(END of the COLD WAR and the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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END of the COLD WAR and the SOVIET UNION (7 of 9)

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Freedom in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany

The socialist economies in Eastern Europe had been suffering along with that of the Soviet Union, with Gorbachev looking toward glasnost (openness and transparency) as a remedy for their economic troubles. In Hungary – one of the more economically advanced satellite nations – twenty-five percent of the population was living in dire poverty. In December, 1988, Gorbachev announced in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that by 1991 he intended to pull Soviet tanks and troops out of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. For Hungarians this was encouraging news, and the Hungarians demonstrated for the freedom to create a political party, or parties, independent of Hungary's Communist Party.

The year 1989 began in Czechoslovakia with the Communist government's judicial system prosecuting the playwright Vaclav Havel for having incited illegal protests. The court sentenced Havel to remain in prison until September or October. Other dissidents in Czechoslovakia were also being tried and sentenced. But with the populace restive and in sympathy with the dissidents, the government thought that leniency would be prudent, and in May they released Havel.

In Poland the Communist regime had been compromising with public opinion. Failing to crush the dissident movement called Solidarity, the government tried to absorb Solidarity into a legitimate part of national affairs. The leaders of Solidarity agreed to cooperate with the Communist regime, and the regime allowed Solidarity to run candidates in coming elections. Some dissidents thinking in absolutes opposed collaboration with the Communists. They wanted to boycott the elections on the grounds that the elections were not entirely free. But Solidarity argued for participation, and at the polls Solidarity won an overwhelming victory, becoming the first freely elected opposition party in a country with a Communist regime.

Some anti-Communists in the United States had argued that Communists would never liberalize. They had claimed that Communism had to be overthrown by force. Now they were being proved wrong.

In early July, Gorbachev pledged that the Poles and Hungarians were free to determine their own future. Gorbachev believed that Communist leaders in the Warsaw Pact countries should try hanging onto power by being good Communists, that is, by winning the support of the masses. It may also be that Gorbachev believed that the Warsaw Pact countries were not worth hanging onto, that they were costing the Soviet Union more money than value being received in return.

In Hungary, Communist leaders were seeing "the handwriting on the wall." Conservative Communist Party leaders were being replaced by younger, more liberal Communists. The Communist Party in Hungary recognized the rising in 1956 as legitimate, and the Communist leader who supported Hungarian national aspirations then, Imre Nagy, who had been executed by Khrushchev's regime, was exonerated and given a proper burial.

The Hungarian Communist Party changed its name to the Socialist Party, to bridge a gap between doctrinaire Marxist revolutionaries and European Social Democrats. Hungary declared itself a republic, and Hungarians were free to travel abroad without the special permission that had been previously required. President Bush (the elder), who had been visiting Poland and celebrating developments there, also visited Hungary, and he promised the Hungarians economic help. And a US company, General Electric, bought into light bulb manufacturing in Hungary.

Advances in freedom in Poland and Hungary were encouraging people in neighboring Czechoslovakia. On August 21, the twenty-first anniversary of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, people in that city demonstrated. The former Communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, who in 1968 had led what was called the Prague Spring, spoke encouraging words to the crowd.

Communist Party leaders in Czechoslovakia were more conservative than were those in Hungary. They had risen with the Soviet invasion and Dubcek's fall, and now they were slow in adjusting to what was taking place. Under the illusion that more repression would work, they began jailing demonstrators and rounding up dissidents, again jailing Vaclav Havel.

The hope for more freedom had also spread to East Germany. The regime there, led by Eric Honecker, had been appalled by Gorbachev's liberalizations, and since 1988 Soviet publications had been banned in East Germany. But it was to no avail.

East Germans had been free to travel within the Warsaw bloc. That is where many of them went for their annual vacation. And with freedom of travel within Hungary, some from East Germany were fleeing across the Hungarian border into Austria – the slow-thinking East German regime having failed to block travel to Hungary. Many Germans wanting to flee to West Germany crowded into the West German embassies in Prague and Hungary, demanding entry to West Germany. The flight of Germans from Hungary into Austria increased to the thousands, and the Communist regime in East Germany panicked as its economy became threatened by the loss of educated and talented young people.

In mid-October 1989, rising dissent in East Germany was followed by the Politburo there replacing Eric Honneker, but Honneker was replaced with another hardliner, and the dissent continued. On October 25, Gorbachev announced that the Warsaw Pact nations "were doing it their way," described by some as the Sinatra Doctrine – as opposed to the Brezhnev Doctrine. The East German regime wanted to appease public opinion, and to reduce the "contradiction" between the Party line and public perceptions the Party admitted publicly that its regime was not popular.

On 9 November 1989 the regime in East Germany went further in appeasing public opinion. It announced liberalized travel regulations. Inept in its communications, the regime led people in East Berlin to believe that this meant they could journey freely into West Berlin. A hoard of people massed at border crossing points, overwhelming the guards, who let the joyous crowds pass. The happy East Germans flocked to West German stores to make purchases and they rejoiced with West Berliners.

The freedom to cross into West Germany further encouraged people in East Germany, and the Communist regime surrendered to an aroused populace. In November, Berliners began what would become weeks of tearing down the wall that separated East and West Berlin – to Gorbachev's surprise. President Reagan had called on Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," but Gorbachev had left that as the business of East Germans.

In Prague, the strategy of Communist leaders remained that of repression, despite what was happening in Berlin. In mid-November, 1989, on the fourth consecutive day of demonstrations, the police in Prague attacked demonstrators. Thirteen were admitted to hospitals and dozens were arrested. The following day the number of demonstrators increased, to approximately 10,000 persons. This inspired a greater demonstration the following day: an estimated 200,000 demonstrators. The leader of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, Milous Jakes, known and ridiculed for his awkward use of language, resigned. Encouraged, an estimated 500,000 people marched for the end of Communist Party rule. And millions of Czechs went out on a two-hour general strike to express solidarity with the demand for political freedom. It was a demonstration too massive for the Communist regime, and the regime responded with a pledge of free elections within a year.

The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

In early December, the Politburo of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia declared the Soviet invasion to have been a mistake. And rather than waiting months for elections, the promised elections were held after only a few days. By the end of December, Czechoslovakia had a new parliament. Its president was Vaclav Havel, and the chairman of parliament was Alexander Dubcek.

By the end of 1989 the Berlin Wall had been torn down. A reform-minded Communist, Hans Modrow, had risen to power within East Germany's Communist Party, and Party officials continued to appeal to the public. In mid-December marchers in Leipzig held a candlelight vigil commemorating Stalin's victims. And in a Party Congress, many Communists made speeches of confessions and demanded an absolute break with the Stalinist past. Hans Modrow promised the public multi-party elections for May, and the Communist Party (originally the coalition party, or SED) created by Stalin, changed its name to the Reformed Party of Democratic Socialism. Then the elections were moved up to March, and in these elections the Reformed Party of Democratic Socialism suffered a crushing defeat. A new government was formed in East Germany, and it began lobbying for unification with West Germany – a move that was to be formally achieved in October, 1990, not with great enthusiasm by the government or people of West Germany.


Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.