1956 Hungarian uprising had been a popular rebellion rather than one instigated by foreign powers, contradicting what had been the government's "official" explanation for more than 30 years.
On May 2nd 1989, the first visible cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared as Hungarian troops began dismantling the 150-mile stretch of fences and obstacles that ran along the border with neighbouring Austria. This created a relatively open border with the west that destabilised East Germany and Czechoslovakia (see below) and helped to accelerate the end of communism in those countries. Meanwhile, the run of honest admissions by the regime continued with the revelation that former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, who had been hanged for treason after taking part in the 1956 uprising, had been given a show-trial and was illegally executed. On June 16th Nagy's remains were honoured with a public funeral and hero's burial in the capital, Budapest. Over 100,000 people attended.
By October it was clear to the Hungarian communists that the end of their dominance was nigh and that the best thing to do would be to step aside and keep what remained of their dignity intact. On October 7th, at its last congress, the Communist Party dissolved and then re-established itself as the more acceptable Hungarian Socialist Party. By the end of the month the Hungarian parliament had adopted new legislation providing for multi-party parliamentary elections and a directly-elected office of President. The county's constitution was revised and the People's Republic of Hungary became simply the Republic of Hungary. With their civil and human rights now guaranteed under the laws, the newly liberated Hungarians began calling for the Soviet troops still stationed in their country to "go home".
The fall of the German Democratic Republic, an event known to Germans as "Die Wende" ("The Change" or "The Turn") was critical to the success of the 1989 revolutions and it was arguably the most significant as it symbolised the opening of the Iron Curtain and and end to the division of Europe. The man who stood in the way of that in 1989 was Erich Honecker, an elderly and reactionary old-school communist who had led East Germany since 1971. Under Honecker's rule and that of his predecessors, East Germany had been the staunchest of the Soviet Union's allies but the relationship was soured by the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in Moscow. Honecker had been strongly opposed to Gorbachev's policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, refusing to implement anything more significant than token reforms in his own country. In January 1989 he had defiantly declared that the Berlin Wall would remain standing for the next 50 to 100 years.
The beginning of the end came for Erich Honecker and his regime thanks to events that took place outside East Germany. The aforementioned opening of Hungary's border with Austria in May 1989 provided East Germans with an opportunity too good to miss. Hungary suddenly became the top Summer holiday destination as scores of East Germans applied for travel permits to visit the country. They did not come back. Instead they escaped via Hungary's open border into Austria and from there went on to West Germany and freedom. More than 30,000 East Germans had exploited this escape route to the west by September, at which point the authorities realised what was going on and plugged the leak by denying any further travel to Hungary.
|East Germans climb the wall of the West German embassy in Prague|
The only other country that East Germans now had access to was neighbouring Czechoslovakia. That country had full diplomatic links with West Germany and therefore still presented something of an opportunity for those desperate to escape. Between August and November, thousands of refugees from East Germany made their way to Prague and camped out in the grounds of West Germany's embassy there, demanding access to the west and creating all kinds of supply and hygiene headaches for both the Czecoslovak communists and the West German diplomats. On September 30th an agreement was reached between East Germany, West Germany and the Soviet Union to allow those in the Prague embassy safe passage to the west, prompting yet more East Germans to try and make their way there. In early October, the East German authorities closed the border with Czechoslovakia.
The efforts of the East German communists to seal off any escape routes left the frustrated people with no other option but to join the emerging protest movement. A series of so-called "Monday Demonstrations" were held in cities around the country from September 4th onwards, attracting hundreds of thousands of people. Following a particularly vocal demonstration in Leipzig on October 2nd, Erich Honecker issued shoot to kill orders and vastly increased the presence of military, police and Stasi (secret police) at any potential trouble spots. Rumours soon began to spread that the regime was planning a Tiananmen Square-style bloody crackdown on the opposition.
On October 6th Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in East Berlin for a two-day visit marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic. Despite the fact that the regime had previously been less than receptive of his advice, Gorbachev again urged them to accept reforms for the sake of preserving their own position and East Germany's independence. One of his most famous quotes from the visit, rendered into German, was "Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben" ("He that is too late is punished by life."). Honecker was unmoved by this plea and became more opposed to Gorbachev than ever. He even went so far as to ban the circulation of Soviet publications in East Germany on the grounds that they were subversive.
|Erich Honecker (left) welcomes Mikhail Gorbachev to East Berlin|
On October 18th the politburo finally lost patience with Honecker and forced him to step down. His more moderate replacement, Egon Krenz, was faced with a major crisis as the voices of opposition grew ever louder. By November 4th the movement, known to Germans as the Peaceful Revolution, reached its zenith with a massive anti-communist rally, involving half a million people, at Alexanderplatz, East Berlin's main public square and transport hub. The Alexanderplatz demonstration was the first in the history of East Germany to have been organised by private individuals (specifically by the actors and employees of East Berlin's theatres) and permitted to take place by the authorities, signifying that the post-Honecker communist regime was at last prepared to make major changes.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
At the beginning of November 1989 East German government reopened the border with Czechoslovakia but the Czechoslovak regime then opened its border with West Germany, removing their part of the Iron Curtain and opening the door to the west once again. As yet more East Germans took up the chance to escape via Czechoslovakia, Egon Krenz and the politburo conceded that trying to stop people from leaving was now a lost cause and that the best thing to do would be to ease complications by opening the Inner German Border and allowing direct access to West Germany. On November 9th it was agreed that people would be permitted to cross directly into both West Germany and West Berlin (albeit with identity checks) via the existing border crossings in the Berlin Wall and the Inner German Border. The regulations were to take effect on the following day, thereby allowing time to inform the border guards.
Unfortunately for the politburo, none of them bothered to clarify that last point to Günter Schabowski, the Communist Party boss in East Berlin and unofficial spokesman for the regime. Schabowski had the job of announcing the changes but he had not been involved in the politburo's discussions and was not fully updated. Shortly before his daily press conference on November 9th he was handed a note which briefly outlining the relaxation of border controls but did not say that it was scheduled for the next day. With no advice on how to handle the information that he had been given, Schabowski read the note aloud to the assembled media during the press conference, confirming that the changes applied to both the Berlin Wall and the Inner German Border. One of the American newsmen, reported to have been Tom Brokaw of NBC, then asked when the changes were to take effect. After a moment of hesitation, a less-than-certain Schabowski replied, "As far as I know, effective immediately, without delay".
From that point, events moved quickly. Schabowski's erratic announcement was the leading story on West Germany's main television news programmes that evening, with ARD anchorman proudly proclaiming, "This is a historic day. East Germany has announced that, starting immediately, its borders are open to everyone. The GDR is opening its borders... The gates in the Berlin Wall stand open". The western news programmes were picked up by East Germans too, prompting huge numbers of them to begin gathering at the checkpoints between East and West Berlin. The border guards, who had not yet been informed about the politburo's decision to open the gates, were caught completely by surprise. Frantic telephone calls were made to superiors as the surging crowds demanded to be let through. An order came through telling the guards to allow the more aggressive people through but only after stamping their passports with a special stamp that barred them from returning to East Germany, effectively revoking their citizenship. This did little to reduce or deter the crowds, with thousands still demanding to be let through.
|Demolition crews begin dismantling the Berlin Wall|
As the standoff continued, it soon became clear that nobody from the East German regime was willing to take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force against the crowds. At 10:45pm on November 9th 1989, 28 years after the Berlin Wall first went up, the Iron Curtain finally crumbled for good as the guards yielded, allowing everybody to cross into West Berlin with little or no identity checking. As the East Berliners swarmed through the checkpoints, they were met on the other side by joyous westerners with champagne and flowers. A party atmosphere ensued, with young people from both sides climbing and dancing on top of the wall. In the days and weeks that followed, souvenir hunters came along with chisels and sledgehammers to grab their piece of history.
A week after the borders opened, the politburo announced the opening of ten new border crossings in Berlin, including some at historically significant locations such as Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke (known as the "Bridge of Spies" as it was where the Soviets and Americans had exchanged captured agents throughout the Cold War) and Bernauer Straße. Crowds cheered as bulldozers demolished sections of the wall and reinstated former roads that had been previously blocked. New border crossings continued to be opened until the middle of 1990, including one at the Brandenburg Gate which opened on December 22nd 1989. On December 23rd West Germans were granted visa-free travel to the east, bringing an end to a somewhat ironic six-week period where East Germans could move more freely than their western counterparts. It was not until June 1990 that the East German authorities actually began properly demolishing what remained of the Berlin Wall, a process which was completed by November 1991. Only a few short sections and the occasional watchtower were left standing to serve as memorials.
The non-violent overthrow of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was known as the Velvet Revolution. Inspired by events elsewhere, students staged a peaceful demonstration against the government in Prague on November 17th 1989. The protest was quickly suppressed by riot police on the orders of the communist leader Gustáv Husák but the crackdown only served to trigger more civil disobedience and demonstrations. By November 20th the number of protesters in Prague had swelled to over half a million (from around 200,00 the day before), overwhelming the authorities who were already struggling to deal with the influx of refugees from East Germany. The entire country staged a two-hour general strike on November 27th. This proved to be the final straw.
Faced with such monumental opposition, isolation following the collapse of other Eastern Bloc nations and no possibility of support from the Soviet Union, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28th that it would relinquish power and dismantle the one-party state. In early December, the border with West Germany and the capitalist world was opened up as the Czechoslovak section of the Iron Curtain was taken down. Husák resigned as President on December 10th after swearing the first non-communist government since 1948 into office. The popular playwright, poet and political dissident Václav Havel replaced him as President while Alexander Dubček, the former leader and hero of the 1968 Prague Spring, was elected speaker of the federal parliament. In June 1990 the first democratic elections since 1946 were held.
Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov was the longest-serving of all the communist Eastern Bloc leaders, having been in office since 1954. His early years in power had been marked by economic stability and a desire for stronger links with the west (American products such as Coca Cola had been on sale in Bulgaria since the 1960s) despite keeping the country firmly under submission to the Soviet Union. By 1989, however, the situation in Zhivkov's Bulgaria had turned sour. The economy was stagnating and Zhivkov's standing was being undermined by careerism and corruption within the Bulgarian Communist Party. In desperation he tried to implement Perestroika-based reforms but this would not protect his regime from the winds of change, which first began to blow in Bulgaria in October 1989.
That month there were demonstrations in the capital, Sofia regarding ecological issues. These soon developed into a political protest movement that was initially suppressed by riot police. However, on November 10th, the day after the Berlin Wall fell, Zhivkov was suddenly ousted from power by his own politburo, a move that allegedly approved by the Soviet Union despite Zhivkov's reputation as one of their most sycophantic allies. His successor was his former foreign minister Petar Mladenov, a decidedly more liberal communist. Mladenov immediately gave permission for the formation of non-communist political parties and allowed large groups the freedom of assembly. The first large-scale demonstrations allowed by the rule changes took place on November 17th.
|Pro-democracy demonstration in Bulgaria|
The various newly-formed anti-communist movements combined on December 7th to form the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF). The organisation declared that they would not be satisfied with just the removal Zhivkov and pushed for more drastic changes, namely the removal of the constitutionally-guaranteed position that the Communist Party enjoyed as the supreme political authority in Bulgaria. Faced with increasing protest activity, Mladenov formally acquiesced to this demand in a televised address to the nation on December 11th. He also announced that talks with the opposition, based on the Round Table negotiations that had taken place in Poland, would be held in early 1990 and free elections were scheduled for June.
The negotiations between the communists and the UDF were held between January and May 1990, during which an agreement on the transition to democracy was concluded. In February the Communist Party was stripped of its constitutional privileges and the one-party state effectively came to and end. Just as their counterparts in Hungary had done, the communists abandoned Marxism-Leninism and restyled themselves as the more moderate Bulgarian Socialist Party in April 1990, in time for the elections that were held two months later. The socialists controversially triumphed over the UDF in the June elections, which prompted complaints of foul-play but ultimately did nothing to jeopardise the newly-established democracy.
As previously mentioned, Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country that overthrew its communist government violently. This was largely due to the delusional efforts of its communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu to ride out the wave of revolutions and stay in power. Ceauşescu, who had held the top job since 1967, was arguably the most dictatorial and least pro-Soviet of all the Eastern Bloc leaders. An admirer of Joseph Stalin, the his regime was characterised by the brutal repression of opponents, frequent defiance of Moscow and a Stalin-like cult of personality that saw his image appear everywhere from billboards to postage stamps. By the late 1980s he had become diplomatically isolated after falling out with both the Soviet Union and the west. Along with Erich Honecker, it was Ceauşescu, another traditional hardline communist, who spearheaded the Eastern Bloc's opposition to Gorbachev's reforms.
In November 1989, with communism either having fallen or being in the process of falling every else in Eastern Europe, the Romanian Communist Party showed its intention to buck the trend by electing the 71-year-old Ceauşescu to serve as leader for another five years. Convinced now that his regime had pulled through, Ceauşescu planned to go on a state visit to Iran in December, but not before ordering his secret police to arrest of yet another political dissident. The dissident in question was László Tőkés, a Hungarian Calvinist church minister based in Romania, and he was accused of badmouthing the Ceauşescu regime both in his sermons and on television in his native Hungary. Tőkés was arrested on December 16th but his cause had already attracted serious popular support among the disaffected population and the arrest turned out to be the flash-point for civil unrest. On the same day that Tőkés was seized, major rioting erupted in the city of Timişoara.
The uprising in Timişoara lasted for five days, but censorship of the events by the state-controlled national media kept it contained for the time being and Ceauşescu left for Iran as planned on December 18th, leaving his wife Elena and the politburo to deal with the trouble. Local authorities declared martial law and the army was sent in to crush the protesters (Romania did not have riot police because Ceauşescu, who believed that he was universally loved by his people, did not see the need for them) but the disorder persisted. Workers bussed in from other areas to show support for the government ended up rebelling themselves. When Ceauşescu returned from Iran on December 20th, he gave a televised speech from the TV studio inside the Central Committe Building in the capital, Bucharest, in which he played down the trouble in Timişoara and blamed it on foreign attempts to destablise the country.
On the following day, December 21st, the authorities arranged a mass rally in support of Ceauşescu to be held in Bucharest. The stage-managed event was intended to protray Ceauşescu as still being immensely popular but in the event things turned out very differently indeed. The man himself emerged on the balcony of the Central Committe Building and addressed the 100,000-strong crowd, regailing them with with the usual Communist Party wooden rhetoric and denouncing the "fascist agitators" of Timişoara. What happened next became one of the most iconic moments of the 1989 revolutions. Is it turned out, Ceauşescu's supposedly loyal audience knew the truth about what had happened thanks to western radio stations. People began to boo, jeer and shout insults at Ceauşescu, leaving him dumbstruck and unsure how to handle a situation that he had never had the displeasure of being in before. Eventually he had to be bundled back into the building by his henchmen as the situation threatened to turn seriously ugly. The pro-government rally quickly turned into an anti-government demonstration and most of it had been televised. Despite the best efforts of the authorities to censor the live broadcast, the whole of Romania had just seen that something very unusual was afoot in the capital.
|Nicolae Ceauşescu gets a nasty shock|
After Ceauşescu's disatrous misjudging of the public mood abortive attempt at keeping the situation under control, chaos reigned on the streets of Bucharest as years of repressed anger among the population boiled to the surface. Protesters chanted anti-Ceauşescu slogans and waved Romanian flags with the communist coat-of-arms cut out of their centres. The army was ordered to open fire on the crowds, which they did at first. On December 22nd, however, following the suspicious death of Ceauşescu's defence minister, the army suddenly defected and joined the revolution. Soldiers and protesters alike headed for the Central Committee building, where Ceauşescu was once again trying and failing to calm the angry mob from the balcony. As the crowd broke in and stormed the building, Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu fled to the roof and were evacuated by helicopter. With their flight, the dictator and his wife became fugitives, the regime collapsed and the Communist Party melted away. An interim National Salvation Front administration led by Ion Iliescu took over the reins of government, scheduling elections for April 1990.
1104 people had died during the Romanian revolution but the big question on everybody's lips in the immediate aftermath was over what had happened to the Ceauşescus. Following their escape from Bucharest the pair and their remaining supporters travelled around the Romanian countryside by car and helicopter for three hours, wondering what to do next. The couple were eventually arrested in the city of Târgovişte and were held there for three days until Ion Iliescu signed a decree ordering a military tribunal for both. The televised trial was held on Christmas Day and only lasted for two hours before the death sentence was meeted out to both Nicolae and Elena. The couple were immediately led away and executed by firing squad. Footage of the Ceauşescus' trial and their dead bodies was released around the world. It was a controversial and somewhat sour end to the phenomenal events of 1989. Even some of the Ceauşescus' biggest opponents believed that they had been unfairly tried and executed by the new caretaker regime.
On December 2nd 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev attended a summit with the US President, George Bush in Malta. Just weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with the overthrow of the Eastern Bloc regimes still going on, the two leaders officially declared an end to the Cold War. News reports hailed the Malta Summit as the most important meeting between the leaders of east and west since the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945.
The fall of the Berlin Wall greatly accellerated the pace of reform in East Germany. By the end of 1989 Egon Krenz had been replaced as leader and the communists' monopoly of power had been effectively brought to an end. There was soon talk of full German reunifaction, although the idea was initially opposed by certain foreign leaders, such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand, who were fearful of any increase in Germany's power. The Germans got their way in the end and, on October 3rd 1990, West and East Germany were formally reunited amid much fanfare and celebration. Since then Germany has gone on to become the economic powerhouse of Europe without causing any of the problems that the opponents of reunification had expected. Much of that prosperity remains confined to the west of the country, however, and the area of the former East Germany continues to struggle somewhat. Observers have noted that, despite the political reunification, there still remains something of a psychological divide between the peoples of eastern and western Germany.
Following the reunification of Germany, several members of the former East German communist regime were tried on charges of crimes committed while in office. An unrepentant Egon Krenz received a six-year prison sentence in 1997 after being found guilty of manslaughter and the murder of refugees. Günter Schabowski was also convicted but only received a three-year sentence because he had admitted his moral guilt and renounced communism. Erich Honecker managed to evade any prosecution for his actions and eventually resettled with his family in Chile, where he died of liver cancer in May 1994.
The collapse of the Eastern Bloc governments left only two communist countries in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 1990s: Yugoslavia and Albania. Anti-communist demonstrations had been held in Albania in 1989 but the regime there held on to power until 1991, when the introduction of political reforms destroyed the communist monopoly on government just as it had done everywhere else. Yugoslavian communism survived longer than in the other countries due to it being largely independent of Soviet influence but steadily escalating tensions among the various ethnic groups proved to be its final undoing. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991, followed by Macedonia in September 1991 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in March 1992, which left a smaller Yugoslavian rump state consisting of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. By then the region had descended into the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars (1991-1995), which would lead to NATO involvement and several incidents of genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. To this day the surviving perpetrators of these atrocities are still in the process of being brought to justice.
On 1 January 1993 Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved and split into two separate states: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Despite being opposed to the split and resigning as President over the issue, Václav Havel was immediately restored afterwards as President of the Czech Republic, remaining in office until 2003. He died in December 2011.
The last meeting of the Warsaw Pact nations was held in Prague on July 1st 1991, during which the alliance was officially dissolved. Gorbachev and Bush met again later that month and announced a strategic partnership between the Soviet Union and the United States, one which would mark a decisive end to the former Cold War animosity between the two countries. The groundwork for this partnership had been laid by close Soviet-American cooperation during the first Gulf War (1990-1991).
Gorbachev did not have long to enjoy his diplomatic triumph once he returned to Moscow. The revolutions in Eastern Europe had had a knock-on effect on the Soviet Union itself, and the various populations of the multi-national Soviet empire soon began clamouring for self-determination and an end to one-party rule. The failure of Gorbachev's reforms to improve the worsening economic situation only made things worse and the whole Soviet command structure began to break down during the second half of 1991. In August a group of communist hardliners attempted a coup against Gorbachev but were defeated after Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Soviet Republic, rallied the people and the army against them. From September 1991, with Gorbachev's central authority fatally undermined, the various Soviet Republics began declaring independence, breaking up the union into fifteen smaller states: Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. By the end of 1991 Gorbachev was out of power and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, leaving the United States as the world's only major superpower.