By Tim Lambert

The year 1989 brought momentous changes to Eastern Europe. Communist regimes fell and the people were set free. These great changes started in Poland.

The Fall of Communism in Poland

In July 1980 the Polish government announced 100% rises in the price of some foods. The result was strikes across Poland. In August 1980 the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk went on strike. Led by an electrician named Lech Walesa the workers occupied the yards. They drew up a list of demands including freedom of the press, the release of political prisoners and the right to form independent trade unions. On 31 August the Communists surrendered. They made the Gdansk agreement and accepted the Polish workers demands.

The workers formed the Solidarity Trade Union, which soon became a mass movement. However the Communists fought back. In December 1981 General Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law on Poland. Solidarity was banned and its leaders were arrested. Jaruzelski declared a 'state of war'. However the war between the workers and the Communists continued. The economic crisis continued. Poland's debts grew larger and larger. Wages did not keep up with price rises. Meanwhile the workers continued to hold strikes and Solidarity went underground. Eventually, in 1988 the Communists gave in and Jaruzelski called for a 'courageous turnaround'. In 1989 the Communists and Solidarity held talks. The government agreed to legalise Solidarity and allow freedom of the press. The Communists also agreed that the Sejm (Polish parliament) should be partly democratically elected. The Communists would keep at least 65% of the seats in the lower house but the other 35% would be freely elected. All the seats in the upper house would be freely elected.

The elections were held on 4 June 1989. Solidarity won 35% of the seats of the lower house and 99% of the seats in the upper house. It was a humiliating defeat for the Communists. In August 1989 Tadeusz Mazowiecki became Prime Minister of Poland. The Communist tyranny was over. Finally in 1990 Lech Walesa was elected President. In October 1991 completely free elections for the Sejm were held.

The Fall of Communism in Hungary

Meanwhile in the 1980s Hungary began to suffer from inflation, which particularly hurt people on fixed incomes. Furthermore Hungary ran up a huge foreign debt. Poverty became widespread. As conditions deteriorated Kadar fell from power in 1988. In the late 1980s a wave of discontent and demands for reform grew in Hungary. This time there were many reformers within the Communist party as well as without. In July 1989 Nagy (leader of Hungary during an anti-Communist uprising in 1956) was reburied and rehabilitated. Then Hungary dismantled its border with Austria. East Germans flocked to Hungary to make their way to West Germany.

In October 1989 the Hungarian Communist Party renamed itself the Hungarian Socialist Party and changed its policies. They also allowed other political parties to form. Furthermore a Communist paramilitary organisation called the Workers Guard was disbanded. Then on 23 October the constitution was amended to allow an orderly transition to democracy and capitalism. Remarkably the Hungarians managed the transition to freedom peacefully. In 1990 the first free elections were held and Jozsef Antall became prime minister but he died in 1993.

The Fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia

In 1989 the Communist tyranny crumbled. On 17 November the police attacked a student demonstration. Events then moved quickly. On 19 November human rights activists formed the Civic Forum. On 20 November huge demonstrations were held. More followed in the next few days. On 24 November the government resigned but the demonstrations continued. On 27 November a 2 hour strike was held.

Eventually the Communist party agreed to end one party rule. They also promised to form a coalition government. However on 3 December it turned out that Communists dominated the coalition. The people were not satisfied and they held more demonstrations. Finally on 10 December a new government was formed. This time Communists were a minority. The Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel president on 29 December. In June 1990 multi-party elections were held and the process of turning Czechoslovakia into a market economy began. The Velvet Revolution was followed by the Velvet Divorce. The Czechs and Slovaks were two quite different people with different histories. In June 1992 the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia won elections and pressed for Slovak independence. Czechs and Slovaks quickly reached agreement and on 1 January 1993 Czechoslovakia separated into two states, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The first President of the Czech Republic was Vaclav Havel. In February 2003 he was replaced by Vaclav Klaus.

The Fall of Communism in East Germany

East Germany was called the German Democratic Republic. Of course, it was anything but democratic! In 1953 there was a wave of strikes in East Germany. The Russians responded by sending in tanks and killing many civilians. Not surprisingly many people in East Germany fled to a better life in the west. In 1961, alarmed at the number of skilled workers leaving East Germany, the government built the Berlin Wall. Afterwards anyone who tried to leave was shot. However the communist tyranny collapsed in 1989. On 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall was opened. Following the collapse of communism Germany was reunited on 3 October 1990. Germany then faced the task of raising living standards in the east to the same level as those in the west.

The Fall of Communism in Bulgaria

Meanwhile the late 1980s the Communist tyranny in Bulgaria began to crumble. On 10 November 1989 Zhikov, the Communist leader was deposed. In April the Communists renamed themselves the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The totalitarian regime was dismantled. On 6 March 1990 strikes were made legal. However multi-party elections were not held until June 1990. The Bulgarian Socialist Party continued to hold power. However state socialism was scrapped in Bulgaria. From 1991 controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized. Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991 and after further elections in October 1991 the Socialist Party lost power.

The Fall of Communism in Romania

The Communist regime in Romania suddenly collapsed in 1989. In December demonstrations took place in Timisoara. On 21 December Ceausescu was booed by a crowd in Bucharest and demonstrations followed. The next day Ceausescu appeared on the balcony of the Central Committee Building but he was forced to escape by helicopter. Ceausescu's fellow Communists deserted him and he was arrested. He and his wife were shot on 25 December 1989. Romania then began the transition from Communism to democracy and a market economy.

In the Soviet Union in 1987 Gorbachev relaxed censorship and introduced a policy he called 'glasnost' (openness). He also introduced a policy called perestroika (reconstruction). However he failed to fundamentally change the wasteful and inefficient communist economic system. In 1989 events began to move rapidly. Firstly the Russian army withdrew from Afghanistan. Secondly communism collapsed in eastern Europe.

Furthermore nationalism grew, especially in the Baltic states. Finally in March 1990 Lithuania declared itself independent. Gorbachev refused to recognize the move but was unable to bring the Lithuanians to heel. Meanwhile unrest broke out in the other Soviet republics.

On 18 August 1991 a group of Conservatives attempted a coup. Gorbachev was detained in Crimea. However the Russian people, led by Boris Yeltsin protested and on 21 August the coup collapsed. Gorbachev was released. However the attempted coup triggered the collapse of communism and the break up of the Soviet Union. By December 1991 it had ceased to exist and Russia was again an independent country. Gorbachev resigned on 25 December 1991.

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Last revised 2019