Remembering 1989

The Year that Shook the World

1989 Solidarity Reuters
Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity, which won the first partially free elections in June 1989.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The year 1989 marked the biggest global rupture since the end of World War II. Yet while it led to political change in Europe and South Africa, the lessons learned in China were very different.

  • Facts


    • On June 4, 1989, Solidarity won Poland’s first free elections.
    • On the same day, the Chinese People’s Army brutally crushed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations.
    • On July 5, 1989 South African president, Pieter W. Botha, met with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned since 1964.
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When we hear “1989” the first thing that comes to mind is the fall of the Berlin Wall. We think of cheering people streaming through the opened border crossing from East to West Berlin. However, “1989” is not just about the fall of the wall on November 9. It was not just about that autumn but also about the summer and spring of that year. It was not just about Germany or even about Europe. It was also China and South Africa. At no other point since the end of World War II has the world changed quite so dramatically.

The tumultuous year began with several big strike waves in Poland. Then on February 6, and with pressure from the Catholic Church, state representatives and the leading figures in the opposition, as well as the still banned trade union Solidarity, met to try to reach an agreement about the future of the country.

The results of these negotiations were sensational. Poland was to see not only economic reforms and pluralist labor representation, but also partially free elections. For one of the two parliamentary chambers, the senate, there would be complete free elections. That meant no less than that the dictatorship that was erected in 1945 was coming to an end. Poland was about to win back its political freedom.

It wasn’t the only country that was daring to embark on a new era. At the same time, Hungary was undergoing an historic sea change. Unlike Poland, however, this was a revolution from the top down, carried out by reformers in the communist party such as Miklós Németh and Imre Pozsgay.

On January 19, 1989 the parliament in Budapest adopted a series of reforms which included freedom of association and assembly, and a multi-party system. Ten days later the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party gave up its leadership role, as outlined in the constitution, and allowed the right to strike.

On May 2, 1989, Hungary began dismantling its border with neutral Austria. The Iron Curtain was to become permeable, by becoming a normal state border. That was the message that went around the world. Then on 8 to the 9 May, the long-serving party boss János Kádár was removed from power.

For many, these events seemed incredible. Was peaceful change really possible after the bloody repression of uprisings in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1970? Later it would be described as the peaceful revolution but in May 1989 it was certainly not yet clear how the regimes would react.

Two days after the spectacular events on the Austro-Hungarian border some 100,000 students gathered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the events of May 4, 1919.  That had been the date that a student demonstration for China’s national independence had been violently crushed.

A large section of the communist elite had long lost their belief in the superiority of their own system.

The students demanded democracy as well as the right to demonstrate, media freedom and freedom of speech. They demanded that the party bosses publish their income and assets, that corruption be tackled and higher wages for their teachers and intellectuals.

The students that gathered on May 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square were acting on their own steam, rather than being influenced by what was happening in Poland at the time. However, they were inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies. They thought that what was happening in the Soviet Union should also be possible in China. In a Cold War order that had appeared to be so fixed, it appeared that a complex, global chain reaction was underway.

It’s not unusual for big changes to have small beginnings. That was the case in the German Democratic Republic in May 1989.

1989 ANC Getty
Demonstrators in Johannesburg in October 1989 in support of ANC political prisoners. Source: Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images


Encouraged by the events in Poland and Hungary, civil rights activists called for a boycott of local elections and, in many places, made use of a law that allowed them to have access to the vote counts. In that way they could prove that the number of non- votes had been retrospectively reduced to reach the desired result. While police and the security service, the Stasi, sought to repress the protests that broke out in Leipzig on the night of the elections, it was still the beginning of what would turn into a civil rights protest movement.

June 4, 1989: the Poles voted in the first round of elections that were only partially free and Solidarity’s political wing, the Citizens Committee, won an overwhelming majority. On the same day, the Chinese People’s Army ended the Tiananmen Square demonstrations with a blood bath – an act of violence that the regime has subsequently sought to systematically erase from China’s collective memory, and which still today shapes the development of the People’s Republic.

June 13: the leadership in Budapest sought talks with the opposition in a Round Table.  June 18: the Polish opposition won seven of the eight open seats in the senate, and the remaining free seat in the Sejm, or lower house of parliament. June 27: The Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian colleague, Alois Mock, officially open the borders between their two countries, symbolically removing part of the barbed wire fence. The Iron Curtain had fallen, at least between Hungary and Austria.

Things turned out differently in China. The crushing of the student movement was largely the work of Deng Xiaoping, who had pushed ahead economic modernization in the country. He saw the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc as proof that it was wrong and dangerous to give in to demands for more democratic freedoms. The collapse of the Soviet Empire was regarded as a result of the capitulation to the ideals of Western liberalism. In this sense the lessons of “1989” in China were interpreted as the necessity for tougher political repression.


1989 China AFP
Demonstrators on Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989. Two days later the protests were crushed. Source: AFP/Handelsblatt


In China, the rejection of any type of Gorbachevism had another source:  what happened in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in February 1989. The failing state, threatened with a fundamentalist Muslim movement, was also a warning not to give into change. After all, around 17 million Muslims lived in China at the time.

And in reality, the revolutions of 1989 not only opened the door to democracy and freedom, but also to other movements – such as religious fundamentalism and extreme nationalism. The effects of Gorbachev’s reform policies were felt everywhere that the Cold War had been carried out in proxy wars, for example Africa.

One of the freedom movements that had been backed by the Soviet Union and the rest of the Eastern Bloc had been the African National Congress, which was fighting the apartheid system in South Africa. The congress included the country’s banned communist party and Gorbachev had already asked them to use their influence on the ANC to stop it engaging in violence and sticking to agitating for peaceful change.  On July 5, 1989 President Pieter W. Botha met with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned since 1964. Mr. Botha had realized that South Africa could no longer afford its economic and political isolation.

On August 14 Mr. Botha resigned on health grounds and Willem de Klerk took his place. Mr. de Klerk was determined to make radical changes. In February 1990 the ANC ban was lifted, and Mr. Mandela was released from jail after 26 years. The South African government began to dismantle the Apartheid regime step by step, and South Africa embarked on its own peaceful revolution.

The lessons of '1989' in China were interpreted as the necessity for tougher political repression.

However, South Africa would be a special case, largely thanks to Nelson Mandela. No other leader of a liberation movement in the developing world had taken to heart the British ideas of human rights, rule of law and representative government to the same degree.

In Mozambique the ruling party switched from Marxist-Leninism to vaguely defined “socialism,” while in 1989 Cuba began the withdrawal of troops from war-torn Angola.  Cuba remained the only communist state in Latin America. The interference of the United States in its backyard ceased with the demise of its ideological enemy, the Soviet Union. There was no need to prevent the establishment of a second Cuba.

The revolutions in Central Europe continued. In Poland, on August 24, the Catholic journalist Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a close advisor of Lech Walesa, was appointed prime minister, the first non-communist Polish leader since 1945. On September 11, Hungary announced that it would no longer return refugees to their socialist homelands, and opened the borders to Austria for thousands of East Germans.

The events of the following two months are embedded in Germans’ collective memory: the train journey of East German refugees who had sought refuge in the Prague Embassy of West Germany to the Federal Republic, with their journey passing through the GDR. Protests by citizens groups against the SED’s blocking of reforms, Mr. Gorbachev’s visit to East Berlin on October 7 for the 40th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the GDR, the Leipzig Monday demonstrations, particularly that of October 9, which against all expectations were not violently crushed. Then the fall of Eric Honecker, the protests in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz on November 4, which brought together artists, civil rights activists, intellectuals and SED reformers who spoke out against the new leader Egon Krenz. Finally the agreement with Prague on November 3, which allowed GDR citizens to travel to West Germany.

ARCHIV - Jubelnde Menschen auf der Berliner Mauer am Brandenburger Tor am 10.11.1989. Am Abend des 09.11.1989 teilte SED-Politbüro Mitglied Günter Schabowski mit, daß alle DDR-Grenzen in die Bundesrepublik und nach West-Berlin für DDR-Bürger geöffnet werden. Daraufhin strömten binnen weniger Stunden tausende von Ost-Berlinern in den Westteil der Stadt, wo es zu volksfestartigen Verbrüderungen zwischen Bürgern aus Ost- und Westdeutschland kam. Am 09.11.2014 feiert Berlin den 25. Jahrestag der Maueröffnung. Foto: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa (zu dpa Themenpaket: "25 Jahre Mauerfall" vom 05.11.2014) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, but its days were already numbered. Source. DPA Source: DPA


The Berlin Wall had already lost its function – even if most Germans had yet to realize it. The actual fall of the wall on November 9, 1989, was for the GDR what the storm of the Bastille was for France’s Ancien Régime 200 years previously. The wall, like the Bastille, was a symbol of oppression. When the symbol fell, it heralded the end of the old system.  That was why friends of freedom were overjoyed by the events of that night in Berlin.

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia soon followed, with student protests in Bratislava and Prague on November 16 and 17. “In Poland it took 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, in the GDR 10 weeks, perhaps it will only take 10 days in Czechoslovakia,” said the British historian Timothy Garton Ash during talks with the poet, civil rights activist and later president, Václav Havel. The communist regime in Prague fell apart in those final weeks of November.

It was to be that last peaceful revolution of 1989. The change of regime in Bulgaria was a palace revolution within the Bulgarian communist party, according to historian Tony Judt. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a popular revolt that he was not able to crush, and was executed along with his wife on Christmas Day.

That these dramatic events were largely peaceful was above all due to the erosion of the old order. A large section of the communist elite had long lost their belief in the superiority of their own system. There were doubts if one could completely rely on the security services. A Soviet leadership that was ideologically convinced of its own position might have been able to offer support to the hardliners in the Warsaw Pact countries and might have been able to halt the tendency toward softening the party line.  However, these conditions did not exist.  Mr. Gorbachev’s policies were an expression of the awareness that the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War on all fronts.

On December 2 and 3, a summit on Malta brought together Mr. Gorbachev and U.S. president George H.W. Bush, accompanied by foreign ministers Eduard Shevardnaze and James Baker. Mr. Baker spoke of openness and pluralism as “Western values” and the Kremlin boss answered: “They are also our values.” Mr. Bush added that this had not always been the case. Mr. Baker suggested that one should talk of “democratic values,” which Mr. Gorbachev agreed to. The Cold War was over.


This is an abridged version of an article that was first published in Die Zeit. 

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