Introductory Essay


The results of the revolutions of 1989 were quite profound. Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Eastern Germany, Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania have all joined the European Union and NATO. Former members of the Communist parties fell out of favor, but in many cases returned to office as reformed “Social Democrats.” With the exception of Slovenia, the republics of the former Yugoslavia remain outside the EU and NATO and the potential for renewed war in Bosnia and Kosovo remains a very real threat. Across the region, people still debate whether the inauguration of a capitalist economic system was the right choice, given the resulting social dislocation experienced by so many citizens who found the adjustment to a market economy very difficult.

The collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe reverberated across the rest of the Communist world. On the same day that Solidarity won the first free election in Poland in more than 40 years, the Chinese government sent its army into Tiananmen Square to put down a student-led pro-democracy movement there, effectively heading off any possibility of reform. Discontent among hardliners in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union over the “loss” of Eastern Europe was one of the main causes of an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. This abortive coup sparked the Russian Revolution that ended the Soviet Union and effectively brought the Cold War to a close.

Despite the negative outcomes of the events of 1989—violence in Romania and Yugoslavia and substantial social upheaval—in almost every case, the 1989 revolutions represent a triumph of popular movements over oppression and serve as inspiration to those elsewhere in the world seeking democratic reform. They also represent a challenge. The future of the story of the 1989 revolutions rests in the hands of the next generation of students and scholars. The primary sources, interviews with historians, and other resources throughout this website will allow you to explore the causes, events, and aftermath of the massive upheavals of 1989. The eighteenth-century French political commentator Alexis de Tocqueville said: “In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end.” This website presents the tools for writing the complex ending.