Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box

`Freedoms won, freedoms lost' -- left views on the fall of the Berlin Wall

November 15, 2009 -- For the past few weeks the international capitalist mass media has been awash with triumphalist hoopla about the so-called ``collapse of Communism'' as it celebrates the 20th anniversary of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. Below Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal posts a number of commenatries from the left that deal with facts and fictions of those dramatic events, and how the people most effected are faring today.

* * *

By Chris Slee

November 16, 2009 – Green Left Weekly -- The 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin wall -- November 9 -- was the occasion for self-congratulation by supporters of the capitalist system. They talked of the fall of the wall as heralding a new era of freedom.

They failed to note that other walls and fences have been built or strengthened during the past 20 years.

  • Israel's apartheid wall confines Palestinians within a small part of their homeland. In 1948 Israel seized 78% of Palestine's territory. Under the 1993 Oslo agreement, the Palestinians had expected to be able to establish a state on the remaining 22%, but the wall extends deep into the West Bank and reduces still further the territory available for such a state, if it was ever established. The wall cuts off Palestinian farmers from their land and almost totally surrounds some Palestinian towns.
  • The fence along the US/Mexico border keeps out Latin Americans fleeing from poverty and repressive regimes and hoping to enter the United States. The poverty is largely caused by US economic exploitation of Latin America, and the repressive regimes are backed by the US government. The fence has been built to keep out these victims of US policies. Those who have died trying to enter the US greatly outnumber those who died trying to leave East Germany across the Berlin Wall.
  • The walls around the detention centres which imprison refugees trying to reach Australia. Detention now occurs on Christmas Island and in Indonesia, rather than on the Australian mainland. But there is no "new era of freedom" for refugees fleeing US- and Australian-backed wars and repression in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

1989 protests

The fall of the Berlin Wall was the result of a growing series of protests against the Stalinist regime in East Germany. 1989 was a year of protest and rebellion throughout Eastern Europe. The Stalinist parties were forced from power, or changed their leaders and proclaimed themselves supporters of democracy and reform.

But the term "reform" meant different things to different people. For most ordinary people in Eastern Europe, it meant things like freedom of speech and democratic elections. But for some other people, including some of the protest leaders, but also many bureaucrats in the "reformed" communist parties, "reform" meant the restoration of the capitalist economic system.

Pro-capitalist forces succeeded in getting control of the new governments which came to power in Eastern Europe after 1989. They implemented neoliberal policies such as the privatisation of state-owned enterprises, the sacking of large numbers of workers and cuts to social services.

These policies led to severe economic decline, reaching depression levels in some cases. Even after the economies of these countries began to recover, unemployment remained high.

Many socialists had hoped for a different outcome to the upsurge in Eastern Europe. The front cover of the November 14, 1989, edition of Direct Action, the newspaper of the Democratic Socialist Party, read: "The Wall Comes Down: A New Era of Democratic Socialism".

However the forces consciously striving for democratic socialism in Eastern Europe were too weak to lead these countries towards that goal. Many intellectuals in Eastern Europe, disillusioned with the Stalinist version of socialism, had been won to the view that "free markets" guarantee prosperity and democracy.

Many workers were also disillusioned with socialism, due to the corrupt and repressive nature of the Stalinist regimes which claimed to be socialist. Although most workers did not want the neoliberal policies of privatisation, sackings and social service cuts that the "reformers" had in store for them, they were not effectively organised to fight against them.

The fact that the fall of the Stalinist regimes led to capitalist restoration, rather than democratic socialism, was a setback for the people of Eastern Europe and the world. The triumphalism of the US ruling class after the fall of the Berlin wall strengthened their confidence in their ability to dominate the world. This led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq -- generating refugees who sit behind the walls of detention centres on Christmas Island and in Indonesia today.

[Chris Slee is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]


The fall of the wall

By Victor Grossman

November 10, 2009 -- MRZine -- Here in Berlin, radio and TV are celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago so intensively there’s hardly a moment for the weather report, which, unfortunately for all the planned events, turned out nasty and rainy. From my window I just watched the fireworks’ brave attempts to spite the clouds and drizzle.

It is well-nigh impossible to be nasty about that strange event in 1989 when a seemingly random remark by an East German big shot opened the gates to a mass rush by East Berliners to West Berlin and, soon after, places further westward. There was general euphoria, bliss, the commonest word was Wahnsinn — "insane, crazy, unbelievable”. Then and now it seemed petty to entertain even the tiniest critical idea.

Without a doubt, the great event permitted happy reunions of many families and opened the way for East Germans to visit no longer only Prague, Warsaw, or Moscow but also Paris, Washington, and Munich, as well as West Berlin.

It was truly a blissful occasion. The film footage has been shown a thousand times, but the crossing, embraces, the dancing on the wall are still moving, even to tears. But as a socialist who tries to analyse history, I find it impossible to banish certain heretical recollections and doubts.


For moments of mass euphoria, wonderful as they are for those involved, do not always explain history. And for me too many issues and questions remain unexplained or simply unasked.

Why does no one recall that it was Eastern Germany -- the German Democratic Republic (GDR) --- that pushed for reunification during the postwar years while Konrad Adenauer, chancellor of West Germany from 1949-1963, brusquely rejected all proposals, even general elections?

Only when and after West Germany -- the Federal Republic of Germany -- set up its own state, formed an army, joined NATO and insisted on regaining huge hunks of what was now Poland were such attempts finally abandoned.

Why is it never mentioned that the GDR, though certainly undergoing an economic crisis, was in less of a crisis than all of Germany today? Or that until its very end, it had no unemployment, no homelessness and its people enjoyed free medical care, child care, education and a sufficiently stable standard of living?

Why is it forgotten that many of its travel restrictions had been considerably eased in the two years before the Wall’s fall, so that not only pensioners, who were always able to visit West Germany, but up to 2 million GDR citizens had been able to visit West Germany in 1987-1989? Young people wanted desperately to travel, it is true, but their chances of being able to were already improving.

Sadly, there was often an intolerant atmosphere in the GDR, traceable to the limitations of its aged leadership, to bad traditions inherited from (or in part imposed by) the USSR. But also traceable to a kind of paranoia that was not entirely unrealistic in its fears of being swallowed by West Germany, which is what finally happened.

From the start, geographically and historically Germany’s weaker third, the GDR was always under powerful, merciless attack. This created endless problems for GDR leaders, which they were never able to solve satisfactorily.

Nevertheless, most participants in the demonstrations and rebellions in the fateful autumn of 1989 wanted an improved GDR, not a dead one. Only after West German leaders promised them not only freedom but all the consumer goods they had gazed at so enviously in TV shows were they lured by the seductive songs of the Lorelei beauties [the mythical Rhine Maidens, who, according to legend, would lure unwary river navigators to their deaths].

Many have done very well thanks to their status as federal German citizens. Certainly all consumer goods and travel possibilities are available. The leaden speeches and dull media articles of the old GDR are gone and forgotten, although replaced by endless platitudes and deadening commercials.

Freedoms won, freedoms lost

For freedoms won, however, there have been freedoms lost.

In the GDR, according to one bon mot, you were wise not to criticise government or party big shots, but you could say whatever you wanted against your foreman, the manager or the factory director. Today, this has been reversed. People are fired for rejecting unpaid overtime, for asking what a colleague earned, for simply being suspected of eating a company-owned roll or forgetting to turn in a 13 cent coupon.

Beggars, the homeless, patrons of free food outlets, people with untreated tooth gaps — all unknown in GDR days — are now taken for granted.

So are towns with closed factories and a population of pensioners, with most young people off somewhere far away hunting jobs.

The GDR had been founded with certain basic principles. Above all, as a bulwark against fascism, led for many years almost exclusively by anti-Nazis, replete with books, films, theatre, even the names of streets, schools and youth clubs anti-fascist in nature.

This was in extreme contrast with a post-World War II West German establishment whose military brass and diplomatic corps, academia, police and courts, up to the peak of the government, were riddled with former Nazis — not a few of them earnest criminals.

In 1961, when the wall was built, they were still to a remarkable degree in leadership. When the wall came down in 1989, most old Nazis were retired or dead, but the giant concerns, trusts and banks that built up Hitler and made billions from his war — and hundreds of thousands of slave labourers — were for the most part still powerful.

When the wall came down, these interests swarmed back to East Germany and beyond — the Czech Republic, Poland, Rumania. Its army and navy, built by war criminals, still led by militarists, was no longer blocked by the GDR and was fighting in parts of Africa, the near East, Afghanistan.

Two wars have been waged since the wall came down.

And, while the GDR had aided the left-wing Chilean government of Salvador Allende, the Vietnamese and Algerian peoples' struggles for national liberation, the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the anti-apartheid forces of the ANC and SWAPO in southern Africa, West Germany was always on the other side.

Yes, the euphoria of the common people who always suffer from the deeds of the big shots was understandable. But today in all Germany, wealthy men in towering skyscrapers coolly decide the fates of tens of thousands: they fire 3000 here, 10,000 there, move this factory a thousand kilometres eastward, close that one. It is as if they were playing some gigantic Monopoly game.

Nokia, Opel-GM, Siemens, drug firms, weapons makers: to a great extent they rule the roost, more than ever with the newest German government, despite its sweet smiles about freedom.

But isn’t there just a note of worry in their declamations? The latest crisis, by no means cured, is making some people think a bit more carefully. Some of them even spite the media and their pronouncements and vote for a party that calls for re-thinking, sometimes even for socialism. Not the same as in the GDR with its many weaknesses, but a state no longer ruled by the monopoly men in their skyscrapers.

Perhaps the ingenious domino ceremonies and slightly soggy fireworks in their insistence on “We Are the Greatest” reflect these very worries.

[Victor Grossman is a US journalist and author and a long-time resident of East Berlin. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).]


Over the Wall

By Ewout Irrgang

November 13, 2009 -- Spectrezine -- Twenty years ago the wall fell. In 1982, as a six-year-old, I visited my family in the GDR (East Germany) in the company of my parents and my four-year-old brother. I was very young. But I was old enough to carry away a child's memories. Such as the fact that my parents suddenly became very nervous as we arrived at the German-German border, the then ``Iron Curtain''. Not a single checkpoint, but a whole street with many checkpoints had to be traversed before we could drive into the ``Workers' and Farmers' Paradise''. And I was really offended when I had to hand in my comic book to the border guards.

As a child you could feel the anxiety and fear in the GDR. The children themselves were a potential danger to their parents, in case they spoke out of turn. At school there was a risk that they would repeat something that they had heard their parents say at home. Or if the teachers asked them to draw what they had seen on the television the night before. If they drew the logo of the West German television service, their parents had a problem.

This fear was ever present in the GDR. You never knew who was spying for the Stasi, the secret police. Sometimes this was done quite openly, for example in the case of a niece who was a party member because this meant she could get a Trabant -- the national car -- more quickly. Sometimes you only found out after 1989. We gave a sigh of relief when we were once again on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But our family could visit us in the Netherlands only if they left their children in the GDR, because otherwise it was feared by the authorities that they would not return.

On an economic level the GDR did not function at all. Even as a child I could see this in the poor quality of pastries and lego. When I was thirteen the wall fell. It sent shivers down my spine when I heard the chants of ``Wir sind das volk'' (``We are the people'') on the demonstrations. It was even more exciting when the chants changed to ``Wir sind ein volk'''(``We are one people''). With the call for unification of Germany the Soviet Union, already reeling, was once again challenged. But euphoria won over fear that ``they'' would intervene.

In our home the fall of the wall was felt as an enormous liberation. That feeling, twenty years later, has not been wholly fulfilled. Before the wall came down the family could not easily visit us, but now that they can it isn't that much easier.

Still, the fear is gone. The fear of the dictatorship. Its disappearance is something which is intrinsically good. The GDR called itself socialist. But socialism without democracy is like a pub with no beer. The GDR has been gone for almost twenty years, and a good thing too.

[Ewout Irrgang is a member of parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands.]


Beyond the fairy story

By Andy Newman

November 6, 2009 -- Socialist Unity -- Nothing represents the superiority of capitalism over socialism better than the sight of tens of thousands of East Germans clamouring to get into the West, fleeing their drab, oppressive police state; the end of a forty year mistake, a totalitarian nightmare, that only survived due to the tanks of the Soviet Red Army. In contrast West Germany was a triumph of democracy, consumer capitalism and liberalism, where America proved its moral superiority by committing itself via NATO to the defence of democracy in Europe.

What a reassuring fairy story.

In reality the interpenetrating history of the two Germanys was always much more complex; the role of the West German Federal Republic rather less blameless; and the German Democratic Republic much more successful society than the simplistic Cold War narrative allows.

First, we need to understand how the divided Germany came about. The conventional interpretation is that the Soviet Union simply seized the territory as imperialist expansion, and rolled an Iron Curtain over Europe, trapping the populations behind.

There are a number of problems with this analysis, because it simply doesn’t fit the known facts. Initially the strategically important capital city was entirely in Soviet hands, but the USSR voluntarily agreed to allow Berlin to be divided between the three victorious allies (later including France as well). This made no sense if they had already been planning to set up a satellite state.

None of the allied powers had a plan for what should happen to Germany after the war, and its formal division into two states in 1949 was an ad hoc adaptation to developing Cold War rivalries. Even after the formation of the two states, reunification was anticipated. Stalin offered Soviet withdrawal in March 1952, and Beria made the same offer during his brief period in control of the USSR during the summer of 1953. However, the West was unwilling to concede to the demilitarisation of West Germany.

Indeed, the preferred objective of the USSR was that Germany should follow the Austrian path. Austria was also originally under shared occupation, but the USSR favoured unification on condition that it was militarily and diplomatically neutral. This was achieved by 1955.

As Mary Fullbrook explains in her bibliographic essay Interpretations of the Two Germany’s 1945-1990: “analysis of the actual steps through which the division of Germany proceeded reveals that the Western Powers repeatedly took initiatives to which Soviet measures came largely in response”. The pace was forced by the Western powers; the formation of Bizonia merging the British and American zones into a proto-state, the formation of West German military forces and, crucially, the creation of a new currency that excluded the Soviet occupation zone.

It is very important to understand that the unilateral introduction of the Deutschmark by the Western powers in June 1948 was the trigger for dividing Germany. Two currencies means two states – but the Soviet occupation zone could not accept the Deutschmark without surrendering all control of its own economy.

Britain and the USA rapidly adjusted due to their own domestic economic interests. Britain couldn’t even feed its own population, let alone Germany’s, and therefore needed Germany’s economy to be rebuilt. The USA now saw the USSR as a direct military threat and wanted to rebuild Germany as an ally. De-Nazification was suspended, and the USA overrode British objections to prevent state ownership of the German economy. The Marshall Aid plan rebuilt the German economy in circumstances of remarkable continuity of personnel, social and economic structure and attitudes from the Nazi era.

The controversial figure of Konrad Adenaeur played a crucial role. Elected as the first Kanzler in 1949 by a majority of only one vote, he was a conservative Rhineland Catholic more than willing to jettison the protestant East, and who was closely aligned to the USA’s anti-communism and militarism.

Adenaeur ensured that the new Federal Republic represented considerable continuity with the Nazi past. Senior Nazis were included in his government, and it was only a few years before Nazis were allowed to join the CDU party (Christian Democrats). The economy stayed in the same hands of those who had controlled it during the Nazi era. West Germany retained the Nazi anti-homosexuality law that imposed a long prison sentence on gays who even looked at another man in a lewd manner, they retained the ban on abortion, and state and church promoted and enforced highly conservative roles for women and girls.

View from the east

So how did this look from over in the East? We need to remember that they did not have the benefit of hindsight that we have now. It was entirely reasonable in the 1940s and early 1950s to anticipate that West Germany’s Nazi continuity, the militarisation, the conservative social agenda and the anti-communist rhetoric were a prelude to war and fascist revival.

Britain had promoted an anti-communist civil war in Greece, and was fighting communists in Malaya. The Cold War became a real war in Korea that left millions dead. Nor were expectations of the benefits of a state-owned economy unreasonable. Free market capitalism had seen worldwide depression in the 1930s and had led to fascism and war. Meanwhile the USSR’s economy had achieved staggering success in the same period, including a significant improvement in working-class living standards, despite the Stalin’s terror.

It is also necessary to understand the degree that the German communists had been traumatised and brutalised. Some like Horst Sindermann had survived the Nazi death camps, others had endured long exile and war. The myth that Hitler’s Germany was liberated by the Red Army was literally true for the tiny minority of German communists and socialists. They genuinely feared and hated any sign of fascist revival.

The social experiment they sought to engage in to construct a socialist society was in the worst possible circumstances. Cities had been destroyed, almost the entire population was homeless; three and a half million ethnic Germans had been driven West from land now lost to Poland and the USSR. Millions of German men were in prisoner of war camps, some returning as late as 1955, people were living crowded into cellars and among ruins; women were raped, there was no food, people were dressed in rags and had no shoes. Famine and disease threatened catastrophe. A generation of children were orphaned and had witnessed Apocalypse.

Leading East German Communist Party (the Socialist Unity Party, SED) member Manfred Ushner described how as a seven-year-old boy, along with his four-year-old sister, he had seen his grandmother hit by an incendiary bomb and burnt before his eyes, and the next day they had to crawl over mountains of burned corpses after Britisg air raids on Magdburg. 

Popular social attitudes in both Germanys remained anti-democratic, racist and anti-socialist for many years. Large numbers of middle-class professionals: school teachers, doctors, lawyers and engineers were members of the Nazi party. Nearly 50% of doctors were Nazi party members by 1945, school teachers were even more likely to be Nazis.

Social revolution from above

The East German experience of de-Nazification was rather more complex than the state-sponsored amnesia in the West; because the communists promoted an acceptance of German guilt for the war suffering, but externalised that blame to the fascists. A number of former Nazis were rehabilitated as individuals, but the social structures and institutions that had sustained fascism were torn up by the roots.

Despite the lack of any long-term objectives for their zone of occupation, the USSR and their few German allies carried out a dramatic and rapid social revolution. Farms over a certain size were collectivised along with all land owned by former Nazis. The Junkers [landlord] class was dispossessed; industry and finance were nationalised; and the education system systematically favoured the children of manual workers and peasants. By 1949 the economy was almost entirely socialised.

This social revolution had taken place not only without the support of the population, but largely without any reference to it. However, in this regard there was little difference between East and West -- the occupying powers disposed of the areas under their control largely regardless of German wishes, although both the USSR and the Western powers found local allies. In particular the local populations became bound to the occupying governments through simple dependency; and this dependency transferred onto both the German states -- without direct state assistance the both peoples would have had no shelter, and would have starved.

But the polarisation between the economic and political blocs centred around the USA and the USSR pulled in different directions. The Anglo-American interest was in technology transfer and economic aid inwards towards Germany. (I ignore the experience of the French zone for simplicity here.) But from the point of view of Eastern Europe, despite the war devastation, Germany still had higher levels of capital investment and concentrations of modern technology. Germany and Austria were plundered to transfer high technology eastwards, where it contributed to a net increase of productive capacity. The resulting history of the two Germany’s reflected these differing starting points.

East Germany was already less industrially developed, and was part of an economic bloc with less access to capital to invest, and less access to new technology. The most important social gain was the guarantee of full employment. This removed the “reserve army of labour” and the fear that makes workers buckle down -- the immediate effect was the loss of work discipline and productivity. SED reports from shop-floor factory members in the 1950s complain that their fellow workers work much less hard than they did before the war, and still hadn’t been inspired enough by socialism to work hard. A highly progressive tax system also taxed white-collar workers, managers and supervisors more than manual workers, to the degree that shop-floor workers often took home more than their bosses.

Remember that for the first 16 years after the war, the border was open. There was a stream of managers, dispossessed Junkers and capitalists, professionals of all sorts, particularly teachers, and ex-Nazis going West, along with many of the 3.5 million refugees who had only entered East Germany in transit. The discrimination for university places in favour of the children of manual workers and peasants meant that many middle-class youths went to the West instead. The passage was not all one way, gay people, single women wanting to be sexually active without stigma, pensioners, Jews and socialists went from West to East, and around a quarter of those who fled from the East to the West changed their minds and returned.

Starting from a very low base line the GDR’s economy improved, but in particular, the East German state quickly built a layer of beneficiaries who were loyal to it. Paradoxically, the professionals and managers moving West opened up social mobility and advancement; and a layer of working-class university students could never have enjoyed such an education or prospects in the West.


The East German leader Walter Ulbricht is a real paradox. While the label “Stalinist” is bandied around as a meaningless insult on the left, he was the real deal, personally committed to Stalin as a person, and who regarded Stalin’s model of political rule as an example to follow. Famously he provoked the 1953 uprising by demanding an extraordinary rise in productivity to support the drive to heavy industry announced in 1952. Ironically he survived the fall out of the uprising, but it provoked a coup in Moscow, removing Beria who had been committed to removing Ulbricht in order to allow political liberalisation in Germany.

But Ulbricht was also a man of extraordinary vision and ability, who was unafraid to pursue a very modernising liberal agenda over issues of women’s equality, sexual freedom, decriminalisation of gay sex and the promotion of industrial and scientific progress. Like most Germans of his generation, including those communists who had been in the USSR during the 1930s, he had a low opinion of Russians, and would not have felt compelled to use the USSR as a social exemplar.

The other paradox of the East German state is what has been described as “the benign and malign honeycomb of decentralised power”. The mass organisations of the state enjoyed genuine voluntary participation and identification, especially in the rural areas, and a great deal of responsibility and decision making was devolved to state owned companies and mayors (elected under the cadre system, around 70% were SED members). Complaining and petitioning were encouraged and led to the development of extensive social networks that both allowed consumers to work around the shortages but also almost comically reduced the presumptions of the state to be in control of production and distribution -- particularly given the culture that developed of good-humoured sarcasm in letters of complaint.

But there was also a devolved repressive participation in the Stasi, that had mass popular support in enforcing social conformity. It is important to understand that social non-conformity was regarded to be the danger, not open political disagreement. Preconceptions of “totalitarianism” derived from Cold War political theories, and cultural images from Orwell’s novel 1984 are very wide of the mark; the GDR enjoyed mass popular support for much of its lifetime.

Arguably the GDR very much took on the same character as Ulbricht. A surprisingly socially liberal, modern and pragmatic society in many ways, and exhibiting occasional brilliant achievement, but also deeply repressive, and conformist.


Into this mix we need to add the deliberate destabilisation and sabotage from the West German government. Remember, the initiation of a divided Germany came from the West, but once the eastern state was established, the Federal Republic engaged in diplomatic sabotage, refusing trade and diplomatic recognition to other countries if they had friendly relations with the GDR, the East Germans were blocked from membership of international sporting, cultural and scientific organisations. The East German state was blocked from accessing Western finance capital. West Berlin was massively subsidised to destabilise the economy and social stability of the East, and automatic citizenship and a welcome payment were made to any East German defecting.

The tragic building of the wall and closing the border in 1961 was the result. This was the result of a number of factors. The big social changes restructuring the economy were coming to an end, and had just seen the final wave of collectivisation in agriculture. As with any big change in agricultural policy this impacted on food supplies, and although East Germany was almost unique among advanced industrial societies in achieving food self-sufficiency, there were bread shortages in 1961. As the economy stabilised, there was also a reduction in prospects for rapid personal advancement. Generally there was a disappointing perceived failure of the youth to enthusiastically support the government, even though they had grown up in the socialist education system .

Paradoxically, if we set to one side the issue of personal liberty, the wall was a great success. It stabilised relations between the two Germanys, and led to a period of reform within the GDR. The interesting contrast of course is Yugoslavia, whose citizens could travel freely to the West. But the difference is that there was no equivalent of the West German state seeking to poach all Yugoslavia’s citizens, and to destabilise its economy.

This account has been partial, I have not addressed some of the obvious shortcomings, nor some of the less obvious but significant achievements of the GDR. Instead I have sought only to show how the divided Germany and the Berlin Wall were the result of policies by both of the Cold War power blocs, and the actions of both of the German states.

When the GDR was dismantled, good things were lost, as well as bad things.


The revolutions of 1989

By Alan Maass 

November 12, 2009 -- Socialist Worker (USA) --The fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago was one crest in a wave of revolt that overturned governments across half of Europe at the end of 1989. Tyrannies that were seen as exercising total control over the people -- he ultimate Big Brother-style police states -- fell with incredible speed, one after another, when faced with massive mobilisations demanding democracy and justice.

The revolutions against the regimes of the Eastern bloc were a vindication of a basic principle of socialism -- that the working-class majority in society has the power to defeat even the most repressive ruling class.

But that's not at all what most people think about 1989. The conclusion drawn for them by the Western media and political establishment is that the fall of the Berlin Wall symbolised the failure of socialism and the superiority of capitalism. The images of crowds of East Germans scrambling to the top of the wall or pulling down sections of it are associated in most people's minds with the fact that those people were desperate to flee a system that called itself ``communist''.

Capitalism's defenders naturally celebrate that interpretation. Many on the left have the same understanding, but with the opposite reaction. They believe the revolutions against the regimes of the Eastern bloc were a cause for despair -- a step backward, possibly orchestrated by the CIA, from societies that, however flawed, at least rejected capitalism.

Both views share the mistaken belief that what existed in Eastern Europe was socialism. On the contrary, these societies -- like the USSR after the rise of Joseph Stalin, on which the Eastern bloc satellite regimes were modeled -- were ruled by a small minority, while the experience of the working majority wasn't of freedom and democracy, but of exploitation, oppression and alienation from any kind of social and political control.

When you strip away the rhetoric of how the rulers of the East described themselves, what you see are systems that reflected the basic features of capitalism as we know it in the US -- with a small minority having preemptive control over what happened in society, what resources were used, and who enjoyed greater privileges and power.

The countries of Eastern Europe shared something else with Western-style capitalism -- a working class driven by the experience of exploitation and oppression to question, to organise and to resist. The rich history of struggle and revolt in the Eastern bloc began with the formation of the USSR satellite states after the Second World War and continued to the revolutions in 1989.

When the dam burst, the revolution spread fast. At the beginning of 1989, there were six countries in the Eastern bloc aligned with the USSR -- East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria -- along with Yugoslavia and Albania on its margins, but considered behind the iron curtain.

By the end of 1989, the former Stalinist rulers were out of power in all six satellite states. One year later, East Germany was no more, reunified with the West. Another year later, and the USSR itself was breaking apart, ultimately into 15 successor states, and the former Yugoslavia had started to collapse.

The 1989 revolutions thus marked a turning point in history. They didn't produce socialism -- in every case, the new order was a step sideways to a different form of capitalism. But the immense struggle from below that finally swept away the dictatorships of Eastern Europe remains an inspiration today.


The revolutions of 1989 were rooted in an economic crisis that spread through the Eastern bloc once the Stalinist system expanded past a certain point of development.

In the USSR itself, the annual growth rate slowed decade after decade, from an annual average of 5.8 per cent during the 1950s, to 3.7 per cent in the 1970s, to just 1 per cent in the 1980s. Eastern Europe -- its system synchronised with the USSR -- felt the same crisis. Meanwhile, the drudgery and alienation of work and the stifling of culture and intellectual life created the tinder for an explosion to take place.

By the 1980s, sections of the USSR bureaucracy recognised that some kind of reform was needed. Mikhail Gorbachev, installed as the leader of the Communist Party in the mid-1980s, launched a program of economic restructuring called "perestroika". As a necessary complement to the economic agenda, Gorbachev initiated political reforms called "glasnost", meaning "openness."

Once the lid was lifted slightly by the bureaucracy, the simmering brew in Eastern bloc societies pushed it further off. In Russia itself, nationalist struggles broke out in the USSR's allegedly socialist republics -- in reality, oppressed nations locked into the Soviet empire. Movements took shape from the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to the Caucasus republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, and across Central Asia.

In the Eastern European satellites, opposition activity grew bolder. In Hungary, for example, 10,000 people gathered in March 1988 for an illegal demonstration to demand "democracy, free speech and freedom of the press". It was a stunning show of strength for dissidents. As one East German radical later recalled, "A feeling arose that things had to change."

Still, the speed and sweep of what took place at the end of 1989 remained unimaginable. Even as the protests grew bigger and bigger, and one country after another entered into political crisis, no one -- including those fighting for change -- realised how close they were to making history.

The first transformation of 1989 came in Poland. What happened seems modest now compared to what followed elsewhere, but it was earth-shaking at the time. The Polish regime that eight years before had crushed the mass independent union Solidarity and cracked down on all opposition was now inviting Solidarity leaders, newly emerged from the underground or prison, into negotiations over possible power-sharing.

When Solidarity was allowed to participate in elections, it trounced the Stalinist ruling party. Though Solidarity candidates were only allowed to run for one-third of the seats of the lower house of the national assembly, they won support for forming a government. The editor of Solidarity's newspaper was elected prime minister, and the Stalinists were displaced from being the "leading political force in Poland" for the first time.

Next came Hungary. The regime -- encouraged by Gorbachev and his allies in the USSR -- likewise reached out to oppositionists in the hopes of containing the discontent with a few reforms. But the old order was soon overwhelmed by calls for democracy.

East Germany

One of the reforms was to open Hungary's borders with Austria -- the first tear in the "iron curtain" that separated the Eastern bloc from the West. This helped spread the fever of revolt to East Germany -- the most economically powerful of the USSR's satellites. Thousands of East Germans took their "vacation" in Hungary, and then crossed over into the West.

The East German regime, led by hard-liner Erich Honecker, attempted to contain the crisis, but the pressure began to cause cracks. Honecker was pushed out of office, and a "reformer", Egon Krenz, took his place. Krenz visited Gorbachev in Moscow at the end of October, where Gorbachev said he wouldn't support the use of force to try to stop the flow of refugees from the East.

In early November, protesters started gathering at the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the hated partition of the country between East and West after the Second World War. Hundreds of East Germans had been shot trying to escape over it in the three decades since its construction.

On November 9, with protests at the wall growing larger and bolder, the regime blinked. Its leadership decided that instead of traveling a roundabout route through Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria into West Germany, East Germans would be allowed through the border points in Berlin. A local official announced the decision prematurely, crowds of people showed up at the wall, and overwhelmed guards let them through.

Once the first breach was made, East Germans began tearing down parts of the wall themselves, with the authorities powerless to stop them. Within a year, the 40-year-old partition of Germany was fully undone, and East and West were reunified, though under the government of West Germany's conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl.


The first countries of Eastern Europe to go established a political pattern. As Anthony Arnove wrote in an article for the International Socialist Review, "When they sensed that repression alone could not contain the crisis, the Stalinist bureaucracies faced a decision: be pushed or jump. In the end, both took place. Under the pressure of protests, strikes and demonstrations, the regimes fell one by one."

Czechoslovakia was next. Twenty years earlier, Russian tanks had rolled into Prague to crush the students and workers' uprising. Now, by mid-November, 200,000 people were confident enough to demonstrate for democracy. Within days, the number of protesters grew to 800,000, and on November 27, millions of people walked out of work for a countrywide, two-hour general strike.

Here, too, the dissidents of the past suddenly returned to centre stage. Vaclav Havel began the year 1989 as a prisoner of the regime, known to some people internationally as an activist and a playwright, but silenced within Czechoslovakia. By the end of the year, he was president of a post-Stalinist system.

The climax of the 1989 revolutions came in Romania, presided over by the hated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his Marie Antoinette-like wife Elena.

As in other countries, the first steps toward toppling the old order were small. When the regime's secret police attempted in mid-December to arrest a dissident pastor, Laszlo Tokes, in the city of Timisoara, several hundred people formed a human chain around his house. Police moved in to disperse them, but the protesters were joined by hundreds more.

The regime turned to its tried-and-true method. Soldiers and secret police opened fire on a protest march of tens of thousands in Timisoara on December 17. But unlike the past, the demonstrations continued, and two days later turned into a general strike. The factories of Timisoara were at a standstill, and a significant part of the city's population gathered for mass demonstrations.

Strikes and demonstrations spread across Romania, reaching the capital of Bucharest, where the regime's attempt to stage a pro-government rally was disrupted by chants of "Down with Ceausescu!" Again, soldiers and police were ordered to open fire, but the turning point had come. Viorica Butnariu, a student who had a part-time job in a Bucharest watch factory, described what happened next:

I went to work, only to find out we were on strike. We rushed to the Central Committee building, shouting "Down with Ceausescu! Death to the butcher, the criminal, the assassin!"

The protesters were soon confronted by soldiers and police. Viorica continued:

We didn't know if they'd fire or not, but we were prepared to face the fire. The soldiers looked grim. Everyone marched on the tanks, and people began to shout, "The army is with us, the army is with us." After the slogan was repeated many times, the soldiers may have begun to think, "Well, I might be with them."

They began to fire into the air to show us they were not going to fire on us. People clambered onto the tanks and embraced the soldiers. I was very close to an armored vehicle. The soldiers said, "We arrested our commander." They showed him to us. Then they said, "We are going to arrest Ceaucescu."

The dictator was arrested, and he and his wife were executed on Christmas Day.

Power of the people

A lot of what passes for the history of 1989 is the names of political leaders, both of the old regime and the new opposition. But the real force in the Eastern European revolutions was the power of the people, mobilised to fight for change.

Whether it was the spontaneous dismantling of the Berlin Wall or the general strike in Czechoslovakia or the street battles in Romania, the turning point in country after country was action by masses of ordinary people.

Photographs of the 1989 demonstrations, whether they took place in Russia or Eastern Europe, are still a sight to behold. They show literal seas of humanity, larger than any protests in Western cities, at least to that point -- incredible masses of people jammed into huge public squares, previously best-known to us in the West as the site of regime-sanctioned May Day demonstrations, with their obscene parades of marching soldiers and military weaponry.

The sense of possibility was electric. As an East German socialist remembered about the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

In the first few months after the revolution, everything seemed to have changed. We were seized with the idea of being able to change everything. People became more confident. Ordinary people spoke at demonstrations and meetings.

But if the masses of people had the ability to set the revolution in motion, they didn't have the organisation or politics to determine where it would go.

The hated figureheads, like Honecker and Ceaucescu, were brought down, and the former Stalinist ruling parties gave up their monopoly on power. But even in the wake of the mass protests and general strikes, large parts of the ruling order remained in place under the new system. As Arnove wrote, "In reality, the same managers ran the plants the next day, the same police officers and security forces remained intact, and yesterday's Communist apparatchik became today's 'democrat,' 'free marketeer' or 'reformer.'"

As for the old dissidents suddenly thrust onto centre stage, they had enormous authority. But most had left their radical background -- if any -- behind and were singing from the hymnal of the free-market gospel of the West.

In Poland, for example, Lech Walesa, the best-known leader of Solidarity from the uprising of 1980-81, responded to a strike wave that accompanied Solidarity's taking power in 1989 with a call for a moratorium on strikes of six months "at least" -- in order to promote an alliance between the new officeholders and the "reformist wing of the establishment". The new Solidarity government oversaw the imposition of harsh neoliberal measures, described as "shock therapy," that ended price controls on many foods and consumer goods, leading to price increases of up to 500 percent.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel applauded the general strike that crippled the old order at the end of November--but then suggested it had done its part, and the opposition needed to follow with "constructive" activities.

What happened after the revolutions of 1989 was a step sideways. The mass upheaval from below overthrew one form of capitalism, presided over by a state bureaucracy, but this was replaced by free-market capitalism on the model of the West.

This was cheered on by most of the old oppositionists thrust into power by the revolutions. Many had been influenced decades before by the struggles of the 1960s and the rise of a new left in Western Europe. But the conservative period that followed shaped their thinking now--they saw no alternative to the Stalinist system but free-market capitalism. It was a deeply frustrating contradiction of the time--hearing men and women who had done time in police-state prisons for defending free trade unions sing the praises of a union-busting monster like Margaret Thatcher.

The expectations that the capitalist free market would bring prosperity and freedom were dashed. Already meager living standards in countries like Poland and elsewhere took a further dive.

But the suffering endured under the free market in the following years shouldn't overshadow what the Eastern European revolutions accomplished. A dictatorial system that had seemed immune to any form of protest was brought down across half a continent in a matter of months.

The revolts cleared the way for genuine socialism, not polluted by the crimes of Stalinism, to be rediscovered. This is the tradition we look to today--one that puts the emancipation of the working class, accomplished by the working class itself, at the center of the project of creating a new world.

[Socialist Worker is the newspaper of the US International Socialist Organization.]

Powered by Drupal - Design by Artinet