Scholar Interviews

Why did the revolutions of 1989 happen so fast?


There are big explanations of why 1989 occurred. Okay. Reagan had something to do with it. Gorbachev certainly had something to do with it. The economy. But I think the reason that they developed so quickly, once they got started, was that the regimes in Eastern Europe had lost all semblance of legitimacy. Even the people in those regimes didn’t really believe that they were going to create a new Soviet man or new Romanian man, or whatever. They didn’t really believe that there was going to be economic progress.

In 1960, ‘61, excuse me, in 1960 or ’61, right in there, there was great enthusiasm in socialist states about the future. Khrushchev thought that they would have created communism by 1980, and Hungary had similar kinds of ideas. There were notions of economic reform floating around Eastern Europe. Some of them were even implemented in Hungary in the new economic mechanism, and so forth.

In 1968, that enthusiasm or that idea that, “Yes, we can really do it,” went away. With the Prague Spring, when some relatively modest reforms and opening of the press in Czechoslovakia led to the imposition of normalization, and through the invasion of, suppression of the Prague Spring by Warsaw Pact troops. And at the same time, Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, having decided to put down this ‘socialism with a human face’, as it was called in those days, decided not to continue with modest economic reforms that they’d been tinkering with in the Soviet Union. It’s at that point that I think not only East Europeans but West Europeans, everybody more or less agreed that the initial promise that had brought people to communism or socialism in the first place, maybe in the ‘20s or ’30s, was in fact specious, that it wasn’t going to happen, that the reason you had socialist regimes in Eastern Europe was because of the Soviet Army, the Red Army and it’s allies, and that the Brezhnev doctrine was that if you were once socialist, you were always going to be socialist, and if not, we’re going to make sure that you’re not.

So that it wasn’t the beauty of the social promise, the economy, or whatever, that was maintaining the regimes; it was the Soviet Union. This led to a real disillusionment in the West, as well as the East, so that by the time you get into—there’s nobody talking any more about new economic mechanisms or socialism with a human face or this socialist market economy. There’s no talk about that any more. There is a retreat from politics, in fact, by thoughtful people into what was called ‘anti-politics.’ “We’re not going to get involved with politics.” There were some intellectuals who wanting to live in truth, but ordinary people just sort of dropped out. You get your—if it’s in Czechoslovakia, for example, you get your cottage out in the country. On the weekends, you go out there, you don’t get involved. Just forget about it because it can’t be true any more. You don’t believe it any more.

And by the ‘80s, with the time when people used the phrase “real existing socialism,” I think even the people who were running the show really didn’t believe it any more, not to mention the population. So, Gorbachev gave some hope.

That’s I think one of the reasons he was so popular and coming around, even East European countries, crowds yelling, “Gorby, Gory.” He thought that this meant that they were interested in a reformed socialism, like he hoped to have. But probably not. They were probably just interested in something authentic that they didn’t have. I think Havel correctly pointed out that even though people don’t mention it there is still something humiliated—that has been humiliated in them by the system, even if they don’t mention it. So, that was very, very widespread.

So, when hope emerged, and I think hope emerged, as I say, when the Hungarians started tearing down the border and changing their system. The crowds in Leipzig got bigger and bigger and bigger. Suddenly there was this sense of possibility, which didn’t exist a year before that. There was no possibility. I mean, even very astute observers of Eastern Europe, who thought there might be some kind of new pluralism emerging there, really didn’t think that there was going to be a change. The whole Cold War mentality was so set that it was very difficult to imagine there would be a change. Who could imagine that Eastern Europe would somehow break its bonds with the Soviet Union? It was almost unimaginable.

However, in about June and July, 1989, it became imaginable for the first time, and suddenly there were people saying, “Hey,” East Germans saying, “Hey, I can get out of East Germany.” There were Hungarians who said, “Well, yeah, we could have a Round Table too, and talk with the government.” And when a volatile event occurred in Prague, all of a sudden people got—and they say—"if not now, when?", jangling their keys.

How to Cite

Gale Stokes, interview, "Why did the revolutions of 1989 happen so fast?" Making the History of 1989, Item #710, (accessed December 13 2018, 6:51 am).