The people’s revolutions of 1989 were not the unalloyed success for the cause of freedom and democracy that was claimed for them at the time, writes Geoffrey Roberts
No one in 1989 was more surprised by the breath-taking speed of the East European communist regimes’ collapse than the man most responsible for this astonishing turn of events — the reforming Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev.
As Soviet leader, Gorbachev promoted democratisation in the communist bloc, aiming to revitalise popular participation to pursue the egalitarian ideals represented by the socialist project. His intention was to save socialism but he unwittingly unleashed forces he could not then control. Instead communism was swept aside by people’s power.
The first domino to fall was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) whose communist leader Eric Honecker was forced to resign on October 18, 1989. Within days the forbidding barrier that was the Berlin Wall was breached in multiple places and joyous Berliners were able to move freely across the city for the first time since 1961.
The fall of the wall on November 9 was followed two days later by the resignation of Bulgaria’s communist leader, Todor Zhivkov.
In Czechoslovakia, hundreds of thousands demonstrated for freedom and forced the formation of a non-communist government headed by the dissident playwright, Václav Havel. Alongside Havel, stood Alexander Dubček whose 1968 attempt to introduce “socialism with a human face” during the Prague Spring had been crushed by Soviet tanks.
Those tumultuous events were remarkably peaceful despite fears that popular protests would be crushed by the communist authorities.
The precedents seemed to point to such an outcome
As well as the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin was violently suppressed; then in 1956 came Soviet military intervention in Hungary and, most recently, the 1981 Soviet-backed imposition of martial law in Poland as a response to the growing popularity of the independent trade union, Solidarity.
But the real spectre haunting popular unrest in Eastern Europe was Chinese in origin: the violent suppression in June 1989 of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square when hundreds if not thousands were killed as the Beijing authorities ordered Communist China’s People’s Liberation Army to clear the square.
The Tiananmen massacre vividly illustrated how people’s power could be crushed by ruthless force.
Some communist bloc leaders may have countenanced doing the same but Gorbachev would not approve the use of force. He continued to hope and to believe that a revivified communism could triumph without violence.
Romania — as a semi-independent member of the Soviet bloc — proved to be the exception to the peaceful overthrow of communism.
Events began with violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the west of the country at Timisoara, the third-most-populous Romanian city. Nicolae Ceauescu, Romania’s communist dictator, was shouted down at a rally in Bucharest on December 21.
The army staged a coup the following day, clashing with Ceauescu’s personal security force, the Securitate. Live TV footage of shoot-outs and street battles was beamed across the world. On Christmas Day, Ceauescu and his wife, Elena, were tried and summarily executed by the army.
Gruesome images of their execution were shown on Romanian television. Western leaders urged Gorbachev to intervene to stop the bloodshed, but the Soviet leader refused to interfere in the country’s domestic politics.
At the beginning of 1989 neither Gorbachev nor anyone else had any inkling of the dramatic events to come. Radical historical events can often seem inevitable in retrospect. Indeed, the rapidity of communism’s collapse seems to suggest a system so weak that it was destined to fail.
But that was not what anyone thought at the time. Communist regimes were socially stagnant, politically demoralised and failing economically but they retained the power to put down popular revolts. The persistence of China’s communist regime shows that alternative historical paths were possible, even if unpalatable.
Poland was the only state with a strong and popular anti-communist opposition.
Elsewhere, dissidents like Havel and Dubcek in Czechoslovakia were isolated and with no real prospect of mounting an effective challenge to the regimes they railed against. What transformed their situation was Gorbachev’s decisions and actions that made feasible a popular revolt from below.
The precipitating event was the election in March 1989 of a new Soviet parliament — the Congress of People’s Deputies. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform in the USSR since he’d come to power in 1985, Gorbachev had decided to sideline the Soviet communist party and build an independent political base for himself using the mechanism of elections.
Crucially, many of the constituencies were contested, so not controlled by the party. It was the first semi-free election in Soviet history.
It showed that Gorbachev, elected president by the Congress, was serious about democratic reform and raised peoples’ hopes that his campaign for glasnost (openness) would spread to the rest of the communist bloc.
Hungary and Poland were the two communist countries most in tune with Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking.’ Even before the Soviet elections, Poland had legalised Solidarity and the Hungarian communists had agreed to establish a competitive party system — a radical step given how the Soviets had prevented a similar initiative by their 1956 invasion.
In early April, Polish communist authorities agreed with Solidarity a package of economic and political reforms, including free elections. When the elections were held in June, the communists were trounced, paving the way for the appointment in August of the first non-communist prime minister in Eastern Europe in more than 40 years.
Gorbachev was content with the orderliness of these developments because he feared outbursts of popular violence in Poland, Hungary or other communist states. In those circumstances, he may have felt compelled to intervene, as the Soviets had in Hungary in 1956.
His resolution of this dilemma was to allow radical liberalisation so as to satisfy people’s demands for sweeping political reform. “Reform from above or be swept away by revolution from below,” was the situation as it seemed to Gorbachev and his advisers in Moscow.
Events in Hungary, even more dramatic than those in Poland, were to have profound consequences. In June, a quarter of a million people attended the ceremonial re-burial in Budapest of Imre Nagy — the reform communist leader of the 1956 revolt who had been toppled by the Soviets and executed.
In July, Gorbachev made a crucial public intervention when he stated that he would not interfere in the internal affairs of allied countries nor limit their sovereignty.
In effect, he repudiated the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’ — the claim that Moscow had the right to do whatever it took to protect the interests of socialism and the integrity of the communist bloc.
Named after Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time of the Prague Spring, the so-called doctrine had been the ideological rationalisation for the invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and also of Afghanistan in 1979 when a left-wing government was threatened by an Islamist insurgency. Gorbachev’s new approach was famously and wittily dubbed by one Soviet foreign ministry official as the Sinatra Doctrine — “they can do it their way”.
Thus, the scene was set for a refugee crisis that would lead to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, erected in August 1961 to prevent an exodus of East Germans to West Germany. In summer 1989 a new migration crisis erupted when hundreds of thousands of the GDR’s citizens de-camped to Hungary en route to the west.
The Hungarians had been dismantling their border barriers with Austria for several months — an action that had the unforeseen consequence of encouraging tens of thousands of East German citizens to attempt transit to the west via Hungary, whose borders with the GDR were already open.
When East German party leader Erich Honecker told the Hungarians to stick to their treaty obligations and stem the flow of migrants, they reluctantly complied, but only temporarily.
On September 10, the country’s foreign minister, Gyula Horn, announced that since Hungary did not want to “become a country of refugee camps” it would open its border with Austria. More than 200,000 GDR citizens headed to the west through Hungary and Austria.
In early October Gorbachev flew to East Berlin to celebrate the GDR’s 40th birthday. He was welcomed enthusiastically by the population who told him “you are our only hope”. Old-guard communist leaders like Honecker were less enamoured. He was admonished by Gorbachev to embrace reform:
“Life punishes us when we are late. You and we have only one choice — to move decisively forward or to be defeated.”
In cities throughout East Germany mass demonstrations demanded political change, above all the freedom to travel abroad. The peak was a half-million-strong demonstration in East Berlin on November 4. The shaken communist regime tottered but did not collapse. Its final demise was occasioned by the sudden and unplanned breach of the Berlin Wall.
Responding to public pressure, the regime had agreed to allow those who wanted to leave the country to do so, intending this to apply only to permanent emigrants to the west.
But word spread that Berlin citizens could cross and re-cross the border at will. Thousands of people walked to the Wall expecting check-points to be open. East Berlin’s border guards had a fearsome reputation for shooting dead any escapees caught trying to go west.
But they received no clear instructions and faced with large crowds demanding access, they gave way.
Gorbachev hoped that his so-called ‘Sinatra Doctrine’ would lead to a reformed communism in Eastern Europe and the re-founding of the socialist community on an open and democratic basis. But the political choice made by the majority of the citizens in the countries he helped to liberate was to opt for the western model of liberalism, capitalism and democracy.
Gorbachev tried to salvage some semblance of a Soviet-East European alliance but the key institutions of the Soviet bloc — the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance — were rejected as decisively as communism had been.
Post-communist regimes wanted to break ties with Moscow and become members of Nato and the EU. Although Gorbachev and President George Bush had declared the cold war to be officially over at a December 1989 summit, the west’s cold war institutions expanded into Eastern Europe.
Gorbachev was celebrated abroad as a liberator but back in the USSR his political base crumbled amid economic crises and discontent about the consequences of communist bloc dissolution.
In August 1991 communist hardliners attempted a coup to oust Gorbachev from power.
He survived but BorisYeltsin, the popularly elected president of Russia, became the main political beneficiary since he was seen to resist the plotters. Only a few months later the USSR disintegrated and Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president.
The peoples’ revolutions of 1989 were led mainly by radicals and left-wingers who hoped to find a so-called “third way” between capitalism and communism.
The popular aspiration, however, was to share in the freedom and prosperity of the west, under the illusion this could rapidly be obtained. For some, the overthrow of communism was, at first, a dream come true.
But many people soon found themselves worse off economically and were appalled by the corruption and exploitation of the new, capitalist order.
Revolutions invariably devour their children. Now, 30 years on, Eastern Europe is once again seething with discontent but the beneficiaries this time are hard-line nationalists and populists who reject the western model as vehemently as they do communism.
Gorbachev was asked many years later whether, if he had known where it would all lead, he would have done the same again.
He replied: “Probably not”. Gorbachev was a reformer rather than a revolutionary, radical in some respects but conservative in his preference for gradual change and transformation.
Today, as we look back, we can see that the people’s revolutions of 1989 were not the unalloyed success for the cause of freedom and democracy that was claimed for them at the time.
The interests of the mass of the people — as opposed to the profiteers — and the embedding of democracy may have been better served by a less abrupt break with communism and a slower, controlled transition from socialism to capitalism.
- Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at UCC. His latest book is Churchill and Stalin: Comrades-in-Arms during the Second World War.