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Eastern European Revolutions of 1989

Instructor: Michelle Penn

Michelle has a J.D. and her PhD in History.

In this lesson we will learn about the 1989 European Revolutions in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. We will also learn how these revolutions relate to each other and to the Soviet Union.

Revolutionary Change

Imagine it is December 1989. You live in Prague, Czechoslovakia. There are large-scale protests and work strikes. Some of your neighboring governments have already fallen. It seems likely that the communist government will lose power, the only question is how smooth the transfer of power will be. How do you feel? Are you excited that the government is going to end? Hopeful for the future? Or do you fear the instability and change the future could bring? What do you think it is like to live through a revolution?

A revolution is more than just a change of power. It is a dramatic break with the past. In the 1989 Eastern European Revolutions, it was a break from communist ideology, in favor of democracy and market economies. These were both political revolutions--ending the one-party dominance of the communist party in favor of multi-party democracies-- and economic revolutions--ending planned economies in favor of more market-driven capitalist economies. Not all of the revolutionaries necessarily preferred capitalism as an economic system to communism, but they did mostly all agree that democracy and free elections were preferable to having insiders of one party in control of everything.

The End of the Brezhnev Doctrine and the Warsaw Pact

The Brezhnev Doctrine was a significant feature of Soviet foreign policy that dated to 1968. The doctrine said that the Soviet Union would intervene in communist countries in eastern Europe if the Soviet Union believed they were turning away from communism. In practice, this meant that even if countries like Czechoslovakia simply wanted to reform some of their policies, the Soviet Union would intervene.

The governments that would intervene in the Brezhnev Doctrine were Warsaw Pact countries. In the 1955 Warsaw Pact, countries like the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia agreed to intervene if necessary, to protect one of the other governments. The Warsaw Pact helped to assure Soviet control and influence over eastern Europe.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who ended the Brezhnev Doctrine
Gorbachev picture

In the late-1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided that the Soviet Union would no longer enforce the Brezhnev Doctrine. This was largely the result of both reform and unrest in the Soviet Union. Just as the other Warsaw Pact countries were rocked by protests in favor of democracy, so was the Soviet Union. Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union needed to reform, and his decision to end the Brezhnev Doctrine was a part of that reform. This decision not to intervene in eastern Europe allowed the 1989 Revolutions to occur relatively peacefully.

Solidarity and Poland

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa meets with U.S. President George H.W. Bush
Walesa and George H.W. Bush picture

Revolution first rocked Poland, in part because of the strength of the Solidarity movement. Solidarity was the name of a Polish trade union that was not controlled by the communist party. Formed in 1980, Solidarity used non-violent resistance in order to resist the communist government, improve workers' rights, and work for social change peacefully. After widespread workers' strikes in 1988, the Polish government decided to talk with Solidarity leaders. These talks led to the 1989 parliamentary elections, in which Solidarity won nearly all of the contested seats. In the presidential elections the following year, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was elected, and Walesa oversaw Poland's transition from communism to capitalism.

Hungary

While Hungary's transition to democracy was driven by public dissatisfaction, it was also supported by many reformers inside the communist party, making Hungary's transition to democracy much smoother than some of its neighbor's (most notably Romania). The Hungarian Parliament introduced a 'democracy package' which included freedom of the press and significantly changed the constitution.

East Germany

East Germans are able to pass the Berlin Wall and visit the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin in December 1989
Berlin Wall picture

In East Germany, the Communist government faced public resentment because of voting fraud in local elections. Many citizens left the country while other citizens participated in demonstrations. Many East Germans demonstrated in front of the Berlin Wall, demanding to be let through. None of the East German leaders wanted to be held responsible for any shootings of East Germans who were trying to cross the wall, so the East German soldiers began letting people move across the wall. Many East Germans flooded the border into West Germany. Beginning November 9, 1989, the wall began to be torn down spontaneously by West and East Germans alike as they took chips out of the wall with tools. The communist leader resigned and elections were held in March of 1990, resulting in a victory by the moderately right-wing Christian Democratic Party and reunification with capitalist West Germany. The military soon began tearing down the remaining sections of the wall and the East Germany Mayor of Berlin announced that 'the wall is history.' The wall that had symbolized the separation between east and west had ceased to exist.

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