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Winds of Change from the East: How Poland and Hungary Led the Way in 1989

By Walter Mayr, and

Everyone remembers the iconic images from the dramatic breaching of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. But the groundwork was laid elsewhere. The fate of Germany and the rest of Europe was decided in Warsaw, Budapest and Moscow.

By that evening of Nov. 10, 1989, Anatoly Sergeyevich Chernyayev had been meticulously keeping a diary for 20 years. Every day, after coming home to his apartment on Deneshny Pereulok from the party headquarters on the Old Square or from the Kremlin, he had sat down at his desk to write in his diary.

After gazing out the window at the Foreign Ministry building, a Socialist Classicist monstrosity built shortly before Stalin's death in the neighborhood where Moscow's coin makers traditionally had their shops, he would write a detailed account of his daily experiences. He focused, in particular, on the thoughts that he could not express at work, where he was surrounded by fellow party comrades: his futile hopes, frustrations and disappointments.

Photo Gallery

9  Photos
Photo Gallery: 1989 -- A Year of Miracles
Chernyayev, a close associate of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, made a short and laconic entry into his diary on Nov. 10: "The Berlin Wall has collapsed. An epoch in the history of the 'socialist system' is coming to an end," the advisor to the president and party chairman wrote on that Friday evening. "Following the Polish and the Hungarian workers' parties, Honecker has now fallen, and today there was news of Shivkov's departure. All we have left now are our 'closest friends': Castro, Ceausescu and Kim Il Sung. All people who hate us."

His tone was not one of bitterness but of deep sarcasm. Chernyayev had seen this day coming for a long time. "It's the end of Yalta and the Stalinist legacy," he concluded.

Let History Pass it By

The motto "Workers of the world, unite!" was still emblazoned on the front page of Pravda, the party-controlled newspaper, lying on the table next to him. A top headline, on that Nov. 10, read "Today is the day of the Soviet police." Pravda had let history pass it by.

It was a completely different story elsewhere in Europe, where people were celebrating with abandon, almost overwhelmed by the images from Berlin showing East and West Germans in each others' arms. "Germany weeps with joy. Berlin is Berlin once again!" wrote the tabloid BZ. The news that Berlin, divided for 28 years, was united had even traveled as far as the remote reaches of the Australian West Coast. German film director Wim Wenders, was on a visit to the region at the time ("I couldn't have been farther away from Berlin than I was at that moment," he said), encountered a hermit living in a cave. "It was early in the morning, and he was dead drunk. He was a Lithuanian and he spoke a little German. He kept drinking toasts to Berlin, speaking in a loud voice in an attempt to drown out the Wagner music blaring from his ghetto blaster. 'No more walls! No more walls! No more walls anyplace in the world!'"

1989 went down in the history books as the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and of peaceful revolution in East Germany. That, at least, is the way the Germans like to see it. It was also the way then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl saw it from the beginning. "We are writing a chapter in world history, once again, it must be said," the chancellor said on Nov. 9, in an emotional speech during a state visit to neighboring Poland.

But why did it take so long for the Wall to come down? And who actually destroyed it?

Bit by Bit

Was it the Berliners who stormed the Bornholmer Strasse border crossing on Nov. 9 -- the ones who then used pickaxes to open up the wall, bit by bit, until it fell down? Or was it those who created the conditions that allowed the citizens of other East German cities, Leipzig, Plauen and Dresden, to demonstrate in the streets in October?

Would the Wall ever have fallen if the inconceivable had not already taken place in Moscow, Warsaw and Budapest? When and where exactly was the point at which the liberation of Eastern Europe was no longer to be stopped?

An honest search for answers will conclude that the opening of the border in Berlin was undoubtedly the most spectacular event during the period surrounding the demise of the Soviet bloc. But it was not the real historic turning point of 1989.

All it takes to realize "how limited is the heroic image of 1989 we have formed in retrospect," as historian Karl Schlögel puts it, is a cursory look at newspapers from 1988 and 1989. Schlögel associates "other dates, other places and other people" with the end of an era. In the night of the fall of the Berlin Wall, "as delirious as it was," only "those things were sanctioned that had already been decided -- previously and elsewhere."

The fall of the Wall, of course, was undoubtedly a "symbol of change -- it gave you those amazing images from Berlin," concedes former Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski. "We Poles had to negotiate our political transformation in arduous talks." In other words, Kwasniewski is trying to say, the German revolution didn't begin until the Polish one was almost complete. By the time the Wall came down, Poland already had a non-communist president. Solidarnosc activists are even more direct. Without Lech Walesa, they say, the Berlin Wall would not have fallen.

A Journey Back in Time

Most Germans have already forgotten -- or never even realized -- that the events in Eastern Europe were the blueprint for the turnaround in East Germany. The concept of the German round table talks, which began at Berlin's Dietrich Bonhoeffer Haus Hotel in December, was imported. The Poles had come together in the same way 10 months earlier, and it was only at their round table that they managed to bring about their change of government.

A journey back in time to that fateful year; a look into previously unknown documents; meetings with key players of the day -- all result in some astonishing discoveries two decades later. The Hungarian communists' monopoly on power, for example, had already been broken in January. At that time, East German leader Erich Honecker's Socialist Unity Party, or SED, still seemed to be in firm control. There was no group of reformers within the party nor did a truly broad civil rights movement within the general population yet exist.

Equally intriguing is that the Polish trade union Solidarnosc, despite its magnificent election victory in June of 1989, failed to see that it had a real chance to take over political power in the country. Meanwhile, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was facing such difficult problems at home that an intervention by Soviet troops abroad was unthinkable.

'A Revolution without a Revolution'

In early 1989, only two Eastern European nations were seeking their own path: Poland and Hungary. In Budapest, the shift had begun within the Hungarian Communist Party; in Warsaw Solidarnosc had put a Polish reformation in motion.

But even in those countries, no one realized where the journey was to lead in the coming months.

It was "a revolution without revolution," says former Polish dissident Adam Michnik, who founded the opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in May 1989 and then became a member of the democratically elected senate. "No one took to the streets, and there were no barricades or firing squads."

1989 was "a year of miracles," says Michnik. "What was not yet possible in January became reality in February, and by March it was possible to demand even more. None of us had a sense of what was happening."

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