1989: When hope replaced repression

Hungary began dismantling its frontier barriers to Austria on May 2, 1989. This allowed East German citizens an unexpected escape route; the Iron Curtain had suffered its first tear. This picture shows numerous East German Trabants and Wartburgs parked on a Budapest street. East German refugees had driven to Hungary in these cars but abandoned them when they fled to the West.

This is the opening of an excellent article by Neal Ascherson in today’s special issue of the Observer Review, celebrating the events of 1989:

Twenty years ago, a landscape began to tremble. At first, nobody noticed anything special. In January 1989, business was much as usual in the Soviet half of Europe. Strikes in Poland, harassment of East German dissidents, a Czech playwright called Vaclav Havel arrested yet again after a small demonstration. The west had more important stories to think about. George Bush Sr was being inaugurated as president of the United States, and Salman Rushdie was in hiding after the Iranian fatwa. In Moscow, that wonderful Mikhail Gorbachev was pushing ahead with his perestroika and glasnost.

Then the trembling increased. The mountains around the cold war horizon began to wobble and fall over. Polish communism went first. Next, Hungary’s rulers published an abdication plan. In August, the Baltic republics of the Soviet Union began to demand independence. In November, Erich Honecker of East Germany was overthrown, and on 9 November the Berlin Wall was breached.

Next day, a palace coup in Bulgaria brought down Todor Zhivkov, the party leader. On 28 November, the Czechoslovak communist regime surrendered to the people. In December, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania was chased from office and shot. And just three days before the end of the year, on 29 December 1989, Vaclav Havel became president of the Czechoslovak Republic.

Links: Observer features

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