Collapse of the Eastern Bloc

Fall of the Berlin Wall 1989
Collapse of the Eastern Bloc

The end of the cold war was the collapse of the binary international power structure instigated by the military and political rivalry of the United States and the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II.

It was also a consequence of the reforms initiated by the first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in the years 1985–91, Mikhail Gorbachev; the result was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of communist systems in the countries of eastern Europe.

East Germany

One of the symbolic moments announcing the end of the cold war was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1990. The Berlin Wall was built in August 1961 in order to prevent refugee migration from the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) to the Western Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).

During the era of the leadership of Erich Honecker, the first secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany from 1971, the GDR remained an orthodox socialist and highly repressive state. The GDR leadership maintained its dictatorial and conservative character.

In fact, a diplomatic discord developed between reform-oriented Gorbachev and Honecker in the late 1980s. In the summer of 1989 Hungary decided to open its boundaries with Austria. A number of GDR residents moved to West Germany though Hungary and Austria.

In connection with Gorbachev’s visit at the 40th anniversary of the establishment of GDR, pro-reformist and pro-democratic demonstrations were organized in Leipzig and Berlin, which subsequently spread through the whole GDR. The protesters demanded government guarantees that human rights and civic rights would be respected, as well as that democratic restructuring be initiated.

On November 9, 1989, the vehement civic protests and the confusion of the party leadership resulted in an unanticipated decision to annul the requirement for exit visas of East German residents who were crossing the border between the GDR and FRG.

On November 10, five crossing points in the Berlin Wall were opened and approximately 40,000 East Berliners crossed into West Berlin. The atmosphere of festivity and celebration prevailed among the crowds, and people on both sides of the Berlin Wall started to make openings in the wall and bring parts of it down.

On December 22 the Brandenburg Gate officially opened. The image of East and West Berliners jointly destroying the Berlin Wall became a powerful symbol of the collapse of the cold war and of the termination of the division of Europe.

Honecker resigned from his post as the first secretary of the party and as the chairman of the Council of State of the GDR on October 18, 1989, and was temporarily replaced by another Communist politician, Egon Krenz.

Honecker later fled to Moscow and was extradited in 1992, but avoided trial for health reasons. In March 1990 the first postcommunist democratic elections took place, and the Christian Democratic Union of Germany achieved victory. The collapse of the Berlin Wall also paved the path for the reunification of Germany.

On October 3, 1990, the GDR ceased to exist, and its territory became absorbed by the state of Germany. In 1990 the Socialist Unity Party of Germany transformed itself into the Party of Democratic Socialism.


In Poland, an indication of increased political relaxation took place between 1986 and 1987 with a general amnesty of political prisoners. A series of strikes in 1988 pressured the communist authorities to re-legalize the independent trade union Solidarity, which had been made illegal after martial law was instituted in Poland in 1981.

At that time the first secretary of the Polish Communist Party and the head of state was General Wojciech Jaruzelski. In spring 1989 the reform-oriented factions of the Polish Communist Party decided to enter talks with the dissident groups associated with the Solidarity movement.

The negotiations were chaired both by Lech Wałesa, leader of the Solidarity movement and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and by Czesław Kiszczak, a chief of the Polish secret services and the minister of internal affairs beginning in 1981. The negotiators agreed that Solidarity would be re-legalized and that partially free parliamentary elections would be organized.

The parliamentary elections on June 4, 1989, brought an overwhelming majority of representatives from Solidarity, which had transformed into the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee. It received 161 of 460 total seats in the Sejm and 99 of 100 total seats in the Senate.

A coalition government was formed with a Catholic dissident, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as prime minister. Jaruzelski served as the president of Poland from 1989 to 1990, when Wałesa was elected to that post in presidential elections.

In 1991 free parliamentary elections were organized, and a coalition government of anti-communist groups emerged. The party Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland was formed in 1990 with no official ideological ties, but with evident personal ones, to its communist predecessor.


In Hungary, the deteriorating economic situation, due to increasing foreign debt, spurred public debates on the possibility of introducing radical reform policies. They facilitated the creation of the opposition movement, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, on September 27, 1987.

The leader was József Antall, a historian who was known for his engagement in the Hungarian revolt in 1956. In May 1988 the first secretary of the party, János Kádár, was removed from his post and replaced by Károly Grósz.

Grósz was inclined to introduce moderate economic reforms within the systemic socialist framework, but was opposed to the idea of organizing a roundtable discussion between the party and the anticommunists At the congress in October 1989, the power within the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party was seized by soft-liners such as Gyula Horn and Imre Pozsgay.

In March 1989, the Hungarian Democratic Forum held a national meeting at which it demanded democratic reforms and agreed to enter negotiations with the party representatives at the elite level.

On March 22, 1989, the National Roundtable Talks were organized, and their results were a series of reformatory events: The power monopoly of the party was abandoned, the constitution was amended, and multiparty democracy was reconstituted in 1989.

In October 1989 the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party renounced its Marxist-Leninist legacy and endorsed a social-democratic political direction, changing its name to the Hungarian Socialist Party. In April 1990 democratic parliamentary elections took place. The result was the victory of the Hungarian Democratic Forum, and its leader, József Antall, became prime minister of the coalition government.


In Czechoslovakia in January 1989, students organized a peaceful rally to commemorate the anniversary of the suicide of Jan Palach, a student who committed self-immolation as an act of demonstration against the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country in 1968 during the Prague Spring. The student demonstrations were brutally broken down by the riot police. Another student demonstration was organized by the Socialist Youth Union on November 17, 1989, in Prague and Bratislava.

More than 30,000 participating students commemorated the anniversary of the murder of another Czech student figure, Jan Opletal, who was killed in 1939 by pro-Nazi forces. On November 19, different opposition and human rights groups created Civic Forum. Its spokesman became Václav Havel.

Together with its Slovak counterpart, the Public Against Violence, Civic Forum demanded the resignation of the first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Miloš Jakeš, holding him responsible for the maltreatment of the demonstrating students.

On November 24 Jakeš resigned from his post. On the same day Alexander Dubcˇek, the architect of the Prague Spring events, made a public speech. On November 28 Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec declared abandonment of the power monopoly of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.

On December 17 there was an official spectacle of cutting through the wire border between Czechoslovakia and Austria. The first postcommunist democratic parliamentary elections took place in June 1990. Two anticommunist blocs, the Civic Forum and the Public against Violence, emerged victorious, with over 50 percent of the votes.

The Czechoslovak transformation was called the Velvet Revolution, because in spite of the deeply orthodox and dictatorial character of the Czechoslovak communist regime, the collapse of the system and the initiation of democratic change were accomplished without violence.


In Bulgaria the late 1980s witnessed the emergence of discriminatory nationalistic policies authored by the president of Bulgaria and the first secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Todor Zhivkov. These were directed against Bulgaria’s large Turkish minority.

The result was a massive emigration of the Bulgarian Turks and a rapidly deteriorating economic situation in the country. This increased opposition against Zhivkov among reform-oriented members of the party.

During the Central Committee meeting on November 10, 1989, the foreign minister, Patur Mladenov, condemned Zhivkov’s hard-line economic policies and authoritarianism and managed to secure Zhivkov’s removal from his leadership position.

Mladenov consequently took over Zhivkov’s secretarial and presidential posts. Famously, he publicly pledged a turn toward political democratization, far-reaching economic reforms, and amnesty for political prisoners.

In January 1990 pro-democracy demonstrations involving 40,000 people took place in Sofia. As a consequence the Bulgarian National Assembly made a number of path-paving decisions: The power monopoly of the Bulgarian Communist Party was revoked, the Bulgarian secret police was dismantled, and Zhivkov was charged with fraud and corruption. In April 1990 the Bulgarian National Assembly elected Mladenov as president and subsequently dissolved itself.

The Bulgarian Communist Party renounced its ideological attachment to Leninism and transformed itself into the Bulgarian Socialist Party, with Alexander Lilov as its chairman. In June 1990 postcommunist democratic elections were organized and the Bulgarian Socialist Party achieved a narrow victory.

Later Mladenov was forced to resign from his presidential post after it was made public that he had considered the possibility of using force against the pro-democratic demonstrators in Sofia earlier that year.

On August 1, 1990, he was replaced by Zhelyu Mitev Zhelev, a former oppositionist, professor of philosophy, and founder of the dissident Club for the Support of Glasnost and Restructuring. He was reelected in 1992 and remained in the presidential post until 1997. Zhelev represented the Union of Democratic Forces, a party that consisted of various anticommunist groups formed in December 1989.

In November 1990 a series of general strikes was organized, which instigated a sense of political and economic crisis in the country and which brought about the complete discrediting of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In 1991 a new democratic constitution was adopted, and in 1992 the Union of Democratic Forces took over power in the national elections and embarked on a series of radical economic and political reforms.


In Romania the Communist dictatorship of President Nicolae Ceausescu was particularly oppressive. Although in other East European countries popular demonstrations and negotiations took place throughout 1989, it seemed that Ceausescu’s position would remain unchallenged. On December 17 street protests were organized in the city of Timisoara against the decision by the Romanian Secret Police (Securitate) to deport local bishop László Tokés.

The protests against Tokés’s eviction were transformed into anticommunist and anti-Ceausescu demonstrations. Hundreds of demonstrators who gathered on the streets of Timisoara were attacked by military forces. Nearly 100 of them were killed, and many more were injured.

Beginning on December 20 the antiregime demonstrations and a wave of strikes took place in Romania’s other large cities. Ceausescu condemned the protests in Timisoara and ordered the organization of a pro-regime gathering in the center of Bucharest on December 21.

Mass mobilization and civic unrest continued throughout the country, and the regime made extensive use of violence to put down the revolutionary occurrences. On December 22 the National Salvation Front was formed in a national TV studio.

It was led by Communist politician Ion Iliescu, and its other members were Silviu Brucan, a former diplomat and an opponent of Ceausescu; and Mircea Dinescu, a dissident poet. Subsequently, the National Salvation Front restored peace and formed a temporary government with Iliescu as a provisional president, following Ceausescu’s execution on December 25, 1989.

Later the National Salvation Front was transformed into a political party and achieved the majority of votes in the democratic elections in May 1990. The important difference between the postcommunist elections in Romania and in other East European countries was that in Romania, the victorious National Salvation Front comprised former socialist officials. In 1992 it was divided into two leftist Romanian parties: the Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party.