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The Collapse of Communism

The Collapse of Communism

by Lee Edwards

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Experts continue to debate one of the most important political questions of the twentieth century—why did Communism collapse so suddenly? These essays suggest that a wide range of forces—political, economic, strategic, religious, add the indispensable role of the principled statesman and the brave dissident—brought about the collapse of communism.


Experts continue to debate one of the most important political questions of the twentieth century—why did Communism collapse so suddenly? These essays suggest that a wide range of forces—political, economic, strategic, religious, add the indispensable role of the principled statesman and the brave dissident—brought about the collapse of communism.

Editorial Reviews

Edwards (politics, Catholic U., Washington D.C.) is joined by scholars and political advisors in arguing that it took political, economic, strategic, and religious forces, combined with the actions of key statesmen and politicians to bring about the fall of communism. Articles discuss the roles of Reagan, Gorbachev, and Pope John Paul II, debate the importance of history and ideology, address the damaging effects of the Stalin era, and examine the flaws in communist economics. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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The Collapse of Communism

By Lee Edwards

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-9816-5


The Year of Miracles

Lee Edwards

THE FALL OF COMMUNISM in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 was produced by decades of political tyranny and economic backwardness. While the West enjoyed remarkable prosperity and personal freedom, the East fell into an economic and political morass from which no escape seemed possible. With no incentives to compete or modernize, Eastern Europe's industrial sector became a monument to bureaucratic inefficiency and waste, "a museum of the early industrial age." As the New York Times pointed out, Singapore, an Asian city-state of only two million people, exported 20 percent more machinery to the West in 1987 than all of Eastern Europe. Life expectancy declined dramatically in the Soviet bloc, and infant mortality rose during communist rule. The only groups exempted from social and economic hardship were Communist Party leaders, upper-echelon military officers, and the managerial elite.

But all the while, the once-impenetrable Iron Curtain was being breached by modern communications and technology, allowing the peoples of Eastern Europe to see how the other half of Europe lived. Increasingly, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and East Germans demanded change and reform, not only in the marketplace but in the realm of human rights and liberties. The demands began as early as 1956, when Polish communist leader Wladyslaw Gomulka defied Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev, despite the presence of Soviet tanks, and Hungarian communist leader Imre Nagy was executed after a mass uprising that was brutally crushed by the Soviet army. In 1968, the democratic potential of the "Prague Spring" so frightened Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that he ordered the other Warsaw Pact states (except Romania) to join Moscow in invading Czechoslovakia and crushing the new freedoms. Faced with the challenge of Solidarity in 1981, the Polish communist government declared martial law and outlawed the free trade union. Brezhnev considered invading Poland but finally let the Jaruzelski government handle the crisis, making it clear that the Soviet Union would intervene if necessary. For nearly forty years, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe depended on the Soviets to pull their chesnuts out of any fire, but by the mid-1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet Union could no longer afford to maintain the empire it had so carefully and expensively built.

Even those prescient few who predicted the end of communism ("What I am describing now is ... the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history": Ronald Reagan, 1982; "The idea of communism is essentially dead": Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1988) did not anticipate how quickly Marxism-Leninism would collapse in Eastern and Central Europe in the miracle year of 1989. Why did the governments of these Soviet satellites, seemingly secure and in firm control of their populations, fall in less than a year like so many giant dominoes? Only a few months before it came crashing down, East German communist boss Erich Honecker defiantly declared that the Berlin Wall would stand for at least another hundred years.

Part of the answer lies in geography. Although separate and distinct countries, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania were physically and militarily linked. East Germany and Poland had a common border as did Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Romania was bounded on the north by Czechoslovakia and on the west by Hungary. The five communist countries formed a tight little region, as close as the eastern seaboard states of the United States; a flight from East Berlin to Warsaw was shorter than one from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Even nationalistic differences were blurred; as a result of World War II treaties, several million Germans lived in Poland and Czechoslovakia and Hungarians had settled in Slovakia and Romania. Resentment, frustration, and hope, Brzezinski wrote, were all inevitable in this "cluster of states with the deepest cultural ties with Western Europe." What happened in one country inevitably infected the others, as witness the following chronology of 1989.


In February, Vaclav Havel was jailed in Prague for participating in human rights protests, and, after months of strikes, roundtable talks began in Poland between leaders of the still-outlawed Solidarity union and the communist government. Communists had insisted that Solidarity was "a spent force," but, as the Polish economy worsened and Gorbachev asserted that he would no longer honor the Brezhnev Doctrine, they were required to "reckon with ideas they could not squelch and men they could not subdue." In March, seventy-five thousand people demonstrated in Budapest on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, demanding a withdrawal of Soviet troops and free elections. In April, Solidarity and the Polish government agreed to the first open elections since World War II; the union's legal status was restored. In May, the Hungarian government started to dismantle the Iron Curtain along the border with Austria; Havel was released from jail after serving only half his sentence. In June, Solidarity won an overwhelming victory over communist opponents in the Soviet bloc's first free elections in forty years; the vote swept in ninety-nine of Solidarity's candidates in the one hundred-seat Senate. Imre Nagy, who had led the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination, was given a hero's burial in Budapest.

Gorbachev reminded the Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg in July that he rejected the Brezhnev Doctrine: "Any interference in domestic affairs and any attempts to restrict the sovereignty of states, both friends and allies or any others, are inadmissable." In August, negotiations between Solidarity and the Communists resulted in the selection of Poland's first noncommunist prime minister, Solidarity official Tadeusz Mazowiecki, since the early postwar years. With summer giving way to fall, people were returning from their vacations, but this year the annual retreat led to massive migrations that "changed governments and altered the political map of the continent."

In September, an East German exodus began when Hungary opened its borders with Austria for more than thirteen thousand Germans, and another seventeen thousand GDR citizens fled via West German embassies in Warsaw and Prague. Meanwhile, the communist leadership and the opposition in Hungary agreed on the institution of a multiparty political system. In October, hundreds of thousands began demonstrating every Monday evening in East Germany, leading to the forced resignation of longtime communist leader Erich Honecker. In November, a tidal wave of East Germans poured across the border when travel restrictions were lifted and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Bulgaria's Communist Party chief To-dor Zhikov stepped down after thirty-five years of rule as fifty thousand people gathered in Sofia, demanding further reforms. Millions of Czechs and Slovaks walked off their jobs and onto the streets, and the communist government in Czechoslovakia collapsed. It appeared that all the countries except Romania were "leapfrogging each other as they raced to democracy."

Poland was the first Soviet satellite to challenge the Communist Party's political power. Hungary was the first to have the party rename itself. Bulgaria was the first to consider eliminating the constitutional guarantees of the party's "leading role." Czechoslovakia was the first to condemn the act that validated the Communist Party's authority — the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslakia in 1968. In December 1989, proposals for free elections were made in Bulgaria and mass demonstrations occurred in the Romanian cities of Timisoara and Bucharest. The year of revolutions ended with the death of Romanian despot Nicolae Ceau§escu and the election of Havel as the president of Czechoslovakia's first noncommunist government since the February 1948 coup engineered by Moscow.


Another reason communism in Eastern and Central Europe collapsed like a house of cards is to be found in the essential role of ideology. Millions demonstrated in the streets of Budapest, Leipzig, Prague, and other cities, calling for free elections and a free press, demanding democracy because, the leaders of their governments candidly admitted, "We no longer believe in Marxism-Leninism." Without the glue of ideology, the communist facade of power and authority crumbled and the people's natural desire for freedom, dammed up for more than forty years, burst forth. At the time, Gorbachev was extravagantly praised in the West for his pragmatism in admitting the profound "mistakes" of his predecessors and acknowledging the legitimacy of other social systems, but in so doing he called into question the central concepts of communism: democratic centralism, class struggle, world revolution, party discipline, and even the central role of the Communist Party. The Marxist-Leninist governments of Eastern and Central Europe shook and shuddered with each new political and economic reform attempted by its Big Brother.

Gorbachev never resolved the innate contradictions of using glasnost and perestroika to produce a more perfect socialist world. Three years before the August 1991 putsch in the USSR, Brzezinski wrote that "Gorbachev has unleashed forces that make historical discontinuity more likely than continuity." The Soviet leader preached political liberalization but practiced Leninist one-party rule. He courted Western investment but preserved an archaic command economy. He promised "new thinking" in Soviet foreign policy but continued to send massive amounts of arms and materiel to Cuba, which supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador. Finally, these contradictions culminated in a crisis that brought about the end of communism in the mother country where it had prevailed for nearly seventy-five years and seemed likely to prevail for years to come.


A further reason for the swift slide of communism into oblivion was, quite literally, its inability to deliver the goods. Gorbachev became the head of "a totally stagnant state dominated by a corrupt totalitarian party." President Reagan pointed out, in his 1982 Westminster address to the British Parliament, that although one-fifth of its population worked in agriculture, the Soviet Union was unable to feed its own people: "Were it not for the ... tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture," Reagan said, "the country might be on the brink of famine." Although occupying a mere 3 percent of the arable land, private farms accounted for nearly one-quarter of Soviet farm output and nearly one-third of meat products and vegetables. Communism fell because it was revealed as a fraud. It promised bread but produced food shortages and rationing. It pledged peace but sacrificed its young men in wars in far-off lands. It guaranteed the peasants land but delivered them into collectives. One of the great economic myths of the cold war was that, under communism, the German Democratic Republic had become, by 1980, the eleventh most prosperous nation in the world, with a per capita income of approximately $5,100 and an annual GNP of $100 billion. But between 1961 and 1984, 176,714 East Germans risked death or imprisonment by escaping illegally from what Honecker liked to call "a paradise" for workers. By 1989 life had become so dreary, the environment so polluted, and the stasi (the secret police) so omnipresent that 1.5 million citizens had applied for exit visas and as many as five million people, out of a total population of 16.5 million, would have left East Germany if they could.


Another reason the Iron Curtain no longer divides Europe is that the mass media sustained and spread the desire for freedom among the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. East German reformers credit West German television and radio with informing the people how much they were being denied by communist rule. During the difficult decade of the 1980s, Poland's Solidarity union relied heavily on the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC, and other Western sources for information and inspiration. Much of Czechoslovakia could receive West German and Austrian television, and as a consequence almost everyone in the country knew that the authority of the East German regime was disintegrating and that the Soviets were doing little to shore it up. The long-suffering, long-oppressed citizens of Bucharest and other Romanian cities learned from foreign radio broadcasts about the popular movements for freedom in the other satellite states and were inspired to move against Ceau§escu. Far from being an impregnable communist fortress, Eastern and Central Europe was a giant Potemkin Village with permeable frontiers that were easily penetrated by electronic messages of democracy and capitalism from the West. The communist mass media also had to compete with the increasing use of videocassette recorders and through them the dissemination of democratic ideas and dissident voices. One 1988 estimate placed the number of VCRs at one million in Poland, 300,000 in Hungary, 150,000 in Czechoslovakia, and 50,000 even in Stalinist Bulgaria.

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe began, appropriately enough, in the first nation to be forced by the Soviet Union to accept communism at the end of World War II. What were the factors that made Poland the first Soviet satellite to renounce its communist regime, establish a democratic opposition, hold partly free parliamentary elections, elect a democratic government, and institute free market reforms? First, Brzezinski points out, Poland's modern history has been defined by its militant opposition to Russian domination. Second, the country's fervent Roman Catholicism set it apart from neighbors and its traditional enemy, reinforcing nationalism and Christian beliefs that were at direct variance with those of communism. The church was critically important because, says Adam Michnik, the Polish poet and dissident, it was the first "to provide definite proof that it was possible to be an independent institution in a totalitarian political environment."

Third, in the 1970s, a new industrial proletariat, imbued with a strong, religious spirit, forged an alliance with an anti-communist, social democratic intelligentsia. Fourth, the communist leadership, having borrowed some $30 billion from the West, squandered almost all of it through ineptitude and corruption, preparing the way for the emergence of a genuine people's movement, Solidarnosc, or Solidarity, in the mid-1970s. Solidarity confronted the communist regime on every important front: ideologically through its reliance on religion and emphasis on democracy; organizationally through its nationwide alliance with intellectuals, young people, and especially the Catholic Church. In every one of these areas, the mass media, internal as well as external, had a significant impact.

Among the unique elements that brought an end to communism in the other countries of Eastern and Central Europe were (1) a "benign" form of communism and the dark memory of 1956 in Hungary and (2) a democratic tradition and an eloquent, charismatic leader — Vaclav Havel — in Czechoslovakia. But what of the German Democratic Republic, the hardest of the hard-line communist states? East Germany had no grassroots movement like Solidarity; it was ruled by Stalinist rather than Gorbachevist Communists; and, far from having any experience of democracy, it had lived under Nazi and then communist tyranny for nearly sixty years. But it had one thing that the other Soviet satellites did not have: a sister nation, West Germany, that lived in freedom and prosperity. No other member of the Warsaw Pact was as continuously exposed to the indisputable evidence of what democracy and a market economy can provide a people and what Marxism-Leninism cannot as the GDR. The means by which this evidence was transmitted to East Germans in their own language was essentially the West German mass media, especially television.

With the exception of Dresden and part of Saxony (located in the southeastern corner of the GDR), all East Germany could receive West German television, mainly due to the relay antennas located in West Berlin. Out of a total population of 16.5 million, about 13.5 million East Germans could and did receive at least three West German channels: the two national channels, ARD and ZDF, and one of several regional channels. Themselves dedicated propagandists, the East German Communists knew what unrestricted access to West German television could do to minds and wills: "The enemy of the people stands on the roof," Communist Party boss Walter Ulbricht once said of television antennas.


Excerpted from The Collapse of Communism by Lee Edwards. Copyright © 2000 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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