Revolutions of 1989

From New World Encyclopedia

"Fall of Communism" redirects here. For the fall of the Soviet Union itself, see History of the Soviet Union (1985–1991).
Pre-1989 division between the "West" (grey) and "Eastern Bloc" (orange) superimposed on current borders: Russia (dark orange), other countries formerly part of the USSR (medium orange), members of the Warsaw pact (light orange), and other former Communist regimes not aligned with Moscow (lightest orange).

The Revolutions of 1989 refers to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the end of the period of the Cold War and the removal of the Iron Curtain between Eastern and Western Europe. Primarily, it was the disavowal of Communism by all of the Eastern European states that were in the Soviet sphere of influence after World War II.

The seeds of the revolution were present from the very beginning, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia were pre-cursors to the Revolutions of 1989, which were the final cataclysm that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union itself just two years later.

The revolution began in Poland with the creation of Solidarity, the worker's movement that challenged the Communist government (the supposed representatives of the "workers' paradise) for authority. This was the first movement in the Eastern bloc that had not been brutally suppressed. This de-legitimized the Communist claim as representatives of the people's will. It continued when the Hungarian authorities decided to no longer interdict those seeking to leave the state by crossing the boundary between Hungary and Austria. This led to a flood of refugees from Eastern Europe streaming into Hungary to escape to the West. The defining event was then the collapse of the Berlin Wall in East Germany. With the exception of Romania, the revolutions were largely peaceful as the governments put up only token resistant to the clear will of the people for the end of Communist rule and democratic reform.

The advent of "new thinking"

Although several Eastern bloc countries had attempted some abortive, limited economic and political reform since the 1950s (Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Prague Spring of 1968), the advent of reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled the trend toward greater liberalization. During the mid 1980s, a younger generation of Soviet apparatchiks, led by Gorbachev, began advocating fundamental reform in order to reverse years of Brezhnev stagnation. The Soviet Union was facing a period of severe economic decline and needed Western technology and credits to make up for its increasing backwardness. The costs of maintaining its so-called "empire"—the military, KGB, subsidies to foreign client states—further strained the moribund Soviet economy.

The first signs of major reform came in 1986 when Gorbachev launched a policy of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union, and emphasized the need for perestroika (economic restructuring). By the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union had not only experienced lively media debate, but had also held its first multi-candidate elections in the newly established Congress of People's Deputies. Though glasnost advocated openness and political criticism, at the time, it was only permitted in accordance with the political views of the Communists. The general public in the Eastern bloc were still threatened by secret police and political repression.

From East to West

Moscow's largest obstacle to improved political and economic relations with the Western powers remained the Iron Curtain that existed between East and West. As long as the specter of Soviet military intervention loomed over Eastern Europe, it seemed unlikely that Moscow could attract the Western economic support needed to finance the country's restructuring. Gorbachev urged his Eastern European counterparts to imitate perestroika and glasnost in their own countries. However, while reformists in Hungary and Poland were emboldened by the force of liberalization spreading from East to West, other Eastern bloc countries remained openly skeptical and demonstrated aversion to reform. Past experiences had demonstrated that although reform in the Soviet Union was manageable, the pressure for change in Eastern Europe had the potential to become uncontrollable. These regimes owed their creation and continued survival to Soviet-style totalitarianism, backed by Soviet military power and subsidies. Believing Gorbachev's reform initiatives would be short-lived, orthodox Communist rulers like East Germany's Erich Honecker, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, Czechoslovakia's Gustáv Husák, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceau_escu obstinately ignored the calls for change.[1] "When your neighbor puts up new wallpaper, it doesn't mean you have to too," declared one East German politburo member.[2]

Gorbachev's visit to the People's Republic of China on May 15 during the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, brought many foreign news agencies to Beijing, and their sympathetic portrayals of the protesters helped galvanize a spirit of liberation among the Eastern Europeans who were watching. The Chinese leadership, particularly Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, having begun earlier than the Soviets to radically reform the economy, was open to political reform, but not at the cost of a potential return to the disorder of the Cultural Revolution.

Reform in Poland and Hungary

By 1989, the Soviet Union had repealed the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies, termed the Sinatra Doctrine in a joking reference to the song "My Way." Poland, followed by Hungary, became the first Warsaw Pact state country to break free of Soviet domination.

Labor turmoil in Poland during 1980 had led to the formation of the independent trade union, Solidarity, led by Lech Wałęsa, which over time became a political force. On December 13, 1981, Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski instituted a crack-down on Solidarity, declaring martial law in Poland, suspending the union, and temporarily imprisoning most of its leaders. Throughout the mid-1980s, Solidarity persisted solely as an underground organization, supported by the Catholic Church. However, by the late 1980s, Solidarity became sufficiently strong enough to frustrate Jaruzelski's attempts at reform, and nationwide strikes in 1988 forced the government to open a dialogue with Solidarity. On March 9, 1989, both sides agreed to a bicameral legislature called the National Assembly. The already existing Sejm would become the lower house. The Senate would be elected by the people. Traditionally a ceremonial office, the presidency was given more powers.

In April 1989, Solidarity was again legalized and allowed to participate in parliamentary elections on June 4, 1989 (coincidentally, the day following the midnight crackdown on Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square). A political earthquake followed. The victory of Solidarity surpassed all predictions. Solidarity candidates captured all the seats they were allowed to compete for in the Sejm, while in the Senate they captured 99 out of the 100 available seats (with the one remaining seat taken by an independent candidate). At the same time, many prominent Communist candidates failed to gain even the minimum number of votes required to capture the seats that were reserved for them. A new non-Communist government, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe, was sworn into office in September 1989.

Following Poland's lead, Hungary was next to revert to a non-communist government. Although Hungary had achieved some lasting economic reforms and limited political liberalization during the 1980s, major reforms only occurred following the replacement of János Kádár as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1988. That same year, the Parliament adopted a "democracy package," which included trade union pluralism; freedom of association, assembly, and the press; a new electoral law; and a radical revision of the constitution, among others.

In October 1989, the Communist Party convened its last congress and re-established itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party, which still exists today (see MSZP). In a historic session from October 16 to October 20, the parliament adopted legislation providing for multi-party parliamentary elections and a direct presidential election. The legislation transformed Hungary from a People's Republic into the Republic of Hungary, guaranteed human and civil rights, and created an institutional structure that ensured separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Hungarians suggested that Soviet troops "go home"–an idea first suggested by Viktor Orbán at the re-burying funeral of Imre Nagy.

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

See also: Berlin Wall

Walking through Checkpoint Charlie, November 10, 1989

After a reformed border was opened from Hungary, a growing number of East Germans began emigrating to West Germany via Hungary's border with Austria. By the end of September 1989, more than 30,000 East Germans had escaped to the West before the GDR denied travel to Hungary, leaving the CSSR (Czechoslovakia) as the only neighboring state where East Germans could travel. Thousands of East Germans tried to reach the West by occupying the West German diplomatic facilities in other Eastern European capitals, notably the Prague Embassy where thousands camped in the muddy garden from August to November. The border to the CSSR was closed by the GDR in early October, too, by which time the GDR had isolated itself from all neighbors. Robbed the last chance for escape, remaining East Germans generated demands within East Germany for political change, and mass demonstrations with eventually hundreds of thousands of people in several cities—particularly in Leipzig—continued to grow in October.

On 6 October and 7 October, Gorbachev visited East Germany to mark the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, and urged the East German leadership to accept reform. A famous quote of him is rendered in German as Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben "(He who is too late is punished by life)." However, the elderly Erich Honecker remained opposed to any internal reform, with his regime even going as far as forbidding the circulation of Soviet publications that it viewed as subversive.

Faced with ongoing civil unrest, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) deposed Honecker in mid-October, and replaced him with Egon Krenz. Also, the border to Czechoslovakia was opened again, but the Czechoslovak authorities soon let all East Germans travel directly to West Germany without further bureaucratic ado, thus lifting their part of the Iron Curtain on November 3. Unable to stem the ensuing flow of refugees to the West through Czechoslovakia, the East German authorities eventually caved in to public pressure by allowing East German citizens to enter West Berlin and West Germany directly, via existing border points, on November 9, without having properly briefed the border guards. Triggered by the erratic words of Günter Schabowski in a TV press conference, stating that the planned changes were "in effect immediately," hundreds of thousands of people took advantage of the opportunity; soon new crossing points were opened in the Berlin Wall and along the border with West Germany. By December, Krenz had been replaced, and the SED's monopoly on power had ended. This led to the acceleration of the process of reforms in East Germany that ended with the eventual reunification of East and West Germany that came into force on October 3, 1990.

The Kremlin's willingness to abandon such a strategically vital ally marked a dramatic shift by the Soviet superpower and a fundamental paradigm change in international relations, which until 1989 had been dominated by the East-West divide running through Berlin itself.

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

The "Velvet Revolution" was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government. On November 17, 1989 (Friday), riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from November 19 to late December. By November 20 the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swelled from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated half-million. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was held on November 27.

With the collapse of other Communist governments, and increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28 that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria in early December. On December 10, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-Communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989. Dubček and Havel were two of the most trusted men in Czechoslavakia; the former had been the leader of the period of liberalization known as the Prague Spring which had led to the Soviet invasion in 1968 while the latter, a prominent playwright had been the leader of the Czech civil rights organization, Charter 77.

In December and the following months, the Communist Party lost much of its membership (especially those who joined it only as a vehicle for promoting their business, academic, or political career). The federal parliament introduced key laws for promoting civil rights, civil liberties, and economic freedom. The first free elections were scheduled for June 1990. One of the consequences of the revolution was the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia). After the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I the country had been formed under the leadership of Thomas Masaryk. While initially to exist as two equal entities within the state structure, the Czech part soon came to dominate–a fact that Nazi Germany exploited during World War II. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Czech pre-eminence was reasserted during the era of Soviet domination. After the Velvet Revolution, the country divided into two states on January 1, 1993.

Upheaval in Bulgaria

On November 10, 1989—the day after the Berlin Wall was breached—Bulgaria's long-serving leader Todor Zhivkov was ousted by his Politburo. Moscow apparently approved the leadership change, despite Zhivkov's reputation as a slavish Soviet ally. Yet, Zhivkov's departure was not enough to satisfy the growing pro-democracy movement. By the time the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program in the Soviet Union was felt in Bulgaria in the late 1980s, the Communists, like their leader, had grown too feeble to resist the demand for change for long. In November 1989 demonstrations on ecological issues were staged in Sofia, and these soon broadened into a general campaign for political reform. The Communists reacted by deposing the decrepit Zhivkov and replacing him with Petar Mladenov, but this gained them only a short respite. In February 1990 the Party voluntarily gave up its claim on power and in June 1990 the first free elections since 1931 were held, won by the moderate wing of the Communist Party, renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party. Although Zhivkov eventually faced trial in 1991, he escaped the violent fate of his northern comrade, Romanian President Nicolae Ceauşescu.

The Romanian Revolution

Unlike other Eastern European countries, Romania had never undergone even limited de-Stalinization. In November 1989, Ceauşescu, then aged 71, was re-elected for another five years as leader of the Romanian Communist Party, signaling that he intended to ride out the anti-Communist uprisings sweeping the rest of Eastern Europe. As Ceauşescu prepared to go on a state visit to Iran, his Securitate ordered the arrest and exile of a local Hungarian-speaking Calvinist minister, László Tőkés, on December 16, for sermons offending the regime. Tőkés was seized, but only after serious rioting erupted. Timişoara was the first city to react, on December 16, and it remained rioting for five days.

Returning from Iran, Ceauşescu ordered a mass rally in his support outside Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest. However, to his shock, the crowd booed as he spoke. After learning about the incidents (both from Timişoara and from Bucharest) from Western radio stations, years of repressed dissatisfaction boiled to the surface throughout the Romanian populace and even among elements in Ceauşescu's own government, and the demonstrations spread throughout the country. At first the security forces obeyed Ceauşescu's orders to shoot protesters, but on the morning of December 22, the Romanian military suddenly changed sides. Army tanks began moving towards the Central Committee building with crowds swarming alongside them. The rioters forced open the doors of the Central Committee building in an attempt to get Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, in their grip, but they managed to escape via a helicopter waiting for them on the roof of the building.

Although elation followed the flight of the Ceauşescus, uncertainty surrounded their fate. On Christmas Day, Romanian television showed the Ceauşescus facing a hasty trial, and then suffering summary execution. An interim National Salvation Front Council took over and announced elections for April 1990. The first elections were actually held on May 20, 1990.

Aftermath of the upheavals

sometimes called the "Autumn of Nations",[3] was a revolutionary wave that swept across Central and Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989, ending in the overthrow of Soviet-style communist states within the space of a few months.[4]

The political upheaval began in Poland,[5] continued in Hungary, and then led to a surge of mostly peaceful revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. Romania was the only Eastern-bloc country to overthrow its communist regime violently and execute its head of state.[6]

By the end of 1989, revolts had spread from one capital to another, ousting the regimes imposed on Eastern Europe after World War II. Even the isolationist Stalinist regime in Albania was unable to stem the tide. The Revolutions of 1989 greatly altered the balance of power in the world and marked (together with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union) the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Post-Cold War era. Gorbachev's abrogation of the Brezhnev Doctrine was perhaps the key factor that enabled the popular uprisings to succeed. Once it became evident that the feared Red Army would not intervene to crush dissent, the Eastern European regimes were exposed as vulnerable in the face of popular uprisings against the one-party system and power of secret police.

Coit D. Blacker wrote in 1990 that the Soviet leadership "appeared to have believed that whatever loss of authority the Soviet Union might suffer in Eastern Europe would be more than offset by a net increase in its influence in western Europe."[7] Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Gorbachev ever intended for the complete dismantling of Communism and the Warsaw Pact. Rather, Gorbachev assumed that the Communist parties of Eastern Europe could be reformed in a similar way to the reforms he hoped to achieve in the CPSU. Just as perestroika was aimed at making the Soviet Union more efficient economically and politically, Gorbachev believed that the Comecon and Warsaw Pact could be reformed into more effective entities. However, Alexander Yakovlev, a close advisor to Gorbachev, would later state that it would have been "absurd to keep the system" in Eastern Europe. Yakovlev had come to the conclusion that the Soviet-dominated Comecon could not work on non-market principles and that the Warsaw Pact had "no relevance to real life." [2]

End of the Cold War

On December 3, 1989, the leaders of the two world superpowers declared an end to the Cold War at a summit in Malta. In July 1990, the final obstacle to German reunification was removed when West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl convinced Gorbachev to drop Soviet objections to a reunited Germany within NATO in return for substantial German economic aid to the Soviet Union.

On July 1, 1991, the Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved at a meeting in Prague. At a summit later that same month, Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared a US–Soviet strategic partnership, decisively marking the end of the Cold War. President Bush declared that US–Soviet cooperation during the 1990–1991 Gulf War had laid the groundwork for a partnership in resolving bilateral and world problems.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

As the Soviet Union rapidly withdrew its forces from Eastern Europe, the spillover from the 1989 upheavals began reverberating throughout the Soviet Union itself. Agitation for self-determination led to first Lithuania, and then Estonia, Latvia and Armenia declaring independence. Disaffection in other Soviet republics, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, was countered by promises of greater decentralization. More open elections led to the election of candidates opposed to Communist Party rule.

Glasnost had inadvertently released the long-suppressed national sentiments of all peoples within the borders of the multinational Soviet state. These nationalist movements were further strengthened by the rapid deterioration of the Soviet economy, whereby Moscow's rule became a convenient scapegoat for economic troubles. Gorbachev's reforms had failed to improve the economy, with the old Soviet command structure completely breaking down. One by one, the constituent republics created their own economic systems and voted to subordinate Soviet laws to local laws.

In an attempt to halt the rapid changes to the system, a group of Soviet hard-liners represented by Vice-President Gennadi Yanayev launched a coup overthrowing Gorbachev in August 1991. Russian President Boris Yeltsin rallied the people and much of the army against the coup and the effort collapsed. Although restored to power, Gorbachev's authority had been irreparably undermined. In September, the Baltic states were granted independence. On December 1, Ukrainian voters approved independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially disbanded, breaking up into fifteen constituent parts, thereby ending the world's largest and most influential Communist state, and leaving China to that position.

See also

  • Commonwealth of Independent States


  • This article incorporates text translated from the corresponding Polish Wikipedia article as of 1 April 2006.
  1. Romania - Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Jonathan Steele, Eternal Russia: Yeltsin, Gorbachev and the Mirage of Democracy. Boston: Faber, 1994.
  3. See various uses of this term in the following publications. The term is a play on a more widely used term for 1848 revolutions, the Spring of Nations. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  4. E. Szafarz, "The Legal Framework for Political Cooperation in Europe" in The Changing Political Structure of Europe: Aspects of International Law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 0792313798. p.221. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  5. Sorin Antohi and Vladimir Tismăneanu, "Independence Reborn and the Demons of the Velvet Revolution" in Between Past and Future: The Revolutions of 1989 and Their Aftermath, Central European University Press. ISBN 9639116718. p.85. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  6. Piotr Sztompka, preface to Society in Action: the Theory of Social Becoming, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226788156. p. x. Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  7. Coit D. Blacker, "The Collapse of Soviet Power in Europe." Foreign Affairs. 1990.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Antohi, Sorin and Vladimir Tismăneanu, "Independence Reborn and the Demons of the Velvet Revolution" in Between Past and Future: The Revolutions of 1989 and Their Aftermath, Central European University Press. ISBN 9639116718
  • Lévesque, Jacques (1997). The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520206311.  Retrieved February 19, 2009.
  • Schultke, Dietmar. Keiner kommt durch - Die Geschichte der innerdeutschen Grenze und der Berliner Mauer. Aufbau-Verlag Berlin 2008. ISBN 9783746681573
  • Szafarz, E. "The Legal Framework for Political Cooperation in Europe" in The Changing Political Structure of Europe: Aspects of International Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 0792313798
  • Sztompka, Piotr. preface to Society in Action: the Theory of Social Becoming, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226788156

External links

All links retrieved December 8, 2022.


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