Europe’s Longest Year
November 9 marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the thirtieth anniversary of which falls this year. The fall of the Wall was one of the crucial events of the decisive year of 1989 which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War, of which the barrier erected by the socialist authorities of East Germany had become the ultimate symbol.
The fall of the Wall opened the way for the dissolution of the system of power built by Stalin’s Soviet Union in Eastern Europe after the Second World War. It accelerated, without being either the starting point or the conclusion, a process already underway, culminating in 1990 and 1991 in German reunification, the transition of Eastern Europe into a system of pluralist democracies and a market economy (accompanied very often by serious imbalances) and, finally, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. The end of an ageing system like that of communism under the Soviet Union impacted all of Eastern Europe, triggering a domino effect that swept away political regimes that had had mixed fortunes since the Second World War, melting away like snow in the sun whilst the contradictions that had caused the sclerosis burst out into the open.
Economic stagnation, the persistent influence of debts contracted with western financial institutions, the revival of long-repressed movements with values different from that of communism (Solidarnosc in Poland), the collapse of the security apparatus on which the communist bureaucracies were based (as in Romania) or a convergence of these factors, in the decisive year of 1989, shattered Soviet Europe. It formally ended two years later when the military and strategic alliance of the Warsaw Pact was officially wound up. But it was shaken to its foundations in the year of the fall of the Wall, when Europe saw the removal of its most visible geopolitical fault line and material. And it was the year that, as a result of a historical counter-step, ushered in the process of the marginalisation of Europe – which bipolarism had made into a strategically important appendage after the suicide of the world wars – in the world order of the decades to come.
It all started in Poland
The break-up of Soviet Europe began in Poland. The most important country, together with East Germany, in Moscow’s architecture in Eastern Europe. Struck between 1988 and 1989 by a wave of strikes against the regime headed by General Wojciech Jaruzelski who had come to power at the beginning of the decade to prevent a Soviet invasion after the outbreak of the protest of the Catholic trade union Solidarnosc. Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarnosc, bolstered by the support of the first Polish Pope in history John Paul II, the strengthening of the Polish Catholic Church as an influence in society, substantial international loans (including from the Italian Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi) and the working-class base lauded by communist propaganda, gradually managed to undermine the regime.
The wave of strikes led to the calling of the first free elections in post-war Poland in June 1989. Walesa’s strategy succeeded months before the fall of the Berlin Wall was even remotely conceivable: in a system that was still particularly rigid, with a number of seats reserved for the hegemonic communist party, Solidarnosc gained 35%, indicating that the changed wind of history was blowing in the opposite direction to that of the national government. Jaruzelski realistically accepted the result and appointed Solidarnosc to lead a non-communist coalition government led by the trade union activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The election of Walesa to the presidency the following year would complete the transition.
Hungary pulls down its wall
The movements that energised Poland had reverberations very soon on neighbouring Hungary in which independence drives had already manifested themselves. The future of Hungary began with the recognition of a past that was seared in the memory of the Magyars: the posthumous pardon granted by the authorities to Imre Nagy and the other heroes of the anti-Soviet revolt of 1956. In June 1989 in Budapest, in the centrally located Heroes’ Square Nagy was solemnly commemorated in an event that led, amongst other things, to fame for a young politician who had just returned to the country after the end of a scholarship funded by George Soros: Viktor Orban.
A short time before, the executive led by Miklos Nemeth had opened the door to a series of important concessions: end of the one-party state, free elections involving democratic parties and, in May, the go-ahead for the removal of the almost 250 km long electrical barrier that marked the border with Austria. After the initial intense phase, the transition that led to the transformation of Hungary into a democratic republic in 1990 and 1991 was gradual and without any particular shocks.
The cork of the GDR pops
The move by the Hungarian government had directly involved East Germany led by the secretary/boss of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party, Erich Honecker. In the summer of 1989 tens of thousands of East Germans started travelling to Hungary to take advantage of the border crossing points opened to emigration. The mounting tide of demonstrations led the regime to consider as more than plausible the idea of deploying the army to suppress the protests and the demands for greater openness and transparency in the country.
The rise in internal tensions in the country led the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) to hope for the support of the Soviet army stationed in the country in response to the increasingly large scale and aggressive protests. The orders to close the borders, the increasingly hard line of the Politburo of the SED and the threats of a Tienanmen Square style repression were of no use: when in October 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev visited to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the GDR, he told East Berlin that Moscow lacked the political strength to support the maintenance of the status quo in its “empire” and openly backed a policy of reform.
The words of Gorbachev were perhaps the most significant event of 1989. In a few days, the General Secretary of the CPSU demolished the political-military architecture that had kept the countries of the Warsaw Pact in the Soviet orbit. Honecker’s political fate was sealed: on 18 October 1989, he was dismissed from the Politburo and replaced by his deputy Egon Krenz, who led the policy of reforms aimed at facilitating the emigration to the west of his fellow citizens. The GDR re-opened its borders and when on November 9 the spokesman of the socialist government gave the green light for direct emigration between East Berlin and West Berlin thousands of citizens of the divided capital crowded together on the Wall built in 1961 and started to physically demolish it to reach the West. The rest is history. A tale that tells of a symbolic rather than a real reunification of Germany where a significant economic and social gap persists between East and West. The wall fell but thirty years later the challenge of integration between the two Germanies is yet to be overcome.
Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, rapid and smooth transitions
Prague and Sofia were greatly influenced by what had happened in East Germany. The irresistible domino effect of the dissolution of the Eastern European communist regimes reached Czechoslovakia in the second half of 1989. The Civic Forum of the writer and dissident Vaclav Havel intensified the pressure for the release of political prisoners, the end of repression and censorship, and on 17 November 1989, a demonstration in the capital for International Student Day spread like wildfire in a full-blown revolt against the regime. A massive, permanent and incredibly disciplined revolt: the mass demonstrations that involved 800,000 people and delegitimised the communist regime were called the “velvet revolution”.
In less than a month, Czechoslovakian communism evaporated, in parallel with what had been done by the SED in the same few days in late November and early December, and the regime gave up the vanguard role of the Party enshrined in the constitution and the transition began instantaneously. Havel became President, the Civic Forum won the popular vote in 1990 and, in 1993, the republic split, giving rise to the current Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Czechoslovakia was an industrial and productive centre of great importance. Bulgaria was the steering column of the Warsaw Pact, perhaps the only true puppet state bereft of real sovereignty in the Soviet block. Its continued existence was linked to bipolarism and the Cold War and when the most symbolically significant event, the fall of the Wall, took place, the importance of the neutralist proclamation of the Soviets was made plain to Sofia and the veteran Stalinist vassal Todor Zhivkov was dismissed in less than 24 hours. The speed with which the Bulgarian Communist Party acted allowed it to survive until the end of the Cold War. Once it had changed its skin and rejected Marxism-Leninism, the party assumed the name Bulgarian Socialist Party and called the 1990 election and won it.
The Christmas of Romanian Blood
The case of the Romanian transition was an anomaly in 1989. The country most independent from Moscow, ruled by Nicolae Ceaucescu, had paid for its diplomatic and geopolitical adventurism and excessively imprudent rapprochement with the West with the debt trap. Ceaucescu’s Romania had to resort to tough austerity measures to repay debts contracted with international institutions. Austerity and the rationing of food, gas and other necessities were, according to many analysts, instrumental from 1981 onwards in containing the spread of dissent apart from several industrial and mining strikes.
Ceaucescu’s Romania was a police state closely guarded by the notorious Securitate that was so diligent in doing its repressive work of preventing the emergence of any possible form of dissent. While Ceaucescu’s Romania became the poorest country in the Soviet block and its infant mortality rates reached Third World levels, the dictator and his wife Elena caused a sensation due to their luxurious lifestyle and their progressive estrangement from the rest of the country. The most emblematic example of Ceaucescu’s paranoid desire for self-celebration is the gigantic, cold and grey Palace of Parliament of Bucharest, a white elephant in a Romania devastated by poverty.
Ceaucescu did not understand the need for compromises or changes of direction. When street protests began to multiply in Romania, the dictatorship reacted brutally. The deaths of hundreds stifled the protests that had spread from Transylvania to the capital Bucharest starting on December 17th. This was too much for many of the soldiers and officers of the armed forces who soon began to mutiny and joined the ranks of the regime that wanted to turn away from a confrontation that threatened to cause a devastating civil war. Given the structure of Romanian power, the only realistically possible alternative to Ceaucescu was a conspiracy within the regime. An internal showdown. So it was. On December 21st Ceaucescu incited a crowd of 100,000 people in Bucharest; a few hours later, Defence Minister Vasile Minea was found dead in suspicious circumstances. He had taken his own life after being dismissed for mutiny, the regime claimed. He had been killed for disobeying orders, claimed the newly formed National Salvation Front (NSF) founded by several second-tier members of the apparatus led by Ion Iliescu.
The outcome of the revolt was determined by the deputy Victor Stanculescu. Terrified by the idea of having to choose between two firing squads (that of the rioters or that of the regime), Stanculescu led the revolt of the armed forces. Taking advantage of the situation of chaos to use them against the dictator, who was besieged on 22 and 23 December by protesters crowded around the government buildings of Bucharest. Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu’s attempt to escape by helicopter failed: on 24 and 25 December 1989 the FSN held a summary trial of the dictator and his wife which ended in their death by firing squad. The Christmas of Romanian blood ended a terrible ten days for the country in which between 600 and 1,000 people lost their lives. The internal coup within the Romanian power apparatus ended in the most atypical manner of the year of the fall of the Wall. The decisive year of 1989: a year at the end of which Europe found itself less divided but at the same time, less central in the world. Once bipolarism had come to an end, the old faults inside the continent would continue to manifest themselves. Far from ending European history, the fall of the Wall put it back on track.
Translation by Dale Owens