Epoch-making Change: Reflections on the Significance of the Revolutionary Year 1989

The year 1989 was the birth of political Europe in which we live today. Thirty years ago, revolutions started by ordinary citizens not only led to the collapse of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe but also, and above all, changed the face of the entire continent.

In Germany, this revolutionary upheaval was mainly attributable to the reform policy initiated by the Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev, the policy of glasnost and perestroika. The role played by civil society in this process of renewal, especially the Solidarity movement, is, however, usually underestimated. This forgotten, mutual interaction between Solidarity’s struggle for freedom and Gorbachev’s reforms was aptly summed up by the Polish historian Jerzy Holzer: according to him the birth of Solidarity in August 1980 and its political consequences after Gorbachev took power in 1985 became the actual catalyst for perestroika, which in turn accelerated further changes in Poland. Solidarity’s leaders, gathered around Lech Wałęsa, used Gorbachev’s reformist zeal to bring about the Round Table talks that began already in February 1989. Their conclusion at the beginning of April opened the door to the democratisation of Poland.

The re-legalization of Solidarity in April and the first partially free elections in Poland on 4 June 1989 triggered a chain reaction that led to the Round Table discussions in Hungary at the end of the spring of the same year and to the mass protests in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in the autumn. The last link in this revolutionary chain of events was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. This was the symbolic climax of the European revolution, in which it was Solidarity that formed the vanguard, led to the collapse of the communist regime and extended the scope of freedom.

The victory of the civil revolutions in Central Europe in 1989 offered Germany an unexpected opportunity for unification, which took place only a year later, on 3rd October 1990.

The victory of the civil revolutions in Central Europe in 1989 offered Germany an unexpected opportunity for unification, which took place only a year later, on 3rd October 1990. German reunification would not have been possible, however, without the Allies’ agreement, but also without the acceptance of the neighbors. The basic condition for reunification was reconciliation not only with Germany’s western neighbors but also, to an equal extent, with Poland. Thanks to Germany being united and integrated with Western structures, Poland had the West right at its doorstep. Solidarity leaders looked favorably on these geopolitical changes.

The reunification of Germany resulted in the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Central Europe. Moscow thus lost its military control over Central and Eastern Europe. The former colonies of the Soviet empire were transformed into sovereign nations. Civic revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia also strengthened the desire for freedom among the peoples of the Soviet Union itself. In addition to the Baltic nations, a return to national sovereignty and independence from Moscow was also demanded by Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians and Belarusians.

In 1989, Moscow could not and would not use tanks to suppress the revolution in Poland, the GDR or Hungary. In the face of mass protests by the citizens of these countries, the risk of an uncontrolled political crisis was too great. From the point of view of Soviet authorities, the peaceful change was to help alleviate the crises that broke out in the Soviet domain and thus strengthen the center of power in Moscow. This calculation was doomed to failure when confronted with reality, however, as the Central European revolution of 1989 had already spread to the entire empire. In this situation, the communists in the USSR itself partly opted for a force-based solution, which was supposed to stop the uncontrolled changes. Gorbachev sent troops to the Baltic republics.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1991, the “hardliners” of the communist regime sought to overthrow Gorbachev, thereby only accelerating the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Russian Federation was born on the ruins of the “Red Empire”. The Baltic States regained their sovereignty, and the Ukrainians, after many unsuccessful attempts in the twentieth century, were finally able to create their own state. The newly emerged Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal. In return, Russia guaranteed the inviolability of Ukraine’s borders under the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances of 1994, with this involving the territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for Russia’s nuclear monopoly in Eastern Europe—that was the gist of the agreement. It was an important element of the European political order after 1989, an order which Russian President Vladimir Putin questioned by starting a war in Eastern Ukraine.

The fall of the communist rule in the early 1990s gave a new impulse to the idea of political integration of Europe. In 1993, the countries of the West transformed the European Economic Community into the European Union, emphasizing the political foundations of integration and strengthening economic ties. The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 deepened financial integration and set the goal of introducing a common European currency. Countries that had been neutral during the Cold War, such as Austria, Sweden and Finland, joined the European Union in 1995 and strengthened both the economic and political attractiveness of the Union.

A Faded Memory of 1989

The revolutions of 1989 fundamentally changed the face of Europe. But these events of 30 years ago are deeply buried in the memory of today’s Europeans, and their significance has diminished. The peoples of Europe have firmly entrenched themselves in their identities, traditions and cultures, enclosing themselves in a narrow circle of their own problems. Moreover, it is becoming clear this year that we still do not know how to use the European anniversary of 1989-2019 to create positive ties between European societies in order to cultivate a common political awareness of the traditions that unite us. This can be seen very clearly as of the early months of this year. The thirtieth anniversary of the Polish Round Table and the first partially free parliamentary elections on 4 June or the Hungarian Round Table—all these events have hardly been registered in the European media or on the European political scene.

And yet 4 June 1989 is a date of crucial importance for world history. On that day, Solidarity won partially free elections, the citizens deprived the communists of their political legitimacy at the ballot box, and in China tanks were used to bloodily suppress the democratic, peaceful civil movement. While Poland paved the way to democracy and a market economy, the Chinese leaders of the Communist Party decided to defend a one-party dictatorship by choosing the path of capitalism without an open civil society.

Solidarity and perestroika were on the opposite poles of these two events. The Round Table in Poland, the legalization of Solidarity and the reform policy initiated by Gorbachev inspired the Chinese youth in spring 1989 to peacefully press for the reform of Chinese communism. When, at the end of May, workers joined the students to form Beijing’s Free Trade Union, the Politburo of the CCP realized that a dangerous political mixture was in the pipeline that could lead to the birth of a Chinese Solidarity. In light of the Polish experience, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party decided to stop this process by force.

Communist “old-timers”, such as Erich Honecker and Gustáv Husák, who were reluctant to pursue reforms, were fascinated with the Chinese solution. After the events of 4 June 1989, East German television showed shots of the bloody events at the Heavenly Peace Square in Beijing. This was a warning, of course, recognized as such by the group of Solidarity leaders gathered around Lech Wałęsa. They had to continue Polish reforms and negotiate further compromises with Wojciech Jaruzelski and Czesław Kiszczak in such a way as to minimize the risk of a violent escalation.

The forgotten significance of the European and even global political dimension of 1989 is particularly surprising in Germany. After all, United Germany or the Berlin Republic is the child of this revolution. Germany has definitely benefited from the pioneering role played by Polish and Hungarian societies, but today this fact is largely forgotten in the Federal Republic. In the major German museums or school textbooks, the European context, mainly Polish-German, of the watershed epoch of 1989 is almost absent.

An Underestimated Breakthrough in 1989

The civil heritage of the revolution is little known in Europe and many factors have contributed to that. Here I can only attempt to outline a few of them. Quite soon after 1989 I was under the impression that Western Europe had underestimated the great impact of the political revolutions in Central Europe on the whole continent. The year 1989 was an epoch-making event, but for most Western Europeans it meant only the final collapse of inefficient political and economic systems on the periphery of the continent. Transition and democratisation were concepts that only concerned Europeans living east of the Elbe rather than those in the West. Also underestimated was the fact that Eastern Euro- peans contributed something important, something new—their own political experience of living under dictatorships, cultural skills, a good education in all areas of knowledge and the ambitions of new citizens and new Europeans.

The year 1989 was an epoch-making event, but for most Western Europeans it meant only the final collapse of inefficient political and economic systems on the periphery of the continent.

In Germany, this underestimation of the East was clearly evident. Thus, after German reunification, I felt that most Germans thought that the old Bonn Republic would continue to exist after 3rd October 1990, but in an extended form to include the new Länder. It was believed that profound changes would only affect Berlin and the eastern Länder. This was the attitude and atmosphere of the time. It was often said at the time that the eastern Länder was waiting to catch up on the modernization work. It was now up to the East, after 1989, to adopt the democratic models that had been tried and tested in the West and adapt them to local conditions. This vision of change was shared not only by Western Germans and Europeans in the West but also by many post-communist citizens who initially saw their own transition as “catching up on modernization”. The fall of communism was generally interpreted as a triumph for the West. It has only been in recent years that many people began to understand that after 1989 a completely different European community and, in the case of Germany, a completely new republic had been established.

It seems that in Western Europe this awareness of the fundamental dimension of the revival of Europe after 1989 took a very long time to emerge. And probably not everyone has yet accepted the far-reaching consequences of this process, especially the enlargement of the EU to the east in 2004. We can even hear some verbal resistance to this new, larger Europe. An example is the anti-Eastern European and, above all, anti-Polish resentment that has been apparent during the referendum on Brexit. These are all testimonies to the lack of acceptance of the new Europe enriched with new regions and cultures. Such resentment is not limited to the British Isles.

The political integration of Europe is hindered on the one hand by the lack of knowledge about democratic traditions and on the other hand by the lack of a European narrative embracing all parts of the continent.

It is not only xenophobia, ignorance of Central and Eastern Europe or fear of new competition that is the basis, however, for the negative moods in the West. The spirit of the times critical of Europe, with a fascination with closer political identities or new nationalism, are rooted in another revolution of 1989. It was then that another dramatic, cultural change took place, the effects and consequences of which can only be seen today. I am thinking here of the digital revolution. 1989 is, on the one hand, the year of the fall of the Iron Curtain and, on the other hand, the beginning of a global information network, a digital opening and glottalization in its present form. On 12 March 1989, British IT specialist Timothy John Berners-Lee presented the concept of a new form of data processing and data mediation to the European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN. He then developed World Wide Web tools such as the page description language, the first browser and the first web server.

Three decades ago, political and economic systems in the East and national borders changed almost instantly. In addition, the technological revolution affected all areas of our lives: private and public communication, our professional life, running businesses, the world of media and culture, the public sphere as a whole and the way democracy functions. Digital communication have revolutionized all areas of our lives. After 1989, we were focused on the post-communist transformation of Europe—deepening European integration and “catching up on modernization” in the eastern part of the continent. In the meantime, an epoch-making cultural revolution embracing all Europeans took place.

This profound process of change proved particularly difficult for the inhabitants of post-communist Europe. They had to find their own way in the realities of democracy and the capitalist economy, while at the same time the new world, which had not yet been tamed, was undergoing a fundamental change. One can talk about an unexpected scale of effort or even stress as a result of the double transformation. In the light of this coincidence of political and cultural revolutions, the epoch-making changes of 1989 resemble the period after 1789, i.e. the time of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the great technological changes that led to nineteenth-century industrialization.

1989 is a crucial date in the history of the world, and therefore it is deeply astonishing that Europeans approach this peculiar place of remembrance so indifferently. Perhaps this attitude should not be regarded as disdainful, but as a deliberate escape from the memory of the extent of epoch-making changes after 1989, the consequences of which are increasingly perceived as a threat. This distanced and critical approach to the consequences of 1989 can be seen throughout Europe, including at the source of that revolution. What generates the anti-democratic, right-wing-populist and xenophobic sentiments today is only to a limited extent due to dissatisfaction with the economic and social consequences of the post-communist transition.

Extreme political attitudes provoke a desire to protect yourself against cultural changes, which turned out to be more radical than expected. In the West, the distanced view of the new Europeans, the longing for the old, smaller Western Europe, fuels the new political radicalism. And in the East its source is the hostility of right-wing populists to the multicultural and cosmopolitan part of Europe, that is the supposedly “politically naive” Western Europe, which promotes the attitudes of tolerance and at the same time ignores the cultural traditions of the eastern part of the continent. And finally this nationalism confirms the belief of many Western Europeans that there is a natural borderline for democracy and political rationality in Europe and that it traditionally runs along the Elbe River, that is the former Iron Curtain.

This image serves the autocrats and nationalists to legitimize their isolationist policies and emphasize the distance from their neighbors. The lines of political and cultural divisions and conflicts, however, that dominate today do not run along any borders, but across societies. Poland is a good example of this. Using nationalist rhetoric and arguments emphasizing distance towards neighbors and criticism of Western values, the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) intends to continue the process of “Orbánisation” of Poland. Its policy enjoys an unexpectedly high social support.

The Catholic Church, fearing the erosion of its institutional authority as a result of the cultural opening of Polish society, supports the right-wing and populist policy of the Law and Justice party. It is possible that this alliance will help the party to keep power in the short term, but in the long term, it will poison the social and cultural climate in Poland. This will happen because resistance to the “Orbánisation” of Poland is intense. It is particularly strong in urban areas and in western Poland. This part of Polish society does not want to turn its back on Europe and the ideals of the 1989 revolution. It is very difficult, however, to unite the political efforts of this camp, because it is extremely pluralistic and ranges from leftists critical of capitalism to conservative Christians. This means that it is difficult to agree upon a common political agenda.

There is a heated dispute between the Law and Justice party and its opponents over the interpretation of political traditions. In order to legitimize the right-wing, anti-liberal revolution, the Law and Justice party questions the credibility of Solidarity’s authorities—Lech Wałęsa, Bronisław Geremek, Władysław Frasyniuk, Bogdan Borusewicz and Tadeusz Mazowiecki—by criticizing the 1989 policy of compromise. PiS discredits the Round Table’s achievements, describing these talks as a meeting between the rulers and their own secret agents. It is not surprising that this questioning of the values of the 1989 revolution also has a negative impact on the perception of Polish affairs abroad. The trust of many Europeans in Central European countries ruled by right-wing populists has weakened as much as their identification with the political traditions of those countries.

A Dispute over History is a Dispute over Democracy

“Whoever controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in his novel 1984. The dispute over the interpretation of the revolutionary year 1989 is also a dispute over the future of democracy. This became apparent this year in Gdańsk, when on the first days of June around 220,000 people arrived in the Baltic metropolis to commemorate the first partially free elections in Poland. It was a social movement that had been formed as a sign of resistance to the government’s policy of discrediting the peaceful changes of 1989. At the same time, it was an expression of support for a cosmopolitan, tolerant and democratic Poland.

This mechanism can also be observed on the European level, that when interpreting history, we decide about the future of the continent. The political integration of Europe is hindered on the one hand by the lack of knowledge about democratic traditions and on the other hand by the lack of a European narrative embracing all parts of the continent. Western Europe is still dominated by the narrative of European integration in the post-war period, based on German-French reconciliation and the 1957 Treaties of Rome. The cultures and civil societies of Central and Eastern Europe, which led to the revolution in 1989, are almost absent from this European narrative.

Aleida Assmann has analyzed this significant rift in European identity very well. In her latest book Der europäische Traum (The European Dream), the researcher broadens the perception of the post-war history of the continent by creating a pan-European narrative. In my opinion, the author proposes an accurate interpretation of European integration as a process marked by two fundamental dates—1945 and 1989. Assmann even speaks of the dual founding of Europe in those years. After 1945, in reaction to the Second World War and the mass murder of the Jews, a new foundation of values and a new anti-nationalist vision of Europe were built.

After 1989, the societies of Eastern Europe added to this the experience of 40 years of Soviet dictatorship. “Without a common awareness of the dual founding of Europe,” writes Assmann, “(…) Europe cannot exist, cannot overcome the crises that afflict it, and cannot renew itself. Without a European agreement on this history and its continuing consequences, it is impossible to work out a common course of action—because the sense of orientation is just that—to overcome the current crisis and take a course towards a common future. Awareness of European traditions and overcoming European crises are two closely related skills, as it were, two sides of the same coin. Without a European historical consciousness, there will be no democratic future for Europe.”

Basil Kerski

is director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk, editor-in-chief of the Polish-German magazine DIALOG. Member of the Board of the Polish PEN Club, Chairman of the Scientific Board and of the Genshagen Foundation, Member of the Board of the Allianz-Kulturstiftung Foundation. In the past, he worked at the Berlin branch of the Aspen Institute, at the Research Institute of the German Foreign Policy Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik), at the Bundestag and at the Social Research Centre Berlin (Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung). He is the author of many books and publications in Germany, Poland and Ukraine.

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