Revolution in Eastern Europe: 1989
I. The Call of Freedom
SVOBODA | Throwing the Bums Out | USSR |
When perestroika seemed to result in little but empty shelves and glasnost
invited bitter complaints from the citizenry, Gorbachev sent the people
to the polls-and thus let the apparatchiks take the heat. The nationwide
election to the new 2,250-member Congress of People's Deputies became a
stunning rebuke to the custodians of the status quo. A third of the Communist
Party's regional chiefs failed to win seats. Gorbachev was counting on democratization
to spur pressure for reform, but it also fanned secessionist fever in the
Baltic republics and ethnic violence in the Caucasus.
"The many countries crushed into some semblance of historical
and ideological unity under communism are at long last beginning to assert
their claims to separate identities. These countries are claiming their
right to be themselves."
-Andrey Sinyavsky (one of the leading dissidents of the 1960s, immigrated
to Paris in 1973 after almost six years in a labor camp)
ZEE-YOU | Massacre in Beijing | China |
They had come to mourn the death of political reformer Hu Yaobang; they
stayed to welcome Gorbachev, who was making the first Soviet state visit
to Beijung in 30 years. Soon up to 1 million citizens had joined the student
occupation of Tiananmen Square. then, early one morning, the tanks rolled
in. One column was stopped for six minutes by a single youth. At least 1,000
were killed, thousands more arrested. Executions followed. Among the feared
victims: the one man whom human-rights organizations have identified as
Wang Weilin, 19, Officially, the massacre never occurred
"The pressure against the system is building, and there
comes a point beyond which one cannot turn back. However naive our faith
may seem, we will continue the fight. Even if we are convinced the battle
is lost from the beginning, at least for the time being we will have to
answer the challenge."
-Wuer Kaixi (A leader of the students' movement, now in self-imposed exile
in the U.S)
SZABADSAG | A Martyr Is Reburied | HUNGARY |
The government had begun the year by announcing it would tolerate the formation
of independent political parties. In May Hungarian soldiers cut the electrified
barbed-wire fences along the Austrian border. A month later, the remains
of Imre Nagy, the Premier whom the Soviets had hanged for his part in the
1956 Hungarian Revolution, were exhumed from an unmarked grave and reburied
with honor. Free parliamentary elections were scheduled for the spring of
1990. Although the communists have renamed themselves socialists, they face
humiliation, perhaps even political extinction.
"I am proud that these historical changes have come about
without bloodshed or force. This is the result of the wisdom of the people.
No one called for revenge."
-Arpad Goncz (Author and playwright. He was sentenced to life imprisonment
in 1956 and released under a 1963 amnesty. Unable to publish, he worked
as a pipe fitter.)
WOLNOSC | From Underground to Power | POLAND |
Outlawed for seven years, Solidarity became the government's negotiating
partner in February and a full-blown opposition party in the summer's parliamentary
elections. Running largely on their identification with Lech Walesa, the
Solidarity candidates so completely trounced the communists that the regime
felt it had no choice but to form a coalition. After one false start, President
Wojciech Jaruselski settled on Walesa's handpicked choice for the premiership,
lawyer Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Now the once jailed and their former jailers
share a common enemy: a bankrupt economy
"Polish society, often badly assessed by itself and its
leaders, has proved itself better and much more mature than we thought it
-Adrzej Wojda (Senator and movie director.)
FREIHEIT | A Wall Comes Tumbling Down | EAST GERMANY |
In a year filled with powerful images, none was more dramatic or more hopeful
than the breaching of the structure that had stood for the harsh division
between East and West. That event as the culmination of a process that began
in May, when Hungary allowed East Germans to pour across its border to Austria.
While many of East Germany's best and brightest voted with their feet, others
gathered to chant "We want to stay!" and demand political reforms.
Protests in East Berlin and Dresden met with brutality, but then Gorbachev
nudged hard-liner Erich Honecker into belated retirement. In a desperate
bid to keep the Communist Party in power, Honecker's successor Egon Krenz
opened the wall. But three weeks later he too was swept aside.
"I must weep for joy that it happened so quickly and simply.
And I must weep for wrath that it took so abysmally long."
- Wolf Biermann (East German poet and protest singer who was stripped of
his citizenship in 1976 while on tour in West Germany. An idealistic socialist,
he returned to his country in December 1989 and later moved back to his
original home, Hamburg.)
SVOBODA | Socialism With a Human Face Again | Czechoslovakia |
The face was familiar, although it showed the passage of years spent in
punitive obscurity: Alexander Dubcek, the tragic hero of the 1968 Prague
Spring, returned triumphantly to join the huge protests. A week earlier,
riot police had attacked student demonstrations, but now playwright Vaclav
Havel could speak of "the power of the powerless." Soon the communists
yielded power to a noncommunist majority. A sign in Prague summed it up:
- Poland - 10 years;
- Hungary - 10 months;
- East Germany - 10 weeks;
- Czechoslovakia - 10 days;
"In everyone there is some longing for humanity's rightful
dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of
transcendence over the world of existence."
-Vaclav Havel (Playwright and leader of the democracy movement, now president
of the Czech Republic.)
........And then, after a week of horror......
Rumania - 10 hours.
Slaughter in the Streets | RUMANIA |
The people's overthrow of President Nicolae Ceausescu's paranoid dictatorship
last week seemed to take ten hours. On Thursday night the megalomaniacal
leader and his wife Elena were ensconced in the presidential palace in Bucharest;
by Friday morning, they were gone. But unlike the bloodless revolutions
in the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries, the Rumanian convulsion was soaked
in blood. The number of casualties is till not known, but if the estimates
of thousands killed turn out to be correct, Ceausescu's name will be indelibly
linked to one of the largest government-inflicted massacres since World
War II. Ceausecu fled his grandiose palace only after the army refused to
shoot demonstrators and many troops switched sides, joining them.
II. Eastern Europe in Perspective
While the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in 1989 was aided by Gorvachev's
policies and his sometimes timely interventions, the main impetus for change
came from within these countries. All the upheavals except that in Romania
were marked by massive peaceful demonstrations against the leadership. The
widespread opposition to the Communist leadership had long existed. For
instance, Vaclav Havel wrote of the double life characterized by a public
support but private disdain for the regimes. Once the populations perceived
that some possibility existed to overthrow the regimes, the private side
was given vent in the massive demonstrations. The fact that no major counterrevolution
occurred except in Romania can be attributed to the Communist hierarchy's
loss of faith in their right to rule. They no longer thought the system
worth defending. Communist central planning and thought control contained
the seeds of its own destruction.
"Today, Eastern Europe is again Central Europe-which it
has always been historically, culturally and philosophically."
Zbigniew Brzezinski said that on March 7, 1990. Truer words were never spoken.
By 1990, Europeans could point with pride to many postwar achievements:
the reemergence of Europe as powerful economic and cultural force, the growth
of affluence, the rejection of authoritarian government in the south, greater
independence in foreign affairs, and the end of European overseas colonialism.
But most important was the apparent end of the Cold War and division of
Europe. With the demise of Stalinism and Leninism, Eastern Europe and the
Soviet Union appeared headed for some more democratic forms of government
and a closer association with Western Europe.
Despite these obvious advances, Europeans had to face up to many enduring
and new problems: a fading but persistent nationalism, the slow political
and economic integration of Europe, a continuing inequality for women despite
improvements, terrorism from Separatist groups, a new form of youth alienation,
a persisting bureaucratization, a need to better integrate ethnic minority
groups, ecological threats to the environment, and the fading of distinctively
III. 1989 and After
The massive popular upheavals of 1989 and Gorbachev's initiatives have made
it possible to begin the democratization of the former Eastern bloc countries
and to anticipate a long-term development of a "common house of Europe,"
as Gorbachev terms it. Gorbachev claims, "Europe is indeed a common
home where geography and history have closely interwoven the destinies of
dozens of countries and nations." Both for economic and political reasons,
Gorbachev hopes to tie the Soviet Union more closely to Western Europe and
weaken Europe's ties to the United States. Close cooperation with Western
Europe could provide the Soviet Union with the economic aid and technical
expertise it needs to modernize its economy and satisfy a historical Russian
yearning to be a part of the European milieu. The once-subjugated Eastern
European states are openly rejecting their former association with the Soviet
Union in their head-long rush toward democratic government and some form
of market-oriented economy. Barring a Soviet return to authoritarianism
and resultant crackdown in East-Central Europe, Europe seems headed for
a greater integration.
The integration of Europe could take many forms. Since it would be impossible
immediately to fully integrate the weak economies of the former East bloc
countries with those of either the EC or EFTA countries, some gradual method
of integration will have to be employed. Moreover, economic reform is intricately
tied to the reform of the political systems of the former East bloc countries.
As Gorbachev painfully learned, economic reforms demand the destruction
of the authority of party officials who obstruct change in order to preserve
their power. This political modernization is progressing rapidly in Poland,
Czechoslovakia, and Hungary but not in the Soviet Union, Romania, or Bulgaria
where the Communist parties retained much of their authority in early 1990
and beyond. Unrest will continue as popular pressures for faster change
encounter last-ditch elite efforts to preserve entrenched positions. It
remains unclear if the reformist forces in the Soviet Union can achieve
an economic turnabout in time to prevent a successful reaction against their
policies. If Soviet reforms should fail and a reactionary group were to
take power, the Eastern European countries would also suffer. Such a reaction
might bring about a civil war in the Soviet Union among reformers and reactionaries,
among the different ethnic groups, and between republics; it would certainly
bring opposition in Eastern Europe. The reactionary forces would also face
insurmountable economic problems as they cut themselves off from outside
economic aid and attempted to revert to a Stalinist economic system. A protracted
victory by the forces of reaction seems impossible but a short-term resurgence
Has there, in fact, been a resurgence of nationalism in Europe and thus
a decline in the support for a united Europe? Some singled out the strengths
of neo-Fascist parties in the sixties, the National Democratic Party (NPD)
in West Germany, and the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) in Italy as proof
of rising nationalism. However, the experience of the NPD suggests that
its growth was transitory. After winning a number of local elections in
West Germany in the 1960s, the NPD quickly lost most of its support. Despite
predictions of continued victories, these extremists were never able to
win a single seat in the West German Parliament. The NPD appears to be no
more significant than the traditional extreme-rightist fringe represented
by the Germany Party of the Right from 1946 to 1949 and by the Reich Social
However, it seems that East Germany may provide a future source of nationalism.
A rather strident German nationalism appeared in the East as soon as the
Communist dictatorship waned. But such Nationalist sentiments may pass once
the euphoria generated by the overthrow of the Communist leadership has
subsided. The Italian reactionaries have lost ground as well: the fascistic
MSI has failed to increase its representation in the Chamber of Deputies
since 1958. In 1990 and the 1991 the neo-fascist, anti-semitic movement
led by la Pen in France was stirring up nationalistic emotions, but it too
seems to be only a temporary phenomenon.
It seems more accurate to say that nationalism has not regained strength
but has never been totally eliminated. The support for and opposition to
a united Europe seem to have changed little in the past thirty years. The
Benelux countries and France were then and are now the strongest advocates
of European unity. Although de Gaulle never favored a truly united Europe
except insofar as it enhanced French prestige and power, other French leaders
such as Monnet and Delors have been major architects of European unity.
The British have always opposed a political unification but are now being
forced to seek further economic integration or face economic adversity.
The declining support for European unification in the 1970s was closely
tied to economic phenomena. The energy crisis brought about by the cutback
in Arab oil production led each country to seek its own solution tot he
shortages. Countries also had specific concerns with regard to a "depending"
of the economic contacts. Italy was unsure of its industry's ability to
compete with those of Germany and France in customs-free European community,
and many British leaders still were anxious about a complete economic integration
in the EC. Many French farmers opposed Spanish entry, since lower cost Spanish
agricultural products threatened heavily subsidized French agriculture.
In the 1980s, increasing foreign competition and the imaginative policies
of Delors, the president of the European Commission of the EC, overcame
much of the opposition to further integration. It appears that a fuller
economic integration of the EC economies will be retarded only by the need
to broaden economic activities to include the Eastern European countries
and EFTA. Plans are now underway to create a free-trade zone, the European
Economic Space, to include both the EC and EFTA. Eastern European economies
will be integrated only very slowly with Western Europe because their manufactured
goods are not competitive and can be sold only to the Soviet Union and other
Eastern European countries. Gorbachev is right when he argues that the East
European countries need to maintain their contacts with the Soviet Union
until their manufactured goods are internationally competitive.
In Eastern Europe, nationalism was only temporarily silenced by Soviet might.
It appears that Eastern Europeans publicly acknowledged the brotherhood
of all Communist states but privately harbored many pre-World War II attitudes.
Once the Soviet lid was lifted, earlier nationalistic and anti-Semitic attitudes
reemerged. These attitudes may diminish after the euphoria associated with
a greater self-determination dies down.
Terrorism remains a disruptive but declining phenomenon in most countries
except Northern Ireland. The turmoil in Northern Ireland (Ulster), in Cyprus,
and in the Basque region of Spain originated before World War II. The Ulster
violence can be traced back to a centuries-old conflict between the native
Catholic Irish and the primarily English and Scottish Protestant settlers.
Whether its source is essentially socioeconomic (as asserted by the Irish
Republican Army, the IRA) or religious (as asserted by the British and the
Ulster Protestants), the enmity has been a part of the European experience
After the imposition of direct British rule in Ulster in 1972, desperation
drove the IRA to extend the terrorism to the streets of London. Unable to
overcome the Protestant majority in Ulster, led since 1971 by Ian Paisley
and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), and confronted by British tanks
and soldiers, the IRA hoped to paralyze both the Ulster and British governments
in order to attain its goals of equality for the Ulster Catholics and the
incorporation of Ulster into the Irish Republic. In October 1982, a renewed
round of violence began after elections to a new Northern Ireland Assembly
designed to be a first step in restoring local self-government. Catholic
candidates all refused to participate because, as they argued, the Protestant
majority in the Assembly would deny Catholics any role.
But the recent violence is only an exaggerated phase of the continuing hostility
in Northern Ireland. Efforts at reconciliation have been thwarted by divisions
among the Catholics and Protestants as well as between the two. Not one
Catholic or Protestant group can speak for all Catholics or Protestants
and therefore neither Sinn Fein (the political wing of the IRA), the Catholic
Social Democratic and Labor party (SDLP), the DUP, or the Official Unionist
party (OUP), among others, can effectively represent each side during negotiations.
Britain's two-part strategy has not yet borne fruit. One part is the 1985
British agreement with Ireland that gave the Irish Republic a consultative
role in Northern Ireland but permitted Ulster to remain a part of the UK
as long as the majority of its citizens desired it. The second part made
Ulster semi-autonomous by creating a local assembly. The Unionists' fear
that this assembly was a first stage in taking Ulster out of the United
Kingdom led all fifteen Unionist MPs to resign their seats in the British
Parliament in December 1985. In June 1986, Britain dissolved the assembly
and relied solely on the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference. The number
of deaths from political violence increased to sixty-two in 1986. No end
is in sight for the violence and divisions.
C. Discontented and Conformist Youth
Newspapers have referred to Europe's rebellious youth as the new "lost
generation." Their aimlessness, despair, cynicism, and occasional violence
is met with incomprehension by most of the older generation. Especially
troublesome during the last few years has been the youth occupation of buildings,
random violence, and sharply increased deaths from drugs. The police were
kept busy in Germany and the Netherlands in the early eighties evicting
squatters from their "homes." In staid Zurich, Switzerland, youths
broke windows and set buildings afire when Swiss authorities closed a youth
center that police claimed had become a center for the distribution of drugs.
In France, youths shocked their elders by stealing cars, racing them through
cities, and then burning them-called "moto rodeos" by the youths.
The authorities are perplexed by the apparent aimlessness of their activities.
It does not have as clear a purpose as the youth protest of the sixties.
Then, youths were in revolt against colonialism and imperialism (Algeria
and Vietnam) and against bureaucratization (1968); they were also prorevolutionary.
Except fort he neo-Fascist groups, today's youthful rebels are apolitial
and anarchistic. They reject Marxist organization as well as that of their
own governments. As one said, "Who wants to hear about organizing when
we want to undo the organization."
Some of the discontent can be explained by the unemployment that accompanied
the economic slump in Europe after 1973. the number of idle youths increased
rapidly. In 1982, youth unemployment topped 20 percent throughout Europe.
With nothing to do and little prospect for work, some youths have given
in to hopelessness and cynicism. These youths developed an anger at what
they consider to be the welfare state's preoccupation with order, cleanliness,
and economic security. They feel deserted and isolated. There are a few
who have joined radical fringe groups, such as the Maoists, the German Red
Army Faction, the Italian Red Brigades, the neo-Fascists, etc., but many
alienated youths have simply stopped supporting any objective. Their lives
have become a meaningless welter of drugs, video games, and rock music.
They live for today and do not believe that tomorrow is worth preparing
In contrast to this rebellious minority is a conformist majority who are
usually at peace with existing society. Although dissatisfied with some
educational policies and the shortage of meaningful jobs, most Western youth
accept existing society. They have joined in demonstrating only to protest
the unresponsiveness of rigid bureaucracies or governments' excessive use
of police force. Of course, youths in Eastern Europe have played a major
role in toppling the Stalinist regimes-and here perhaps lies the real hope
and function of the younger generation for the future of a unified Europe.
Send questions and suggestions to Professor
Gerhard Rempel, Department of History, Western New England College.
Last Revised 12-18-95.