I still consider 1989 as probably the most important year of my life. For one, it marked a significant inflection point in my own career. I’d chosen Eastern European studies at graduate school in the mid-1980s and had been steeped in all that textbook analysis back then of Soviet-led political systems and economies. I’d also worked as a journalist in the field for a few years, so I’d become quite invested in the division of Europe into East and West.
When the regimes fell, with seemingly no warning, just about everything I’d learned up until that point had suddenly been rendered useless. Like everyone else, I was caught up on the fly having to understand and interpret a historic transition -- from Soviet-style communism to capitalism -- that had never been attempted before.
It was also the year my father passed away, just shy of his 52nd birthday and in the midst of all of that change. When I think back on those tumultuous times, the euphoria I felt seeing those autocratic, arthritic regimes of the old Eastern bloc collapse is always tempered by sadder memories of returning home that summer to be with my family. It’d been a life-altering year, both for Europe and for me.
I’ve never written specifically on 1989 for this blog, so maybe it’s time, on the 30th anniversary, for a few words about what it was like back then to watch those unreal events unfold in real time and not to know from week to week what was going to happen next. I’d also like to puncture here a couple of myths about those days that have taken hold the past couple of decades: that the changes were somehow both foreseeable and inevitable. As someone who was there, I can tell you that neither of those is true.
In 1989, I was working as a journalist in Vienna for a small publishing outfit called Business International (BI), affiliated with Britain's Economist Group. From our offices on the eastern end of Austria, just 40 miles west of Bratislava, a small team of around ten journalists and analysts would read over news reports coming across the Iron Curtain in order to help our readers and clients, mainly large Western corporations, to understand the political and economic environment there.
Our flagship publication was a weekly newsletter called “Business Eastern Europe.” For most of 1989, I was a reporter for the newsletter covering Czechoslovakia; at the end of that year, I became the publication’s editor. We were unique at the time among Western news companies in our coverage of Eastern Europe, and the communist regimes (at least some of them) were convinced we were all spies. If we were, no one ever told me about it, and the Central Intelligence Agency certainly owes me some back pay. (I’ve posted earlier stories on this blog about some of my strange spy-v-spy reporting trips to Czechoslovakia before 1989, and about my Czech translator/fixer “Arnold,” who turned out to be a real spy.)
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it certainly seems inevitable now that the hulking Eastern bloc would ultimately collapse under its own weight. It’s taken for granted those sclerotic Soviet-led regimes would never have been able to keep up with the more dynamic societies of Western Europe and the United States. Those repressive governments, back in the day, would enforce their rigid censorship restrictions by confiscating dissenters’ typewriters. How would they have ever coped with the ubiquitous mobile-phone networks and Internet connections that in 1989 were just a few years down the road?
That may be true, but I can say with virtual certainty that no one (or nearly no one) at the time saw those revolutions coming. At BI, it was our job -- our bread and butter -- to anticipate and predict historic events like the collapse of communism, but even then as we squinted and stared at the regimes across the border, we couldn’t have said with any confidence, day-by-day, what was going to happen next.
When I think back on our kitchen conversations throughout that year -- BI was headquartered in an old apartment building and we actually did have a kitchen -- the conjecture would inevitably turn on the personality of then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. From the mid-‘80s on, Gorbachev had promoted a policy of political and economic reform in Eastern Europe centered on his ideas of glasnost and perestroika ("transparency" and "economic restructuring").
The big question, though, was whether he was sincere in his efforts (or powerful enough) to reform the communist system, or simply inventing new wrinkles to maintain control. If he was indeed sincere, was he really willing to risk Soviet domination over Eastern Europe in order to implement his ideas? Our office appeared to be split on the answers. While we all hoped for the best, some believed in Gorbachev’s intentions (or abilities) and others did not. No one knew for certain.
To be sure, Gorbachev had defied historical logic. In the past, it had always been the Soviet Union that would step in to impose communist orthodoxy on its reluctant Eastern bloc allies, as it did in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. This time around, it was the Soviet Union that was pushing the envelope, and, ironically, the leaders of many of the Eastern satellites who were resisting.
The biggest impediment to change was the lack of any organized opposition to communist rule. With the exception of Poland and the Solidarity trade union there, none of the other countries had any credible political opposition. Sure, Czechoslovakia had a handful of dissidents, and there was some small church-led opposition in East Germany and Romania, but the question remained open as to who or what could step in to force the old leaders out and then wake up the next day to run the trains, schools and factories? We were all about to get a big lesson in people power later in the year, but at the time the biggest fear was that it would all end in bloodshed.
When I wrote above that no one could have predicted which way the 1989 revolutions would go, I was thinking of my own botched fact-finding trip to Czechoslovakia in the fall of 1989. By that time, Hungary and Poland had already taken steps to reform their systems and leave the Eastern bloc, and protests were gathering pace in East Germany. The mood in Berlin was restive, and BI wanted me to gauge public sentiment in Prague.
My trip coincided with the visit to Prague of then-West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who’d been called to the city to resolve an unprecedented crisis involving thousands of East Germans who were demanding entry visas from the West German embassy there. In an announcement at the embassy September 30, Genscher electrified the crowds by granting them passage to West Germany in specially sealed trains. The wall in Berlin was still standing, though it was fraying across the rest of the bloc.
During that Prague trip, I interviewed many Czechs on central Wenceslas Square to ask if they believed that their own hardline regime would ever crack. The answer, to the last man and woman (and in spite of all that hullabaloo then going on at the West German embassy), was always the same: it could never happen here.
I dutifully returned to Vienna and wrote up an article for Business Eastern Europe that dismissed any notion political that change in Prague was imminent (thankfully, I can no longer find a copy of that article). In fairness to my colleagues at Business International, I can’t recall any of them writing something so wildly incorrect. The Berlin Wall fell a month later, and Czechoslovakia's own Velvet Revolution, that would eventually install as president the dissident playwright Václav Havel, would start up in just six weeks time.
While I’m trying to debunk some myths surrounding the events of 1989, I’d also like to poke a hole in the idea that the revolutions were some kind of collective act of will. When we look back on those days from 2019, it’s easy to imagine that the whole of Eastern Europe simply rose up as one to throw off their oppressors. In fact, the anticommunist revolutions unfolded over the course of the year in a series of episodes that might better be termed acts of defiance. Each country took a different tack, and any one of those individual acts could have been stopped in its tracks. There was plenty of chance and luck built into the model.
The fall of communism began with a whimper (and not a bang) in June of that year when Poland held its first semi-free parliamentary elections since at least the end of World War II. That vote led to a humiliating defeat for the ruling communist party (the Polish United Workers Party) and the appointment later that summer of Eastern Europe’s first noncommunist prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. The reaction from Moscow was relatively muted, even though documents would surface later suggesting that Gorbachev had come under strong pressure from hardline Eastern bloc leaders, like Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu, to intervene militarily.
A few weeks later, on June 27, the leaders of Hungary and Austria met in an abandoned field to symbolically cut the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain that had separated their countries since practically the end of World War II. I remember watching it at the time on Austrian television but not giving it much weight. I figured the Hungarians would simply replace the wire with a more sophisticated electronic system.
None of us, though, had realized at the time that the episode had been carefully choreographed in advance between Gorbachev and then-Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh, and that the opening was more or less legit. The Soviets had given their private assurances that whatever happened there’d be no repeat of 1956. Németh recently told the French news agency AFP about that agreement and its consequences here.
The implications, though, were certainly not lost on people living on the other side of the Iron Curtain as they began to calculate that if they could just make it to Hungary, they could eventually make it to the West. The simple act of cutting some barbed wire had set the entire train in motion.
The months of July and August that year marked a major turning point in the anticommunist revolutions and, looking back, the entire postwar history of Europe. Events in Poland and Hungary had clearly divided the bloc into separate camps: reformers and hard-liners. Opposed to Hungary and Poland, on the other side, were the far-more-conservative (and much less enthusiastic about glasnost and perestroika) regimes of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.
The tension was thick that summer in the BI offices in Vienna. The movement toward reform in the Eastern bloc was clearly accelerating, yet it was hard to imagine any outcome that didn’t involve blood on the streets. Would hardline leaders like Erich Honecker in East Germany, Miloš Jakeš in Czechoslovakia or Ceaușescu in Romania really relinquish power without a fight? That outcome seemed highly unlikely.
The politburo in Moscow, of course, could have stopped the reforms at any moment it chose, and all eyes turned once again toward Gorbachev. Instead of putting the brakes on the reform momentum, however, he appeared to give the reformers the green light.
Addressing a tense, divided meeting of Warsaw Pact leaders in the Romanian capital, Bucharest, in early July, Gorbachev told the group there was a “new spirit” in the alliance. In so many words (and couched in his trademark diplomatic niceties), he said that member states would now be free to pursue their own paths to solve their own national problems.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the presidential palace, where the meeting took place, to see the ashen looks on the faces of the hardline leaders, including host Nicolae Ceaușescu himself. Whatever would happen next, it was pretty clear from Gorbachev’s words that the Soviet Union would now not call in the tanks to prevent the Eastern bloc from splitting away.
Though the most dramatic acts of that year -- the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, and Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu’s execution before a firing squad on Christmas Day -- were yet to come, those events represent perhaps merely the denouement following from that Bucharest conference. Without the implied threat of Soviet military intervention, each of the hardline regimes was suddenly on its own to fend for itself and to grapple with the issue of whether it was willing to kill its own citizens to stay in power.
This blog post has already gone way over-length (if you're still with me, thank you), so I’ll cut to the chase. To their credit -- whether they decided not to use bullets or simply lost their nerve -- the leaderships of most of the countries did not resist.
In September, the Hungarian government, after some serious hand-wringing, decided to allow a group of thousands of East Germans who had gathered there to cross the border into Austria (and the West) in an event that’s now referred to as the “Pan European Picnic.” That act was widely viewed as a final test of Gorbachev’s promise not to intervene, and true to those assurances, the Soviets didn’t react. A little later came Genscher in Prague and free passage to the west for thousands of more East Germans.
Emboldened by those events, hundreds of thousands of people came onto the streets in early November in East Berlin and later that same month in Prague (and cities around Czechoslovakia) to demand the communist regimes step down. The transitions were largely peaceful and the “Fall of the Wall” and “Velvet Revolution” continue to inspire us to this day. The communist government in Bulgaria fell without major violence at around this same time.
It was only in Romania where historians were offered a chilling “what if” scenario of what would happen if a dictatorship attempted to use force on its people without the implied threat of Soviet military support -- and it didn’t end well. In mid-December, anti-Ceaușescu protests started up in the western Romanian city of Timișoara and soon spread to other places, including Bucharest.
It took just a little over a week for Ceaușescu and his wife Elena to be captured, tried by an ad-hoc tribunal and executed by firing squad. More than 1,000 people died in that bloody transfer of power, and it’s probably fair to say that the violence set Romania back a decade.