Revolution in Eastern Europe: 1989

I. The Call of Freedom

SVOBODA | Throwing the Bums Out | USSR |

March 26

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 |

June 4

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 |

June 16

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 |

August 24

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 was."
-Adrzej Wojda (Senator and movie director.)

FREIHEIT | A Wall Comes Tumbling Down | EAST GERMANY |

November 9

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 |

November 24

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:
"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 |

December 25

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 European culture.

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 is possible.

A. Nationalism

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 party.

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.

B. Terrorism

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 for generations.

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 for.

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.