Walls dismantled: The revolutions of 1989

Text by Michaela Kašparová

When the embodiment of what Winston Churchill in his Sinews of Peace speech referred to as “The Iron Curtain” was torn down, the seeds of a new era were sown. The fall of the Berlin Wall represented the end of the Cold War; a conflict that, even though no direct military action was conducted, (thus the name) remains synonymous with tension. The revolutions of 1989 were, ultimately, the formal disavowal of Communism by states living in the sphere of Soviet influence. To trace the roots of these transitions, one must, however, look back to the end of World War II.


When the conference in Yalta took place in 1945, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin laid out their objectives. Stalin sought, apart from postwar economic assistance for Russia, recognition of what is now understood as the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The Western powers acceded and the process of Sovietisation had begun. Behind a façade of democracy, local Communist parties were gaining strength; the grasp of Moscow’s controlling hand was firm. The façade could not be sustained, and when the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, the process was complete.

To describe the atmosphere during the installation of the Communist system and later Stalinism, it is essential to note the all-pervading terror. Every act of resistance was answered with brutality and violence. People and democratic social structures fell victim to a period of history built on, among other things, widespread propaganda, elimination of private property, collectivisation and the control of intellectual thinking. The powerful tool of the Security Apparatus dominated social life; despite political reforms linked with the ascension of Nikita Khrushchev to power, the nature of the system remained unshaken.

To maintain power meant to hold the sceptre tight, to rule with massive repression, collective fear and control. The 1953 people’s uprising in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) only proved that no matter how dark the times, the human desire to break free of the despot’s rule remains. It does not, however, guarantee the path to success; the uprising was put down by the Soviet Army. Similar scenarios occurred three years later in Poland and Hungary, resulting in both the loss of life and all hope of independence. As of 1961, many inhabitants of the GDR, part of the Eastern Bloc, had fled to the West.  Being backed up by both a social market economy and the Marshall Plan, an American initiative to aid Western Europe, it was more prosperous. This mass emigration, weakening the East German economy, required the border between the two parts to be enforced. As a result, a wall that divided Berlin both ideologically and physically was erected.

A crack of light, however, entered Czechoslovakian territory in 1968. The loosening of restrictions on the media, speech, and travel; political liberalisation which gave one regime a human face was a bold attempt carried out by the First Secretary of the KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia ) Alexander Dubček. Socialism with a human face was a political programme that enabled a short period of blossom (The Prague Spring). But the flowers were picked in a quick and uncompromising manner: On 21 August 1969, The Socialist Republic of Czechoslovakia was invaded by the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries. In order to retroactively justify the Soviet-led occupation, the Brezhnev Doctrine, a Soviet foreign policy, was announced.


Due to the costs of both the war in Afghanistan and the Cold War the Soviet Union suffered an economic crisis. In 1985 the post of Secretary-General was taken over by Mikhail Gorbachev who launched a policy of glasnost (openness) and emphasized perestroika (the need for restructuring). Reformists understood it as being given a free hand; the first country to accept it was Poland.

Solidarity, a Polish labour union founded in 1980, embodied the deepest crisis of the Communist system. On December 13, 1981, Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland and suspended the union. The resistance, however, was not to be pacified, and Solidarity emerged once again as an underground organisation supported by the Catholic Church. They gained strength over the years; by the late 1980s they were not only strong enough to return, but also to open a dialogue with the government. It was as dramatic as it was unprecedented.

Early in 1989, both sides reached an agreement. Talks around a symbolically round table agreed to a bicameral legislature called the National Assembly. Later that year, after having been re-legalized, Solidarity participated in parliamentary elections and celebrated outstanding success.

The Domino Theory, described by U.S. president Eisenhower in 1954, argued that if one country in a region came under the influence of Communism, the surrounding countries would follow. As the first non-Communist government was sworn into office in Poland, that domino line came to an end.

Inspired by the Polish model, Hungary also began its path to democracy with Round Table Talks. Gorbachev’s 1980’s politics opened the way to reforms, creating an analogy to Poland; reforming voices within the MSzMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party) became vocal. Once the opposition parties were instituted in 1988, mass demonstrations started taking place. The politics of ambivalence became embodied in the government’s approach to demonstrations that occurred in the followings months; toleration went hand in hand with violence. After the reformatory circle won the battle within the party, János Kádár resigned from his position as General Secretary of MSzMP and was replaced by Károly Grósz. Only after this step could the implementation of democratic processes be possible: freedom of the press and association and a revision of the constitution, to name a few. In October 1989 after having undertaken its last congress, the Communist Party re-established itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party; crucial legislation was adopted by parliament the same month. The one-party country thus embraced the form of a republic.

The reopened Hungarian border enabled the emigration of thousands; after the GDR denied access to East Germans travelling to Hungary, Czechoslovakia became the only neighbour with open doors. When it closed its border in October, the GDR turned into a remote island, isolated from everyone. Demonstrations emerged as the inevitable answer; remaining East Germans demanded change. Civil unrest, enhanced by a visit from Gorbachev, resulted in General Secretary Honecker being replaced by Egon Krenz. The border to Czechoslovakia reopened, but this time without the previously required conditions, pulling open their part of the Iron Curtain. The pressure under which the East German authorities found themselves led them to allow movement through existing border points without briefing the guards. After a spokesman for the SED (Socialist Unity Party for Germany) announced on November 9th that new regulations were to be put into effect immediately, hundreds of thousands of people took action; new crossing points were opened in both the Wall and along the border with West Germany. By December, the SED’s grasp of power was lost and the acceleration of events resulted in the eventual reunification of East and West Germany on October 3, 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall represented a fundamental crack in the Soviet reign, the absence of an East-West partition altering the nature of international politics.


On November 17, 1989, a peaceful student demonstration in Prague was suppressed, sparking a series that resulted in half a million peacefully protesting citizens. While other Communist governments were collapsing, a general strike was held on November 27, followed by an announcement of the relinquishment of power the next day. Obstructions from borders with West Germany and Austria were removed. In December, a non-Communist government was appointed by Gustav Husák; his resignation was followed by Václav Havel becoming President, with Alexander Dubček as Chairman of the parliament. The unusual nature of Havel as a politician cannot be overlooked. The leader of the Czech civil rights organization was also a prominent playwright, essayist and thinker, whose intellectualism later influenced his political philosophy.

The previously ruling party lost much of its base in the following months while key laws were, in the now democratic parliament, introduced. The non violent, velvet revolution was the founding stone of elections resulting in independence for previously united entities. (The Dissolution of Czechoslovakia)

The virus of freedom was spreading across Europe; Bulgaria’s leader Todor Zhivkov was ousted by his Politburo the day after the Berlin Wall fell. Even though this change was accompanied by Moscow’s silent assent, it was not enough. Soon, demonstrations, fed by the call for democracy, grew into a campaign for reform. After an unsuccessful attempt to silence the chorus of disapproval with Petar Mladenov replacing Zhivkov, the Party gave up power and in June 1990, the first free elections were held.

Unlike other revolutions, the one taking place in Romania was far from peaceful. After his re-election as leader of the Romanian Communist Party in November 1989, Nicolae Ceaușescu, whose intention was to outlast falling regimes in other countries, actually strengthened his position. His Securitate ordered the leader of the Hungarian minorities, László Tőkés, pastor and politician, to be arrested and exiled since his sermons were viewed as an offence to the regime. Riots broke out after his seizure and went on for days. After returning from a state visit to Iran, Ceaușescu staged a rally in Bucharest, but to his surprise, the crowd’s reaction was far from being positive.

At this moment, Western radio stations provided crucial information about incidents in the country; years of frustration and hopelessness enhanced by fear spread by the omnipotent Secret Police were transformed into demonstrations spreading around the country. Security forces, after first having obeyed orders to shoot protesters, moved to their side. On a wave of resentment the people, consisting of both the army and civilians, attempted to oust the country’s leader but were not successful. In the end, elections were announced for April 1990 and Ceaușescu lost and suffered summary execution. 


Revolutions across Central and Eastern Europe were the first baby steps to be taken in order for democracies to take root. The chain reaction began in Poland and ended in Romania, the only country from the bloc that not only witnessed unprecedented violence during the transformation but also executed its leader, (a man on a throne of cruelty). These changes altered the world order and marked what we now understand as the Post-Cold war era. Gorbachev’s abrogation of the Soviet Union’s politics is today viewed as the key impulse to start the bells of revolution ringing.

Leaving retrospection and looking around Europe as we know it today it is no exaggeration to remark that collective memory is not as vital as was once thought; the walls in Europe are, thirty years later, going up. In Hungary, there are barbed wire fences being built in the name of Christian values; extremist rhetoric is getting stronger and demands to be heard. The fear of the unknown naturally empowers the hand that builds both the physical and mental walls, helping them to grow and shape our world view. Having gained freedom Western societies are now using confinement not just for those who disobey the law and isolationism as a tool of foreign policy.