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Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989 | The Nation

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Empire Falls: The Revolutions of 1989

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In retrospect, the second round of Eastern European revolutions appears to be the culmination of four crucial events. The first two were the mass strikes of 1970 and 1976 in Poland, which forced the government to make concessions to popular protest and culminated in the formation of Solidarity, the officially recognized independent trade union, in 1980. Eventually Poland's communists could no longer placate the burgeoning workers' movement, and party chief Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski reacted by declaring a "state of war" in December 1981, arresting thousands, Walesa included, and driving Solidarity underground. The third event was the election, in 1978, of Karol Józef Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II. The Kremlin was appalled that a cleric from the Soviet bloc had been elevated to a position of global influence. The pope did not have any armored divisions at his command, but his moral authority at home and abroad translated into what Marxists understood to be a "material force." Soon hundreds of thousands of civilians would be on the street or on strike, inspired by John Paul II's refusal to compromise with Marxism. Money from US intelligence agencies, funneled secretly through Western labor organizations and the church, helped to fuel the movement. The fourth event was the most unpredictable: the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's radical reforms turned, step by step, into a revolution that crippled the party and dissolved state authority. His greatest gift to the USSR's satellite states was to restore their sovereignty and pledge not to interfere in their affairs. To the dismay of hardliners like Erich Honecker in East Germany, the Soviets refused to back up former client states facing popular protests.

About the Author

Ronald Grigor Suny
Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of Social and Political History and the director of the...

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With sharply drawn anecdotes, Victor Sebestyen relates in Revolution 1989 what happened when a reluctant Gorbachev traveled to East Berlin in early October 1989 to observe the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. In his public remarks the Soviet leader pointedly turned to Honecker and warned, "Life punishes those who fall behind." That evening, as the two party leaders watched what was billed as a celebratory torchlight parade, blue-shirted, red-scarved Communist Youth marched by the dignitaries' podium pleading, "Gorby, help us; Gorby, help us." The rot had penetrated so deeply that even the sons and daughters of the elite were calling for radical reform. For two weeks the party and state apparatus floundered in the face of demonstrators, but Gorbachev ordered the 380,000 Soviet troops stationed in East Germany to remain in their barracks. Meanwhile, in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, communists and opposition figures held roundtable discussions to negotiate free elections in those countries and eventually the transfer of power.

Less dramatic than crowds in the street but equally devastating was the accelerating payments crisis faced by the communist states that had been borrowing heavily from foreign banks for decades. After they conspired to remove Honecker as party boss in mid-October, German Politburo members were shocked to learn that the country was essentially bankrupt. But when Egon Krenz, the new party boss and Honecker clone, went hat in hand to Moscow, Gorbachev brushed him off: "We are in no position to offer assistance, not in the USSR's present condition." On November 9, 1989, an East German party spokesman answering a question from NBC's Tom Brokaw about the new travel policy for East Germans mistakenly stated that it was now possible for people to cross the border freely. (The spokesman had meant to say that the old visa restrictions were being lifted and that people could apply for passes allowing them to cross.) Within hours, thousands gathered at the wall. They climbed over it, danced on top of it and began tearing it apart. For many in Russia, the sense of national security they had gained from the Soviet army's westward advances in 1945 was buried in the rubble.

To paraphrase that master of revolution Vladimir Lenin, a revolutionary situation exists when society is no longer willing to be ruled in the old way and the ruling elites are no longer able to rule in the old way. While not all such situations end in successful revolution, the outcomes in Eastern Europe were for the most part positive. What would soon be called "transitions to democracy" (and would later spawn a new subdiscipline of political science--transitology!) were not uniformly democratic in process; but most of the transitions did result in the formation of states that were democratic in character (in contrast to most of the successor states created from the former Soviet Union). Three distinct patterns emerged: the roundtable negotiations between the communist ancien régime and the opposition (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia); coups d'état within the innermost communist circles (East Germany, Bulgaria); and a revolution from below that forced regime insiders to unseat the leader (Romania). Efforts to preserve communist power with truncheons or bullets failed in Leipzig, Prague and Timisoara, and ultimately the "dumpling-faced" party bosses lost the will and ability to rule in the old way. In Poland there was a progressive erosion of popular support and the simultaneous loss of confidence by the elite, a dynamic that spilled into Hungary, then Germany and Czechoslovakia, and finally Bulgaria and Romania. In Uncivil Society, Kotkin and Gross liken the revolutions in the GDR and Romania to "bank runs." When the government wavered, masses of people took to the streets and withdrew their acquiescence to the system. In Hungary and Poland, by contrast, there were negotiated shifts of power. Even the timetables differed from state to state. As scholar-journalist Timothy Garton Ash put it, "In Poland it took ten years; in East Germany ten weeks; in Czechoslovakia ten days."

For the self-proclaimed "socialists" of the communist regimes, everything from the reforms of Gorbachev to the tearing down of the wall was evidence not of revolution but a counterrevolution bent on the abolition of socialism. In November 1989, the Czech politician Alexander Dubcek, the hero of 1968 who had championed "socialism with a human face," spoke at a press conference in Prague and proposed a reformed socialism. The man of the hour, playwright and dissident Václav Havel, interjected, "'Socialism' is a word that has lost its meaning in our country." For Havel, socialism was identified with the regime that he and his supporters were seeking to overthrow. Dubcek had failed--as Gorbachev would two years later--to comprehend how far the popular mood had shifted away from his shopworn ideals. At the very moment that Havel and Dubcek shared the microphones, it was announced that the entire communist leadership of Czechoslovakia had resigned, and all forms of socialism, from communist statism to Dubcek's Social Democracy, seemed to melt into the air.

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