The socialist economies in Eastern Europe had been suffering alongside the Soviet Union, with Gorbachev looking forward to openness and transparency as a remedy there as well as in the Soviet Union. In December 1988, Gorbachev announced in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that by 1991 he intended to pull Soviet tanks and troops out of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. For Hungarians this was encouraging news, and the Hungarians demonstrated for the freedom to create a political party, or parties, independent of Hungary's Communist Party.
In Czechoslovakia, the year 1989 began with the Communist government's judicial system prosecuting the playwright Vaclav Havel for having incited illegal protests, and Havel was sentenced to remain in prison until September or October. And other dissidents in were tried and sentenced, but with much of the population sympathetic with the dissidents the Communist government chose leniency, and by the month of May they released Havel.
The Communist regime in Poland was also compromising with public opinion. Failing to crush the dissident movement called Solidarity, the government tried to absorb Solidarity into a legitimate part of national affairs. The leaders of Solidarity agreed to cooperate, and the government allowed Solidarity to run candidates in coming elections. Some dissidents opposed collaboration with the government and wanted to boycott the elections on the grounds that the elections were not entirely free. But Solidarity argued for participation. At the polls Solidarity won an overwhelming victory, and by the end of August (1989), a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed.
Back in July, Gorbachev had announced that the Poles and Hungarians were free to determine their own future. Gorbachev believed that Communist leaders in the Warsaw Pact countries could hang onto power while being good Communists, that is, by winning the support of the masses. (Gorbachev may also have believed that the Warsaw Pact countries were costing the Soviet Union more money than the value being received in return.)
In Hungary, Communist leaders were seeing "the handwriting on the wall." Conservative Communist Party leaders were being replaced by younger, more liberal Communists. The Communist Party in Hungary recognized the rising in 1956 as legitimate, and the Communist leader who supported Hungarian national aspirations then, Imre Nagy, who had been executed by Khrushchev's regime, was exonerated and given a proper burial.
The Hungarian Communist Party changed its name to the Socialist Party, to bridge a gap between doctrinaire Marxist revolutionaries and European Social Democrats. Hungary declared itself a republic, and Hungarians were free to travel abroad without the special permission that had been previously required. Reagan's successor, President Bush (the elder), who had been visiting Poland and celebrating developments there, also visited Hungary. He promised the Hungarians economic help. And in Hungary a US company, General Electric, invested in light bulb manufacturing.
Advances in freedom in Poland and Hungary encouraged people in neighboring Czechoslovakia. On August 21, the twenty-first anniversary of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, people in that city demonstrated. The former Communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, who in 1968 had led what was called the Prague Spring, spoke encouraging words to the crowd. Communist Party leaders in Czechoslovakia were more conservative than were those in Hungary. They had risen with the Soviet invasion and Dubcek's fall, and now under the illusion that more repression would work they began jailing demonstrators and rounding up dissidents, again jailing Vaclav Havel.
The hope for more freedom had also spread to East Germany. The regime there, led by Eric Honecker, had been appalled by Gorbachev's liberalizations, and since 1988 Soviet publications had been banned in East Germany. But it was to no avail. East Germans had been free to travel within the Warsaw bloc. That is where many East Germans went for their annual vacation, some were now going to Hungary and using Hungary's open border with Austria to flee to the West — the slow-thinking East German regime having failed to block travel to Hungary. Many Germans wanting to flee to West Germany crowded into the West German embassies in Prague and Hungary, demanding entry to West Germany. The flight of Germans from Hungary into Austria increased to the thousands, and the Communist regime in East Germany panicked as its economy became more threatened by the loss of educated and talented young people. In mid-October 1989, rising dissent in East Germany was followed by the Politburo there replacing Eric Honeker, but Honeker was replaced with another hardliner, and the unrest continued.
On October 25, Gorbachev announced that the Warsaw Pact nations "were doing it their way," described by some as the Sinatra Doctrine – as opposed to the Brezhnev Doctrine. The East German regime wanted to appease public opinion, and it admitted publicly that it was not popular. On 9 November the regime went further and announced liberalized travel regulations. Inept in its communications, the regime led people in East Berlin to believe that this meant they could journey freely into West Berlin. A hoard of people massed at border crossing points, overwhelming the guards, who let the joyous crowds pass. The happy East Germans rejoiced with West Berliners and flocked to West German stores.
The Communist regime in East Germany surrendered to the will of an aroused populace. In November, Berliners began what would become weeks of tearing down the wall that separated East and West Berlin — to Gorbachev's surprise. (Back in 1987 President Reagan had called on Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," but Gorbachev had left that as the business of East Germans.)
In Prague, meanwhile, Communist leaders were staying with a strategy of repression, and in mid-November there were demonstrations. On the fourth consecutive day of demonstrations the police attacked. Thirteen demonstrators were admitted to hospitals and dozens were arrested. The following day the number of demonstrators increased, to approximately 10,000 persons. This inspired a greater demonstration the following day: an estimated 200,000 demonstrators. The leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, Milous Jakes, resigned. Encouraged, an estimated 500,000 people marched for the end of Communist Party rule. And millions of Czechs went out on a two-hour general strike to express solidarity with the demand for political freedom. It was a demonstration (too massive for the Communist regime), and the regime responded with a pledge of free elections within a year. In early December, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia declared the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to have been a mistake, and rather than waiting months for the promised elections the elections were held within a few days. By the end of December, Czechoslovakia had a new parliament. Its president was Vaclav Havel, and the chairman of parliament was Alexander Dubcek. The Communists were no longer in power.
By the end of 1989 the Berlin Wall had been torn down. A reform-minded Communist, Hans Modrow, had risen to power within East Germany's Communist Party. In mid-December, marchers in Leipzig held a candlelight vigil commemorating Stalin's victims. And in an East Germany Party Congress many made speeches with confessions and demanded an absolute break with the Stalinist past. Hans Modrow promised the public multi-party elections for May, and the Party (created by Stalin) changed its name to the Reformed Party of Democratic Socialism. Then the promised elections were moved up to March 1990, and in these elections the Reformed Party of Democratic Socialism suffered a crushing defeat. A new government was formed in East Germany, and it began lobbying for unification with West Germany, a move that was to be formally achieved in October 1990.
CONTINUE READING: The Soviet Union Dissolves
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.