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Historian Looks Back on Fall of Communism 20 Years Ago

Historian Looks Back on Fall of Communism 20 Years Ago

Visiting professor Jurgen Kocka, a modern social historian at the Free University of Berlin, gave a lecture that kicks off more than a year of talks, conferences and film screenings organized by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies. An international conference about 1989's events and a film series are set for November.

Everyone knew what had happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June the same year.


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Duration: 39:15

UCLA Today

BEFORE AN AUDIENCE that included consular officials from six Central and Eastern European countries that threw off Communism in 1989, a visiting historian and professor from Berlin recalled the stunning events that led up to the fall of Communism and the demise of the Soviet Union, a transformation that no one had predicted would take place that year.

Visiting professor Jurgen Kocka, a modern social historian at the Free University of Berlin, gave a lecture that kicks off more than a year of talks, conferences and film screenings on and off campus focused on the events of 1989. Also on the schedule are an international conference and a film series, cosponsored with the Goethe Institute, all set for this November.

Kocka's lecture was held in Royce Hall on March 4 and was organized by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies and eight European consulates in Los Angeles.

Remarkably in Europe's history, Soviet-type regimes in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania "imploded" in 1989 without the bloodshed of war, Kocka said. Only in Romania was there significant violence, culminating in the hasty execution of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day.

In East Germany, leaders never resorted to tanks or filled prisons and hospitals they had prepared for possible confrontation in 1989; their self-confidence had apparently been spent after the well-publicized exodus of thousands of citizens in September and massive urban protests that November, Kocka said. Instead, the Berlin Wall would open on Nov. 9, and in less than a year, the German Democratic Republic would be absorbed into what had been West Germany.

"Everyone knew what had happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June the same year," Kocka said. "But — and it was something like a small miracle and, in a way, looking back, it still is — police violence remained very limited; the army was not called into action."

Led by dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, "easily the most impressive leader of the 1989 revolution Europe-wide," the historian noted, 750,000-strong crowds in Prague peacefully brought down the government over the course of a week in November.

Though not inevitable, said Kocka, "velvet" revolutions were possible because "the crowds and the activists of 1989 detested violence," and, crucially, because the Soviet Union never sent troops to put down the agitators.

"It became increasingly clear that [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev would be ready to let his colonies go if they really insisted," Kocka said, raising questions about why Gorbachev was "left free" to pursue his noninterventionist policies "with increasing vigor over several years."

The victories of mass movements in Central Europe also owed mightily to more "evolutionary" changes in the political institutions of Poland and Hungary, where in the first two revolutions of 1989 the Communists allowed multiparty elections and lost.

All six countries discussed by Kocka embarked on systemic changes to institutions and official values in 1989. Even in Romania and Bulgaria, where many members of the old guard remained in power, there would be an end to the planned economies and secluded societies of the Soviet era. Ideologies and the freedom to voice ideas expanded dramatically.

"It is the systemic character, plus the speed of the changes, which may justify calling them revolutionary," said Kocka.

For the revolutionaries of 1989, appeals to the sovereignty of nation-states against Soviet hegemony were important, and consumerism was a lure, particularly for "envious" East Germans with increasing access to West German media sources. But slogans also went beyond nationalities and nation-states to uphold so-called "European" values such as individual rights and civic obligations.

"In a way, the opposite of Communism was not capitalism, but Europe," Kocka said.