Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton: A Different October Revolution: Dismantling the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas S. Blanton is Director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University in Washington D.C. Dr. Svetlana Savranskaya serves as the Archive's director for its cooperative projects with Russian archives and institutes and editor of the Russian and East Bloc Archival Documents Database.]

Twenty years ago today, crowds of East German demonstrators took to the streets in Leipzig starting their own October revolution that would bring down the Berlin Wall a month later. Ironically, these massive peaceful crowds of about 70,000 people gathered in the streets and squares of Leipzig just two days after the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic and the visit by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Berlin. GDR leader Erich Honecker's security forces were faced with a choice—to apply the Chinese Tiananmen model or to go along with their Soviet patron's advice not to use force. They chose the latter, and several days later Honecker was sent to retirement and replaced with reform Communist Egon Krenz on October 17, 1989. (Note 1)

To mark this anniversary, today the National Security Archive publishes the first in a series of document postings on the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe. The documents come from the forthcoming book Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989, ed. by Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas Blanton and Vladislav Zubok (Central European University Press, 2010), which grew out of the Archive's groundbreaking conference on the end of the Cold War in Europe at Musgrove Conference Center in May 1998. The documents in the book include formerly top secret deliberations of Soviet, U.S. and East European decision makers, memoranda of conversations and intelligence estimates. Most of the documents are published here in English for the first time.

The documents show that the Berlin Wall actually started falling on March 3, 1989, when Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth informed Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the decision of the Hungarian Central Committee to "completely remove the electronic and technological defenses from the Western and Southern borders of Hungary." The Soviet leader did not react negatively to the news, but rather just said that "we are also becoming more open." This decision by the Hungarian reform communists and Gorbachev's acceptance of it made the first crack in the Berlin Wall. In May, the first dismantling of technological defenses started on the southern border of Hungary. Over the summer, the Hungarians negotiated most actively with West German representatives and kept their Soviet ally informed, but tried to circumvent the East Germans. On August 19, Hungary organized its famous Pan-European picnic, where people were encouraged to come picnic along the Austria-Hungary border near Sopron. A section of border was opened and some East German citizens were able to escape to Austria. The fate of the Wall may well have been sealed on September 11, 1989, when the Hungarian reform Communist government of Miklos Nemeth took down its own iron curtain—the barbed wire on the border with Austria—thus allowing East Germans who were vacationing in Hungary or taking refuge in the West German Embassy to escape to the West.

These events provoked an outraged reaction from the East German government. By early September, they saw the possibility that the trickle of East Germans would turn into a real flood if Hungary opened its border completely. The German communists (SED) discussed the situation on September 5, looking for options to prevent the opening of the border. One of the options—following the traditional approach of the Brezhnev Doctrine—was to try to convene a meeting of foreign ministers of the socialist bloc to put pressure on the Hungarians. However, that option was opposed by the Soviet representatives. East German attempts to reach out to their Hungarian and Soviet counterparts were met with stalling tactics until the borders were finally open on September 11....

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/12/2009

Tragically for the world the symbolic end of the Cold War described in the article was not a real end of the Cold War (i.e. Western elites war against Russia and pro-Russian countries and leftist ideology). The unilateral world those events and subsequent dissollution of the USSR created was just an IDEOLOGICAL blessing for just a few powerful Western states and even for those just only over historically very short period of time. Most of the problems and evils (having little or nothing to do with the existence and consequences of the crash of the adversarial system) have remained to haunt the capitalist world, in general, and Western one, in particular, and some become either more pronounced or worse...
During first 10-15 years after the fall of Berlin Wall in practically all former socialist states economic situation, quality of life and its expectancy has dramatically deteriorated comparing to the 1970s levels (considered to be highest.)
In many important and crucial for economic and social development respects those levels yet to be reached, if ever.
In many of the Soviet Republics which have become independent countries the respective situation is just terrible, incomparable to what it was under the Soviet rule.
In the world at large the US, NATO, and some of their close allies,
who now enjoy a status of hegemonic power, abuse it with an unprecedented (over Cold War period) contempt for international laws and agreements (some of which they basically discarded as incompatible with their
strategic designs.), through violence and terror, while implying vicious
double standards to justify the means.
On the other hand (which some recognize as the same) continuing financial and economic crisis has already claimed national wealth of many of those countries, the governments of which unconditionally clinched to capitalism as their only safe-belt and future, turning the majority of their population to the state of real poverty.
Not already mentioning the highest waves of world-wide terrorism we experience nowadays, of which (as we were taught several decades ago) the
socialist camp was a major sponsor
and promoter.
And therefore let the festivities continue...