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Chapter 23. Changing Millennia

In This Chapter

Communism in Europe is down for the count

• The USSR loses control

• Germany—back together again

There’s trouble in the Balkans again

• One currency—the Euro

• Europe takes on terror

Sitting just 10 years away from the new millennium, Europe still wasn’t out of the woods. East-west relations had chilled again. Cries for selfdetermination were growing louder in traditionally Communist states. Religious and ethnic tensions heated up in the volatile Balkan region yet again. Dreams of European economic unity had not yet been fully realized. There were challenges ahead that Europeans could not possibly have imagined. A strange mix of nationalism and international unity would sweep across Europe over the next 15 years. A strange assortment of related and unrelated tragedies would strike Europe over the next 15 years, too. At the new millennium, Europe had prevailed over many challenges, while facing new challenges for the twenty-first century.

The Decline and Fall of Communism

Westerners had always hoped, both secretly and out loud, that communism would one day disappear altogether. Capitalists had long believed that the Communist system simply could not and would not last. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and some Eastern Bloc nations clung to traditional Communist systems. At least in Europe, though, communism would meet its match in the voice it had traditionally tried to quiet—the voice of self-determination. Once the Communists opened the Pandora’s Box of democratization, communism was doomed. The fall of communism spread like a disease from nation to nation. The rise of democratic and limited market-economy ideals occurred in smaller states, then shocked the world as even the mighty Soviet Union succumbed. The world stood in disbelief as the Cold War, the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet Union vanished within a few years of each other.

One Last Soviet Stand

The Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev continued the Cold War practice of proxy wars in the 1970s as his government indirectly affected conflicts in Angola, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Brezhnev also built the most powerful Soviet navy ever. Then Brezhnev extended his Brezhnev Doctrine one final time, invading Afghanistan in 1979 to help a struggling Communist government hang on to power. He couldn’t allow the fate of another Communist state to have an adverse effect on the Soviet Union. In his final years, Brezhnev became increasingly preoccupied by foreign policy, two examples being the signing of the SALT II treaty in 1979 and the invasion of Afghanistan, and creating a cult of personality for himself.

Brezhnev and the other aging Communists jockeyed for more domestic political power; Brezhnev even took the title of Marshal of the Soviet Union, a title not used since Stalin’s days. His attempts to appear bold and powerful were thinly veiled attempts to disguise that Brezhnev’s brand of communism had stagnated. The Soviet Union was keeping up with the United States as a superpower, but the efforts weren’t sustainable. In the eyes of the world, the Soviets had been defined by military and technological might, but the stagnant economy would not allow the huge expenditures on the military and the space program much longer. Brezhnev had lost sight of the domestic issues that faced the Soviet Union: poor working and living conditions, rampant alcoholism, corruption, and apathy gripped the Soviet Union.

Poland Makes Waves

The Communists were stumbling everywhere in the Eastern Bloc, but they truly struggled with Poland. Attempts to suppress the Catholic Church and the peasants in the 1950s were met with obstinate resistance. By failing to control those two important facets of Polish society, the Communists effectively failed to control Poland. As such, the poorly administered Polish economy struggled through the 1960s, then plummeted in the 1970s. In 1978, as the Polish people will testify, a wondrous thing happened to Poland when the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005) became Pope John Paul II. The Polish pope would quietly become one of the dominant personalities of the next quarter-century.

The other dominant Polish personality emerged about the same time. In 1980, strikes broke out at shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, where Poles protested rising prices. An unlikely hero emerged from the strikes as the leader of the “Solidarity” movement. The staunchly Catholic Lech Walesa (b. 1943), an electrician by trade, was chosen to be the chairman of the Solidarity Free Trade Union. Walesa earned fame in 1980 when a strike broke out at the Gdansk Shipyard. Walesa illegally climbed the wall at the shipyard, rallied the workers, and effectively became the leader of the strike. In 1981, things got messy when the Polish government declared martial law and threw Walesa in prison where he remained until late 1982. The following year, under the watchful eye of the government, Walesa returned to work at the shipyards. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, which he accepted by proxy, and donated the prize money to the Solidarity cause, headquartered safely out of the country. As the strikes spread, the Polish government finally caved to the demands of the workers. The strikers, showing unusual solidarity, won the right to organize unions, the right to strike, freedom of speech, and the promise of economic reforms.

In 1988, Walesa organized another strike demanding only that Solidarity be made legal again. The government finally agreed and Solidarity returned to Poland. The government had no idea the union would become a political force, and in the 1989 elections, the Solidarity “party” won parliamentary elections. The following year, Solidarity elected Walesa president of Poland.

Would You Believe?

Lech Walesa was chosen in 1982 as Time magazine Man of the Year.

Though criticized for his abilities in government, Walesa won resounding praise for taking Poland from a Communist-controlled backward state to a democratic state with a free market economy. Walesa lost the next election in 1995, but continued to work behind the scenes in politics.

Reagan and the Pope Take on Communism

With the recent passing of both Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, it has become trendy to pair the two as the men who defeated communism in Europe. As with most clichés, there is a large element of truth to the assertion. Though each attacked communism in different ways, each played a role in the disintegration of modern communism.

Ronald Reagan, not being bound by the same rules of religion as the pope, attacked communism from a variety of angles. First, Reagan and most capitalists had no faith in the economic stability of Communist states. Therefore, Reagan turned away from the détente of his predecessors and escalated the arms race, which established military superiority over the rest of the world for the United States and forced the Soviets to break the bank to keep up. Reagan also imposed economic sanctions on Communist nations such as Poland and the USSR.

Would You Believe?

In an interesting coincidence, both Reagan and Pope John Paul II were actors before they rose to prominence on the world stage.

Finally, he used proxy wars to undermine communist regimes and to generally create more problems for the Communists.

Pope John Paul II, on the other hand, could not and would not condone violence or even sanctions that resulted in harm or deprivation for civilians. Along the same lines, the pope never judged governments, though he frequently criticized their actions and policies. Pope John Paul II preached freedom, peace, and openness. The pope never called for regime change but rather change within the regime. He placed human rights above all and spoke openly, even in the company of Communists, about the value of human life and the importance of human rights.

As a Pole who grew up under Communist oppression, Pope John Paul II understood the role of the Church in providing a safe haven for people. He continued the tradition in Poland of not allowing the Communist government to break the Church. As a result, the Church provided freedom for intellectual, religious, and even political expression within its sphere of influence. By preaching openness, religion slowly got its foot in the door of Communist nations. Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev both said that communism would not have fallen had it not been for Pope John Paul II. Of the pope, Walesa said, “The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism. Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. He simply said: ‘Don’t be afraid, change the image of this land.’” Walesa and the pope did just that.


In one of the most remarkable years of the twentieth century, 1989, human rights scored victory after victory over oppression. The first revolution occurred in Lech Walesa’s Poland, where he was elected as the first non-Communist leader in all of eastern Europe in more than a generation.

The democratic fever spread from Poland to Hungary. The Communists of Hungary replaced an old-school Communist with a reform-minded Communist government in 1988, with the hopes of increasing popularity for the party. The “reforms” didn’t go over, so the government decided in 1989 to revoke one-party rule, thinking that the Communists would still be able to win any election they pleased. They were wrong.

The fever spread quickly to East Germany. Reform-minded Hungary opened its borders to East German “refugees,” who traveled through Hungary, Austria, and into West Germany. So many people suddenly packed up and left East Germany that the East German government had no choice but to “tear down that wall,” as Reagan demanded, in an effort to prevent chaos and depopulation. The old, hard-line Communists of East Germany found themselves suddenly dispensable as a reform- minded government took power and scheduled elections for 1990.

In Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution unseated the Communists in December

1. Peaceful student protests in Bratislava in November were dispersed by riot police and a week later 500,000 protestors had gathered in Prague. The Communist government rolled over and gave up. By the end of the calendar year, Czechoslovakia elected Vaclav Havel (b. 1936) as president in the first free election in Czechoslovakia in 43 years.

As a Matter of Fact

The last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel once lived a life outside the political arena. As a young man, Havel worked as a stagehand and studied theater. He went on to write several plays including The Garden Party and The Beggar's Opera, as well as several books including Letters to Olga (written to his wife from prison) and The Art of the Impossible.

Havel became increasingly political after 1968 and even spent five years in prison. Throughout his career, Havel has remained a proponent of nonviolent resistance to oppression.

Would You Believe?

As Ceausescu and his wife faced the firing squad, they reportedly recited from the Internationale, the world's most famous socialist anthem which originally was meant to be sung to the tune of the French national anthem. 

While most of the Eastern Bloc regimes fell quietly in 1989, Romania was not as lucky. After violent clashes between peaceful protestors and state police, the aging and ruthless ruler Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989) and his wife reacted badly. They confronted crowds in a public square and lost control when shots were fired. They fled and their forces fell to an uprising of the Romanian people. After their capture, they faced trial in a kangaroo court and were executed immediately with machine guns. Footage of the corpses flooded media outlets worldwide. A new government emerged but Romania remained mired in economic and political turmoil for years. By the end of 1989 the Eastern Bloc didn’t look so menacing to westerners anymore.

Germany Reunites

After Hungary opened its Austrian borders in 1989, East Germans escaped to the west in droves. Faced with a crisis, the East German government held an election and a new reform-minded government took over. The new prime minister, Lothar de Maiziere (b. 1940), negotiated with West Germany’s Helmut Kohl and with France, the United States, and the Soviet Union about the possibility of merging with West Germany. Helmut Kohl helped convince East Germans to agree to the reunification by offering an even trade on their East German marks. In other words, the sad East German currency could be traded for the strong West German marks. That was an offer the East Germans couldn’t refuse. The biggest challenge facing Kohl was convincing the Soviets, before the USSR collapsed, that a unified Germany would not threaten peace in Europe. Cautiously, Gorbachev signed off on the plan when Kohl promised West German loans to the Soviets to help their struggling economy.

Finally, on October 3, 1990, the state of East Germany joined West Germany and the West German constitution. The reunification of Germany resulted partly from the anti-Communist movements of 1989, and in turn partly contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

The reunification came at a price for West Germany. By picking up the dead weight of the formerly Soviet-subsidized East German economy, the West German economy slowed. The pitiful industries in East Germany had to be transferred to private ownership and the currency had to be stabilized. Fifteen years later, the German economy still has yet to recover completely.

One of the driving forces behind the unification process was the desire for the two German states to successfully reunite their common history and common culture. After reunification, the German government spent billions of dollars to salvage that culture. East Germany remained poorer than West Germany after the war, and as a result, entire cities needed repair and refurbishment. In many cases, museums and galleries needed huge investments if the German culture in the east was to be salvaged. On a smaller level, many artists ventured into the east from the west and vice versa to catch up on the two generations of culture they had missed. Cultural centers like Leipzig and Dresden have flourished since reunification. Even today, Germany is working hard to preserve the old German culture and to create a single new German culture.

The Collapse of the USSR

The collapse of the Soviet Union could be considered a happy accident. As Brezhnev died and passed leadership on, most people within the government agreed that some amount of change was necessary. However, Yuri Andropov (1914-1984), who followed Brezhnev, didn’t get the job done. In fact, the economy sunk even lower under Andropov. Andropov, often remembered for his ties to the KGB and his internal investigations for corruption, died of kidney failure in 1984. Konstantin Chernenko (1911-1985), also in poor health, lasted only a short while as Andropov’s successor. During his brief stint, which ended in 1985 after a long illness, though, he escalated the Cold War and increased the harsh treatment of dissidents in the Soviet Union.

Would You Believe?

In early 1985 while Chernenko lay deathly ill in bed, a Politburo member physically hauled Chernenko out of bed and forced him to go the polls to vote.

Things were about to change drastically. Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) worked his way up to prominence within the Communist Party and became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. A brilliant man with a genuine concern for the Soviet people, Gorbachev realized that the only way to save the stale and listless Communist Party was to introduce reforms. Gorbachev’s plan began with the budget and the economy. He knew that the Soviet Union could not keep up with the United States in the arms race, and further attempts to would bankrupt the struggling economy. He planned to restructure the economy so that the military didn’t eat up the budget, and he addressed the issue of corruption in government.

Gorbachev’s restructuring plan was known as perestroika, or, simply, restructuring. Included in the restructuring were reduced price controls and reduced restrictions on private enterprises. At first the economy appeared to be looking up, but then it stalled. Gorbachev clung to power by introducing perhaps the most important ideological reform since the Russian Revolution: glasnost, or openness.

Glasnost contradicted everything the conservative, traditional Communists had done over the last 50 years. Gorbachev wanted the reformed government to be open and honest. He promoted free expression, free speech, and the relatively free flow of ideas. Gorbachev also introduced limited democratic principles, including free elections.

In that magical year of 1989, the Soviet people elected a few non-Communists. For the first time, political ideas were openly debated by politicians who weren’t in the Communist Party. But once the door was cracked, the public wanted it wide open.

As Soviets enjoyed some political expression, they of course wanted more say in the government. With the recent emphasis on Russian nationalism, many non-Russians now began to dream their own nationalist dreams—seemingly a very real possibility, having seen the Soviets stand by as the Eastern Bloc countries threw off the shackles of communism.

Would You Believe?

Because of his nonthreatening demeanor, journalists enjoyed referring to Gorbachev as “Gorby." Gorby is probably the most famous person ever to have the birthmark known as the “port-wine stain," or naevus flam- mus, prominently displayed on his forehead.

Gorbachev completely shelved the Brezhnev Doctrine, and that gave Russian and non-Russian nationalists alike a sense of hope. Gorbachev drew fire from both conservative Communists and radical liberals who wanted nothing less than complete independence for the Soviet states. The Communists suffered a major defeat in the 1990 elections. Then, in a remarkable move, Lithuania declared independence. All eyes watched Gorbachev as he imposed an embargo on the state—but refused to send the military. Russia followed suit under the leadership of Russian Parliament leader Boris Yeltsin (b. 1931). Despite Gorbachev’s efforts to save the union, nine more states declared their independence.

In a last-ditch effort, the old-school, hard-line Communists attempted a coup of the Gorbachev government, but to no avail. Though Gorbachev returned quickly to power after a kidnapping attempt during the coup, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union slipped away. As of Christmas Day, 1991, the Soviet Union no longer existed; in its place stood fourteen independent states. Eleven of the states formed a confederation known as the Commonwealth of Independent Sates. Its members at the end of 1991 were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. In 1993, Georgia joined the CIS after Russian troops intervened in Georgian affairs.

Would You Believe?

When Germany reunited, it technically was a member of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at the same time. Interest in the Warsaw Pact waned and the member nations officially dissolved the organization in 1991.

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