In Europe, the 1989 revolutions are often referred to as “peaceful.” This attribute suggests a contrast with the bloody revolution of 1917. But the divisions and transfers of power of 1989–90 did not take place completely without violence. On October 3, the People’s Police in Dresden attacked hundreds of protesters demanding the freedom to travel for all GDR citizens as trains carrying the embassy refugees from Prague passed the city.35 In Leipzig and East Berlin, the police initially used water cannons, tear gas, and batons to control crowds of protesters. In Prague, police tried to suppress the protests by force until the evening of November 17. In Tbilisi, twenty protesters died when paratroopers were deployed against the Georgian opposition in April 1989. The attempted storming of the TV tower in Vilnius by task forces from the interior ministry claimed fourteen lives in January 1991. It is not known whether Gorbachev personally backed these violent measures. The orders were probably given by hardliners within the military and the KGB, who stood behind the putsch of August 1991. Their coup failed not least because the security forces refused to open fire on protesters outside the “White House” in Moscow, who had gathered to act as human shields around the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, the later Russian parliament.36
In summer 1991 parts of Yugoslavia were already in the grip of terrible violence. In Krajina and other Serbian minority settlement areas in Croatia, radical nationalists shot and killed Yugoslav citizens who defended the ideal of peaceful coexistence. They also attacked Croatian elites, and soon targeted civilians in order to stifle a guerrilla war. By late September the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar had been reduced to rubble. The term “ethnic cleansing” entered into common usage in international diplomatic circles. Yet despite the escalation in the former Yugoslavia, the over one thousand dead of December 1989 in Romania, and the flashpoints of fighting in the Soviet Union, the violence of 1989–91 remained minimal in comparison to the French and Russian Revolutions. There was no stormed Bastille, no Vendée (where tens of thousands of antirevolutionaries and nonparticipant farmers lost their lives in 1793–95), and no guillotine symbolizing a reign of revolutionary terror.
For the opposition, nonviolence was a way of contesting the superior power of the communist security services. For the regime, much had changed since Stalin’s death. The end of Stalinism marked the end of mass terror and the gulag system. Of course, state repression did not stop in 1956—as the Warsaw Pact countries’ invasion of Czechoslovakia, the violent suppression of the protests in Poland in 1970 and 1981, the killings of East German refugees at the Berlin Wall, and the persecution and exile of dissidents show. But violence was used selectively, in certain circumstances only. The history of state socialism, then, confirms the general trend toward less state violence in the twentieth century.37
The lack of bloodshed in the year 1989 was ultimately thanks to a rational choice made by governments. Had they given the order to crush the demonstrations in Leipzig, Prague, or Sofia by military force, they might have provoked civil war. In November 1989 the ČSSR, especially, was on the verge of disaster. The secretary of the municipal party committee in Prague, Miroslav Štěpán, was a ruthless hardliner and called for the deployment of armed forces. But his comrades in the Czech Communist Party politburo held him back for fear of the unpredictable outcome, and because the defense minister was not convinced that low-ranking soldiers would obey the order to shoot. The government’s attempts to mobilize police units in rural areas for deployment in Prague were hindered by many of them breaking ranks—some buses headed for Prague simply turned back.38Similarly, the East German army (Nationale Volksarmee) and police (Volksmiliz) had considerable difficulties mobilizing additional security forces in October 1989.39
No doubt biographical factors also contributed to the general hesitance to use violence. The politburos in Prague and other Eastern Bloc capitals were dominated by old men who were less aggressive than their younger comrades, such as Štěpán, who was only forty-four at the time. Some members of the older generations had experienced Stalinist terror firsthand. In the light of these memories, and without backing from Moscow, they were reluctant to deploy armed forces and tanks.
Taking up negotiations and waiting for rifts within the opposition seemed the safer option. Some of the old elites, especially in the economic sector, hoped to be able to retain their positions in a more capitalist system. Such hopes contributed to the regimes’ hesitance and, consequently, the largely peaceful handover of power. The exceptions were, as mentioned above, China, Serbia, and Romania. Here the old elites clung to power by force; in Romania the second string of communists around Ion Iliescu rose to do the same. Thus the violence factor in these revolutions had a reverse significance: in 1989, it did not propel the revolutions but worked against them.
Precisely because of this lack of bloodshed, the convention of referring to the turmoil of 1989 as “revolution” has been challenged. This is reflected in the vernaculars of Eastern Europe. East Germans tend to refer to the events as the “turnaround” (Wende), though the term was coined back in fall 1989 by SED party leader Egon Krenz in a bid to make any further changes seem unnecessary. In various Slavic languages the events are referred to as the “changeover” (zmiany in Polish, or alternatively przełom); in Czech and Slovakian they are also known as the “turnaround” (převratand prevrat, respectively).
Following Charles Tilly’s thesis, all three constitutive elements of a revolution—revolutionary situation, process, and outcome—were manifest in 1989–91.40 According to Tilly, a revolutionary situation occurs when the old regime is weakened and disunited. The revolutionary process causes it to lose control incrementally and triggers the internal dynamic mentioned above. Revolutionary outcomes can affect various spheres and range from political regime-changes to social and economic transformations. With respect to the role of violence, however, Tilly remains equivocal. While identifying it as constitutive of revolutions, he offers no convincing explanation for the exception of 1989–91.
Regardless of how one defines revolutions, the general absence of violence is one of the abiding legacies of the years 1989–91. Both the opposition movements and, to a certain extent, the ruling communists relied largely on peaceful means. The opposition took the lead by opting for a strategy of nonviolence during its mass demonstrations. And the ancien régimes in Eastern Europe complied for want of convincing alternatives.
Nevertheless, the term “nonviolence” should not be used without question. If an event is nonviolent, the actors involved eschew a certain political instrument and confine themselves to peaceful means. This implies a passivity that was not the case. The participants in Round Table talks risked their reputations, overcame mental hurdles, and achieved important compromises, such as the power-sharing agreement “your president, our premier” (wasz president—nasz premier) in Poland. In this deal, the Polish opposition accepted General Jaruzelski, who had imposed martial law in 1981, as president on condition that one of its own leaders, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was appointed prime minister. The sea change in Europe of 1989–91 is therefore best described as a “negotiated revolution,” since it was based on a mutual willingness to negotiate. Polish sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis anticipated this when she spoke of a “self-limiting revolution” in her 1982 study on Solidarność.41 The self-limiting factors in 1989 included the willingness to share power and conduct talks to this end at a Round Table. In the GDR, the ČSSR, and Bulgaria, the exit criteria were different insofar as the opposition did not have as broad public support as in Poland. But these countries still had Round Tables, where free elections, the first economic reforms, and the change of system were negotiated.
Among earlier revolution theories, Hannah Arendt’s concept of “constitutional revolution” is a useful reference point.42 The revolutionaries of 1989 were concerned primarily with changing the political system to achieve democracy, freedom of opinion, and the rule of law. Similarly to the American revolutionaries of 1776, they did not strive to change society radically or impose a new social order. After the transition had been negotiated, then, the new political elites had no further need for revolutionary mass mobilization, and the phase of fraternization, celebration, and euphoria ended quite abruptly in winter 1990. (See also chapter 10 on the opportunities taken and missed in 1989.)
Negotiated solutions always involve compromise, which comes at a social and political cost. Around 1989, the nonviolent transfer of power made it easier for the old elites to retain their positions in the economy and society. Some communist functionaries participated in the formation of postcommunist parties. In Poland and Hungary, especially, many observers were angered that the old cadres had not been removed and condemned the Round Table talks. Populist right-wing parties such as the Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz), led by Viktor Orbán, and the Kaczynski twins’ Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS) in Poland propagated the view that the events of 1989 were not even a disruption, let alone a revolution.43 According to them, the negotiated solutions merely enabled the communists to prevail under new circumstances.
Even former civil rights activists began to dismiss the revolution as their influence dwindled after 1990. Western intellectuals criticized the right-wing, neoliberal outcomes of the revolutions. Veterans of the protests of 1968, in particular, expressed deep disappointment. Jürgen Habermas complained of a complete absence of innovative and forward-looking ideas in 1990. Jacques Rupnik, a renowned French expert on Eastern Europe, described 1989 as a negation of the awakening of 1968, which he in turn idealized.44 Indeed, the outcomes of the revolution—cuts, growing social inequality, and, above all, greater disadvantages for women, who as a group were among the movement’s losers—did not correspond with the goals of the left-wing or left-liberal activists of 1968. Neither did they answer the demands of the protesters on Prague’s Wenceslas Square (Václavské Náměstí) or Berlin’s Alexander Square (Alexanderplatz) in fall 1989. These protesters had presumed that the accomplishments of socialism, in which the large majority believed, would be retained when a democratic order was established.45 Initially, socialism was discussed in positive terms, too, most notably by 1968 veteran Alexander Dubček in Prague. Though such opinions soon disappeared from public debate, they demonstrate that the radical reforms—though later embraced—were not a foregone conclusion. Other revolutionary concerns, such as humanity (lidskost, or l’udskost in Slovakian) and liberty, were timeless values (and are therefore discussed in greater depth in the final chapter). The shallow dismissal of the revolutions and the ideals behind them by some German and French commentators reveals less about the revolutionary values than about their reception in the West.
To historians, meanwhile, the debates surrounding 1989 and criticisms of the revolution are of particular interest, as they contradict the one-sided success story. Berlin and Brussels may try to create a national and European identity on the basis of the myth of “peaceful revolution,” but scholarly inquiry must go further. It has to consider the steep cuts in social expenditures, immense demographic problems, and other side effects of the radical changes. It must also ask whether these outcomes were the result of the actual revolutionary process or of the subsequent, top-down transformation. This question is addressed in the next chapter, on the first wave of neoliberalism in the early 1990s.