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Introduction

The Berlin Wall was opened on 9 November 1989. It was a historic moment which marked the end of the Cold War and the end of a divided Germany. The media reported every moment and the world watched closely as the wall that had divided a city for 28 years was finally opened. People across the world celebrated with Berliners and there was great optimism about the future.

But although the Berlin Wall opening was an important focal point, the end of the Cold War was a long and complex process.

Glasnost and perestroika

Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985. He came to power when Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were suffering severe economic problems. Years of over- centralisation, inefficiencies and trade restrictions had taken their toll. The contrast with standards of living in the West was marked. Gorbachev wanted to reform the communist system in order to bring improvements. He introduced the policies of glasnost (or openness) and perestroika which called for social and economic reform. Gorbachev had no intention of abandoning communism altogether, believing that the reforms would save communism. But after years of repression, combined with disaffection over economic problems, these more liberal policies opened the floodgates. For many, the reforms and improvements did not happen fast enough. Once it became clear that the Soviets would not send in tanks as they had done before, demonstrations and rebellion against the communist régimes spread across Eastern Europe. Gorbachev was unwilling to use force against them, and without it communism could not be maintained in Eastern Europe.

Poland and the Solidarity movement

Solidarity was an independent trade union movement established in Poland in 1980. During the early 1980s its members and activities were ruthlessly suppressed by General Jaruzełski’s government.

In the late 1980s protests and strikes against the government were spreading through Poland. However, without the guarantee of military backing from the Soviet Union, Jaruzełski could not crack down on Solidarity as he had done before. He had to negotiate with them and other opposition groups. 

The Berlin Wall, 1989

The opening of the Berlin Wall
A child using a hammer and chisel to remove a piece of the Berlin Wall after its opening on 9 November 1989. By the end of 1990, much of the Wall had been demolished.

IWM Ref: CT_1493

In February 1989 the Round Table Talks began. Jaruzełski and the communists had to make major concessions and share power with Solidarity. This did not last long.  After communism collapsed in other Eastern European states, the guaranteed communist seats were removed from government. In December 1990 the leader of Solidarity, Lech Wałesa, was elected President. 

Hungary opens its borders 

By 1987, the Communist Party in Hungary was in turmoil. There were disagreements between reformers and those who wanted to maintain strict centralised control. In May 1988, Janos Kádár and eight of his supporters were voted off the Politburo, leaving the reformers in power.

In May 1989, Hungary began dismantling parts of the Iron Curtain along its border with Austria. Although the act infuriated many in the Soviet Union, and also the governments of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania, nothing was done to stop Hungary. In August 1989 the Pan-European Picnic was held. It was a symbolic gesture by Austrian and Hungarian authorities who agreed to open one of the border gates for three hours. Hundreds of East Germans used the opportunity to flee to the West. In September 1989, Hungary’s border with Austria was opened permanently.  

The Reunification of Germany

Erich Honecker had been communist leader of East Germany since 1971. During the 1980s he had refused to make any reforms but the events happening around him made it impossible for him to maintain his position.

In June 1989 Gorbachev met with West German Chancellor Kohl to agree financial aid from the West. In return, he promised to help bring an end to the division of Europe. In the autumn, thousands of East Germans were leaving the country via Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. In October, protests and demonstrations were spreading all over East Germany. After he announced that he wanted to use the military suppress the demonstrators, Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz. Krenz agreed to make concessions, the Berlin Wall was opened and free elections were agreed. 

West German political parties quickly moved into the East. The East German chapter of Chancellor Kohl’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) won by a large majority in March 1990. The leader of the CDU in East Germany, Lothar de Maiziere, was hoping for a slow move to reunification but Germans, especially in the East, were keen for it to happen immediately. Germany was formally reunified in October 1990.

In August 1994, the last Russian troops left East Germany. A commemorative service was attended by Chancellor Kohl and President Yeltsin. In September of the same year British, American and French troops left Berlin.

The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), which had remained separate from British troops in Berlin, was wound up in March 1994. A small number of British troops still remain in Germany under the designation British Forces Germany.

The Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia

In November 1989 there were major demonstrations in Prague, leading to a national strike that eventually toppled the communist regime. The famous playwright and author Václav Havel was elected as President of Czechoslovakia in December 1989. In 1992, Slovak nationalists insisted on having a separate state and the country split into two nations - the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Violence in Romania

The only country which saw a violent end to communism was Romania which had been under the cruel and repressive leadership of Nicolae Ceausescu since 1965. Events happened very quickly in the space of just a month.

The Revolution in Romania

The Revolution in Romania
The bullet scarred Communist Party building in central Bucharest, January 1990

Photograph by Kevin Weaver
IWM Ref: CT_1665

In December 1989 protests against the government began over the harassment of a popular priest by the Securitate. They were ruthlessly suppressed by the government. This caused further protests and fuelled already strong anti-government feelings. Ceausescu and his wife were jeered at a mass rally, and soon after protestors filled the streets of Bucharest. The army initially fired on protestors, but then refused to continue killing civilians. Ceausescu and his wife were arrested, tried by a military tribunal and executed on Christmas Day.

The August Coup

As communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe, Gorbachev came under increasing pressure and criticism. The Baltic states were demanding independence and it appeared that he was no longer in control.

On 19 August 1991, a group which included the Emergency Committee of Generals and members of the KGB announced that they had seized power. Gorbachev was detained and placed under house arrest while he was on holiday in the Crimea. But the coup was badly organised. The popular politician Boris Yeltsin was not arrested and communication and transport links were left opened.

Yeltsin condemned the coup and became the focus of popular resistance. Soon, thousands of people were on the streets protesting against the coup and the army split over the issue of using force against civilians. The coup leaders had to finally acknowledge that they had failed.

Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but the coup had severely damaged the Communist Party. He was gradually sidelined by Yeltsin, who introduced drastic reforms which eventually spelled the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned his leadership on Christmas Day 1991.

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