At a remove of 25 years, many people remember the collapse of communism in eastern Europe starting with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But by the time that barrier was breached on November 9th 1989, much of the metaphorical mortar had already been chipped from between the pieces of the Soviet bloc. Now the blows joyous protesters rained down on the wall sound like a belated death knell for a system already rotten to the core.
Can a prime mover be found, a lightning bolt or tiny spark that lit the fire that would raze what seemed until autumn 1989, to most westerners, a vast, monolithic and mighty edifice fiercely defended by the Kremlin and its local allies?
The elements of revolution were myriad – economic, political, social, cultural – and that year they swirled together in an irresistible storm, just as falling leaves and then snowflakes blew over the crowds who packed the avenues and squares of Warsaw, Budapest and Prague, Bucharest, Sofia and Berlin.
Some historians have identified Mikhail Gorbachev, who became Soviet leader in 1985, as the greatest hero of this drama.
Sinatra doctrine Just as Gorbachev's policies of restructuring ("perestroika") and openness ("glasnost") created room for reform in the Soviet Union, so what was jokingly called his "Sinatra doctrine" invited the satellite states to do things "their way".
This seemed to lift the threat that the Red Army would be used to crush attempts at liberalisation, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
For another key figure in the fall of communism, however, Gorbachev’s role has been overstated, and a very different man inspired the changes that culminated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the totalitarianism that it symbolised.
Lech Walesa has called his creation of the Solidarity trade union with colleagues in Poland's Baltic dockyards – the first such non-communist organisation in the Soviet bloc – the crucial turning point. And it could not have happened way back in 1980, Walesa has insisted, without the arrival in the Vatican two years earlier of Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope who on his first visit to Warsaw as pontiff in 1979 inspired dissidents by calling on the Holy Spirit to "renew the face of the Earth, the face of this land."
Walesa said “the first wall to fall was pushed over in 1980 in the Polish shipyards. Later, other symbolic walls came down, and the Germans, of course, tore down the literal wall in Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall makes for nice pictures. But it all started in the Gdansk shipyards.
"The European Union couldn't have expanded, the unification of Germany would not have been possible. And other countries wouldn't have got their freedom if the Poles had not broken the Soviet bear's teeth. When other countries did their own thing, the bear could no longer bite."
In 1989, when the world watched and wondered whether Soviet jaws would again bite down on eastern Europe, Poland was blazing a trail for reform. On April 4th, two months of "round table" talks between Warsaw's communist government and opponents ended with a historic deal: Solidarity was legalised and would be allowed to take part in partly free parliamentary elections in June.
The vote delivered a shattering verdict on the legitimacy of communist rule, with Solidarity winning almost every seat that was up for free election.
Prime minister from Solidarity
With the ruling party in deepening disarray, two previously supine “coalition” groups abandoned it, a move that piled huge pressure on president
to appoint a new prime minister from Solidarity. He bowed to the pressure, and on August 24th
, a Catholic writer and dissident, became the Soviet bloc’s first non-communist prime minister for more than 40 years.
Five days earlier, on the border between Hungary and Austria, another remarkable event had torn a strip from the Iron Curtain.
Otto von Habsburg – an Austrian politician who had been the last crown prince of his family's empire – and reform-minded Hungarian communist Imre Pozsgay organised a "pan- European picnic" close to where their countries' foreign ministers had in June cut through the barbed wire fence along the border.
In intimation of what the European Union would bring to the region 18 years later, the frontier was opened for three hours to allow people to join the picnic and fleetingly enjoy the freedom to cross between the continent’s east and west.
In the ferment of that summer, however, the event attracted more than just local picnickers. Hungary was then playing host to tens of thousands of East Germans who, as well as enjoying a holiday at Lake Balaton, where many reunited annually with west German friends and relatives, now saw the rapidly changing country as a possible escape route to western Europe.
The picnic, and its brief open-border policy, provided the first chance to test Hungary’s attitude, and about 600 East German men, women and children made a dash across the frontier to Austria. No shots were fired and no chase ensued; decades of fear started to trickle away and people pushed harder at an old order that now lacked the will and the power to fight.
Three weeks later, Hungary threw open the border and some 60,000 East Germans flooded into Austria, with most continuing on to West Germany and prompting many more of their compatriots to seek ways to escape the country.
The day after Germany was reunified in October 1990, then chancellor Helmut Kohl said: "It was in Hungary that the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall."
Hungary’s relatively moderate communist rulers were already chasing Poland down the reform path, allowing free trade unions, political association, independent media and entering talks with new opposition parties.
In June, former prime minister Imre Nagy – who had been hanged after the 1956 Soviet crackdown on liberalisation – was reburied with great ceremony in Budapest.
party elections At their last conference, in October, the communists changed their name to become the Hungarian Socialist Party, and parliament passed laws providing for multi
party elections. A revised constitution was agreed and, on October 23rd – the anniversary of the start of the 1956 uprising – a new Republic of Hungary was officially declared.
In Bulgaria the following day, foreign minister Petar Mladenov resigned with a letter lambasting Todor Zhivkov, the country's feared ruler for 35 years. Mladenov told Bulgaria's politburo Zhivkov had "led our country into a deep economic, financial, and political crisis.
“He knows that his political agenda, which consists of deviousness and petty intrigues and is intended to keep himself and his family in power at all costs and for as long as possible, has succeeded in isolating Bulgaria from the rest of the world.”
Zhivkov had appalled the West and alienated many domestic and Soviet bloc allies by systematically persecuting Bulgaria's large ethnic Turkish community, some 300,000 of whom fled the country for Turkey in 1989.
Mladenov and other officials, who admired Gorbachev’s stance and were well aware of the changes sweeping through eastern Europe, decided it was time to act.
“I think that we all understand that the world has changed and that, if Bulgaria wants to be in tune with the rest of the world, it will have to conduct its political affairs in a modern way,” Mladenov wrote, urging the politburo to address burning questions that “the public took up . . . long ago and now discusses . . . openly.”
Much of this discussion was channelled through an environmental group called Ecoglasnost, which quickly took up broader issues of civic rights and democracy to become a major movement spearheading the drive for radical reform.
Having secretly secured the backing of Gorbachev, Mladenov and allies persuaded other politburo members that Zhivkov had to go if Bulgaria was to stave off massive social unrest and implement changes peacefully.
On November 10th, Zhivkov was forced to step down, and the following month his successor Mladenov declared that Bulgaria’s one-party system was at an end, and free elections would be held the following year.
A week after Zhivkov resigned, tens of thousands of Czechoslovaks, most of them students, marched through Prague carrying placards calling for reform. Riot police attacked the peaceful rally, injuring scores of people and sparking rumours – which turned out to be false – that a protester had been killed.
The violence fuelled public anger, swelling demonstrations in Prague and forging a mass movement that united students, workers, intellectuals and religious groups in demands for sweeping change. At the forefront was a group called Civic Forum, which grew out of the dissident Charter 77 movement of intellectuals led by playwright Vaclav Havel.
Inspired by the upheaval around the region and particularly the fall of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovaks rallied behind Havel, calling mass marches and strikes that forced communist leader Milos Jakes and his politburo to resign on November 24th.
Huge protests continued, forcing the ruling party to give up attempts at cosmetic change and relinquish its monopoly.
On December 10th a new government was sworn in. Most of its members were not communists, and several were dissidents like Havel who for years had been harassed, arrested and jailed for criticising the officials they now replaced.
A fortnight later Alexander Dubcek – the former Czechoslovak leader who was expelled from the communist party after the Soviets crushed the 1968 liberalisation drive known as the Prague Spring – was named parliamentary speaker.
The following day, the still mostly communist legislature elected Havel as president, capping a political transformation of stunning speed, even by the extraordinary standards of 1989.
“The recent period – and in particular the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution – has shown the enormous human, moral and spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy,” Havel told Czechoslovaks in his new year’s address.
“Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, sceptical and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvellous strength to shake the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a decent and peaceful way.”
Executed by firing squad
As Czechoslovaks celebrated their Velvet Revolution,
was reeling from chaotic events that were neither decent nor peaceful. On Christmas Day, communist dictator
and his wife Elena had been executed by firing squad at a military base near the town of Targoviste. They had been caught after fleeing the capital Bucharest with a few close aides on December 22nd, escaping in a helicopter from the roof of communist party headquarters as furious crowds stormed the building.
By then, what had begun as a protest in the western town of Timisoara against the threatened eviction of an outspoken Hungarian pastor, Laszlo Tokes, had grown into major rallies across the country demanding the end of Ceausescu's rule.
Increasingly isolated and megalomaniacal after 24 years in power, Ceausescu had bankrupted and half-starved his country and relied on the fearsome Securitate and its vast network of agents and informers to maintain control.
On December 17th, the Securitate and army units moved to crush the revolt in Timisoara, and dozens of people were shot dead.
The unrest only spread to other cities, however, prompting powerful communist party members to abandon Ceausescu and establish a National Salvation Front (NSF), which they claimed was the only force capable of pacifying the country.
The army also switched sides, and fought gun battles in central Bucharest and other cities with Securitate agents, some of whom allegedly shot protesters and passers-by at random as part of a plan to sow maximum chaos and fear.
More than 1,000 people were killed before order was restored, and power was left in the hands of the NSF and its leader Ion Iliescu – a former Ceausescu ally who would go on to rule a multiparty Romania for 11 of the next 15 years.
No proper inquiry into the revolution has been held, and the bloodshed and ensuing secrecy have left many Romanians feeling that what started as a proud people’s uprising in Timisoara was turned into a putsch by a communist clique – that the deadliest revolution of 1989 was stolen by some of those it sought to oust.
Events in Romania left a dark stain on a momentous year, but few in the West had dared believe such change could occur without far more violence.
"Communism in Europe was brain-dead but still had huge muscles," said Neal Ascherson, an expert on eastern Europe who reported on the revolutions.
“But the people did get it. They had lost something – not exactly their fear, but their patience,” he observed.
“Suddenly it seemed unbearable to go on accepting these systems, these portly little idiots in their blue suits, for another year, and then for another day, another hour.”
“That special sort of impatience is the power surge of revolution.”