Revolutions of 1989

Revolutions of 1989
Part of the Cold War
West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate in 1989.jpg
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989
Date9 March 1989 – 27 April 1992
(3 years, 1 month, 2 weeks and 4 days)
LocationCentral and Eastern Europe
Caused by
MethodsMass protests
Civil unrest
Coup attempt (in the Soviet Union, in August 1991)
Resulted in
Parties to the civil conflict
Citizens of Eastern Bloc nations
Also known as: Fall of Communism, Fall of Stalinism, Collapse of Communism, Collapse of Socialism, Fall of Socialism, Autumn of Nations, Fall of Nations, European Spring
An animated series of maps showing the fall of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union which later leads to some conflicts in the post-Soviet space

The Revolutions of 1989 formed part of a revolutionary wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond. The period is sometimes called the Autumn of Nations,[4][5][6][7][8] a play on the term "Spring of Nations" that is sometimes used to describe the Revolutions of 1848.

The events of the full-blown revolution first began in Poland in 1989[9][10] and continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. One feature common to most of these developments was the extensive use of campaigns of civil resistance, demonstrating popular opposition to the continuation of one-party rule and contributing to the pressure for change.[11] Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country whose citizens overthrew its Communist regime violently.[12] Protests in Tiananmen Square (April to June 1989) failed to stimulate major political changes in China, but influential images of courageous defiance during that protest helped to precipitate events in other parts of the globe. On 4 June 1989 the trade union Solidarity won an overwhelming victory in a partially free election in Poland, leading to the peaceful fall of Communism in that country in the summer of 1989. Hungary began (June 1989) dismantling its section of the physical Iron Curtain, leading to an exodus of East Germans through Hungary, which destabilised East Germany. This led to mass demonstrations in cities such as Leipzig and subsequently to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which served as the symbolic gateway to German reunification in 1990.

The Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991, resulting in 11 new countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan) which had declared their independence from the Soviet Union in the course of the year, while the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) regained their independence in September 1991. The rest of the Soviet Union, which constituted the bulk of the area, became the Russian Federation in December 1991. Albania and Yugoslavia abandoned Communism between 1990 and 1992. By 1992, Yugoslavia had split into five successor states: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was later renamed Serbia and Montenegro in 2003 and eventually split into two states, Serbia and Montenegro, in 2006. Serbia was then further split with the breakaway of the partially recognised state of Kosovo in 2008. Czechoslovakia dissolved three years after the end of Communist rule, splitting peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.[13] The impact of these events made itself felt in several Socialist countries. Communism was abandoned in countries such as Cambodia (1991), Ethiopia (1990), Mongolia (which in 1990 democratically re-elected a Communist government that ran the country until 1996) and South Yemen (1990).

During the adoption of varying forms of market economy, there was a general decline in living standards, that for many former communist countries continues to this day.[14] Political reforms were varied, but in only four countries were Communist parties able to retain a monopoly on power: China, Cuba, Laos and Vietnam (North Korea went through a constitutional reform in 2009 that made it nominally no longer communist but still de facto organised on Stalinist lines). Many Communist and Socialist organisations in the West turned their guiding principles over to social democracy. Communist parties in Italy and San Marino suffered, and the reformation of the Italian political class took place in the early 1990s. (In South America, however, the Pink tide had begun, starting with Venezuela in 1999 and sweeping through the early 2000s.) The European political landscape changed drastically, with several former Eastern Bloc countries joining NATO and the European Union, resulting in stronger economic and social integration with Western Europe and the United States.


Development of the Eastern Bloc

The fourth congress of the Polish United Workers' Party, held in 1963.
Queue waiting to enter a store, a typical view in Poland in the 1980s

Socialism had been gaining momentum among working class citizens of the world since the 19th century. These culminated in the early 20th century when several states and colonies formed their own communist parties. Many of the countries involved had hierarchical structures with monarchic governments and aristocratic social structures with an established nobility. Socialism was undesirable within the circles of the ruling classes (which had begun to include industrial business leaders) in the late 19th/early 20th century states; as such, communism was repressed. Its champions suffered persecution while people were discouraged from adopting it. This had been the practice even in states which identified as exercising a multi-party system.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw the first communist state in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Romanov dynasty.

During the period between the world wars, communism had been on the rise in many parts of the world, especially in towns and cities. This led to a series of purges in many countries to stifle the movement. Violent resistance to this repression led to an increase in support for communism in Central and Eastern Europe.

In the early stages of World War II, both Nazi Germany and the USSR invaded and occupied the countries of Eastern Europe after the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. Germany then turned against and invaded the USSR: the battles of this Eastern Front were the largest in history. The USSR joined with the Allies and in conferences at Tehran and Yalta, the Allies agreed that Central and Eastern Europe would be in the "Soviet sphere of political influence.". The USSR fought the Germans to a standstill and finally began driving them back, reaching Berlin before the end of the war. Nazi ideology was violently anti-communist, and the Nazis brutally suppressed communist movements in the countries it occupied. Communists played a large part in the resistance to the Nazis in these countries. As the Soviets forced the Germans back, they assumed temporary control of these devastated areas.

After World War II, the Soviets ensured that communists loyal to Moscow took power in the countries it occupied. The Soviets retained troops throughout these territories. The Cold War saw these states, bound together by the Warsaw Pact, have continuing tensions with the capitalist west, bound together by NATO. The Chinese Revolution established communism in China in 1949.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a spontaneous nationwide anti-authoritarian revolt, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to assert control. Similarly, in 1968, the USSR repressed the Prague Spring by organizing the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Emergence of Solidarity in Poland

Labour turmoil in Poland during 1980 had led to the formation of the independent trade union, Solidarity, led by Lech Wałęsa, which over time became a political force. On 13 December 1981, Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski started a crackdown on Solidarity by declaring martial law in Poland, suspending the union, and temporarily imprisoning all of its leaders.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Although several Eastern bloc countries had attempted some abortive, limited economic and political reform since the 1950s (e.g. the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and Prague Spring of 1968), the ascension of reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled the trend toward greater liberalization. During the mid-1980s, a younger generation of Soviet apparatchiks, led by Gorbachev, began advocating fundamental reform in order to reverse years of Brezhnev stagnation. After decades of growth, the Soviet Union was now facing a period of severe economic decline and needed Western technology and credits[clarification needed] to make up for its increasing backwardness. The costs of maintaining its military, the KGB, subsidies to foreign client states etc., further strained the moribund Soviet economy.

The first signs of major reform came in 1986 when Gorbachev launched a policy of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union, and emphasized the need for perestroika (economic restructuring). By the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union had not only experienced lively media debate, but had also held its first multi-candidate elections in the newly established Congress of People's Deputies. While glasnost ostensibly advocated openness and political criticism, these were only permitted within a narrow spectrum dictated by the state. The general public in the Eastern bloc was still subject to secret police and political repression.

Gorbachev urged his Central and Southeast European counterparts to imitate perestroika and glasnost in their own countries. However, while reformists in Hungary and Poland were emboldened by the force of liberalization spreading from the east, other Eastern bloc countries remained openly skeptical and demonstrated aversion to reform. Believing Gorbachev's reform initiatives would be short-lived, hardline communist rulers like East Germany's Erich Honecker, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, Czechoslovakia's Gustáv Husák and Romania's Nicolae Ceauşescu obstinately ignored the calls for change.[15] "When your neighbor puts up new wallpaper, it doesn't mean you have to too," declared one East German politburo member.[16]

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