People Power? Explaining 1989

Konrad H. Jarausch, University of North Carolina

As the most important European event since 1945, the overthrow of Communism during 1989-1991 poses a double challenge for retrospective understanding. Because the current wave of commemorations at the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall is largely promoting an anti-Communist agenda, the democratic awakening needs to be rescued from such instru­men­ta­liza­tion by contemporary memory politics. Since most of the media specials, public exhibi­tions, press editorials and numerous monographs are concentrating on retelling an inspiring story, a more critical analytical effort is also necessary in order to comprehend what really happened during this exciting year and to assess its long-range implications. Breaking out of the frame­work of a heroic narrative requires greater cooperation between historians attuned to the unique concate­nation of events of 1989 and social scientists looking for more general patterns of mob­i­lization. Moreover, it must look beyond a single national case such as Germany and understand the revival of civil society as a transnational process engulfing all of Eastern Europe.


In trying to explain surprising caesuras, historians tend to distinguish between long-range underlying causes and short-range events, triggering actual changes. Among the former, a key reason was the stagnation of the planned economy that made the Soviet bloc fall behind in the production of consumer goods and therefore inspired Gorbachev to push for reforms in Russia. Another important element was the improvement of the international climate that ended the second Cold War and promoted détente, because the lessening of hostility allowed Moscow to repeal of the Brezhnev doctrine. The greater latitude thereby permitted to the satellite states encouraged the revival of civil society and the formation of a domestic opposition pushing for the recovery of human rights. Often overlooked is finally the loss of utopian belief and of ideological self-confidence among the ruling Communist parties, which made some younger leaders break with the older incorrigibles and experiment with pragmatic reforms.

But this structural erosion of Communist power only turned into an acute crisis through a combination of extraordinary events during the summer and fall 1989. The first open challenge came from the independent Polish trade union Solidarnosc which even the proclamation of martial law could not contain permanently. The second step was the liberalization of the Hungarian leadership which decided to open the Iron Curtain symbolically, triggering an exodus of vacationing East Germans to the West which turned into a mass flight that discredited the Honecker regime and led to his fall. The third step was the rapid growth of public protests in cities like Leipzig and later also in Prague that spread from a few hundred intrepid dissidents to hundreds of thousands and could therefore not be suppressed by force after the agreement of October 9th. Confronted with such unheard of civil resistance, the communist parties themselves began to dissolve, losing members as well as their will to fight.

Social scientists who have analyzed the process of mobilization stress that during the democratic awakening of 1989 exit and voice tended to reinforce each other rather than serving as alterna­tives. No doubt the contagion started with the dissidents themselves who had elaborated a human rights critique of Communism like the IFM in the GDR or Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia. Crucial for spreading the message was also the reporting by West German TV, which served as alter­na­tive information source in East Germany, and by Radio Free Europe which broadcast news to other East European countries. Decisive was, however, the demonstration experience itself, because the feeling of solidarity in a crowd of likeminded protesters broke through the grip of fear which had held people in check for so long. Less visible but highly debilitating was finally the seepage of doubt among the party members who had to decide whether to follow the Chinese example of bloody repression or Gorbachev’s perestroika course. The combination of structural problems and dramatic events made civil resistance unstoppable during the memorable fall of 1989.


Instead of being merely seen as a collapse of Communism, the Wende of 1989 ought to be interpreted as a contestation which began as a movement to reform socialism and ended up in a veritable revolution by overthrowing it altogether. Communism did not just crumble from above but was rather overthrown by mass pressure from below. The early stages of the confrontation between the dissidents, restive population and Communist cadres followed the traditional script of mounting unrest in which a broad spectrum of regime critics tried to recapture public space in order to express its frustration more freely. The recovery of an increasing measure of human rights then allowed opposition groups to organize openly and to mount a public challenge. Be­tween September and November 1989 the chanted slogans and written demands escalated in a predictable pattern from calls for free speech to criticism of specific policies to the replacement of the regime as such. The Communist rulers did not abandon their power, but sought to preserve it by authorizing a public dialogue that eventually escaped their control.

The democratic awakening of 1989 deviated from the established pattern of revolutionary bloodshed, however, by remaining nonviolent and ultimately transferring power through negotiations in a process that resembled a pacted transition. Though the protests teetered on the brink of violence initially, the massive security forces did not shoot (except in Romania) since the protesting citizens followed the call of religious leaders to remain non-violent. Because the weakening regime made reluctant concessions such as the opening of the Wall on November 9, the opposition negotiated with the ruling party in a series of Round Tables that maintained public order by opening a channel for the demands for change. Even the emotional confrontations over the dissolution of the secret service, called Stasi in the GDR, remained peaceful, since citizen committees succeeded in occupying its headquarters and sealing the remaining files. Ultimately it was the agreement on free elections which each side could hope to win that allowed the question of power to be decided by the ballot box rather than by violence on the streets.

Another major difference from many prior revolutions was the national impetus which dissolved the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, but also led to German unification. In the former case, the long suppressed desires for ethno-national independence led to the break-up of the Russian Empire as well as the dissolution of two important Versailles states, thereby largely restoring the map of Brest-Litowsk. In the latter instance, unification provided the most rapid form of transformation into a post-Communist mold, characterized by democratic politics, market-style economics, a Western welfare state and cultural pluralism. The overwhelming vote of East German citizens in March 1990 for rapid unity compelled the last GDR government to sign the unification treaty and to join the Federal Republic in the form of five new states. The two-plus-four negotiations led to international approval for this reordering of Central Europe by getting the Red Army to leave and the Germans to accept the Potsdam frontiers. While the gradual nature of the transition in Poland and Hungary has been called a “refolution,” the quicker protest driven changes in the GDR and Czechoslovakia ought to be considered a real revolution, through the Bulgarian and Rumanian transitions rather resembled palace coups.


Proof of the revolutionary nature of the upheaval is also the thoroughness of the post-Com­mu­nist transformation that left hardly any sphere of life, be it public or private, untouched. The domestic transition from dictatorship to democracy was complicated by the lack of popular experience with parlia­mentary government, the involvement of former Communist cadres and the impor­tation of a functioning democratic system from the FRG in East Germany. The introduction of a market economy turned out to be even more traumatic, since the concurrent adjustment to global competition destroyed much moribund industry and thereby created massive unemployment. Also the social reorientation from state-subsidized egalitarianism and group solidarity to individual responsibility and competitive restratification was not easy. In contrast, intellectuals and the public welcomed the return of cultural pluralism because it increased creative freedom and offered more interesting popular entertainment.

On the whole the international repercussions of the dissolution of the Soviet bloc were less contentious for Eastern Europe, since the various peoples regained a measure of self-determi­nation. The end of the Cold War hastened the departure of the Russian troops, a precondition for independence, and efforts at disarmament reduced the fear of nuclear annihilation. The massive costs of unification also kept the Germans from becoming an openly hegemonic power, forcing them instead to concentrate on the task of rehabilitating the five new member states and the new old capital of Berlin. No doubt, the nationalism which reemerged from under the cover of social­ist internationalism also lead to ugly confrontations, but the civil war in the former Yugoslavia remained an exception, predicated upon an earlier history of deep-seated Balkan enmities. The lifting of the Iron Curtain allowed the East Central Europeans to reconnect with Western Europe by joining NATO and the EU, thereby reuniting the Old Continent and stabilizing the new post-Communist governments.

The price of freedom has been a wrenching adjustment that was underestimated during the heady days of 1989 and has led to resentment among displaced elites and disappointment among former dissidents. Western-style democracy has turned out to be a distant and cumbersome process, not at all similar to the excitement of direct participation during the revolutionary months. Moreover, coping with economic competition, dealing with unemploy­ment and facing insecurity was hard for many people, accustomed to the safety-net of socialist control. Western financial transfers and investments had strings of outside control attached and the staggering amount needed, 1.5 trillion Euros in the German case alone, was never enough in order to create “flouri­shing land­scapes” over night. At the same time the psychological adjustment that was required by the new circumstances proved difficult for a population which had gotten used to suppressing its feelings, but now had to express them in public in order to gain attention. The depth of the domestic trans­formation, international restructuring and personal adaptation indicates that this was, indeed, a revolutionary change.

The concept that comes closest to describing the exhilarating events of 1989 is the notion of a new kind of revolution, stemming from “people power.” In contrast to earlier caesuras of the 20th century, the fall of the Wall was neither the product of a world war nor of a dictatorship.  Instead the democratic awakening can be seen as the last instance of attempts to liberalize Communism, but unlike in 1953, 1956, 1968 or 1981 it succeeded because it was not stopped by force. Hence it might be interpreted as a result of civil resistance which initially sought to democratize socia­lism but ultimately overthrew it altogether. Both the process and the result were revolutionary because they were driven by popular demands for a fundamental political, economic, social and cultural transformation of Eastern Europe. But this revolution was different from many prior contestations because it was successful, peaceful and in some cases also national. By toppling Communism the dissidents and people of Eastern Europe created a new model of negotiated transition, successfully imitated in the Ukraine and Serbia. Even if the repression in China and Iran shows that it cannot be repeated everywhere, is this not reason enough to celebrate?

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