PHYSICAL, POLITICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL WALLS ARE COLLAPSING IN EUROPE AND ELSEWHERE
THE YEAR THAT CH ANGED THE WORLD
IMAGES OF ’89
PHYSICAL, POLITICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL WALLS ARE COLLAPSING IN EUROPE AND ELSEWHERE
On Nov. 18, just nine days after East Germany’s floundering Communist rulers bowed to the inevitable and opened the Berlin Wall, a retired civil servant from London named Patrick Morris flew into the once-divided city. Morris and 230 other people had paid $185 each for a day trip to watch history in the making. Like tourists anywhere, they came with cameras slung around their necks, but many also packed hammers and chisels to pry souvenir chunks of grey concrete from the Wall. And Morris summed up what drew them there. “Well, you see,” he remarked, “I missed the French Revolution and I missed the Russian Revolution, so I thought it was time to catch up.”
In its own way, 1989 was as revolutionary a year as 1789 or 1917. It was the year that walls came tumbling down. Some of the barriers were physical: the Berlin Wall itself, and the barbed-wire fences that the Hungarian government ordered removed in May along its border with Austria. Some of them were political: Poland’s first non-Communist prime minister in four decades took office in August, and in November the parliaments of both East Germany and Czechoslovakia abolished constitutional guarantees of Communist power. But the most important walls to fall may well have been psychological: once-disciplined East Germans jeered their faltering leaders, and in a few dizzying days last month the Czechoslovaks shook off two decades of docility and set their country firmly on the path back to democracy.
Avalanche: The avalanche of change that swept what until recently was known as the “Soviet Bloc” during 1989 was felt elsewhere in the Communist world—but with horrifyingly different results. For she weeks last spring, thousands of students filled Tiananmen Square in Beijing with rambunctious demonstrations for democracy. After years of liberalizing its economy and breeding a new generation of “red capitalists,” it seemed that China might join the reforming trend.
Of course, it was not to be. On the night of June 3-4, the People’s Liberation Army cleared Tiananmen Square with tanks and bullets, killing hundreds of people, even by official Chinese estimates. The repression that followed persists; dozens of people were executed for political crimes, others were jailed—and China’s relations with the West took a sharp turn for the worse. But the protesters had made their point: a significant reform movement did exist in China and it could be suppressed only by brute force.
The upheavals from Berlin to Beijing were the death throes of the global order that emerged from the Second World War. Since the late 1940s, the West had learned to live with some uncomfortable but apparently immutable realities—most importantly, that the part of the world that was based on the 1789 ideals of liberal democracy came to an abrupt end in the middle of Europe. Beyond that point—behind the Wall—was a world whose leaders had sought to govern by the communist ideas that fuelled the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Despite periodic rebellions and aborted efforts at reform, the men in power in the Communist capitals were determined to construct a civilization radically different from, and radically at odds with, 200 years of liberalism rooted in the French and American revolutions. The changes that Mikhail Gorbachev unleashed in the Soviet Union after he took power in 1985 changed those assumptions—but in much of the Soviet empire their effects were not fully felt until 1989.
Rush: When they were, they came in a bewildering rush whose wideranging effects are still being absorbed by the West. At the beginning of the year, only Hungary, long the most reform-minded Eastern Bloc nation, was actively preparing the way towards free elections. As recently as April, Poland’s Solidarity was still a banned organization. But that month, President Wojciech Jaruzelski reached a historic accord with Solidarity, restoring its legal status and scheduling partly free elections (which still guaranteed the Communists a majority in Poland’s parliament) for June 4. Solidarity won all but one of the 161 seats at stake—opening the way for the country’s first non-Communist prime minister in 45 years, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, to take office in August. It was the biggest breakthrough in the Communist world in decades and a personal triumph for Solidarity’s indomitable leader, Lech Walesa, whose rise, fall—during the period of martial law that suppressed the union in 1981—and rise again mirrored the course of the 1980s.
Hungary, meanwhile, kept pace with quieter but no less startling changes of its own. Reformers at the top of the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party led the way. They rehabilitated the victims of the country’s failed 1956 rising against Soviet domination—culminating in a state funeral in June for the martyred leader of that revolt, Imre Nagy. In early October, the party declared its independence from its Communist past, renamed itself the Hungarian Socialist Party—and adopted a program that put it firmly in the mainstream of European social democracy. Later that month, Budapest’s reinvigorated parliament adopted a new constitution that transformed Hungary from a Communist “people’s republic” into a simple “republic.” Free, multiparty elections—the first in Eastern Europe since the late 1940s—are to be held there by next spring.
Wind: Those changes were dramatic enough—but, until early October, it seemed that the new wind from Moscow would not soon thaw the rest of Eastern Europe. Starting in late August, though, the ice started to crack. Increasing numbers of East Germans began to flee to West Germany, where Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s regime granted them citizenship, generous social benefits—and political freedom. On the night of Sunday, Sept. 10, the exodus turned into a flood after Hungary opened its border with Austria. That allowed tens of thousands of East Germans, free to travel through Czechoslovakia and into Hungary, to pass through to the West without exit permits. East Germany’s hardline party leadership was undermined, but it maintained its facade of unity and determination until after that state had marked the 40th anniversary of its founding on Oct. 7. Gorbachev himself came to the official celebrations, publicly embraced East German party leader Erich Honecker and told anxious people on the streets of East Berlin, “Don’t panic, be patient, keep working for socialism.”
As it turned out, it was the East German leadership that panicked. Less than two weeks later, they replaced Honecker with career party man Egon Krenz and embarked on a belated program of reform—culminating in the decision to open the Wall on the night of Nov. 9. But it was too little, too late. Massive demonstrations for reform continued throughout East Germany, and the new leadership could not persuade its citizens that it had made a clean break with the past. On Dec. 3, the country plunged into political chaos as the entire leadership of the ruling Socialist Unity Party, including Krenz, resigned. And any remaining confidence that East Germans might have retained in their leaders was undermined, possibly fatally, by revelations of corruption among the old leadership.
THE UPHEAVALS MARK THE DEATH THROES OF THE GLOBAL ORDER
Proof: But it was Czechoslovakia that provided the final proof—if more were needed— that communism was an idea whose time was passing in much of Europe. Since the country’s first attempt at reform was snuffed out by Warsaw Pact tanks in 1968, Czechoslovakia had been one of the most servile Eastern states. Its few hundred brave dissidents confronted both an unyielding party—and the apparent apathy of the vast majority of the people. That all changed in the course of one weekend in mid-November—when hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets of Prague to protest the brutal police beatings of student demonstrators. With growing confidence, they filled Wenceslas Square in the centre of the capital for eight straight days. And instead of the fierce resistance that history would have led the people to expect, Czechoslovakia’s Communist leaders yielded.
Within 12 days, hardly enough time for the participants themselves to grasp the enormous scale of what they had accomplished, the Communist party twice purged its ranks of hardliners, dropped legal guarantees of its own continued rule, promised free elections and overhauled the government. Onetime dissidents who had spent years being jailed and tormented by the authorities suddenly found themselves the most important people in the country, virtually dictating a program of radical reform to a cowed government. By the end of November, it had become commonplace to remark that the kind of change that took a decade in Poland, a year in Hungary and a few weeks in East Germany had come to Czechoslovakia in a matter of days.
In the Soviet Union itself, 1989 saw greater political openness when the first national contested election since 1917 was held on March 26. Voters defeated dozens of senior Communist officials—but the exercise in democracy took place against a backdrop of deepening crisis. Gorbachev’s program of economic restructuring did not stem a sharp decline in living standards. With empty store shelves and beggars on the streets of Moscow, Gorbachev
himself admitted that his perestroika reforms were in mortal peril. “New methods have not taken root,” he remarked, “and the old ones work no longer.” And around the periphery of Gorbachev’s domain, among the non-Russian nationalities
once held down by fear of czars or commissars, nationalist movements pose a potentially fatal threat to the future of the Soviet Union itself. In Azerbaijan, Moldavia and Ukraine, nationalist feelings grew steadily during 1989. But it was the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that were most vocal in their calls for independence. Only last week, the Lithuanian Communist party declared its independence from the Soviet party and moved closer towards a declaration of independence from Moscow. At the end of November, Gorbachev frankly acknowledged that long-suppressed national feelings had suddenly “burst out to the surface”—and described those movements as his biggest challenge.
For Europe, the events of 1989 were potentially the most far-reaching since the continent’s political map was redrawn in the wake of the Second World War. By the end of 1990,
barring unforeseen developments, free elections will almost certainly be held in Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia—probably bringing to power non-Communist governments to join that already in place in Poland. Along with the change in direction in the Soviet Union, that adds up to a momentous change in the balance of power—nothing less than the drawing together of Europe after the artificial separation of the past 40 years. Suddenly, the reunification of Germany is no longer a distant possibility but tops the political agenda in Europe. The European Community, moving steadily towards clos-
er economic integration in 1992, must at the same time find ways to share its prosperity with the crumbling Eastern Bloc. And the future of the NATO and Warsaw Pact military alliances is increasingly in doubt as Russia in effect gives up its failed effort to preserve a different civilization and attempts to rejoin the mainstream of Europe. Salvos: It is a remarkable end to a decade that began with Ronald Reagan’s salvos against the “evil empire” of Moscow, the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan (from which it finally withdrew last February) and a dangerous new arms race that threatened to extend to space. But already, there are warnings that the collapse of European communism is posing new problems. Skeptics, including British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, are urging the West not to let down its guard even though the East has never looked less threat-
ening. “Euphoria is a bad master,” she cautioned during a Washington visit at the end of November. “When the ice breaks, it can be very dangerous.” At the same time, there is a growing realiza-
tion that the unfreezing of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union could unleash the kind of forces that led to earlier wars. It will take many years, perhaps decades, before those countries can bring their peoples close to the standard of living enjoyed by Western Europeans. And in the Soviet Union, ethnic chaos or economic collapse could abruptly halt the drive
to reform and provoke a return to authoritarian or military rule. But on the eve of the 1990s, the hope for an enduring peace was fervently shared in the East and the West alike.
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