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.

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