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After 1953: Destalinisation
1968: Prague Spring
1981:Poland and Solidarity
Towards 1989: Year of Revolution
1989-2000: after communism
Further reading

Central and Eastern European States -
Towards 1989: Year of Revolution

'…try to imagine why people came out on to the streets in 1989. Even after we take into account such important reasons for the massive support for change, we still need to understand why people felt they could behave as they did in Wrocław, Prague or Leipzig. Dissidents, no matter how famous in the West, could no more be an instigator of that popular upheaval than was Mikhail Gorbachev. Would most people risk repression because of a text by an imprisoned playwright or a speech by a communist leader? Hardly – no more than it was likely that crowds in Petrograd in 1917 had studied Marx and Lenin. Ideas – even those about freedom and oppression, or about economic deprivation – do not translate automatically into action. ‘ Kenney :12

Poland 1981-1989

Despite initial appearances to the contrary, the imposition of martial law by Jaruzelski did not bear comparison with the process of ‘Normalization’ undertaken by Gustáv Husák in Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring. Although Jaruzelski attacked Solidarity and its leadership, he at no point sought to rewind time. He accepted that Poland had been changed for good by the Solidarity days. For example, although initially the media and artists were once again controlled, as long as they distanced themselves from Solidarity they were largely left alone. The same was true of the Catholic Church which under the leadership of Archbishop Glemp reached a satisfactory accommodation with the Jaruzelski regime. And what of Solidarity? Despite the highly successful decapitation of the Solidarity leadership, a few activists did escape capture and continued the opposition underground.New leaders like Zbigniew Bujak, inspired by Václav Havel, continued the tradition of KOR’s anti-politics. This meant not choosing between revolution and compromise but rather undermining the state by ignoring it. This did not require an organised, centralised opposition but rather localised, personal resistance.
The Underground Society

‘Instead of organizing ourselves as an underground state, we should be organizing ourselves as an underground society… Such a movement should strive for a situation in which the government will control empty shops but not the market, employment but not the means to livelihood, the state press but not the flow of information, printing houses but not the publishing movement, telephones and the postal service but not communication, schools but not education’.
(Wiktor Kulerski quoted in Stokes: 106)

Compared with the relative intellectual isolation of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, underground Solidarity found widespread, popular support for a resistance campaign. It is significant that all this occurred before Mikhail Gorbachev and Glasnost. However, the decentralised anti-political actions encouraged by Solidarity also created problems for the organisation. Solidarity’s underground leadership, the Temporary Coordinating Commission (TKK) faced difficulties in trying to organise more traditional protests and strikes. To some extent, a generational divide opened up between old Solidarity and the plethora of anti-political movements that Jaruzelski’s actions had encouraged and of which underground Solidarity was merely one representative.

The Battle of the Crosses

In Warsaw first old women and then students began placing flowers in the form of a large cross in Victory Square to memorialise the late Cardinal Wyszyński. Each night the police would clear the square and wash away the flowers. And the next morning first one old woman and then another would appear with her carnations and the process would be repeated. By mid-1982 the authorities had to close off the square to end the ‘battle of the crosses' Stokes 108

In October 1982, the government established ‘self-governing’ unions that would accept the ‘leading role’ of the Communist Party that Solidarity had refused. About 2.5 million workers signed up to these unions and a Solidarity led national protest strike against them proved disappointing. On November 12th Jaruzelski felt confident enough to release Lech Wałęsa from prison. 1983 and 1984 were difficult years for Solidarity, although out of prison the leadership was continually harassed and despite receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Wałęsa was unable to motivate a populace that was benefiting from a slightly improved economic situation. Local elections in 1984 produced a turnout of at least 60%, despite calls from Solidarity for a boycott. The state with the collaboration of Cardinal Glemp and the Catholic Church in Poland seemed to have Solidarity under control. Solidarity may have been under political control but the social forces that had been released in 1981 refused to go back in the bottle. Jaruzelski, to his credit, realised this. Political control was exercised alongside judicious reforms and concessions.
Events surrounding the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko illustrated this very well. Popiełuszko, a pro-Solidarity priest was found dead in October 1984; remarkably, Jaruzelski put the security police responsible for the murder on public trial. This allowed Jaruzelski to both win popular support and to undermine conservative opposition in the Party.

In September 1986, Jaruzelski granted an amnesty to all people who had been detained during martial law. This was the pre-requisite that Solidarity had required from the government before it would enter into discussions. Ten days later, Wałęsa formed the Solidarity Provisional Council and although not legal, Solidarity was no longer entirely underground. Jaruzelski quickly became Mikhail Gorbachev’s most open supporter of Glasnost and oversaw the most liberalized of Eastern Bloc societies. International economic sanctions were dropped and in September 1987, Vice-President Bush made an official visit to Poland meeting both Jaruzelski and Wałęsa. As Gale Stokes argues, ‘In this new atmosphere it was the government that seemed to retain the reform initiative, not the opposition.’ (117)


Father Jerzy Popiełuszko

What would make Jaruzelski’s delicate balancing act impossible to sustain, was the underlying weakness of the Polish economy. By 1987 the Polish economy was once again on the verge of collapse; the shortage economy was famously summed up by Adam Michnik when he said ‘everybody’s fondest dream was to be able to find a roll of toilet paper’. The government proposed some radical reforms including the creation of private firms, but also significant austerity measures which would result in major price rises. But most radical of all was how they planned to introduce the changes. On the 29th November 1987 the government conducted a national referendum asking for the public for their approval of the changes.

When the government unexpectedly declared itself defeated, Solidarity announced that Poland had entered ‘a new phase’ and that the ‘war was over’. (Stokes: 120) In early 1988, the Solidarity leadership fought to maintain discipline and control over the rank and file, as widespread strikes broke out. For the young strikers, many of whom were not Solidarity members, the lack of militancy of the Solidarity leadership or ‘senators’ as they characterized them, was a sign of weakness. In August 1988, Wałęsa was called to a secret meeting in Warsaw with Minister of Defence, General Kiszczak. If Wałęsa could get the strikes called off, the government offered to discuss the legalisation of Solidarity. Despite contrary advice from many of his closest advisers, Wałęsa agreed and after three days of cajoling, the workers went back.

Jaruzelski also faced internal opposition to his plan of legalising Solidarity. The central committee plenum broke up without reaching a decision in December 1988 and only the threat of Jaruzelski’s resignation in January 1989, forced the decision through. The historic round-table discussions between the government, the Church, ‘opposition’ political parties, intellectuals and trade unions including Solidarity began on February 6th 1989. The most significant decisions were that Solidarity would be legally recognized and would be given minority representation in the new parliament. Solidarity would be allowed to contest 35% of the seats in the Sejm (the lower house) and all of the seats in the new upper house, the Senate.


The elections were called for June 4th, allowing Solidarity just two months to prepare. In addition, the Communist Party coalition candidates would have the advantage of staff, offices, money and a monopoly over the media. Despite this, Solidarity prepared well; they nominated one candidate per seat, produced striking posters featuring images of Wałęsa and the famous Solidarity logo and they relied on a national network of enthused volunteers. Nobody anywhere predicted the sensational results. After the second round of voting, Solidarity candidates won all 161 seats they contested in the Sejm and 99 out of the 100 seats available in the Senate.

Solidarity poster signed by Wałęsa High Noon Tomasz Sarnecki 2+2 must be 4 Tomaszewski Election '89 Bałuk-Zaborowska E

‘They must have known they would win! But they didn’t. I sat with an exhausted and depressed Adam Michnik over lunch that Sunday, and he did not know. I drank with a nervously excited Jacek Kuroń late that evening, and he did not know. Nobody knew.’ Historian and eyewitness Timothy Garton Ash – The Magic Latern 1990.

Immediately after the election, Jaruzelski proposed that Solidarity enter into a coalition government. At this stage, Solidarity refused, apparently unprepared for power, the leadership was content with the role of opposition and making a serious challenge to the communists in four years time. But events would not allow them this luxury. In the space of a few weeks, Solidarity’s social influence was being overtaken by Solidarity’s political power. This had already been manifested with the Sejm election of Jaruzelski to the presidency which required seven Solidarity members to deliberately spoil their ballot papers to ensure that the general was elected. The power of Solidarity was further revealed when it became clear in August that the prospective communist Prime Minister, General Kiszczak was unable to form a government. Now it was Solidarity’s turn to propose a coalition government, this time on their terms and with their prime minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki. After a phone call from Gorbachev and the assurance from Solidarity that Polish membership of the Warsaw Pact was not threatened, Jaruzelski accepted Wałęsa’s coalition proposal. As Garton Ash put it, ‘the chalice thus passed from the gentleman-gaoler [General Kiszczak] to the gentleman prisoner, for Mazowiecski, like most of the top Solidarity leadership, had been interned for a year under martial law’. (Garton-Ash 1990: 40) On the 21st of August, the 21st anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 10,000 people took to the streets of Czechoslovakia. They sang ‘Long Live Dubček’, but they also sang ‘Long Live Poland’. The success of Solidarity was about to influence the most extraordinary autumn in living memory.

Eyewitness vs Historian

Timothy Garton-Ash was an eyewitness to the revolutionary events he describes. He acknowledges the advantages and disadvantages of the eyewitness compared to the historian.

‘The disadvantages of the witness as against the historian are those of partiality in space, time and judgement. The witness can only be in one place at one time, and tends to attach an exaggerated importance to what he personally saw or heard. The historian can gather all the witnesses’ accounts and is generally unswayed by that first-hand experience. What happened afterwards changes our view of what went before. The historian usually knows more about what happened afterwards, simply because he writes later. Finally, there is partiality in judgement… Such are the grave disadvantages of a witness.

But there are also advantages. The witness can, if he is lucky, see things that the historian will not find in any document. Sometimes a glance, a shrug, a chance remark, will be more revealing than a hundred speeches. In these events, even more than in most contemporary history, much of great importance was not written down at all, either because it occurred in hasty conversations with no note-takers present, or because the business was conducted on the telephone, or because the words or pictures came by television. (The importance of television can hardly be overstated. Future historians of these events will surely have to spend as much time in television archives as in libraries.) The witness can see how things that appear to have been spontaneous were actually rigged; but also how things that appear to have been carefully arranged were in fact the hapless product of sheer confusion. And perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the historian to recapture is the sense of what, at a given historical moment, people did not know about the future. TGA The Magic Lantern 21-22


Czechoslovakia 1981-1989

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union. He acknowledged the mistakes of his predecessors and the comparative economic failure of the Soviet Empire. The Eastern Bloc economies were unable to match the technological advances achieved in the West or to keep up in the arms race. Soviet attempts to intervene in support of their puppet regime in Afghanistan were failing. Western leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, perhaps sensing their opponent’s weakness, had departed from the accommodating rhetoric of 1970s Detente and characterised the Soviet Bloc as an “evil empire”.

Gorbachev called for economic “perestroika” (restructuring), a relaxation of central planning and the introduction of market forces. Hardliners within the Party opposed this as a step towards capitalism. Gorbachev sought to widen the debate through greater political “glasnost” (openness), a willingness to discuss mistakes and allow the expression of alternative ideas. This liberalisation proved popular among non-Party members. However the lack of internal Party unity on the issue of economic reform denied Gorbachev the option of the Chinese model of economic reform accompanied by tight political control. The only way to pursue the necessary ‘perestroika’ was to draw on the support of those outside the Party, in effect to abandon the Communist Party’s long held monopoly of the truth.


A new, reform minded leader, an attempt to save the system by a loosening of economic and political control, tolerance of alternative opinions; the parallels with Prague Spring were obvious. Husak’s regime was based on a rejection of that previous effort to achieve ‘socialism with a human face’; they had purged the reformers of 1968, and had clung onto power through the intervening years of ‘normalisation’. The dynamic, new leadership in the Soviet Union was in stark contrast to the aging Czechoslovak apparatchiks. Their political careers had rested on adherence to Moscow’s line, but how could they now join in criticisms of the years of stagnation without implicating themselves? The comparison was made explicit by a Soviet spokesman in 1987. When asked what the difference between perestroika and Prague Spring was, he replied, “19 years.”  Even more threatening to the Husak’s regime was Gorbachev’s rejection of the Brezhnev doctrine. “The time is ripe for abandoning views on foreign policy which are influenced by an imperial standpoint. Neither the Soviet Union nor the USA is able to force its will on others. It is possible to suppress, compel, bribe, break or blast, but only for a certain period. From the point of view of long term big time politics, no one will be able to subordinate others. That is why only one thing – relations of equality – remains. All of us must realise this...This also obliges us to respect one another and everybody.” This was later summarised by Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov as the Sinatra Doctrine, each satellite was free to ‘Do it their way’. The threat of Soviet intervention had been removed.

Another Charter 77 dissident, Ludvik Vaculik was pessimistic about the reform process,

“I observe all this in sceptical suspense, as a socialist, and with some derision as a Czech....True, that country has needed for a long time for someone to come and shake it up, and yet it’s all rather sad: by the time an idea has been grasped by the Russian bureaucrat, it is hardly new where the rest of the world is concerned. We saw this in cybernetics 40 years ago, later it was jazz, and now we are being presented with the Moscow version of the 1968 Prague Spring. Our people are understandably puzzled, asking one another what’s in it for us. At the same time I watch our government reluctantly giving us information and trying to calm down expectations: don’t worry, nothing as momentous as that is going to happen here. After all, every country has the right to go its own way, courageously declared (Government Minister) Bilak. There you are then – after all these years we have longed for a government that would not act as someone’s arse-licker, and now we have got it! Is this not indeed a historic moment?” 

At the same time, the other pillar of Husak’s regime, the fragile social contract with the workers, was being eroded by economic decline. The widening gap between East and West was impossible to hide in an age of improved communication, in which Western television and radio could endlessly demonstrate the material and cultural shortcomings of the Soviet Bloc. The generation reaching adulthood in the 1980s born long after the War, had no memories of even harder times, or of the Liberation, no framework within which the years of Soviet domination could be construed as positive. As the economy stalled, even the celebrated social mobility that characterised the rapid industrialisation of early state socialism and that enabled peasants’ and workers’ to access greater education and employment opportunities had ground to a halt. Ambitious, younger employees found promotional prospects blocked by older, long-serving political appointees. Party membership declined throughout the region and the numbers of those who genuinely believed in the parroted slogans of Leninist purity dwindled.

The Velvet Revolution - 1989

Encouraged by the fresh winds blowing from Moscow, increasing numbers of Czechs and Slovaks were prepared to voice their opposition to the regime. Some, such as the ‘Bratislava Aloud’ group, which in 1987 published a report criticising the government’s disregard for the environment, developed from single issues. Other sources of opposition emerged from non-communist student groups. Although Czechs and Slovaks in general are less in thrall to organised religion than their counterparts in Poland, the churches also grew bolder as centres of opposition; in 1988, rallies demanding religious freedom were held in Prague and Bratislava. A petition formulated by the Archbishop of Prague attracted 500,000 signatures.

Vaclav Havel was again arrested and imprisoned following his participation in anti-government demonstrations marking the anniversary of Jan Palach’s death. This heavy handed reaction provoked yet more protests and Havel was released. Elsewhere in the region, Soviet control was collapsing rapidly. Reform Communists in Hungary and Poland attempted to reach compromises with their opponents.

In May 1989, the border between Hungary and Austria was dismantled, allowing free travel. In June, Solidarity won a share of power in free elections. In October and November, mass demonstrations in East Germany culminated in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.


On November 17th, in Prague, an officially sanctioned commemoration of Jan Opletal’s death at the hands of the Nazis turned into yet another anti-government protest. The riot police violently assaulted the protesters causing many injuries. Rumours that a student had been killed lead to further outraged protests. Throughout the country citizens poured onto the streets. Havel sought to harness the strength of popular feeling, gathering like minded opponents to form Civic Forum, an umbrella organisation which articulated the people’s demands. The government struggled to respond to the gathering strength of opposition and, ruthlessly purged of reformists, contained no credible alternatives to the architects of normalisation. This legacy of 1968 made it difficult for them to follow the lead of the Hungarian and Polish Parties.

  Another option, as attempted unsuccessfully in Romania the following month, was to adopt the Chinese Tiananmen Square example and order security forces to violently suppress the opposition. In retrospect, it is tempting to view the events of 1989 as inevitable but this threat of violence was a real risk that each individual involved in a street demonstration had to weigh up. In particular, the term “Velvet Revolution” glosses over the bravery required by those who openly confronted the state.

However, so rapidly was support evaporating that even the loyalty of the police and military could no longer be guaranteed. The Czechoslovak Revolution was to be peacefully “velvet”. On the other hand, the rebels could only draw encouragement from events in neighbouring countries. Emboldened by the expanding possibilities, and legitimised by the masses of people on the streets, Civic Forum and their Slovak counterparts, People Against Violence, could demand ever greater concessions from the government. On November 24th Husak’s successor as President, Milos Jakes resigned. Huge crowds greeted Dubcek and Havel as they appeared together in Prague. A General Strike on November 27th showed that the revolution had spread beyond Prague, beyond the intellectuals and students, to encompass the workers in a national rejection of the regime. In the following days, the Party renounced its right to a leading role and plans were made for free elections. Before the end of the year that had begun with his arrest and imprisonment, Vaclav Havel was elected as President of Czechoslovakia.



Romania’s experiences of Communism and of revolution were in many ways unique. The dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, had succeeded in maintaining a degree of independence from Moscow. His open admiration for Tito and his willingness to criticise the Soviet led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 earned him praise from many western leaders. However, his rule descended into the worst excesses of Stalinism with absolute power gathered in Ceausescu’s hands, a personality cult relentlessly exaggerating his genius, megalomaniac construction projects, and corruption backed up by the threat of violence from the Securitate secret police. Within this system even the limited ability, evident in other communist bloc countries, of party leaders to ensure adherence to notions of legality and to moderate any one individual’s excesses were absent.

Political survival in Romania depended on absolute loyalty to Ceausescu. Romania’s revolution occurred later than those of its neighbours, in December 1989, and was characterised by its violence. Romania was also the only country in which the Communist leader was executed. The first moves centred on the provincial town of Timisoara where crowds gathered to protest against the persecution of a popular local pastor.

Within days the unrest had spread to the capital, Bucharest, where people at a rally addressed by Ceausescu, ostensibly to demonstrate support for the regime, interrupted his speech with boos and chants. Rioting followed, and over a thousand people died in fighting with Securitate forces. Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, fled by helicopter but were arrested by soldiers and after a brief trial, shot. A provisional government, the National Salvation Front, announced the termination of the Communist Party’s leading role and promised to oversee the transition to democracy. The background of many of these new leaders as Communist Party members has led to claims that the Romanian experience was more a coup d’etat than a genuine revolution. However, Romania’s initially faltering steps towards democracy gathered pace and in 2007 Romania acceded to the European Union.

Concluding analysis - External vs internal and individuals vs masses

The difficulty facing the student seeking to explain the collapse of the communist regimes in 1989 is how to evaluate the relative importance of what historians often describe as internal and external factors. Textbooks written with an international relations, ‘Cold War’ focus, inevitably emphasise the ending of Détente, the more confrontational policies of the New Right leaders Reagan and Thatcher and in particular the sea change that was brought about the arrival of Gorbachev in 1985.

There is little doubt that the changed international focus does much to explain the macro-historical features and in particular the timing of the revolution. But the external factors do not explain the micro-historical nature of the revolutions. To understand the nature of each of the revolutions in 1989 and in particular, their differences, as well as their more obvious similarities (why was the transfer of power so painless in Poland but so violent in Romania?) we need to understand the local history and characteristics of the opposition groups which forced the collapse of the regimes in 1989. The communist edifice was crumbling throughout the Eastern Bloc; this was a result of the interplay of both external macro-historical factors and internal micro-historical factors. But the fact that in some states the crumbling edifice needed a concerted shove, whilst in others it was merely a question of picking a route through the rubble, can only be explained in terms of the local context.

What about the people? Padraic Kenney and the social revolution

Padraic Kenney has argued that are three common explanations for the collapse of communism in 1989. The first and most common involves the role of Gorbachev. The second concerns the deepening economic crisis. The third involves the role of the dissident intellectuals like Havel and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Kuron and KOR in Poland, what we have described as the ‘anti-political’ movement. 'But [he argues] if Soviet reform, economic collapse, and dissent are each essential to grasping some part of the complexity of 1989, they are together incomplete without the story of the social movements of the 1980s... We also don't know why 1989 looked and felt the way it did. For example, a crowd newly and suddenly liberated should be vengeful, even violent. It ought to show distaste for compromise and (at the ballot box) be eager to endorse quick fixes. Anyone familiar with Central Europe will note these attitudes are common today; they were not so in 1989. Instead, gentle, triumphant irony was the order of the day. From the Solidarity election poster showing Gary Cooper in High Noon brandishing a ballot, to the Prague banner reading "Well, you've knocked communism out of our heads, comrades . . . ," to the Hungarian poster showing Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing, the sense of the ridiculous ameliorated the gravity of the change. The people of Central Europe preferred ironic protests to slogans promising extermination of the communists (and there were such voices). They accepted protest that was not only about political and economic power, but about environmental and other issues... To most observers, both inside and outside Central Europe, the revolutions were completely unexpected, in their pace and in their popular nature. Participants in the grassroots activism were less overwhelmed, as the style, mode, language, and goals of society's mass participation in 1989 were an outgrowth of what they had been enacting for several years. For the most part, neither dissident leaders nor reform communists sought to mobilize society (in strikes or demonstrations); the new movements, in contrast, brought the carnival to town. They created the framework, and the language, of the revolutions. People voted, or demonstrated, in part because they had learned how to do so from these movements and accepted (for the moment) their goals. As we pay attention to the carnival, we can learn to think about 1989 without resorting to "miracles," "people power," and "surprise." ' (p 12)



EH Carr on the role of the individual in history

Importance of the masses

‘as Lenin said: 'Politics begin where the masses are; not where there are thousands, but where there are millions, that is where serious politics begin.' Carlyle’s and Lenin's millions were millions of individuals: there was nothing impersonal about them. Discussions of this question sometimes confuse anonymity with impersonality. People do not cease to be people or individuals individuals, because we do not know their names. Mr Eliot's ' vast, impersonal forces' were the individuals whom Clarendon, a bolder and franker conservative, calls 'dirty people of no name'. These nameless millions were individuals acting more or less unconsciously, together, and constituting a social force. The historian will not in ordinary circumstances need to take cognizance of a single discontented peasant or discontented village. But millions of discontented peasants in thousands of villages are a factor which no historian will ignore…All effective movements have few leaders and a multitude of followers; but this does not mean that the multitude is not essential to their success. Numbers count in history.’

 Importance of the individual

'Even today I do not know that we can better Hegel's classic description: The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and essence of his age; he actualizes his age …The great man is always representative either of existing forces or of forces which he helps to create by way of challenge to existing authority. But the higher degree of creativity may perhaps be assigned to those great men who, like Cromwell or Lenin, helped to mould the forces which carried them to greatness, rather than to those who, like Napoleon or Bismarck, rode to greatness on the back of already existing forces. …What seems to me essential is to recognize in the great man an outstanding individual who is at once a product and an agent of the historical process, at once the representative and the creator of social forces which change the shape of the world and the thoughts of men.'





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