Opinion Articles

1989: Divided memories, East and West

  • RSS Feed Icon

On 9th November 2009, the world was treated to a recreation of the moment that has come to symbolise the end of Communism and the Cold War: the destruction of the Berlin Wall. On the 20th anniversary of its breach, world leaders arrived in the city and witnessed the toppling of 1,000 foam domino tiles placed along a one kilometre stretch of the Wall's former route. The fall of the Berlin wall has consistently provided the western media with images of what an anti–Communist revolution ought to be: crowds borne along by the desire to be free and to overthrow a spent dictatorship. Moreover, the Berlin wall had been the emblem of east–west division; its destruction by 'the people' became a powerful symbol of the popular rejection of a world divided by the Cold War. Yet many countries which experienced Communism are unlikely to celebrate its end in quite such triumphalist terms. On the 10th anniversary of the fall of Communism, there were few commemorations within the former bloc. Most post–Communist countries have not marked the end of Communism by instituting 'independence days' or 'days of liberation.' Nor are some of the West's heroes of the fight against Communism – such as Solidarity in Poland – commemorated positively within their own homeland.

In many central-eastern European countries, Communism was not destroyed through popular revolutions in which people overthrew their discredited leaders. Rather, the system was negotiated away at 'round-table agreements', at which Communists and opposition groups agreed on the terms by which the system should be dissolved: these often ensured that Communists could remain as political players in the new democratic game. In Hungary and Poland, Communists remoulded themselves as Social Democrats and won multiple elections. Hence there are deep divisions in the understanding of 1989: whilst western audiences have repeatedly been sold images of a people's revolution against Communism, central–eastern European elites, especially those on the right, have repeatedly promoted the idea of the incomplete 'system–changes' of 1989.

The constant invocation of popular support for revolutions has played a legitimizing role for new regimes in the modern world. The heroic retelling of the French revolution was vital to the republican tradition in France, as were the Bolsheviks' commemorations of workers' struggles in the Russian revolution. Yet recently, democratising systems have not had access to these powerful revolutionary stories that once were used to legitimise new orders. Since the 1970s, in Latin America, Africa and central, eastern and southern Europe, weakening one-party systems have often been dismantled through elite negotiation rather than driven out by popular protest and violence. In some cases, these top–down settlements have been mythologised as heroic moments at which former divisions and violence were overcome: witness the state–led attempt to celebrate the idea of reconciliation between former opponents in post–apartheid South Africa. Yet in post–Communist central–eastern Europe, these negotiated round-table settlements have been celebrated only by the very few: former dissidents such as the Pole Adam Michnik have argued that the round-table talks should have been used to provide a powerful foundational myth for the post–Communist system. That authoritarianism had been ended without bloodshed, and that political systems established were robust enough to incorporate former Communists, should have been celebrated for demonstrating the maturity of central–eastern European political culture.

Yet voices such as Michnik's have been marginal. The fall of Communism has not been celebrated with vigour in the former bloc. Many nationalist and anti-Communist governments – such as Law and Justice in Poland, Fidesz in Hungary or the Truth and Justice Alliance in Romania – doubted that a real revolution had occurred at all. After the return of former Communists to government in the mid–1990s, many nationalists came to view 1989 as an incomplete or 'betrayed' revolution. 1989 was not viewed as a heroic victory but rather represented the failure of the opposition to crush representatives of the former regime. The events of that year were quickly mythologised as the betrayal of the great anti–Communist struggles – such as the 1956 Uprising in Hungary or the Solidarity movement in Poland – which had gone before them. These nationalist parties promoted their own arrival in government as the 'real revolution': their rule, they promised, would see that purge of former elites still in positions of power.

However, these attempts at political cleansing generally failed and occasionally frustrated anti–Communists turned to violence. In Budapest in the autumn of 2006, at the 50th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, rightist and far rightist activists took to the streets, viewing themselves as latter day '56ers. Protestors launched public demonstrations against the socialist government (led by former Communist youth movement leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány), and saw themselves completing the struggles of old against those Communists who had survived into the present. They stormed the Hungarian state TV building (imitating their predecessors who had occupied Hungarian Radio 50 years previously), and even stole a Russian tank which they drove through Budapest. In their mindset, 1989 had not witnessed the destruction of the Communist regime: the ghosts of 1956 had to be awakened in order to inspire people to complete the revolution.

Somewhat bizarrely, it was often left to former Communists to celebrate the collapse of Communism. For some, such as Aleksander Kwaśniewski in Poland (former Communist youth leader and minister of sport, and then President of democratic Poland, 1995–2005), telling the story of their own defeat paid political dividends in the present: it showed a post–Communist public that they had truly abandoned their former beliefs. Others, such as the ex–Communist Hungarian Socialist Party, accorded themselves a heroic role in the revolution itself as central players in the round-table discussions: in their world view, Communists were no longer 'the defeated', but the true liberators of their country from dictatorship. To appreciate some of the differences in the political cultures of western Europe and the former Communist bloc, we need to understand that the collapse of Communism and the arrival of liberal democracy has been understood in remarkably divergent ways in the regions of Europe once divided by the Berlin Wall.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More