When the wall fell in 1989 it didn’t just happen overnight. Timing was crucial. As I wrote in the first part of this series it felt so bizarre to watch people climbing on top of the wall without being shot at. To give you some context – In the spring of 1968 the Czechoslovakian Communist Party under Alexander Dubček attempted change; they tried to implement a more democratic system and attempted to pull the country out of an economic crisis.
But the Soviet Union couldn’t accept that.
The economic system in the European socialist countries was a centralized “Command” system, in which prices, labour direction, and resource distribution were defined by government laws, which created many problems. One of them was fluctuating output; most of the time whatever it was you needed was not available. The first thing that comes to mind was that we usually didn’t have enough toilet paper, there were stretches when all we had was newspaper, and when there was toilet paper it was very rough, like fine sandpaper. (People used to joke that it was like on purpose, that so every ass really “turned Red”). Another example is that my parents bought a car for me as soon as the doctor confirmed that my mom was pregnant. This was done so immediately, in 1979, in the hope that I might have a car when I turned 18, in 1997. And people today are losing it when their Amazon order is ONE day late!
Back to the Prague Spring.
Czechoslovakia was in an economically very hard situation and the people around Dubček tried to change that, but the Soviet Union was worried about the loss of control. It would set a bad example and if Dubček had been successful with his decentralization attempt (not only economically but also administratively). The SU tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate, and they decided that they and other countries of the Warsaw Pact would mobilize their military forces to invade Czechoslovakia. They were met with resistance, not military resistance but civilian-based. The SU expected the uprising to be quelled within 4 days and never imagined it would last for 8 months. There were several protests, acts of civilian-based defence, and suicides by self-immolation. It took time for the SU to regain power and reverse the changes made by Dubček, but they were reversed nevertheless. Dubček and his allies were taken to Moscow for trial, and he was expelled from his party.
But prior to that, in June of 1953, was the East German uprising. People came together to demonstrate against work quotas and the steadily growing control by the Soviets in East Berlin. They were nearly successful, if they hadn’t been violently suppressed by the Soviet military and the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (the Barracked People’s Police, which later became the National People’s Army). Approximately 130 people were killed. One of the results was that the surveillance in factories became more sophisticated to nip any “suspicious action of unrest” in the bud. Other countries also tried to shake the control of the Soviets, notably Poland and Hungary in 1956, but without success. In most cases it led to even stricter controls and surveillance by their respective secret services, who always reported back to Moscow. There was no freedom of speech.
In 1989 the Soviet Union was not as powerful as it used to be and the cracks were starting to show. Economically the countries of the Warsaw Pact were unable to compete with Western nations, and the national debt kept growing. Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1985 and he started to implement some changes with his twin policies of Glasnost (“openness and transparency”) and Perestroika (“restructuring”). This led to the Pan-European Picnic and open borders between Hungary and Austria, at which point many citizens of the GDR took advantage of that; travelling to Hungary to apply for visa at the West German embassy (many of them were successful).
Earlier in 1989 the so-called Montagsdemonstrationen (“Monday Demonstrations”) started, during which people peacefully protested the system by gathering in town and city squares. Even though Erich Mielke (head of the Stasi) and Erich Honecker (the then head of state) tried to put a plan in action to have demonstrators arrested (some received deaths threats or were attacked) they were ignored and shortly after that Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz. After Hungary and Czechoslovakia had opened their borders to the West, allowing East German citizens to cross safely, many people seized the opportunity and left. The GDR government couldn’t do anything to prevent this from happening and as a consequence they resigned, and the GDR was run by Hans Modrow. Finally, on Nov 09, 1989, Günter Schabowski announced that East Germans were free to travel between East and West Germany, effective immediately.
And then the wall came down.
Written by: Petra Foerster – UTKM Green Belt