When the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe collapsed within the final months of 1989, I used to be sent to report on each of the revolutions that happened within the space of only six weeks: the autumn of the Berlin Wall, the peaceful revolution in Czechoslovakia, and therefore the violent one in Romania.
On 1 October 1989, no-one dreamed that by Christmas the Berlin Wall would have fallen, Czechoslovakia would be free, and Romania’s despot Nicolae Ceausescu overthrown.
Most people assumed that the Soviet bloc would last forever. Yet actually it had been a house of cards – only the fear of Russian intervention kept it standing.
In 1953, riots in East Germany had been brutally crushed. In 1956, when Hungary tried to interrupt away, Soviet tanks destroyed the revolution. In 1968, the Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek introduced “Socialism with a person’s face”, and Moscow sent within the tanks again.
Fall of the Soviet empire
On the evening of 9 November 1989, the East German spokesman Günther Schabowski gave his usual news conference.
The ruling Politburo hoped to defuse the strain by offering people visas to go to West Germany – but only by means of a deliberately slow and bureaucratic process. No-one explained this to Schabowski, though. Worse, as he hurried to the news conference he managed to mislay the document detailing the plan.
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Someone asked when the new system would start. Schabowski, flustered, answered: “Immediately.”
West German television, which everyone within the East watched, interpreted this as meaning that the Berlin Wall would be opened that night. Huge crowds built up within the East, and therefore the border guards allow them to through. The Wall, the key symbol of Soviet-bloc repression, had ceased to divide Germany.
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In neighboring Czechoslovakia, the opposition was led by the intellectuals of Charter 77. that they had been brutally repressed, but their leader, playwright Havel, insisted that they ought to behave sort of a government in waiting, with detailed proposals for reforming the economy and therefore the law.
Only eight days after the Berlin Wall decreased, on Revolutionary Organization 17 November, a series of protest demonstrations began in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
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The moment I landed, on 19 November, I headed directly for the square. I could see that the majority older people, who had endured the heartbreak of the 1968 invasion, were trudging home, while children, who didn’t remember 1968, were pushing and shoving excitedly to urge to the demonstration.
Romania’s dictator runs out of fuel
The hardest nut to crack was always getting to be Romania, yet it only lasted a month longer.
Nicolae Ceausescu, the Communist leader, had become more and more totalitarian over the years, and his police, the Securitate, was ferocious.
By mid-December, people from Romania’s oppressed Hungarian-speaking minority were protesting within the streets of Timisoara.
No-one dared to inform Ceausescu how serious the Timisoara rioting was, so he had no worries about calling a counter-demonstration in Bucharest on 21 December.
The Securitate bussed in factory workers to form the turnout seem bigger, and within the anonymity of the gang, some people started booing. Ceausescu froze in mid-speech, his mouth open: he had never been heckled before.