Anna M. Cienciala (
History 557 Lecture Notes
Spring 2002 (Revised Dec. 2003; summer 2008, Nov. 2009, October 2010)
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19B. 1989. The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.


 It is worth noting that this sudden collapse came as a surprise not only to Gorbachev and East European communists, but also to most western experts on the Soviet bloc. It is true that Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born political scientist ( Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter, 1976-1980), predicted the collapse of the communist system in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but he did not foresee it happening as fast as it did. Another western specialist, Antony Polonsky (at that time a historian of Poland in Britain), was shown  in an ABC documentary in summer 1989 speaking on the collapse of communism (Program broadcast in December 1989). He expected the transition from communism to democracy in East Central Europe to take at least five years. *

*[Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Failure. The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century, New York, 1989; the book was finished in August 1988. The 1989 ABC documentary on the Fall of Communism, featuring Polonsky, was anchored by Peter Jennings. Polonsky, general editor of the excellent series of volumes titled Polin on the history of Jews in Poland, moved to the United Staes and holds the Chair of Judaic Studies at Brandeis University].


I. Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany.

1. Poland.

Divisions in the Polish party leadership.

  As mentioned earlier, there were divisions within the leadership. It is known that heated debates over policy took place at the Party’s Central Committee Plenum meetings on December 20-21, 1988, and January 16-17, 1989. In the first round, Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski declared his support for an attempt to reach a general understanding with the "constructive opposition" (presumably those viewed as moderates). He asked whether, in view of the bad economic situation, the party leadership should or should not allow the re-legalization of Solidarity. The party members attending were to answer in the second round of the Plenum in January.

On January 16-17 1989, the "reform communists" led by the General Jaruzelski, Premier M. Rakowski, Interior Minister General Czeslaw Kiszczak, and Defense Minister General Florian Siwicki, faced a massive attack by the hardliners, who could count on the support of Soviet hardliner opponents of Gorbachev in Moscow. However, in Warsaw, when the reformers threatened to resign and the generals supported Jaruzelski, the opposition retreated. The Plenum cast a vote of confidence in the Politburo and approved a draft resolution on the Central Committee’s stand regarding political and trade union pluralism. The resignation of the Polish leadership was unthinkable due to the support they enjoyed of the Soviet President, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and its Polish hardline opponents failed to stop the road to a compromise solution.The way was now open to talks between the government and the opposition. *

*[On the interaction between Gorbachev's reform policies in the USSR and the political liberalization in East CentralEurope, see Mark Kramer, "Gorbachev and the demise of East European communism" in: Silvio Pons and Federico Romero eds., Reinterpreting the End of the Cold War: Issues, Interpretatiions, Periodization, New York, 2005, pp. 179-200.]

In the meanwhile, Solidarity leaders formed a "Civic Committee (Komitet Obywatelski) headed by NSZZ Solidarity leader Lech Walesa", to work and coordinate a plan of action, so when the Party leadership made new proposals the Civic Committee could discuss them and agree on how to react.

The Civic Committee,established on December 18, 1988, consisted of 135 people, but its core was made up of "the Sixty," that is, the group which, together with Walesa, exercised decisive influence on policy. It was led by Bronislaw Geremek, He was an internationally respected historian and adviser to Walesa since the founding of "Solidarity" in Gdansk, Aug. 31, 1980.* Tadeusz Mazowiecki, editor of the underground, weekly solidarity paper, Mazowsze,was a prominent member.The committee did not include critics of Walesa and his advisers. These outsiders, whose most famous members were Anna Walentynowicz and Andrzej Gwiazda, opposed any negotiations with the government. They were to form the core of Walesa's future critics and enemies.

* [Bronislaw Geremek, 1932-2008, specialized in the history of the homeless, wandering poor in medieval Europe; he had a political career from fall 1989 until his untimely death in a car accident.]

In January 1989, the Polish party authorities proposed the re-legalization of Solidarity if Walesa guaranteed there would be no strikes in Poland for two years; he refused, although he did end some strikes. Then the authorities proposed negotiations with the aim of co-opting the opposition, but the latter rejected this.

Some Polish historians writing after 2000 see the reports of Security Police agents on Solidarity advisers' meetings as proof of their being "manipulated" by the government. There is no evidence of this, however, in the hardline stands taken by S advisers, esp. the Civic Committee, against government attempts to co-opt it into a power-sharing arrangement.

Due to the Civic Committee's refusal of the above, the two sides agreed to hold negotiations in the Roundtable Talks which lasted from Feb. 9 to April 6, 1989. They included 452 people. The three main working groups discussed the economy, political reform and trade union pluralism . The main points of the  Round Table Agreement were:

(1) Solidarity was to be re-legalized;

(2) Strikes were to be legal, and people punished for striking in the past were to be compensated;

(3) the Judiciary was to be independent;

(4) the Economy was to be based on the free market, but wages were to be indexed up to 80% of price hikes (This was  forced through by Alfred Miodowicz, leader of the official Trade Union).

(5) the Senate (abolished by the Communists in 1947) was to be re-established with 100 members as the upper house, although the Lower House (Sejm, pron. Seym) with 460 members, was to have legislative power.

(6) Elections were to be held in May or June - but 60% of the seats in the Lower House were reserved for the United Polish Workers’ Party (Communist) and its two satellites: the Democratic and Peasant Parties, except for 5% for certain Catholic organizations. Thus, only 35% of the seats could be contested freely in elections to the Sejm.

(7) the Ministries of the Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Defense were to be in communist hands.

(8 )The office of President was created, or rather re-established. He was to have absolute power in the above three policy areas. He could also impose a state of emergency (martial law).

(9) The President, to be elected by the Sejm and Senate for 6 years -- was clearly to be Jaruzelski. *

*[For an account of the preparatory talks in late 1988 and of the negotiations and agreements of 1989, see A. Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism. A Cold War History (Cambridge, England, 2008), ch.14, 15.]

[Round Table photo from: The Road to Independence. Solidarnosc 1980-2005, by Antoni Dudek et al.,Translated by Robert Strybel, Oficyna Wydawnicza Volumen, Komisja Krajowa NSZZ 'Solidaranosc,'Warsaw, 2005.]


click here enlarge

"Ludzie okraglego stolu" (The Round Table People), Polityka,, Jan. 3, 2009, pp.26-27.



As mentioned earlier, some prominent Solidarity members, including Anna Walentynowicz and Andrzej Gwiazda, as well as many of the rank-and-file, opposed any talks with the government. In early March, JACEK KURON, the chief Solidarity strategist, said of the ongoing Round Table Talks that "not only is it possible [to negotiated with the govenment], but we in fact had no choice." To counter those who said there was no guarantee the government would honor an agreement with Solidarity, he answered that the only guarantee of any agreement reached was "an organized society." The government proposed free elections in four years and Kuron argued that Solidarity had the opportunity to stabilize a democratic system. Besides, he forecast accurately that: "In four years, Solidarity and the Communist Party will not be opposing each other. I think that the party will split up and so will the opposition."He said that what was happening in Poland -- and must be happening with Gorbachev's approval -- "is a decisive experiment for the [Soviet] bloc. Finally, he said: "Of course, there is the possible scenario in which the Soviet Union collapses. In that situation, we will build independence and democracy from the ground up." * (This is what happened.0

*[Jacek Kuron, "Zamiast rewolucji" (Intead of Revolution", Tygodnik Mazowsze (Mazowsze Weekly), March 8, 1989, translation in: Padraic Kenney, ed., 1989: Democratic Revolutions at the Cold War's End. A Brief History with Documents, The Bedford Series in History and Culture, Boston, New York, 2010, pp. 75-78.

Bronislaw Geremek (1932-2008) played the key role in coordinating the Solidarity side of the talks.He later became Foreign Minister of Poland, and was still later elected as a Polish member of the European Parliament. His death in a car accident on July 13, 2008 led to several articles in the western -- and of course also the Polish -- press, in which he was evaluated as a great statesman.*

*[see, for eg. Timothy Garton Ash, "Historian and history maker. The death of my friend Bronislaw Geremek is a grave loss not just for Poland, but all of Europe," The Guardian, July 15, 2008, online edition:; see also obituary in The Economist, printed version, July 24, 2008]


[Bronislaw Geremek, with the EU (United Europe) flag behind him at the first sitting of the European Parliament with the participation of deputies from new member states, Strasburg, July 20 2004. This and subsequent photos from: Teresa Bochwic, III RZECZPOSPOLITA W ODCINKACH. Kalendarium wydarzen styczen 1989- maj 2004 (The Third Republic in Segments. Calendar of Events, January 1989 - May 2004), Arcana, Krakow, 2005.]

As noted earlier, Jaruzelski and his supporters, known as "Reform Communists," had to fight hardliners within the party but they had the support of Gorbachev, who had to keep his own hardliners at bay in Moscow. At the same time, during the Round Table Talks, the Solidarity team constantly consulted with American advisers at the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw. The Americans always advised moderation, because President George W. Bush was understandably anxious to prevent weakening Gorbachev and thus encourating his hardliner opponents. *

*[For American involvement see the reminisciences of American diplomats and scholars: John R. Davis (then U.S. ambassador, Warsaw), "Some Reflections on 1989 in Poland,"Polish Review, vol. XLIV [54] no. 4, 1999; see also Robert Hutchings Jr., "Poland -- The Road to 1989," ibid., pp. 397- 400; and Thomas W. Simons, Jr., "American Policy and the Polish Road to 1989," ibid., pp. 401-405. Ambassador Davis' s much more detailed memories of the period appeared in the Polish Review, 2009, no. 2.]

Later, Solidarity leaders were criticized for signing these Round Table Agreements, notably the restricted or "contract" elections to the Sejm, the Jaruzelski Presidency and the ministries reserved for communists ( held for only a few months). They replied that at the time they feared that failure to reach agreement would put the hardliners in power, and the latter would crush all attempts at meaningful reform. Also, there were still Soviet troops stationed at bases in Poland. In reminiscing about the Round Table agreements Henryk Wujec (pron. Wooyets) said that he and other Solidarity leaders did not expect the Polish people to vote against the Communists, as they did.

A former communist minister, Stanislaw Ciosek (b.1939), said the accusation that the Round Table agreements were a conspiracy or a betrayal of the workers (a charge made by Polish right wingers, especially the PiS party led by the Kaczynski brothers), is completely wrong. The communist reformers were hoping to reanimate the party. Mazowiecki said that Solidarity leaders always hoped for change by reaching an understanding with the government, while the latter tried to bypass Solidarity. He stated that Solidarity leaders thought they would share responsibility for the country for a while, but later it became clear that they would have to create a new government. The agreements, he said, were a compromise, but not on the conditions set by the government. Everything really depended on the Gorbachev staying in power in the USSR.

President George W. Bush realized this; that is why he counselled moderation to the Polish S leaders. He also tried to persuade the Ukrainians during his visit to Kiev, not to separate from the USSR. [Adam Leszczynski in Gazeta Wyborcza, 12/23/08]


Signing final documents in the group negotiating political reforms

(Janusz Reykowski and Bronislaw Geremek)

[from: Marody, Dlugi Final].

Signing final documents in the group negotiating Trade Union pluralism.

(Left to right: Jerzy Stepien, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Aleksander Kwasniewski).

[From: Marody, Dlugi Final].

(Former enemies sit down together: from left to right: T.Mazowiecki, Cz. Kiszczak, L.Walesa, W. Jaruzelski, B.Geremek, M. Rakowski, Bishop T. Goclawski. This was the organizational meeting to set up a liaison commission.)
[From: Marody, Dlugi Final].

It is clear the communists expected to win the elections because they had the organizational structures, control of the media, and money. Indeed, the Polish United Workers' Party (PUWP, Polish acromym, PZPR) borrowed several million dollars from the Soviet Communist Party for the election campaign. Also, it was agreed that candidates were not to list party affiliations. However, each Solidarity candidate had his picture taken with Walesa and these pictures were plastered all over the country.

Also, at almost the last memoment before voters went to the polls, a group of Solidarity activists in Warsaw distributed appeals telling them to cross off the ballot all the Communist candidates -- which they proceeded to do!

The "Walesa Team."

[From: Sergiusz Kowalski, Narodziny III Rzeczypospolitej (The Birth of the Third Republic),Warsaw, 1996].

Also, a poster printed in Italy showed Gary Cooper in a stance from the classical film, "High Noon"-- carrying a paper that said "Solidarnosc." This showed people it was high time to vote against communist candidates and "non-party" candidates put up by the PZPR.


The Communists lost the election held on June 4, 1989. Polish voters not only elected S candidates for 161 out of the 162 Sejm seats allowed to S and 99 out of the 100 Senate seats (free elections there), but most also crossed off on their ballots the names of almost all known communist and communist-nominated candidates for the seats allotted to them! This was a crushing and public defeat for the communists, who managed to get only 3 seats on the regional lists and 1 country list seat.

This first communist defeat in an election held in the former Soviet bloc was, however -- and still is years later -- overshadowed in world media by the Chinese government’s massacre of students demonstrating for democracy in Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

Nevertheless, as the first premier of post-communist Poland, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, put it twenty years later, on June 4, 2009, he wished western leaders would acknowledge the fact that the Berlin Wall would not have fallen if the the Poles had not defeated their communists on June 4 of 1989.

Walesa agreed to run-off elections and a few communist leaders were elected toto the lower hosue of parliament.However, the parties formerly allied with the PZPR, the Social Democrats and the Polish Peasant Party, teamed up with Solidarity deputies to form the majority in the Sejm (House of Representatives). After this, two communist Premiers tried and failed to form a new government. Therefore, Jaruzelski asked Walesa to propose three names for the post of Premier. His choice was Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who formed the first non-Communist majority government in E. Europe on August 24, 1989. (For his biography, see Wikipedia.)


The Mazowiecki government; standing: Jacek Kuron.

[From: Kowalski, Narodziny III Reczypospolitej (The Birth of the Third Republic)].

The Statue of Feliks Dzierzynski,* is taken down in Warsaw.

From: Kowalski, Narodziny III Rzeczypospolitej, 1995

*[Dzierzynski, a Polish communist, was the first head of the "Cheka," ancestor of the OGPU, NKVD, KGB, MVD, and of the present Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB].

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Polish elections, on June 2, 3, 2009, some Polish intellectuals argued that Jaruzelski should be invited to the celebrations because he did not use force to invalidate the election results and crush Solidarity. . Back in Aug. 1988, however, the Committee for the Defense of the Country, chaired by Jaruzelski, had authorized the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs to start planning the imposition of martial law and the ministry made preparations for a crackdown in June 1989. It seems, therefore, that if Moscow had given the go ahead sign, there might well have been a crackdown in Poland. *

*[I wish to thank Prof. Mark N. Kramer of Harvard, the leading American expert on this period, for the information given above, some of it from recently declassified documents, AMC 2009.]

The Soviet leader, Gorbachev, however, made it clear that he supported Solidarity's electoral victory. In a speech before the European Parliament in July 1989, he said the USSR would respect "the absolute right of every nation to choose its own social system as it sees fit."

President George W. Bush visited Poland in July and advised the new Polish government to support Jaruzelski for President. He was elected as such by the Sejm for 6 years - but with only a one vote majority and abstentions. (He resigned in September 1990, and Walesa was elected President by popular vote in Dec 1990).*

*[See R.J. Brown, The Surge to Freedom, ch.3, also Gale Stokes, The Walls Come Tumbling Down. The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, (Oxford, 1993), ch.4, and same, ed, From Stalinism to Pluralism. A Documentary History of Eastern Europe since 1945, 2nd edition, (Oxford,1996), pp. 224-231; see also Kemp-Welch, Poland under Communism, ch. 14; Padraic Kenney,The Carnival of Revolution, 2004. For an economic study, see Bartlomiej Kaminski, The Collapse of State Socialism. The Case of Poland, (Princeton, N.J., 1991).]

When people think of the collapse of communism in Central Europe, they think of the breach of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. However, this would not have been possible without the Polish "negotiated revolution" which began the process of Communist collapse in Central and Eastern Europe, and of course, without Gorbachev's decision not to use force.

The Polish revolution soon affected the Baltic States and Soviet Ukraine. A 5-man Solidarity delegation visited Kiev for the founding congress of the Ukrainian opposition "Rukh" movement on Sept. 8-10, 1989. The Poles were received enthusiastically twith a Polish flag emblazoned on the Solidarity logo. Gorbachev was worried; he did not want to see Ukraine separating from the USSR, so when President G.W. Bush visited Kiev he appealed to the Ukrainians not to rock the Soviet boat. He didn't want Moscow hardliners to overthrow Gorbachev.*

*[Indeed, the Russian party hardliners tried to do this in August 1991, but Boris Yeltsin rallied military and popular support against them. He took over power from Gorbachev at the end of Dec. 1991, when the USSR also collapsed. Yeltsin was first thePresident of the Russian Republic, and, after the dissolution of the USSR, President of the Russian Federation; he was re-elected as president and held the post to Dec. 1999, by which time he had lost the support of most of the Russian people due to the economic downturn that followed the collapse of the USSR. Yeltsin died on April 23 2007 and was given a state funeral in the Church of the Savior, which had been destroyed by Stalin and rebuilt by Moscow's famous mayor, Yuri Luzkhov. (He was finally dismissed by President Dmitri Medvyedev in early October 2010.)

Yeltsin was succeeded as president by his hand picked successor,Vladimir Putin, elected and re-elected as President,who held the post to May 2008. He became Prime Minister under his handpicked successor as President, Dmitry Medvedev, elected on 7 May, 2008. ]

2. Hungary.

Here, as in Poland, "reform communists" led by Imre Pozsgay - who enjoyed Gorbachev’s support - maneuvered for power. As noted earlier, Janos Kadar resigned as lst Secretary in summer 1988 to be succeeded by Karoly Grosz. Also, hundreds of Hungarian discussion clubs as well political groups came into existence beginning with the fall of 1988.

Pozsgay as well as the anti-communist opposition, were encouraged by public declarations from Moscow that the USSR would not intervene in Hungarian internal affairs, esp. Gorbachev's speech to this effect in March 1989. The leading opposition group was the Alliance of Young Democrats, which was tolerated by the government. Indeed, the ruling party, the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, HSWP, declared in January1989 that it was committed to a return to political pluralism.

In May 1989, Hungarian border guards took down the barbed wire and watch towers on the frontier with Austria. Hungarians see this as beginning the fall of communism, but the defeat of the Polish communists in the election of June 4, 1989, is generally seen as beginning this process.

On June 16 1989, the reburial of Imre Nagy and those of his collaborators, who had been executed with him and buried in unmarked grave,s marked the official rehabilitation of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.* Janos Kadar died three weeks later.


from: Lyman H. Legters, Eastern Europe.Transformation and Revolution, 1945-1991, Lexington, Mass, Toronto, 1992.

*[see Timothy Garton Ash, "The Last Funeral," The Magic Lantern, New York, 1990, pp. 47-60, reprinted in Lyman H. Legters, ed., Eastern Europe. Transformation and Revolution, 1945-1991, (Lexington, Mass.,Toronto, 1992), pp.435-443].

In July 1989, President George H.W. Bush visited Hungary - from Poland - and insisted on meeting publicly with the opposition party leaders. This influenced further developments in Hungary.

In September 1989, a group of Hungarian opposition parties, called the " National Roundtable," which had negotiated with the authorities in the period June-September, reached a series of agreements with the ruling party on September 18. These included  the election of the President by the Legislature and  free elections the following year. However, some parties led by the Alliance of Free Democrats did not accept the agreement, insisting that the President be elected by popular vote, and not by the legislature. (This was to exclude the election of Pozsgay). A referendum was held and the results supported the popular election of the president.

Also in September, thousands of East Germans who had come to Hungary as to tourists, were allowed to proceed to cross into Austria and then proceed to West Germany. This whole procedure had been planned secretly by the Hungarian and W. German governments and approved by Gorbachev, so the East German party leader, Erich Honecker, had to agree. The mass exodus of East German tourists from Hungary, and then from Czechoslovakia, marked the beginning of the end for communist rule in the German People's Republic.

On October 18th, the Hungarian parliament changed the name of the Hungarian state from the Hungarian People’s Republic to the Hungarian Republic, and restored the old Hungarian flag. On Oct. 23rd 1989, thirty-three years to the day after the outbreak of the revolution of 1956, the Hungarian Republic was officially proclaimed from the balcony of the parliament building. The communists (now called socialists) finally lost power in the elections of late March - early April 1990. The first non-commnist coalition government was installed in May, led by Jozsef Antal, a former High School teacher, medical historian, and leader of the Democratic Forum party. .

Rudolf Tokes has listed 5 key factors in the success of the Hungarian "negotiated revolution," which can be paraphrased as follows:

(1) The Polish Roundtable Agreements of April 6, 1989 -- without which Karoly Grosz would have hesitated to embark on a similar process in Hungary;

(2) Aleksander N. Yakovlev’s interventions in the rivalry between Grosz, Nyers, and Pozsgay in spring-summer 1989, which made Grosz’s survival against the reformers impossible. (Yakovlev was a key adviser to Mikhail S. Gorbachev and carried out his policy of supporting reform communists in the former satellite states);

(3) Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu’s criticism of Hungarian "nationalist" tendencies and his oppression of Hungarians living in Romania, which helped the Hungarian Democratic Forum win the by-elections in summer 1989;

(4) Gorbachev's consent to Hungary opening the iron curtain when he did not oppose the Hungarian police tearing down the barbed wire on the Hungarian frontier with Austria in May 1989.This later allowed thousands of East Germans - who were in Hungary as tourists -to travel from Hungary to Austria, then on to West Germany in September;

(5) President George G.W. Bush’s insistence on meeting with Hungarian opposition party leaders in July, which eliminated the temptation for Grosz and his supporters to end their dialog with the "insurgents" (opposition) in that same month.*

*[For a detailed account of Hungarian events in 1989, see: R. Tokes, Hungary’s Negotiated Revolution, ch.7; the text of the Sept. 18, 1989 agreement is in appendix 7.1, pp. 356-360. See also J.F. Brown, Surge to Freedom, ch. 4, and Alfred Reisch, "Hungary in 1989: A Country in Transition," in Legters, Eastern Europe, pp. 443-449. See also the lively account of American journalist Michael Mayer, who was in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as Romania, covering events for Newsweek when communism was collapsing, The Year That]


3.The collapse of the German Democratic Republic.

As mentioned earlier, in September 1989 the Hungarian government allowed thousands of East German tourists to proceed from Hungary to Austria, whence they traveled to West Germany. (Note: Those who went from Czechoslovakia were allowed to travel through the GDR -- adjacent to Austria-- in sealed trains, so other East Germans could not board them).

The exodus from Hungary began in September, when the previous erratic flow of East Germans to Austria became a flood. It is estimated that some 120,000 East Germans reached West Germany in this way. The Hungarians sold bits of the barbed wire to Western European tourists as souvenirs.

In early October, Gorbachev visited the GDR on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its establishment (Oct. 7, 1949). He made it clear to the East German leader, Erich Honecker, that change was necessary, also that Soviet troops in the GDR (about 400,000) would not intervene to support the government. He publicly spoke of the need for change and was cheered enthusiastically by the crowds as the GDR party leaders glumly looked on.

Gorbachev’s statements sparked pro-democracy demonstrations all over the GDR, especially in Leipzig and Dresden. The German police beat up demonstrators in Dresden, but a bloodbath was averted in Leipzig either by the intervention of some local communist leaders, or more likely, by a phone call from Egon Krentz, member of the Politburo. Tension grew until Honecker resigned on October 18 to be succeeded by Krentz ,who presided over opening the Berlin wall on November 9.  This was, in fact, the result of a statement by another party leader, Gunther Schabowsky, who, when asked on TV when people could visit West Berlin answered: "right now."  Thus, the wall was breached on Nov. 9, 1989, and masses of people demonstrated for a united Germany. As Michael Meyer tells it -- on the basis of his talks with Krentz and Schabowsky, also another witness of these events --- the two leaders had agreed to let people cross to West Berlin the next day, Nov. 10, but Schabowsky misread the written agreement which qualified the decision as taken immediately "so fort", but to be implemented the next day. *


The opening of the BerlinWall, November 9, 1989.

from: Legters, Eastern Europe.,1992.
Krentz resigned, but for almost another year East Germany went through a process of democratization and reform. Finally, the unification of the two Germanies took place in October 1990. * (This story will taken up in Lec. Notes 20).

*[See: J.F.Brown, Surge to Freedom, ch. 5; Michael Meyer, The YearThat Changed the World. The Untold Story of the Berlin Wall, New York, London, 2009, Chapters 11 and 12].


4. The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.

The events in Poland, Hungary, and Germany were viewed by the Czechs on Austrian or German TV  On November 17, a student demonstration was crushed by police in Prague. However, when news came that a student had been killed (it turned out later that he was wounded), masses of people came out in protest and were soon joined by the workers.

On November 19, a committee came into being under the leadership of Vaclav Havel. It was made up of members of Charter 77 and moved from one theater to another, called the Magic Lantern Theater. They created an umbrella organization called the Civic Forum; it drew up demands, and soon gained the support of the people of Prague.
All were encouraged by Premier Ladislav Adamec’s declaration that there would be no imposition of martial law. Alexander Dubcek -- of Prague Spring fame, 1968 --arrived in Prague on November 24th, and supported the Civic Forum. Demonstrations continued and the workers threatened a general strike. Similar demonstrations took place in Slovakia.

The communists tried to mobilize support, but the communist National Assembly passed a resolution to delete from the constitution the article proclaiming the leading role of the Czechoslovak party.


from: The Velvet Revolution, 1992.

On Nov. 26, the Civic Forum members met with Premier Adamec, who proposed a coalition government of 21 members, of which 16 would be communists. This was rejected by the Civic Forum. On December 4th a huge demonstration called for a general strike on the. 11th if the govt. did not resign -- but it did.


from: Wheaton & Kavan, The Velvet Revolution, 1992.

The Catholic Church came out in support of the revolution. Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek, the Archbishop of Prague, declared at a thanksgiving mass for the canonization of St. Agnes of Bohemia, "At this momentous point in our history, the Catholic Church stands on the side of the nation." At this time, many Czechs called it "the revolution of St. Agnes." *

*[See Natalia O'Hara, "Velvet Recall. 'A Spiritual Revolution,'" Transitions on Line (TOL), 16 Nov. 2009. Agnes was a 13th c. Czech princess, sister of King Wenceslaus. The Czech Catholic church had been working for her canonization, which came in November 1989.]

Vaclav Havel, the playwright and writer who was soon to be president of the country, later called it "an artists' revolution."*

*[ Vaclav Havel, speech on receivng an honorary Ph.d. from the Institute of Political Studies, Paris, 22 October 2009.]

The extraordinary unity and peacefulness of masses of people in Prague, is recorded by journalists. Hhundreds of thousands jingled their keys to show it was time for the communists to give up power. They walked hand in hand from the Letna stadium -- where they heard Vaclav Havel speak and booed the communsit leader Ladislav Adameic --to Wenceslas square in the city center, peacefully through the falling snow. These scenes arei described by. Charles Meyer who was there. Of the walk from Letna Stadium he writes: "To this day, I can hardly remember it without tears." He also comments that the later stages of the revolutioin were expertly choreagraphed by Havel who was, after all, a playwright. *

*[Charles Mayer, The Year That Changed The World, New York, London, 2009, pp.179-190.].

President Gustav Husak swore in a new government. on December 19th. *It was made up of former dissidents and included Petr Miller for the workers. On December 28th, the National Assembly elected Dubcek as chairman (speaker) and on the next day, it elected Vaclav Havel -- the playwright and political dissident --as President. Thus, the " Velvet Revolution" overthrew communist rule in Czechoslovakia.(Of course, the Polish and Hungarian transitions to democracy were also non-violent, but the word Velvet is used for the Czechs.)

*[In his memoirs, To the Castle and Back, trans. Paul Wilson, (New York, Alfred Knopf, 2007), Havel credits the smooth organisation of the new government to former Premier Marian Calfa, who offered his advice on taking bureaucratic and other steps. Havel included Calfa in his new government.]

In his New Year’s Day speech, January 9, 1990, Havel analyzed the past and outlined the goals of the revolution. Some of his statements are well worth citing because they express his humane and balanced views, which, in turn, exemplify the best features of the Czech political tradition. Havel said:

All of us are responsible, each to a different degree, for keeping the totalitarian machine running. None of us is merely a victim of it, because all of us helped create it together...The recent times, especially the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution, have shown what an enormous generally humane, moral, and spiritual charge and what high standards of civic maturity lay dormant in our society under the mask of apathy that had been forced upon it...Of course, for our freedom today we also had to pay a price. Many of our people died in prison in the 1950s, many were executed, thousands of human lives were destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of talented people were driven abroad...

Neither should we forget that other nations paid an even higher price for their freedom today, and thus they also paid indirectly for us too. The rivers of blood which flowed in Hungary, Poland, Germany, and recently too in such a horrific way in Romania, as well as the sea of blood shed by the nations of the Soviet Union, should not be forgotten, primarily because human suffering affects every human being. But more than that, they should not be forgotten because it was these great sacrifices which wove the tragic backcloth for today’s freedom or gradual liberalization of the nations of the Soviet bloc, and the backcloth of our newly charged freedom too. Without the changes in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic, the developments in our country could hardly have happened, and if they had happened, they surely would not have had such a wonderful peaceful character.....

Masaryk founded his politics on morality. Let us try, in a new time and in a new way, to revive this concept of politics...

Our worst enemy today is our own bad qualities - indifference to public affairs, conceit, ambition, selfishness, the pursuit of personal advancement, and rivalry -- and that is the main struggle we are faced with...
Perhaps you are asking what kind of republic I have in mind. My reply is this: a republic that is independent, free, and democratic, with a prospering economy and also socially just – in short, a republic of the people that serves the people, and is therefore entitled to hope that the people will serve it too....

People, your government has returned to you!.. *

*[For Havel’s speech, see: G.Stokes, From Stalinism to Pluralism, 2nd ed., 1996, pp. 249-253. Thomas Masaryk was President of Czechoslovakia in 1919-35. On the Czechoslovak revolution of 1989, see: J.F.Brown, Surge to Freedom, ch.6; Bernard Wheaton & Zdenek Kavan, The Velvet Revolution, Part Two. For the Romanian revolution, see below.].

The Gorbachev Factor

It is clear that in Czechoslovakia, as in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany, communism fell not only because people wanted to get rid of it, but also because  Soviet leader Mikhail S.Gorbachev supported change and opposed the use of force to stop it. We do not know his thoughts on these events at the time,* but we can assume that he expected the Polish Roundtable Agreements would work out as he, the Polish party leaders --and Solidarity leaders-- expected, that is, the communists would win the elections and hold the levers of power while liberalizing the system, thus making it more popular. No one expected people to write the communist candidates for parliament off the ballots, and thus out of power. Indeed, the call for writing the communists off the ballots came just before the elections took place.

*[Gorbachev does not say anything about his thoughts on E. Europe in 1989 in his Memoirs, published in English translation in New York, 1996. He only speaks about Soviet relations with Socialist countries at the beginning of his tenure as lst Secretary. For the best analysis of Gorbachev's policy and the interaction between it and the events in Eastern Europe, see Mark Kramer's article cited earlier in this Lecture.]

When it turned out that thiings would not work out as expected, Gorbachev decided to accept the fall of communism in Poland and then the other former satellites of the USSR. He most likely did so because using Soviet force to prop it up would have destroyed the good relations he had established with the United States and risk renewing the Cold War. It would also have strengthened the hardliners in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party who opposed his policies.Whatever his motives, the world owes a great deal to this Russian statesman. ** (We should also note that Gorbachev met with President George W. Bush at Malta, Dec. 2-3 1989, during the Czechoslovak "Velvet Revolution.")

**[Karen Dawisha was probably close to guessing Gorbachev's thinking when she wrote: "Gorbachev may turn out to be a ’Westernizer’ prepared to allow the democratization and liberalization of Eastern Europe within the continued framework of communist rule." See: Karen Dawisha, Eastern Europe, Gorbachev and Reform. The Great Challenge, (Cambridge, England, 1988), p. 214. The book was likely finished sometime in late 1987 or early 1988].

II.The collapse of Communism in the Balkans.

It is likely that Gorbachev’s ideas for liberalizing East European communist states worked out best in the Balkan states of Bulgaria and Romania.

1. Bulgaria.

There was no dissident movement in Bulgaria, but small groups in defense of Human Rights and in support of Perestroika and Glasnost were crushed in 1988-89 by Todor Zhivkov who headed the party since 1954.

The same fate befell small groups such as the Trade Union organization Podkrepa (Support), and the "Committee for Religious Rights, Freedom of Conscience and Spiritual Values." The ecological protest group, "Econoglasnost," fared somewhat better.

 Most importantly, some reform communists were ready to take over power. They were led by Prime Minister Georgi Atanasov, Foreign Minister Petar Mladenov, and Minister of Foreign Economic Relations Andrei Lukanov, whose family had been repressed by Zhivkov.
The turning point for them was apparently Zhivkov’s decision in May 1989, to get popular support by playing on Bulgarian nationalism. He had been following a policy of forced assimilation of the Turkish minority, which made up about 10% of the total population. Now, he expelled Turkish minority leaders and then allowed a massive exodus of some 350,000 Bulgarian Turks to Turkey. This not only deprived Bulgaria of many valuable workers, but also outraged western opinion.


from: R.J.Crampton, A Concise History of Bulgaria, Cambridge, England, 1997.

When change came, it looked like a planned coup. Zhivkov was forced to resign on Nov. 10, 1989, the day after the Berlin Wall was breached.

Three days later, he was replaced as President by Mladenov,who had just returned from Moscow. However, a new opposition group named the Union of Democratic Forces, published a 10 point reform program similar to those of E.Germany and Czechoslovakia, that is, free elections, the rule of law, a free and independent press, free trade unions and a multiparty political system. After a December 10 pro-democracy demonstration in Sofia, Mladenov promised the abolish the Communist party’s monopoly of power and hold free elections in spring 1990.*

*[See: R.J. Crampton, A Concise History of Bulgaria, pp.205-215; J.F. Brown, Surge to Freedom, ch. 7; John D. Bell "Postcommunist Bulgaria," deals with the Zhivkov period and the revolution of 1989, see Legters, Eastern Europe, pp.488-492 ]


2. Romania.

Nicolae Ceausescu’s corrupt and cruel dictatorship has been described earlier (see Lec. Notes 18B).  Let us recall that he not only paid off Romania’s foreign debt by drastically lowering the people’s standard of living, but also prohibited abortions in order to increase the birthrate. This resulted in large numbers of unwanted children housed in dreadful conditions in state orphanages, where many infants were given blood transfusions to strengthen them. Unfortunately, some of this blood was infected with HIV.

He also destroyed many historic buildings in Bucharest to make room for a huge "Palace of the Peoples" -- really a palace for himself. Furthermore, he destroyed many old villages, mostly Hungarian, in Transylvania. He forced the farmers into concrete, three-storey buildings without running water or elevators.

His wife Elena and their son Nicu, both of whom held powerful state positions, were hated almost as much as he was.

Under Ceausescu’s terror, there was little scope for dissent. The intellectuals were generally compliant, though some courageous individuals risked their lives to voice opposition. Here special mention shoud be made of Doina Cornea, a language teacher in Cluj, the writer Ana Blandiana, and the poet of the revolution: Mircea Dinescu.

As had been the case in the USSR, the Orthodox Church cooperated with the regime, but here too there were exceptions like Father Gheorghe Calciu, a long time opponent of Ceausescu’s policies.

The most outspoken protest by an intellectual was written by Silviu Brucan, a Social Sciences professor at the University of Bucharest, (formerly Romanian Ambassador to Washington in 1956-59, and to the U.N. in 1959-62). His open letter, addressed to President Ceausescu, was signed by five other dissidents, all of them party members, and is known as "The Letter of the Six." It was put in a mailbox at the Intercontinental Hotel, Bucharest, on February 27, 1989, and copies were sent to various addresses in Western Europe. It was broadcast by the Romanian service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), as well as other western Romanian-language stations and published in major international newspapers on March 19-12, 1989. The letter enumerated and protested Ceausescu's crimes:

(1) violations of the Helsinki Accords of 1975 (human rights), which Romania had signed;
(2) violations of civic rights guaranteed by the Romanian Constitution.

(3) the "systematization [modernization] plan" for villages, that is, their destruction and forcibly moving the inhabitants to concrete apartment blocks;

(4) the costly construction of the "Civic Center" in Bucharest (the Palace of the People);

(5) the persecution of the people by the Securitate (security police);

(6) forcing workers to work on Sundays;

(7) the violation of privacy in the mail and telephones;

(8) the failure of economic plans; the chaos in agriculture, with resulting food shortages;

(9) the forced assimilation policy followed toward Germans, Hungarians and Jews, which resulted in emigration;

(10) the deterioration of Romania’s international position.

To stop this negative process, the letter proposed that Ceausescu start by taking three steps:

(1) stop the policy of "systematizing" the villages;
(2) restore the constitutional guarantees of civic rights;

(3) end the food exports that threatened the "biological existence of the nation." (Food was exported while there was hunger in the country.)

The signatories of the letter were: Gheorghe Apostol, former Politburo member and Trade Unions' chairman; Alexandru Barladeanu, former Politburo member and chairman of the Planning Committee; Corneliu Manescu, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and President of the U.N. General Assembly; Constantin Parvulescu,  a founding member of the Communist Party; Grigore Raceanu, a Communist Party veteran; and Silviu Brucan, former acting editor of Scinteia (The Spark -- leading party paper).

The letter did not lead to the overthrow of Ceausescu, but it was a courageous step taken by Romanian intellectuals against the regime and alerted the world to the situation in Romania. They were all arrested. Brucan was released on December 22, just in time to take part in the revolution.

Finally, it should be noted that, as in Poland (1988), there was an economic crisis. The workers themselves had protested against economic privations. Some went on strike in a large factory in Iasi, in February 1987, followed by students at the university there. Other workers protested in November, in Brasov the second largest city in Romania, demanding food and freedom (compare: workers in Poznan, June 1956). They were crushed and subjected to a reign of terror, but their protests prepared the way for the outbreak in Timisoara , Transylvania, in late 1989.

An unflattering picture of Ceausescu just before he was ovrthrown, was penned by Newsweek correspondent Michael Meyer. The dictator ranted for about two hours, occasionally spluttering "in an almost epileptic grimace." He denied people were starving, but it was invisible in the shops becuase it was in "storage." Asked about the Polish and Hungarian experiments in democracy, he said they were disasters that must be stopped. During a walk initiated by the otherof the two journalists, Peter, they went on to the dock jutting into a lake; Ceausescu lost his balance and almost fell into the water.*

*[Michael Meyer, The Year That Changed the World, New York, London, .. 2009, pp. 109-110]

Given all the known factors and the circumstances, it is not surprising that the collapse of communism in Romania turned out to be a bloody affair. On December16, 1989, there was unrest in the town of Timisoara, (old Hungarian name: Temesvar) which followed a police attempt to arrest a popular, dissident pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church, Laszlo Tokes. This led to a confrontation with Security troops. The "Timisoara Revolution" lasted until December 20, when it claimed victory. It was certainly an anti-communist revolution.

At the time, someone spread the rumor that there were hundreds and even thousands of deaths -- although the real number was very small -- and this outraged people all over the country. When Nicolae Ceausescu returned from a state visit to Iran, he appeared on December 21st with his wife Elena on the balcony of the Palace of the Peoples in Bucharest and made a speech condemning the rebels of Timisoara as "agents of foreign intervention." But the usual organized applause was drowned out by student whistles (a sign of disapproval), cat calls, and shouts that Ceausescu was a tyrant. He looked shocked and frightened, and the state TV went off the air. Nicolae and Elena fled in a helicopter.

Fighting broke out in Bucharest between the people, joined by the army on the one hand, and the Securitate, the infamous Romanian security police, on the other. Soon a group of revolutionaries and former communist opponents of the regime took over state TV and declared the fall of Ceausescu.

Meanwhile,the Ceausescus found they could not use the airport because it was in rebel hands, so they commandeered a car and drove to the town of Tirgoviste. There, they were taken into custody by the commander of the local army garrison who hid them for three days in a room in the barracks, so they could not be rescued by the Securitate.

A general came down from Bucharest and ordered the trial of Nicolae and Elena on charges that included genocide against the Romanian people. (Ceausescu was, indeed, responsible for many deaths, but he was not guilty of intentional genocide). A kangaroo court was set up in the army building. Ceausescu demanded a trial by the National Assembly, to which he was entitled as President, but this was refused because, as long as he lived, the Securitate was expected to resist. He rejected his defense lawyers’ advice to plead insanity.

On December 25, Nicolae Ceausescu was condemned to death along with Elena, and both were shot by soldiers in the garrison H.Q. courtyard. Their bodies were shown on Romanian TV to end Securitate resistance. Michael Meyer saw this on Romanian TV, having arrived in Bucharest on a West German relief plane that also carried weapons to defend the German embassy if this was neeeded. There was a brief spate of fighting between the Securitate and the military, but the TV evidence on the death of the Ceausescus ended the bloodshed. Meyer even visited the dictator's home and describes it in his book[M.Meyer, The Year...pp.193-201]


from: Legters, Eastern Europe.

The "Reform Communists," led by the communist, Ion Iliescu, formed the "National Salvation Front" in December 1989 and held on to power until 1996. This government of "post-communists" was opposed by the revolutionaries who saw it as a betrayal of the revolution, which it was.*

*[see J.F. Brown, Surge to Freedom, ch. 8; for the account of a high-level participant, see: Silviu Brucan, The Wasted Generation. Memoirs of a Romanian Journey from Capitalism to Socialism and Back, Boulder, CO., 1993, esp. ch. 10, "The Inside Story of the Revolution;" for the text of the "Letter of the Six," see pp. 155-157; for the Timisoara Declaration of March 11, 1989, see: Legters, Eastern Europe, pp. 473-479. For a recent study, see Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (Ithaca, N.Y., 2005) reviewed by Frederick Kellogg, Slavic Review, vol. 65, no. 2, 2006, pp. 361-363; see also Padraic Kenney, The Carnival of Revolution, 2004.]


3.Yugoslavia is a different case from other E. European countries for its disintegration was primarily due to ethnic/national rivalries and enmities, accompanied by a desire for democracy. This process, though begun in 1987, really belongs to the post-1989 period. [See Lec.Notes 20].

4. Albania.

The last country to overthrow communist rule was Albania,
[Lec.Notes 20]



Supplementary Bibliography

Many books appeared in 2009, the twentieth anniversary of the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Two that stand out are: Constantine Pleshakov, There is no Freedom without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War that Brought Down Communism, and Victor Sebastyen, Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire.

Pleshakov was born and raised in Russia, emigrated to the United States, and has written books on Soviet Russia. Sebestyen was born in Hungary but raised in England, where he lives and writes. Their books are discussed, along with others in:

Timothy Garton Ash, "1989!", New York Review of Books, v. 56, no. 17, Nov. 5, 2005; Vladimir Tismaneanu, "They Wanted to be free," Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 2009, and "Wall Stories," The Economist, Nov. 7, 2009.

There is a section on Poland in Padraic Kenney, 1989. Democratic Revolutions at the Cold War's End, New York, 2010.