Late thoughts on the 20th anniversary of 1989

Here’s is a text I wrote for the 1989 conference at Cornell in November.

Three Different 1989s

The monumental of events of 1989 and their aftermath were based on a collection of decisions, made or not made by Communist hard-liners, reformers, protesters and Western politicians. Far from inevitable, a number of other ‘1989s’ would have been possible.

Here three imaginary documents will stand for three different paths 1989 could have taken: The Communist crackdown, the Reform Communist take over and unified Europe.

The Crackdown

Except for Romania, no shot was fired during the overthrow of Communist regimes in 1989 in Eastern Europe. These mostly peaceful protests had followed the violent crack down of the student protests on Tiananmen Square in Bejing in June 1989. Many among the ageing guard of Communist leaders across Eastern Europe contemplated following China’s lead in fall of 1989. What if they had succeeded?

From: Der Freie Bote [The Free Messenger], East German samizdat, 3 February 1990.

Ever since the intervention of the army, the Neue Deutsche Volksarmee, during the Monday Protests in Leipzig on 9 October 1989, borders have remained firmly closed and news from out other democratic movements are scarce. [see interview with Egon Krenz, the successor to Erich Honecker in the fall of 1989:,9171,959320-2,00.html%5D

From West German news, now only to be viewed in rural Thüringen due to the stronger scrambling signals, we have heard that Poland continues to be in paralysis since the army intervention in December and the dismissal of the Mazowiecki government by General Jaruzelski. While protests have been disbanded by force, wildcat strikes and graffiti over the big cities, especially in Gdansk are a constant reminder of the crisis. In Czechoslovakia, a number of leaders of the demonstrations in November have been recently deported, including Vaclav Havel, who continues to broadcast his weekly speeches to the people of Czechoslovakia on Radio Free Europe.

The still relatively free press in the Soviet Union continues to speculate whether Gorbachev remains in power as he has not been seen in public since December 1989. Some observers note a change in tone of Pravda which has begun a series of unsigned editorials on “A Strong Economy for a Strong Soviet Union”, arguing -for economic reforms to reinforce the strength of the Soviet Union and its links to its allies.

It remains unclear to which degree Western governments are supporting our struggle for greater democracy. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the government have apparently frozen all ties with new leadership of the DDR and urged reforms. However, neither the US nor the EC have imposed sanctions and George Bush in a recent speech urged the Soviet leadership ‘to keep perestroika going’.

Hannes Modrow, a former leading member of the East German Communists has recently fled to Western Germany and been telling his story in a series of interviews on German television. According to him, the party has been deeply divided between reformers and hardliners before the purges in December. According to him, the determination of the politburo to use the army to end protests grew after his visit to China in June 1989. Modrow claims that Chinese advisors arrived in early November to provide guidance on repressing protests, but such accounts have not been confirmed by other sources.

Will it be another 20 years, just like after the Prague Spring in 1968 before we will get another chance?

Reform Communists

When Mikhail Gorbachev initiated his policy of Glasnost and Perestroika, his goal was to rejuvenate and modernize Soviet rule, but not to abandon Communism or dismantle Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union itself. What if succeeded?

From: John Smith, Reforms and Glasnost in Eastern Europe since 1989. Reform Communists between Market and Nation from East Berlin to Sofia. 1995.

Günther Schabowski breathed a sigh of relief—another one of these press conferences with increasingly difficult journalist question has been mastered. It was hard getting used to hard questions journalists were asking, especially as decision had to be taken quickly. Had he not checked his papers carefully before the press conference, he would have not been able the question which an Italian correspondent had asked him right at the end of the press conference about the new travel regime. “When does it come into effect?” As Schabowski went to bed, he knew that the 10 November would be a historical day, for the first time since 1961 East Germans could receive their stamp at the border and cross into Western Germany. [see transcript of the original press conference:

Indeed, as East German citizens formed long lines in Berlin along the border to reach the western half of the city, the wall had lost most of its power. Still, East German border guards remained in control and East Germans not returning back to the DDR risked loosing their property and job until the two German governments signed the agreement on the Freedom of Movement of citizens of the BRD and DDR in 1991, leading to the gradual removal of Berlin wall.

As Schabowski was mastering the press conference on the evening of the 9 November, the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party decided in a clear majority to send Todor Zhivkov into retirement. For all his flaws, the CC decided that his policy towards the Turkish threat against Bulgaria was wise and needed to be maintained. Especially now that 350,000 Turks had left in recent months, their quick return would only destabilize an already highly volatile situation. The thousands of Bulgarians who had the received the former Turkish properties would certainly turn against the government if they would have to hand over the houses and lands once more to their previous owners. If Bulgaria will engage in reforms, it has to make sure not to be vulnerable to the Turkish threat. After all in neighboring Serbia, the reformist Communist Slobodan Milošević had just similarly identified Albanians as a threat to modernization and the Serb majority.

By Christmas 1989, a young reformist guard of the Communist parties from Sofia to East Berlin had come to power, demonstrating a pragmatic approach to the challenges the countries faced. Devoid of a clear commitment to Communism, the new leaders from Modrow in Eastern Germany to Illiescu in Romania gathered in Moscow in late January 1990 to meet with their mentor Gorbachev to reinvigorate the Council for Mutual Cooperation and accelerate talks with the EC about greater cooperation. As had been the case since the early 1980s, Poland remained the odd country out of sync with the rest of Eastern Europe. Its non-Communist government, established after the June election, was oddly out of place at the Moscow summit.

A United Europe?

Nearly 15 years passed between the fall of Communists regimes and the first wave of EU integration of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. This process was based on the new members the laws, rules and norms of the ever changing European Union, which had re-invited itself with the Maastricht Treaty and Euro during the 1990s. What if the EU had instead opted to offer rapid integration and a broader vision of a unified Europe?

From a European History Textbook for 12th Graders: European Integration and Unification, Brussels, 2010.

The 1993 European unification summit marked the beginning of the European Union. As presidents and prime ministers from 24 countries gathered in Berlin, the conference marked the end of the old European Community and the beginning of the European Union. From 12 members of the old EC, the new Union included the newly independent Baltic states, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Austria, Sweden and Finland. Malta, Cyprus and Albania had begun accession talks, but had failed to conclude talks joining the new European Union. They joined jointly in 1995. [see interview with Jacques Delors, EC president in 1989

The Berlin summit did not only mark the doubling in size of the EU, but also the signing of the Berlin treaty, which was the result of the draft constitution proposed by the European Constitutional Convention which had been in session in 1991 and 1992 to draft a new framework for European politics. In addition to a president of the European Union, it established the office of the EU’s Foreign minister. Jacques Delors, who had overseen the big bang enlargement of the EC was nominated to be the first EU president, with former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the Foreign Minister of the EU.

Supporters of the big bang approach argued that the quick commitment of the EU to enlargement at the Luxembourg summit in June 1990 was necessary. The summit had made a clear promise of membership in the new European Union for every country in Europe committed to democracy and accelerated talks for integration with substantial financial assistance (formally know as PHARE, but widely dubbed ‘Europe’s Marshall Plan’). According to supporters, the quick response of the EU helped starve of the constitutional crisis in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and contributed to quick overthrow of the Iliescu government in Romania in August 1990 and the victory of Ante Marković in Yugoslavia’s elections in 1990.

Critiques have challenged that the possibility of a dissolution of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia always appeared remote and that the quick unification of the European continent was high on symbols, but lacked sound economic and political logic: While Spain, Portugal and Greece had waited for nearly a decade after democratizing before joining the EC, the countries of Eastern Europe only waited four years. Furthermore, by creating the large EU, Western countries were exposed to strong labor cost pressures whereas many industries in Eastern Europe had to compete with more efficient Western companies.

Questions for pupils:

  1. Image what would have happened had the European Union with 24 members not been established in 1993?
  2. Give an example on how the EC/EU Marshall Plan changed the lives of European citizens. Can you think of any personal example?

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