This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On November 9, 1989—twenty-five years ago—huge crowds of East Germans descended on the Berlin Wall. The restless citizens were responding to an announcement by authorities suggesting that the government would loosen travel restrictions.
In truth, those in charge intended to make only limited alterations in visa requirements. But their intentions quickly became irrelevant. Mass numbers of people flocked to the wall, overwhelming the border guards. Soon, along with allies from the West, the crowds began dismantling the hated barrier for good.
Remarkably, although the fall of the Wall was an iconic moment, it was just one of the highlights in a flurry of activity that was sweeping through the Soviet bloc—a series of uprisings that would become known as the revolutions of 1989.
Every so often, we witness a period of mass insurgency that seems to defy the accepted rules of politics: Protests seem to begin popping up everywhere. Organizers see their rallies packed with newcomers who come from far outside their regular network of supporters. Mainstream analysts, taken by surprise, struggle for words. And those in power scramble as the political landscape around them dramatically shifts—sometimes leaving once-entrenched leaders in perilous positions.
If ever there was a time in modern history that exemplified such a moment of peak public activity, it was the second half of 1989.
Although the crowds at the Berlin Wall on November 9 assembled in impromptu fashion, their gathering was not altogether spontaneous. It came after months of growing demonstrations and escalating pressure on the country’s Communist Party. Throughout the fall, weekly rallies in Leipzig had called for freedom of travel and democratic elections. Demonstrations in that city began with just a few hundred protesters, but they grew exponentially until, by early November, they were attracting as many as half a million. The contagion reached other cities as well: Mass protests started erupting in Dresden, East Berlin and beyond.
Demonstrations in East Germany did not feed only off each other; they also drew energy from what had become a region-wide revolt. Earlier that year, in the spring, historic marches in Hungary set an example of how popular pressure could propel negotiations with a reformist government. That summer, in Poland, the union-based opposition party Solidarity—having led a series of crippling strikes the year before—won a stunning and decisive victory in the country’s newly liberalized elections. By autumn, rebellion was in full bloom. Hardly more than a week after the November 9 revolt in East Germany, students in Prague undertook the first demonstration of the “Velvet Revolution.” By the end of the month, social movements would call a general strike and force the end of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia.