Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, 1989

On November 9, 1989, thousands of jubilant Germans brought down the most visible symbol of division at the heart of Europe—the Berlin Wall. For two generations, the Wall was the physical representation of the Iron Curtain, and East German border guards had standing shoot-to-kill orders against those who tried to escape. But just as the Wall had come to represent the division of Europe, its fall came to represent the end of the Cold War. In the White House, President George H. W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, watched the unfolding scene on a television in the study, aware of both the historical significance of the moment and of the challenges for U.S. foreign policy that lay ahead.

Germans celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. (AP Photo/File)

Not even the most optimistic observer of President’s Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin speech calling on Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” would have imagined that two years later the communist regimes of Eastern Europe would collapse like dominoes. By 1990, the former communist leaders were out of power, free elections were held, and Germany was whole again.

The peaceful collapse of the regimes was by no means pre-ordained. Soviet tanks crushed demonstrators in East Berlin in June 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and again in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet military planners were intimately involved in the Polish planning for martial law in 1980, and Soviet troops remained stationed throughout Eastern Europe, as much a guarantee for Soviet security as an ominous reminder to Eastern European peoples of Soviet dominance over their countries.

The Reagan administration’s strong rhetoric in support of the political aspirations of Eastern European and Soviet citizens was met, following 1985, with a new type of leader in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (transparency) further legitimized popular calls for reform from within. Gorbachev also made clear—at first secretly to the Eastern European leaders, then increasingly more public—that the Soviet Union had abandoned the policy of military intervention in support of communist regimes (the Brezhnev Doctrine).

On February 6, 1989, negotiations between the Polish Government and members of the underground labor union Solidarity opened officially in Warsaw. Solidarity was formed in August 1980 following a series of strikes that paralyzed the Polish economy. The 1981 Soviet-inspired imposition of martial law drove the organization underground, where it survived due to support from Western labor organizations and Polish émigré groups. The results of the “Round Table Talks,” signed by government and Solidarity representatives on April 4, included free elections for 35% of the Parliament (Sejm), free elections for the newly created Senate, a new office of the President, and the recognition of Solidarity as a political party. On June 4, as Chinese tanks crushed student-led protests in Beijing, Solidarity delivered a crushing electoral victory. By August 24, ten years after Solidarity emerged on the scene, Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist Prime Minister in Eastern Europe.

In Hungary, drastic changes were also under way. The government, already the most liberal of the communist governments, allowed free association and assembly and ordered opening of the country’s border with the West. In doing so, it provided an avenue to escape for an ever-increasing number of East Germans. The Hungarian Party removed its long-time leader, Janos Kadar, agreed to its own version of the Round Table talks with the opposition, and, on June 16, ceremoniously re-interred Imre Nagy, the reformist communist leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. By October 23, ten months after political reforms began, Hungary adopted a new constitution allowing a multi-party system and competitive elections.

The economic collapse of East Germany led increasing numbers of East Germans to seek to emigrate to the West. Thousands sought refuge in West German embassies in other communist countries, eventually forcing the government to allow them to emigrate via special trains. Visiting Berlin in early October, Gorbachev cautioned the East German leadership of the need to reform, and confided in his advisors that East German leader Erich Honecker had to be replaced. Two weeks later, Honecker was forced to resign, while hundreds of thousands marched in protest throughout major East German cities. On November 9, as the world watched on television, the East German Government announced the opening of all East German borders. In a fluid situation, the Berlin Wall came down when an obviously ill-prepared East German spokesman told reporters that the new travel regulations also applied to Berlin. Before the end of the month, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl unveiled a plan for reunification of the two Germanies.

As the Wall came down and the fears of a Soviet reaction receded, the dominoes started falling at a quickened pace. In October, riot police arrested hundreds in Prague after an unsanctioned demonstration; only weeks later, hundreds of thousands gathered in Prague to protest the government. Alexander Dubcek, the reformist communist who led the Prague Spring in 1968, made his first public appearance in over two decades. A new, non-communist government took the country’s reins on December 5, and on December 29, Vaclav Havel, the famed playwright and dissident, was elected President. In Bulgaria, protests lead to the removal of Todor Zhivkov, the long-time leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and his replacement with reformist communist, Petar Mladenov. The new government quickly announced that the government would hold free elections in 1990.

Only in Romania did the events turn violent. Nicolae Ceausescu, an increasingly idiosyncratic relic of Stalinist times, refused any reforms. On December 17 in Timisoara, the army and police fired into crowds protesting government policies, killing dozens. Protests spread to other cities, with hundreds killed when Ceausescu ordered the violent repression of demonstrations on December 21. By the next day, Ceausescu was forced to flee Bucharest and was arrested by Army units in the countryside. The interim government, led by a reformist communist Ion Iliescu, held a quick mock trial and Ceausescu and his wife were executed on December 25.

By the summer of 1990, all of the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe were replaced by democratically elected governments. In Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, newly formed center-right parties took power for the first time since the end of World War II. In Bulgaria and Romania, reformed communists retained control of the governments, but new center-right parties entered Parliaments and became active on the political scene. The course was set for the reintegration of Eastern Europe into Western economic, political, and security frameworks. Writing in his journal on November 10, 1989, Anatoly Chernyaev, foreign policy advisor to Gorbachev noted that the fall of the wall represented “a shift in the world balance of forces” and the end of Yalta.

Meeting in Malta on December 2, Bush and Gorbachev “buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean” as one of Gorbachev’s staffers later described. In his memoirs, Bush noted that the rapport he built with Gorbachev at that meeting would prove beneficial later on. And while Scowcroft did not yet feel the Cold War was over, he noted that U.S. policy at the time evolved, “from quietly supporting the transformations to cultivating Soviet acquiescence, even collaboration, in them.”