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1989 revolutions, 25 years on

This season marks the silver anniversary of the wildfire revolutions that swept across Eastern Europe in the summer and autumn of 1989. The upheavals led to the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet control, the Reunification of Germany and the demise of the Soviet Union itself two years later. Its dizzying speed and domino effect caught everyone by surprise, be it the confused communist elites, veteran Kremlinologists and even the participants themselves. The carnivalesque atmosphere of People Power in the streets of Eastern Europe uprising brought a touch of the surreal into world politics, as electricians and playwrights became heads of state and one communist dictator was executed on Christmas Day on live television. That most of the momentous changes that year occurred without bloodshed (apart from Romania) rendered these events all the more improbable, to the point that 1989 is commonly referred to as an annus mirabilis.

Whatever hopes and fears first greeted the dismantling of the Cold War order, the events of 1989 have changed the world in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Ready-made historical analogies were in good supply at the time, ranging from comparisons to the 1848 “springtime of nations” to proclamations that 1989 was the greatest bicentennial tribute to the French Revolution two centuries earlier. Other contemporary assessments were less sanguine: the spectre of World War II hung heavily in the air, as many observers at the time feared that the collapse of communism would undermine a stable and relatively prosperous Europe to the advantage of a new and powerful “Fourth Reich” straddling the continent. Thatcher’s famous comment that “[i]f we are not careful, the Germans will get in peace what Hitler couldn’t get in the war” reflected broad international anxiety about the new Germany and the new Europe. Many of those dark early predictions of a revanchist Germany and a political explosive post-communist Europe fortunately did not come to pass, as Germany assumed its place as the pivotal “civil power” (and banker) of Europe. This unification of Germany, unlike its 1871 predecessor, ushered in a different Europe, prompting some commentators to liken 11/9 (the day the Berlin Wall was breached) to 9/11 in terms of long-term European historical significance.

Yet however much the dismantling of the Berlin Wall may have provided the upheavals with its most potent telegenic imagery, it is well to remember that the fuse was lit in the docks of Gdansk almost a decade before, and events in Poland in the spring of 1989 served as the impetus for the reform drive across Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, and the Baltics. Still, the transformations of 1989 could not have begun more inauspiciously. After all, the key date that kicked started the revolutionary events in Eastern Europe that summer – the June 4th Polish elections, which saw Solidarity candidates swept into office – took place on the very day of the fateful crackdown at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Polish reformers were well aware of what happened across the world that morning, and many feared that the Polish regime would follow suit. And even if the Polish elections were ultimately allowed to stand, there was much talk among the ruling elites across the East Bloc that summer (especially in East Germany) about the need for a “Chinese solution” to domestic discontent.

Berlin Demonstration - Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1119-012 (CC-BY-SA-3.0-de) via Wikimedia Commons.
Berlin Demonstration – Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1989-1119-012. CC-BY-SA-3.0-de via Wikimedia Commons.

Instead, 1989 witnessed a series of “velvet revolutions” across the Eastern Bloc. Countless commentators predictably trumpeted the fall of communism in Eastern Europe as liberalism triumphant. The European Union and NATO were expanded eastward, as the gospel of free trade and security emerged as a new mantra of peace and prosperity. To the surprise of many observers, “third way” Scandinavian-style alternatives found little electoral support in the 1990s, as social democrats fared badly at the polls. Most ex-communist countries opted for Christian Democrat Centre-Right candidates, and several even slid in more authoritarian directions. One of the effects of 1989 in Europe was the fracturing of the map of Central Europe into smaller states, often along ethnic lines. While this was a peaceful process in some places, such as with Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce” in 1993, in other places it was not. The violent dissolution of Yugoslavia brought the return of ethnic cleansing to Europe for the first time since World War II. The difficulty of transplanting liberal economic and political models in Eastern Europe together with the survival and continued power of the communist era elites across Eastern Europe was duly noted by observers across the region, sometimes termed “velvet restoration.” For their part, East German leftists voiced misgivings about the sirens of “DM-nationalism” as a squandered opportunity to build socialism afresh. That many felt “Kohl-onized” by Bonn as second-class citizens drove home the widespread disenchantment with die Wende. Such sentiment was echoed by others across the continent (particularly in Southern Europe) a generation later in the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, as East German apprehension and anger about being taken over by the Federal Republic had become Europeanized in the last few years. Interpreting 1989 as simply the Cold War victory of Western liberalism thus looks much cruder and less convincing in hindsight. In this way, 1989 may have marked the defeat of socialism, but it inadvertently exposed the limits of liberalism as well.

As for the wider contemporary significance, we need to bear in mind that Russia and China have formulated their own responses to the ‘spirit of ‘89.’ 1989’s unique legacy to world politics – the prospect of ‘peaceful revolution’ and the mass mobilization of civil society against powerful states – is an object lesson of civic democracy, and participants in the Arab Spring explicitly looked to this model in its early phases. Nonetheless, the violent ‘blowback’ of military authoritarianism in many of those toppled regimes suggests that the Russian and Chinese response to People Power drew a different lesson from 1989. The point is that the legacy of 1989 contains both elements, as seen in the dramatically divergent outcomes of4 June 1989 in Poland and China. Which aspect of June 4th will be Hong Kong’s fate, for example, is impossible to say at the moment, but one thing is clear: the urgent plea for democratization that was 1989’s call to action across the Bloc is as relevant as ever in all corners of the globe.

Headline image: Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989, people walking by Raphaël Thiémard. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. […] This is the blog post I mentioned in Y11’s lesson today.  Worth a read and a blog worth following for GCSE and A level historians.  https://blog.oup.com/2014/11/1989-velvet-revolutions-berlin-wall/ […]

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