Daily Archives: 1 March 2023

Eastern Europe, 1989: Retrospective

From The Making of Eastern Europe: From Prehistory to Postcommunism, by Philip Longworth (Lume Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 7-9:

In 1989, the bicentenary year of the French Revolution, another ancien regime began to crumble. One by one, with an exhilarating, even alarming, rapidity, most of the Communist governments in Eastern Europe collapsed.

In June that year, in the first free elections to be held in Poland since before World War Two, Solidarity candidates overwhelmed the Communists. In the same month the hero of the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Imre Nagy, was posthumously rehabilitated, and the frontier with Austria was opened. Soon the revolution gained momentum. Hard-liners were ousted from leadership in the Party and government in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria as well as Hungary and Poland. In all these countries preparations were swiftly made for free, multi-party elections and for economic liberalization. In November the Berlin Wall was breached, and the process was completed on 22 December with the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaucescu of Romania.

In some countries the transition was smooth and relatively peaceful; but in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania there were huge demonstrations and blood was shed. It was widely assumed at the time that the people had made the revolution, and that popular dissidents like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa had played the decisive roles. Yet important though their contributions were, it seems at the time of writing (March 1991) that the achievement was not theirs alone. The revolution, it transpired, had required not only crowds and stars, but scene-setters and technicians. President Gorbachev had written at least part of the script, and the KGB, it seems, had directed certain key scenes as consummately as Havel might have done himself.

Erich Honecker attributed his own overthrow to the Kremlin, working through its advisers in the East German security service. It transpired that the spark which ignited the Czech revolution, the death of a student demonstrator at the hands of the police, was faked by KGB agents in conjunction with the Czech secret police. In Romania the impending arrest of a dissident pastor in the town of Timisoara was announced well in advance to guarantee a public reaction; prominent opposition figures, several of whom had recently visited Moscow, were already inside the building from which Ceaucescu delivered his last tedious harangue; and the Securitate’s loyalty to the regime turned out, like some of the casualty reports, to have been somewhat exaggerated. Though it may not have foreseen the anti-Communist stampede which followed, nor welcomed the rush to German re-unification, the Soviet Union had dismantled its own empire in Eastern Europe.

The Soviet Union was itself in the toils of radical and at times uncontrollable change, of course. The process had been in train since 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and initiated his policies of ‘openness’ (glasnost’) and ‘restructuring’ (perestroika). In October 1989 a further significant step was taken when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided to abandon its political monopoly, its so-called ‘leading role’. Since the Soviet leadership itself was rejecting the ideological rigidities of ‘Marxism-Leninism’, giving scope to democratic opposition and encouraging free enterprise and foreign investment, it was no longer appropriate for its satellites to retain the old, discredited, practices. Besides, the Soviet Empire had become too expensive to maintain.

In particular, the Soviet Union could no longer afford to subsidize the rest of the Bloc with cheap energy, often supplied on credit, rather than selling her precious resources for hard currency at world prices. The huge military establishment had become too costly too, as had the welfare structure and the feather-bedding which characterized the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. The infrastructures of these countries had become decrepit, investment was short, and, except in Romania, there were huge foreign debt accumulations. In these circumstances it was recognized that the needs of the people, still less the aspirations of the rising generation, could not continue to be met without fundamental, systemic change. In short, the great edifice that Stalin built had been discovered to be unsound. The crumbling structure had to be condemned and hastily dismantled.

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