Causes of the Revolutions

Is it possible to view all the turbulent events of the years 1989–91 in the same context and to explain them in one master narrative? Has enough time passed for the staccato sequence of radical changes listed above to be reassessed and evaluated? More than twenty-five years after a new order was established in Europe, contemporary historians should at least give it a try. Below, some existing explanations will be considered, and the proposed main temporal, spatial, and human factors analyzed. The question of “how” is just as important as that of “why.” It is truly remarkable that the European revolutions of 1989 occurred largely without violence, by a process of negotiation. But despite the lack of bloodshed, the changes are not undisputed. The economic and social outcomes of the revolutionary changes, which eventually also affected Western Europe, remain politically contentious.

The simplest and most media-compatible explanation for the revolution was presented in 2009 at the events’ twentieth-anniversary celebrations under the Brandenburg Gate, in the heart of united Germany. Artists had been commissioned to create a Berlin Wall of polystyrene blocks, which were knocked down in a chain reaction at the climax of the celebrations. This action symbolized the domino theory that one small revolutionary stone caused the next to topple and so on until the entire structure collapsed, leaving a (wall-)free, united Germany and Europe. It is true that the revolutions of 1989 interacted. Dissidents and civil rights activists across Eastern Europe were in contact with each other throughout the eighties. The state and party leaders of the individual Eastern Bloc countries were, of course, also in close contact. The fact that Europe’s communist regimes collapsed in quick succession seems to confirm the domino theory. The sudden precipitation of events prevented the people in power from anticipating, and halting, their own fall and the end of the old order.

But there are drawbacks to the domino theory. For one thing, it blurs the differences between the power shifts in individual countries and local protest movements. In Hungary, change occurred relatively gradually, modulated by debates within the Hungarian Socialist Party, or MSZP, whose reformist wing came to predominate. In Poland, as mentioned above, direct negotiations took place between the government and the opposition. In Czechoslovakia and the GDR, the communists obstructed reforms for so long, even in defiance of Gorbachev, that by 1989 they had forfeited all room to maneuver.7 In Romania, Bulgaria, and the successor states of the Soviet Union, communism ended under still different circumstances. The opposition in each of these countries was distinctively composed, took different action, and had varying levels of support within society. Another problem with the domino theory is that it suggests a linear sequence. But where in this line is the place for the largest, central “stone”—that is, the Soviet Union in the years 1989–91? The domino theory also paints a simplified picture of interplay between the revolutions. Unlike 1789–94 or 1848–49, there were no itinerant revolutionaries in 1989, moving from one hot spot to the next. But there were transnational electronic media. The protesters in Prague in November 1989, for example, knew from Radio Free Europe and other information channels that they faced the last hardliner regime in the region. This knowledge emboldened them and demoralized the security forces.

The domino theory does have a narrative advantage thanks to its strong, vivid imagery. In his book We the People, Oxford-based contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash acts as narrator and observer, dashing from Warsaw to Budapest, Prague, and Berlin.8 The reader experiences the end of each country’s regime and the opposition’s takeover as if watching the plot of a thriller unfolding on the big screen. Former Hungarian dissident György Dalos takes the same approach, dealing with each country in sequence, in his excellent analysis of the year 1989.9

Garton Ash’s reportage-style account emphasizes the significance of mass mobilization. During the anniversary year 2009, when argument over the nature of the events reignited, he defended his view that the peoples of Eastern Europe made the revolution. Garton Ash is not alone in this opinion; Padraic Kenney also underlines the role of the opposition in A Carnival of Revolution.10 Both historians attribute the peaceful revolution to the civil society formed by courageous dissidents in East Central Europe before the radical changes of 1989. Highlighting the role of the opposition in this way, there is a danger of heroizing dissidents such as Václav Havel and Lech Wałęsa. But unlike all good works of fiction, these books offer no villains. The old rulers barely feature in Garton Ash’s narrative. On the rare occasions that the communists are mentioned, they appear as gray figures, paralyzed with indecision.

US historian Stephen Kotkin responded to Garton Ash’s interpretation with a powerful polemic.11 Arguing that “the opposition” was poorly rooted in society, Kotkin questioned whether it was appropriate to use the term at all, or whether it would be more apt to speak of isolated dissidents. According to him, the general public had been so disengaged in these countries that they formed “uncivil societies,” making nonsense of the term revolution.12 Poland (dealt with by Kotkin’s coauthor, Jan Gross) was the only exception. Kotkin attributes the changeover primarily to Gorbachev’s reform policy and its unintended effects. His explanation, then, falls within the tradition of Sovietology, focusing on Moscow and the Kremlin.

More recent historical research provides evidence to challenge Kotkin’s thesis. Canadian historian James Krapfl has shown that social mobilization in Czechoslovakia encompassed the entire country. Large demonstrations were held in even the small district capitals, and did not stop until the leading figures of the old regime stepped down.13 Demonstrations in the GDR were by no means confined to Leipzig and Berlin: they also took place in provincial towns such as Plauen. In the Baltic republics, virtually the entire non-Russian populace took part in protests from 1988 on. However, the Russian postwar immigrants, and the Polish minority in Lithuania, were ambivalent about the Estonians’, Latvians’, and Lithuanians’ demands for autonomy and, later, independence. Hence, they tended to stay away from the demonstrations, which somewhat reduces the myth of the Poles’ indomitable will for freedom. Mobilization was weaker in Gdańsk, Warsaw, Poznań, and other centers of Solidarność, especially in comparison to 1980–81. This was partly due to the fact that the opposition was now able to negotiate directly with the government. The Solidarność leaders took their demands straight to the Round Table, rendering public protests superfluous.

The Romanian secret service, Securitate, managed to suppress all mass demonstrations until December 1989. But the regime was crumbling on the periphery. In Timişoara the planned relocation of the dissident priest László Tőkés brought 100,000 students and workers out into the streets in protest. Unlike the leaders of other Eastern European regimes, Ceauşescu gave his forces a shoot-to-kill directive that claimed the lives of twenty-six people in Timişoara alone. The bloodshed fanned the flames of unrest. Within a few days the spark of revolution had reached Bucharest. The second and third ranks of the party assumed power and ordered the shooting of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu following a hasty trial before a military tribunal. The Romanian revolution can therefore also be considered an intraparty putsch.14

Mass mobilization was strongest in Yugoslavia. Demonstrations had been taking place since the mid-eighties, mostly for social and economic causes or the demands of individual factories. In 1989 Slobodan Milošević harnessed this tendency to kindle nationalist aspirations among Serbian society with a mass rally on the mythical Kosovo Polje. Beginning in 1991 he purposely incited violence against other nationalities and Serbian opponents. By provoking a nationalist escalation, Milošević engineered the demobilization of society.15 When the War of Yugoslav Succession began, Serbian demands for more reforms and a change of government died away. The Serbian Socialist Party was able to stay in power longer than any other postcommunist party—until 2000, when the first “color revolution” took place in Eastern Europe; a term that should not be used uncritically.

A fourth and very important explanation can be found for Yugoslavia’s collapse: the economic failure of state socialism.16 As mentioned above, the two oil crises of 1973–74 and 1979–80 were more harmful for the West than for the Eastern Bloc. The Soviet Union actually benefited from the rising oil price. Exports of oil helped it to increase its foreign exchange revenue. In the West, the dual price shock and rising employment costs led to a boom in investment and technical innovation. The Eastern Bloc failed to keep pace and fell behind the West in terms of economic performance.17 From 1983 on, moreover, the price of crude oil dropped as sharply as it had previously risen (from $66 to $20 per barrel). The Soviet Union struggled to raise the money to pay for its grain imports and staple goods. Ironically, by 1989, it was the center of the Red Empire that was in the worst shape: as Gerald Easter has shown, at over 10 percent of the GDP, the Soviet Union’s budget deficit was higher than that of any other Eastern Bloc country. Inflation rose as it had previously in Poland and Yugoslavia. The USSR could no longer maintain the population’s already low standard of living.18 The most obvious symptom of the weakness of these planned economies was low productivity. In the late eighties, Eastern Bloc industries needed roughly five times as long as factories in Western Europe did to manufacture lower-quality refrigerators or cars (see fig. 3.1). Gorbachev and other reform communists recognized these problems and launched the politics of perestroika in response. But as Kotkin has convincingly shown, they had unprecedented and unexpected effects.

Findings of social and economic history can be fruitfully combined with inquiry into the history of everyday life. The communist countries’ growing investment in mass consumption improved local living standards until the seventies. But it also raised expectations to a level that ultimately could not be sustained. The reality was constant scarcity and daily standing in line, which undermined the contrat social of the postwar era. The volatility of the situation was tangible in the protests in Poland of 1970, 1976, and 1980. Each of these demonstrations was triggered by government moves to raise the prices of basic foodstuffs. This made economic sense: subsidies overburdened the national budget; supply and demand were wildly disparate and compounded by low state purchase prices, which in turn fostered the black market. But industrial workers came out in protest because the price rises injured their “moral economy.” They were under the impression that party members enjoyed vast (often overestimated) privileges. Partly in the light of events in Poland, East Germany did not attempt any comparable cuts but, like Bulgaria, opted to take on more foreign debt. The only party leader in Eastern Europe to force frugality upon his citizens was Nicolae Ceauşescu. To some extent, it was the Romanian dictator’s rationing of heating fuel, electricity, and basic foodstuffs in the 1980s that earned him the hatred of his citizens. Eventually, he paid for his tyranny with his life.

Fig. 3.1.  An East German Trabant and a West German Opel Kadett coupé parked in front of an Intershop on one of the transit highways to West Berlin, 1984. Photo: ullstein bild / Günter Schneider.

An explanation based on economic and social history can also be useful for drawing comparisons between Eastern and Western Europe and countries within the Eastern Bloc.19 System rivalry, among other things, spurred countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain to increase their social expenditure. This is especially true of West Germany, Austria, and Sweden, which had probably the highest welfare spending worldwide. Eventually, this caused similar problems of growing budget deficits and rising taxes in both the East and the West. By 1989, Thatcherism and Reaganomics had placed Western European countries under distinct pressure to reduce their welfare states. As a result, their appeal and model function diminished. The postcommunist countries, which could not have afforded such lavish welfare states in 1989 anyway, opted to take the neoliberal path.

The détente made it possible for citizens of the Eastern Bloc to compare their standard of living with that in Western countries. Thus they could see for themselves that the communist propaganda about the imperialist-capitalist West ruthlessly exploiting the downtrodden working classes was false. As the gulf between rich and poor grew in their own countries, Eastern Europeans increasingly looked to Western Europe for orientation. The state socialist regimes responded with propagandist campaigns promoting the values that they stood for, such as full employment, social security, and solidarity. As the revolutions of 1989 show, the public gave the communists little or no credit for their social policy achievements. Yet in the nineties, when demonstrations and strikes were called in protest against reforms, it was precisely these endangered values that the protesters invoked.

The complex field of mutual and retrospective perceptions touches on the influence of the media on the revolutions of 1989. Images of mass demonstrations, the Round Table in Poland and other oppositional successes inspired the populations in neighboring countries. Communication channels within the Eastern Bloc had already played a role during earlier crises of communism. The residents of Ľviv in western Ukraine, for example, had received information about the Prague Spring and the Red Army’s invasion of Czechoslovakia via Polish broadcasting.20 Polish television and radio was an important factor contributing to western Ukraine’s development into a stronghold of civic resistance in the Soviet Union. The town of Ľviv even evolved its own hippie culture. In Poland, the cities along the Baltic coast were hubs of opposition, not least because they were the first to receive information from the West. The opposition was able to disseminate its views among the population using printing presses and typewriters smuggled from Sweden.

The media played an important role in other Eastern Bloc countries, too. Many journalists, newspapers, and radio broadcasters remained loyal to their regimes for several years, but swiftly changed sides in 1989. More than by sheer opportunism, they were motivated by a sense of professional ethics, which they retained despite all communist governments’ demand, since Lenin’s time, for partiynost (partisanship). Despite the ideological controls, Eastern European journalists aspired to inform their publics. Crude propaganda, such as appeared on the infamous Black Channel (Der schwarze Kanal) TV show broadcast in the GDR, was respected neither by journalists nor by the populace. As the reality of “real existing socialism” diverged ever more from its propagandist image, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile journalistic standards with the party line. Consequently, subversive resistance began to form long before any radical changes occurred. Cracks in the censorship first appeared due to glasnost and perestroika, then widened in 1989, until the dam of suppression finally burst during the revolutions.

The media in the GDR and the ČSSR contributed significantly to toppling their countries’ regimes. Illegally filmed images of the Monday Demonstration in Leipzig on October 9 were smuggled to West Berlin. Subsequently broadcast by West German television, they exposed the scale of the protests and challenged the GDR regime in a decisive phase.21 Following the quashing of a demonstration in Prague on November 17, there were radio reports claiming that security forces had killed a student. The news provoked outrage and fueled the protests against the government. Later it transpired that the information had been no more than a rumor, but it was too late to contain the public’s anger. Sometimes journalists played right into the opposition’s hands, as when a Polish TV team filmed the violent suppression of workers’ protests in Gdynia and Gdańsk in 1970 and 1981. Polish director Andrzej Wajda later incorporated these images into his film Man of Iron (Człowiek z żelaza), which was seen by a mass audience. These examples illustrate how the media not only relayed events but also shaped them.

Nationalism was a sixth factor, one that can be regarded as inherent in the system. The Eastern Bloc consisted of socialist nation-states, or federal states with nationally defined constituent republics. They were forced into line during the Stalinist era, but persisted in striving for autonomy from Moscow. The constellation in the Soviet Union was similar in some respects and different in others. Taking a longue durée perspective and following the model developed by Czech historian Miroslav Hroch, one can distinguish between three phases of nation-building here: In the 1920s, the Soviets sought to consolidate their legitimacy by a policy of “rooting” (korenizacija) that fostered nationally defined cultures, especially in Ukraine.22 Stalin ended this first phase with the “Great Terror” of the thirties, targeting nationalist-minded cadres with repression and persecution. After his death, the various Soviet republics and their party apparatuses regained a degree of freedom.

Nationalist discourse continued to be censored, but positions in state administrations and industries were increasingly assigned to native cadres.23 A creeping process of nationalization occurred that was barely registered by Western Sovietologists (phase 2). During glasnost, the various republics and nationalities openly voiced their often-cited “national interests.” The intelligentsia in each group played a leading role in mobilizing the masses, mostly by invoking historical arguments (phase 3). As in the late years of the Tsarist Empire, nationally motivated debate and unrest did not reach the Russian heartland and Moscow until somewhat later. But when it did, it had a resounding impact.

The phase model can, of course, be extended to take further spatial and chronological coordinates into account. The first mass national protests were launched in the Baltic republics; mobilization was greater in western Ukraine than eastern Ukraine, where the predominantly rural population and industrial workers did not relate as strongly to a strictly national identity.24 Nationalism did not, then, have an overwhelming, blanket appeal. But as in the nineteenth century, the ideology proved highly adaptable and transferable. Each Soviet state’s nationalism reinforced that of the others, even on the margins of the Soviet empire. The Baltic states and Ukraine were emboldened by the former satellite states’ achievement of complete sovereignty and the Red Army’s retreat from Eastern Europe.25 Their demands for independence, which had seemed completely unrealistic in the late eighties and were not supported by the West out of deference to Gorbachev, now gained real prospects of success.

The breakup of Yugoslavia is traditionally attributed to ethnic nationalism. But whether the ideological impetus came from a few influential politicians such as Slobodan Milošević, or was rooted in the population, continues to be debated.26 The fact that it was difficult to recruit fighters at the start of the war in summer 1991 (especially in Serbia) seems to indicate popular detachment. But most commentators agree that the demise of the Yugoslav communist party left a political vacuum that was filled by nationalist politics. Elections in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1991 resulted in victories for explicitly national parties. The constituent republics had drifted apart economically, politically, and culturally since Yugoslavia’s federalization in 1974. Nationalism (in the constructivist sense of Benedict Anderson or Ernest Gellner) was therefore both a long- and a short-term factor contributing to the radical changes of 1989.

Problematically, these attempts to find explanations switch between places and periods, despite a dominant focus on the year 1989, and between structural factors and individual actors. Moreover, almost all of them view the events from the point of their conclusion—the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and state socialism. It is important to note that the oppositions in Eastern European countries in the eighties thought and operated within the parameters of their respective regimes. This was even the case in Poland. Here, the two sides met at the Round Table in spring 1989 to discuss reforms to state socialism and a division of power, not a regime change (see fig. 3.2). The opposition was represented once more by Solidarność, continuing a tradition started in 1980–81, when the trade union movement had rallied the support of some ten million activists. This was the largest twentieth-century mass movement in Europe, in relation to the country’s total population. The sequence of events in Poland between two revolutions is loosely comparable to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.

Fig. 3.2.  On February 6, 1989, representatives of the government, the opposition, and other interest groups began Round Table talks in Warsaw. Photo: picture alliance / ZB / Jens Wolf.

Placing the focus on socioeconomic factors, a wider temporal horizon comes into view. It had been obvious that the planned economies were floundering since the late seventies, when Hungary and Poland had tried in vain to modernize by infusing them with Western capital and technology. Other countries’ more or less drastic attempts at reforms, sometimes in combination with measures to decentralize the planned economy, sometimes as part of recentralizing policies, were no more effective. The economic crises became insurmountable when it came to paying off loans from the West. The Soviet Union, moreover, was badly hit by the drop in oil and gas prices. In view of this, the temporal horizon of any explanation should be extended well into the 1980s.

The “refrigerator theory”—arguing that the communists had merely frozen the nationalist conflicts, which began to “thaw” forty-five years after the Second World War—circulated for many years. This explanatory model, which informed the West’s treatment of the crumbling Yugoslavia with disastrous consequences, does not stand up to scientific analysis. First, it overstates communism’s ability to supplant other ideologies; second, it obscures the fact that renationalizing tendencies emerged long before 1989.

Czechoslovakia was federalized in 1969—the most fundamental change made in response to the Prague Spring in terms of domestic policy. Yugoslavia gained a new federal constitution in 1974, which sowed the seed of its later dissolution. Nationally motivated violence erupted in the Soviet Union in the late eighties; Armenians and Azerbaijani persecuted each other in their respective constituent republics, and conflicts also broke out in Central Asia. In Bulgaria, the government under Todor Shivkov repressed the Turkish minority; in consequence, some 320,000 of its members fled to Turkey. In some respects, this served as a blueprint for Slobodan Milošević. He counted on the West remaining similarly passive when confronted with the Albanians’ persecution in Kosovo and, later, the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the promise of German unification gave additional momentum to nationalist arguments. When the protesters in Leipzig and Berlin chanted “We are one people” (Wir sind ein Volk), it marked the first call for a change of state borders in Eastern Europe. German unification set an example for all other nations hoping to detach from Moscow or Belgrade.

Lastly, as Mary Elise Sarotte has suggested, an additional factor in every revolution was contingency and, in the case of the GDR, luck.27 A fatal shot fired during a mass demonstration, an attack on a Red Army barracks, an earlier putsch in Moscow or other spontaneous action might have triggered a very different, more violent chain of events. Contingencies have always played an important role in the history of European revolutions. The same applies to the course of postrevolutionary transformation, which would certainly have been quite different if it had happened ten years earlier, when the economic mainstream was still influenced by Keynesian theory.

In summary, analysis shows that the 1980s was a key period with respect to all six causal factors of the revolution (the domino theory, mutual triggers, mass mobilization, economic decline, the media, nationalism). Though perhaps unsurprising, this assertion challenges the frequent portrayals of communism and state socialism as flawed systems that were destined to fail from the start, or were forced upon countries from without. Neither the former nor the latter is true. But as in previous revolutions, the weakness of the ancien régimes—in this case, most party leaders were literally very old—enabled the oppositions to consolidate their positions and create the “revolutionary situation” that has been stressed by Charles Tilly and other revolution theorists.28 This situation arose, in turn, because most actors did not anticipate the approaching collapse of state socialism. If they had, the regimes would certainly have (re)acted differently.

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