The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

2011: A Quick Review


2011 is a year that has prompted numerous historical comparisons, even before it has ended. This has been a year marked by economic turmoil, widespread international protest and revolutionary activity, as evidenced by Time Magazine’s recent announcement that their coveted ‘person of the year’ was to be awarded to ‘The Protestor‘. Throughout 2011, global news coverage has frequently been dominated by the growing wave of protest and demonstrations that swept the Arab World; quickly dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by international media and drawing frequent comparisons with the East European revolutions of 1989. Some (including, recently, Eric Hobsbawm) have suggested that comparisan with the ‘Spring of Nations’ of 1848 is more fitting although many have questioned the value of either historical analogy. Similarly, almost twenty years to the day, in the last weeks of 2011, mounting protests against electoral fraud in Russia have evoked memories of the collapse of the communist monopoly of power and the break-up of the USSR in 1991, with the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently advising current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ‘learn the lesson of 1991’ and resign from power, although Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti has suggested that 1905 may turn out to be a more fitting historical parallel.


The increasingly uncertain economic climate and global financial downturn also dominated news coverage throughout 2011, particularly of late due to the growing crisis in the Eurozone. Across central and eastern Europe, economic crisis and social insecurity has generated fresh concern about ‘ostalgie’ with the release of surveys suggesting high levels of nostalgia for the communist era. In recent polls conducted in Romania 63% of participants said that  their life was better under communism, while 68% said they now believed that communism was ‘a good idea that had been poorly applied’. Similarly, a survey conducted in the Czech Republic last month revealed that 28% of participants believed they had been ‘better off’ under communism, leading to fears of a growth in ‘retroactive optimism‘.


Much of the subject matter presented here at The View East aims to combine historical analysis with more contemporary developments. During 2011 a range of blog posts have covered topics as diverse as the Cold War space race (with posts about Sputnik and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s first successful manned space flight); the role of popular culture (and specifically, popular music in the GDR) in undermining communism; the use and abuse of alcohol in communist Eastern Europe; espionage and coercion (with posts relating to the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the notorious murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov) and in relation to continuing efforts to commemorate contested aspects of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the continuing controversy over Soviet-era war memorials. This summer also saw the first ‘student showcase’ here at The View East, which was a great success, with a series of excellent guest authored posts on a range of fascinating topics, researched and written by some of my students at Swansea University.


Something that I constantly stress to my students is the need to recognise how our knowledge and understanding of modern central and eastern Europe was, in many respects, transformed as new evidence and sources of information became accessible to historians of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism 1989-1991; and the ways in which our understanding continues to evolve as new information and perspectives continue to emerge today. So, with that in mind, here is a quick review of some of my own personal favourite topics of interest, events and developments during 2011. This short summary is by no means exhaustive so please feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments section below!


Anniversaries for Reagan and Gorbachev


February 2011 marked the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Today, former US President and ‘Cold Warrior’ Reagan remains highly regarded throughout the former communist block, where he is widely credited with helping to end the Cold War and open a pathway for freedom across Eastern Europe. A series of events were thus organised to mark the occasion across central and eastern Europe, where several streets, public squares and landmarks were renamed in Reagan’s honour and and the summer of 2011 saw statues of Reagan popping up in several former communist block countries, including Poland, Hungary and Georgia. To mark the centenary, the CIA also released a collection of previously classified  documents, along with a report on ‘Ronald Reagan, Intelligence and the End of the Cold War’ and a series of short documentary style videos that were made to ‘educate’ Reagan about the USSR on a range of topics including the space programme, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster, which can be viewed here. An exhibition held at the US National Archives in Washington DC also displayed examples of Reagan’s personal correspondence including a series of letters exchanged with Mikhail  Gorbachev and the handwritten edits made to Reagan’s famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech of 1983.


A statue of former US President Ronald Reagan, unveiled in the Georgian capital Tblisi in November 2011. The centenary of Reagan's birth was celebrated throughout the former communist block in 2011.


Today, citizens of the former East Block tend to view Reagan much more kindly than his Cold War counterpart, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who celebrated his 80th birthday back in March. Still feted in the West, Gorbachev was the guest of honour at a celebratory birthday gala in London and and was also personally congratulated by current Russian President Medvedev, receiving a Russian medal of honour. In a series of interviews, Gorbachev claimed he remained proud of role in ending communism, although for many, his legacy remains muddied.  April 2011 saw the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while August 1991 marked the twentieth anniversary of the failed military coup launched by communist hardliners hoping to depose Gorbachev from power and halt his reforms and finally, the 25 December 2011 was 20 years to the day since Gorbachev announced his resignation from power and the formal dissolution of the USSR. Recently released archival documents have also provided historians with more detailed information about the dying days of the Soviet Union as a desperate Gorbachev tried to hold the USSR  together.


March 2011 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting to celebrate his 80th birthday. Gorbachev was awarded the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, Russia's highest honour.


Half a Century Since the Construction of the Berlin Wall


August 2011 marked 50 years since the construction of the famous wall which divided Berlin 1961-1989 and became one of the most iconic symbols of Cold War Europe. The anniversary was commemorated in Germany as I discussed in my earlier blog post here and was also widely covered by international media including the Guardian and the BBC here in the UK. I particularly enjoyed these interactive photographs, published in Spiegel Online, depicting changes to the East-West German border. In October, the CIA and US National Archives also released a collection of recently declassified documents relating to the Berlin Crisis of August 1961, which have been published online here.


13 August 2011 - A display in Berlin commemorates the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.


Thirty Years Since Martial Law Crushed Solidarity in Poland


13  December marked 30 years since General Jaruzelski’s declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981, as the emergent Solidarity trade union was declared illegal and forced underground. NATO have released a fascinating series of archived documents relating to events in Poland 1980-81 which have been published online here.  Today Jaruzelski still argues that he ordered the domestic crackdown to avoid Soviet invasion, claiming in a recent book that  his actions were a ‘necessary evil’ . but intelligence contained in the newly available NATO reports suggest that the Soviet leadership were actually ‘keen to avoid’ military intervention in Poland. Fresh attempts to prosecute 88 year old Jaruzelski for his repressive actions were halted due to ill health in 2011, as the former communist leader was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 and has been undergoing regular chemotherapy this year.


13 December 2011 marked 30 years since General Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of Martial Law in Poland, designed to crush the growing Polish opposition movement, Solidarity.


The Communist-Era Secret Police


Stories about communist-era state security are always a crowd pleaser and 2011 saw a series of new revelations from the archives of the notorious East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi. I particularly liked the archived photos that were published in Spiegel Online, taken during a course to teach Stasi agents the art of disguise, as discussed in my previous blog post here and, in a similar vein, information from Polish files about espionage techniques used by Polish State Security which was published in October. In November, new research published in the German Press suggested that the Stasi had a much larger network of spies in West Germany than was previously thought, with over 3000 individuals employed as Inofizelle Mitarbeiter or ‘unofficial informers’, to spy on family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The Stasi even compiled files on leading figures such as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and former East German leader Erich Honecker, gathering information that was later used as leverage to force his resignation in October 1989. A new book published in September also detailed the extent of Stasi infiltration in Sweden, with information published in the German media suggesting that Swedish furniture manufacturer  IKEA used East German prisoners as a cheap source of labour in the 1970s and early 1980s.


‘Tourist with Camera’ – a favoured disguise used by Stasi surveillance agents, unearthed from the Stasi archives and part of a new exhibition that went on display in Germany earlier this year.


The Death of Vaclav Havel


2011 ended on something of a sombre note, as news broke of the death of communist-era dissident and former Czechoslovakian/Czech President Vaclav Havel on 18 December. An iconic figure, Havel’s death dominated the news in the lead up to Christmas, (only eclipsed by the subsequent breaking news about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17!) with numerous obituaries and tributes to Havel and his legacy appearing in the media (such as this excellent tribute in The Economist, ‘Living in Truth‘), as discussed in more detail in my recent blog post here. Havel’s funeral on 23 December was attended by world leaders, past and present and received widespread media coverage. In recent interviews, such as this one, given shortly before his death, Havel commented on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab revolutions and the global economic crisis. RIP Vaclav – you will be missed.


December 2011 - News breaks of the death of playwright, communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Hundreds of candles were lit in Prague's Wenceslas Square in his memory, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their respects and tributes poured in from around the globe.


The Growth of Social Networking


The use of social networking as a tool for organising and fuelling protest and opposition movements has also been a regular feature in the news throughout 2011 with particular reference to the Arab Spring, the UK riots and the recent ‘Occupy’ movement. Many more universities and academics are also now realising the potential benefits of using social media sites to promote their interests, and achievements, disseminate their research to a wider audience and engage in intellectual debate with a wider circle of individuals working on similar areas of interest, both within and beyond academia.  The potential benefits of Twitter and other social networking sites for academics has been promoted by the LSE and their Impact Blog during 2011, including this handy ‘Twitter guide for Academics‘.  On a more personal note, promoting The View East via Twitter has also helped me develop a much stronger online profile and contributed to an increased readership in 2011, something I discussed further in a September blog post here.


Was 2011 the year of the 'Twitter Revolution'?


As 2011 ends, our twitter feed @thevieweast is heading for 500 regular twitter followers; most days The View East receives well over 100 hits, the number of regular email subscribers has almost doubled and I’ve been able to reach a much wider audience – some older blog content I wrote relating to Solidarity was recently published in a Macmillan textbook History for Southern Africa and in the last twelve months I have given interviews to ABC Australia, Voice of America, and Radio 4, all in relation to subjects I’d written about here at The View East. So, as 2011 draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read, commented, followed and re-tweeted from The View East in 2011 – A very Happy New Year to you all, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2012!


Happy New Year from The View East!

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cracking the Iron Curtain: Remembering Hungary’s ‘Pan-European Picnic’

“Hungary was where the first stone was removed from the Berlin Wall” ~ former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, speaking to mark the reunification of Germany on October 4th 1990.

Today marks the anniversary of  another key event linked to the collapse of communism across East Europe in 1989. Twenty years ago today, 19th August 1989, was the date of the Pan-European Picnic organised along the Austro-Hungarian border, in a field  just outside the Hungarian city of Sopron.

The premise of the picnic was fairly simple: organised by members of the growing anti-communist opposition parties in Hungary, the event was planned as a peaceful event to demonstrate increasing Hungarian freedom under Glasnost, and to promote friendship between East and West. Austrian and Hungarian authorities agreed to open a small stretch of the common border at  Sopronpuszta for just three hours, at 3pm, in order to allow small delegations representing both countries to conduct ‘an ordinary exchange of greetings between local populations’ on either side of the Iron Curtain. On the day, however,  hundreds of East Germans arrived at the picnic to attempt to walk across the border into Austria. A sizeable  group of around 600 people made it across the border that afternoon, in the first large-scale exodus of East German citizens to the West since the construction of the Berlin Wall back in 1961.

Cracks in the ‘Iron Curtain’ between Austria and Hungary were increasingly evident in the months leading up to August 1989 – most notably demonstrated on 27th June when then Austrian and Hungarian Foreign Ministers Alois Mock and Gyula Horn were photographed using bolt cutters to tear holes in part of the barbed wire fence marking the border between their countries:

Cutting the Iron Curtain: Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counderpart Alois Mock work together to dismantle part of the 'Iron Curtain' between Austria and Hungary in June 1989.

Cutting the Iron Curtain: Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn and his Austrian counderpart Alois Mock work together to dismantle part of the ‘Iron Curtain’ between Austria and Hungary in June 1989.

However, the border between Austria and Hungary was not officially thrown open until September 11th 1989, and at the time of the Pan European Picnic, the Hungarian border guards were still officially working under orders to ‘shoot to kill’ anyone who attempted to cross into Austria illegally. Thus the events of 19th August were seen (as former Hungarian Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth described earlier this week) as ‘a test of Gorbachev’s word‘ that he would not intervene militarily to prevent the cross-border movements of people, as the Hungarians remained unsure how Moscow would react. When confronted with the large group of Germans intent on attempting to breach the border,  Lt. Col. Arpad Bella, acting commander of the Hungarian border guards on duty at Sopronpuszta that day,  described how he had “just a few seconds” to decide what course of action to take in the absence of any clear orders from above. He decided that he “did not want to be a mass murderer” so he would “do the right thing“, and ordered his guards to stand aside and allow the people to pass, observing the reactions of those who had made it safely onto Austrian soil:

“What I saw on the other side was amazing. There were people who in their panic kept running further even though they were on Austrian land. There were people who just sat down on the other side of the border and just either cried or laughed”.

19th August 1989: 600 East Germans cross the border from Hungary into Austria at the Pan-European Picnic.

19th August 1989: 600 East Germans cross the border from Hungary into Austria at the Pan-European Picnic.

Laszlo Nagy, one of the main organisers behind the picnic, has claimed that at the time ‘we didn’t feel like we were making history‘ describing the events of 19 August 1989 as ‘just the world’s greatest garden party‘. In the intervening twenty years however, and in the context of events that took place later in 1989, the significance imbued on that day has increased. Earlier this week, Jose Manuel Barroso (current President of the European Commission) issued a statement claiming that the events at Sopronpuszta had ‘helped to change the course of European History’ marking ‘the beginning of the end of the division of Europe by the Cold War‘, while  Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (representing the current EU Presidency) also referred to the anniversary in his online blog, where he stated that:

“What happened attracted enormous attention and set in motion the process which saw the wall fall in Berlin on November 9 … for the appearance of a hole in the Iron Curtain means that the curtain in its entirety became worthless. It was like a gigantic dam which suddenly had developed a little hole somewhere. And it was at Sopron where everything really begun to crack in all seriousness”.

To mark the anniversary of the Pan-European picnic an official ceremony is being held today at Sopronpuszta, where Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel are making commemorative speeches, meeting with some of the East Germans who crossed the border twenty years ago, and unveiling a monument called ‘Breakthrough’ to formally mark the 20th anniversary of events.

You can read more about Border Guard Arpad Bella’s account of the events of that day here,  in a recent article from The Times Online, (published on 14th August 2009):

While former Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth spoke to the BBC World Service about his decision to open the border here:

Miklos Nemeth on Opening Hungary to the West

And the BBC Website also hosts this video clip, of the first East Germans to cross from Hungary to Austria twenty years ago today:


August 19, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Poles Remember 1989 Revolution

Twenty years on, will present-day tensions overshadow past glories in Poland?

Tomorrow (4th June) marks the 20th anniversary of the landmark Polish elections of 1989, the first ‘semi-free’ elections in communist Eastern Europe, and the day when representatives of trade union-come underground dissidents-come political opponents Solidarity dealt the final fatal blow to communism in Poland, sweeping to victory by winning 99% of all seats in the upper senate and all contested seats in the Sejm.  As Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first post-communist democratic prime minister in Poland recalled earlier this week: “Twenty years ago, what seemed impossible became possible”.

Solidarity Election Poster From June 1989.

Solidarity Election Poster From June 1989.

Today, the majority of Poles remain rightly proud of their role in the revolutions of 1989, seeing themselves as the standard bearers of anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe. Many claim that it was the success of Solidarity in the June elections that finally opened the floodgates for meaningful reform across Eastern Europe, inspiring their communist neighbours to follow their lead and take decisive action to cast off Soviet rule. As a result, over 120 events are being organised throughout Poland to celebrate and commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the June 1989 elections, including re-enactments of communist-era protests and numerous exhibitions, conferences and concerts, with the anniversary celebrations receiving widespread media coverage both within Poland and internationally. CNN, for example, are showing a series of programmes about the Polish role in the events of 1989 entitled ‘Autumn of Change: The New Poland’, and I found this short video on YouTube:

Some however, have been left disenchanted, feeling that Poland’s part in the events of 1989 was too quickly over-shadowed by the fall of the Berlin Wall later that year, an event which, for many people today, remains the defining symbol of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I recently wrote about Polish complaints about their perceived under-representation in the EC video ‘Twenty Years of Freedom’ (see ‘Video Commemorating 1989 Revolutions Creates Controversy’ (18th May) @ ), and earlier this week, former Solidarity leader and former Polish President Lech Walesa also expressed some resentment at the lack of recognition generally given to Poland’s role in the events of 1989 in comparison with events in Germany, in an interview with the Financial Times where he complained that: “They shouldn’t be ridiculous with that wall, and made into heroes because they [East Germans] were running away [to the west] while Poland fought”.

Polish anniversary celebrations have also been marred by domestic quibblings, with the recent economic downturn taking its toll. The central festivities commemorating the 4th June elections were originally planned to take place in Gdansk, whose shipyards were famous for the anti-communist strikes of the 1980s and the birth of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. However, the threat of violent protests by the modern-day Solidarity trade union led Prime Minister Donald Tusk to recently announce that, in the name of national unity, the official celebrations would be moved to Krakow, stating that ‘Solidarity … wants to carry the symbolism of history, but Solidarity today is a medium sized trade union, and June 4th is  a national day. It cannot be highjacked by any political movement’.

While Krakow may be a safer, less controversial and – arguably – a far more picturesque location for official dignitaries to quietly celebrate Poland’s ‘twenty years of freedom’, it lacks the same kind of resonant symbolism as Gdansk, which is still remembered as the raw cradle of anti-communist dissent in Poland. Today however, the prevailing mood in Gdansk is one of anger at the current economic failings rather than nostalgia for the past. Mismanaged and heavily subsidised under communism, Polish shipyards have found it increasingly hard to restructure and adjust to function in a competitive global economy during the last twenty years. An EU investigation launched in 2005, recently ruled that the Polish government had breached EU rules by providing state aid to keep their domestic shipyards in business. As a result, two such yards, at Gdynia and Szczecin have already been sold to foreign investors leading to the loss of thousands of jobs. EU officials announced yesterday that they were committed to saving the historic Gdansk shipyard, which was awarded a European heritage label in January 2009. While the past significance of Gdansk will doubtless be remembered across Poland tomorrow however, its future currently remains uncertain.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Video Commemorating 1989 Revolutions Creates Controversy

The European Community has produced a short (if slightly saccharine) video to commemorate the fall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989. The video, just under three minutes in length and entitled ‘1989-2009: 20 Years of Liberty’ begins by showing images of oppression in communist Eastern Europe: the crushing of the 1956 revolution in Hungary,  the 1968 Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the 1981 declaration of Martial Law by General Jaruzelski in Poland. The video then shifts focus to 1989, covering anti-communist demonstrations in the Baltics and Romania before showing the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Footage of the wall crumbling is interspersed with the birth of a baby, representative of the birth of a ‘free Europe’. The rest of the video covers important landmarks in post-communist Eastern Europe:  the last Soviet troops are shown leaving Hungary in 1991 along with the first democratic elections in independent Lithuania, and the removal of internal border controls in the EU in 1995. As the child grows, he is presented with birthday cakes marking pivotal years in the twenty year period since 1989 and for one birthday he receives a camera, which he then uses to record other momentous developments, such as the enlargement of the EU in May 2004, when the slogan ‘Europe Reunited’ and the number ‘25’ is flashed up on screen alongside images of celebrations in some of the countries joining the EU. The video ends in the present day, when the boy born in 1989 (now grown to adulthood), snaps a photograph of the Brandenburg gate in a (now united) Berlin – at very same the place where US President Ronald Reagan famously entreated Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall!’ in 1987 – before celebrating with friends.

The EC Website had this to say about their short video:

“The Fall of the Berlin Wall was a unique event that mobilised public opinion across Europe. It inspired strong emotions, including optimism for change. The 20th Anniversary of this event marks the coming of age of a generation, which has grown up in a Europe that is whole and free. This is also the 5th anniversary of EU-10 Enlargement, and with this enlargement, Europe became truly re-united in peace and security”.

However, the video has provoked something of a backlash in  some former communist states. In Poland, the video has been roundly criticised for its lack of focus on events there in 1989 with no mention of the Polish round table talks and the election of the first non-communist government in the Eastern bloc, or any reference to Polish-born Pope John Paul II who inspired opposition to communism. In addition, footage purporting to show a Polish demonstration against Martial Law in 1981 has been revealed to actually be a clip taken from a reconstruction of the original demonstration which was filmed in 1993, organised by the Civic Responsibility Foundation in Warsaw, with students acting the parts of both the demonstrators and the riot police.

Jan Tombinski, the Polish ambassador to the EU, has written a strongly worded letter to Margot Wallstrom, the EU communication policy chief, demanding changes to the video and alleging that the ‘simplistic image’ of 1989 presented in the video could ‘introduce needless controversies during the European Parliamentary elections this June’, while Mikolaj Dowgielewicz, the Chair of the Polish Committee for European Integration, has stated that the video’s lack of focus on the role played by Solidarity in the events of 1989 is ‘like showing France’s history with no mention of the French Revolution’. Controversy over the video’s content has even reached the upper echelons of Polish politics, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk describing the video’s inaccurate portrayal of events in Poland as a ‘stupid blunder’ by the European Commission.

Bulgaria are also unhappy, as they are the only EU member from the former East Bloc not included in the video, which lacks any reference to either events in Bulgaria in 1989, or the most recent EU enlargement including Bulgaria and Romania in 2007.

An EC spokesman responded to criticism of the video with the claim that it is an ‘artistic video’, adding that ‘this is not a historical programme, this is not a documentary’ – which seems rather a naive view, given the historical weight and meaning that the events of 1989 still hold for many across Central and Eastern Europe today.

Sunday 31 May – UPDATE

The European Commission have now edited the original video, making a number of changes to the content in response to some of the criticisms raised. Bulgaria still isn’t featured at all, but the clip showing the re-construction of Martial Law era demonstrations has now been replaced with genuine clips from the original 1981 protests, while some footage related to the Solidarity movement has also now been added, so that ‘Solidarnosc’ banners are prominent. The title of the video has also been changed to reflect the primary focus on events in Germany, and so the film is now called “1989 – 2009 The Berlin Wall: Symbol of a Divided Europe”.

You can view the edited and updated EC video here:

And, if you are interested in comparing this with the original video, which created the initial controversy, it is still available here (with some independent commentary added at the beginning):

May 18, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments



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