1989: The Director’s Cut?
I’m not generally a fan of the Daily Mail, but a couple of days ago I stumbled across a rather interesting article by Peter Hitchens entitled ‘What if the Berlin Wall Didn’t Fall?’ where Hitchens imagined what might have happened if the revolutions of 1989 had failed and communism had survived in Eastern Europe and the USSR. You can read his article in full here:
Playing the ‘what if?’ game in History can be problematic and obviously requires a lot of artistic license – ‘If Hitler had never been born, would the Holocaust still have happened?’ was a favourite question back when I was studying for my History A-Level, and of course it’s impossible to know and in some ways perhaps rather pointless to ask – though such an exercise can be very useful in getting history students to think about the complicated nature of cause and effect. But, twenty years on, it is worth remembering that although the eyes of the world were turned on Eastern Europe in 1989, at the time no one was entirely sure how the dramatic events unfolding would pan out. In the lead up to 1989, few had predicted that communism was in imminent danger and the success of the revolutions that swept across the Soviet bloc was by no means a foregone conclusion. While the world was watching with interest, the world was also waiting, with some apprehension, to find out what the East European communists would be prepared to do to stay in power, and how Moscow would react to the events unfolding across their European sphere of influence…
Hitchens envisages what might have happened if the communists had enforced repression on a larger scale in 1989, imagining ‘a massacre on the scale of Tiananman Square’ taking place in East Germany to defend the Berlin Wall as the communists clung onto power, turning the tide in Eastern Europe while a coup organised by communist hardliners in the CPSU forces Gorbachev and other leading reformists from power in Moscow, leading to the authorisation of Russian military action to reverse the liberal reforms that had already taken place in Poland and Hungary, and bring all of the Eastern European states firmly back under Soviet control. Meanwhile the Western world looked on, denouncing the events unfolding in Eastern Europe, yet not prepared to take any firm action to oppose them.
Could this have been the outcome in 1989? It was certainly possible, if not probable.
Although we know that Gorbachev had effectively revoked the Brezhnev Doctrine by 1989 (this was the Soviet policy that legitimated military interference in the internal affairs of its East European allies in cases where the communist monopoly of power was threatened, as had previously happened in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), we also know that the East European communist parties still had considerable forces of coercion at their disposal, and initially, the communists did attempt to use force to attempt to quell demonstrations and demands for reform in many cases (such as the GDR, Czechoslovakia and – later of course – Romania, where both the police and armed forces were unleashed against initial demonstrations). Due to the release of previously classified documentation after 1989, we also now know that many communist leaders seriously considered the use of force on a larger scale in an attempt to cling onto power, although without the security of ‘back-up’ from Moscow, most quickly decided against this option. For example, records from meetings in the GDR show that Erich Honecker continued to champion a forceful crackdown on protests in the weeks leading up to his removal from power on 18th October, despite being bluntly told by his security chief that ‘we can’t beat up hundreds of thousands of people’, while Czech Premier Ladislav Adamec also seriously considered using force to retain power at an emergency meeting of the Czech Central Committee held in late November, before deciding that, given the circumstances unfolding both in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere across the communist block, a ‘political compromise’ was his preferred solution.
However, I disagree with Hitchens’ view that pure force would have been sufficient to completely quell domestic unrest across Eastern Europe in 1989 – while enhanced repression may have been an effective short-term measure to restore the communist monopoly of power and may have convinced the majority of East Europeans that further anti-communist action was futile at that time, in the longer term the communists would probably have sought to ‘buy off’ their populations with some limited degree of reforms, particularly in the economic sphere, as had been the case under the Brezhnevian ‘Little Deal’ of the 1970s – which had become increasingly unworkable during the 1980s due to the mounting economic problems evident in the communist block. And even if communism had survived the upheavals of 1989, obviously one cannot assume that it would have survived another twenty years to the present day – serious problems were evident and had been exposed to both the people and to the outside world under Glasnost, so while a reversal of liberalism and the launch of a concerted large-scale crackdown in 1989 may have bought the communists a temporary ‘stay of execution’, without some kind of serious reform programme it is unlikely communism could have survived in the longer term, at least in its previous form.
Perhaps proceeding with caution to develop the more ‘limited’ reforms initially envisaged by Gorbachev (if such a programme was carefully controlled and constrained by the threat of force), would have made enough of a difference for communism to survive. But, we also know that many communist hardliners were opposed to Gorbachev’s reformist programme seeing even this as ‘too radical’, and that there were attempts to force him from power such as Hitchens imagines (most famously in the failed coup of August 1991). Had the Soviets chosen to rely on large-scale repression to retain power in their European ‘sphere of influence’ then the West would – almost certainly – have pursued a policy of ‘words but not action’ : spoken condemnation but without active engagement, as had previously been the case in 1956 and 1968, not willing to risk World War III over the fate of Eastern Europe, which up until 1989 was still generally accepted as being firmly ‘in the Soviet sphere’.
In Hitchens’ alternate version of 1989, the imaginary repercussions of events in Eastern Europe are wide-ranging. Margaret Thatcher remains in power in the UK as we never see the emergence of ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s (although Barack Obama has still been elected as US President in 2009, and is even ‘pictured’ at the Brandenburg gate in the article, in an ‘How Obama MIGHT have looked confronting communism in 2009’ style mock-up photo!). The European Union fails to materialise as a significant political and economic organisation. NATO is strengthened but does not expand and the map of Europe remains firmly divided into ‘West’ and ‘East’ with the Baltic States, Ukraine and Georgia still confined within the borders of the USSR. Other organisations such as the Provisional IRA and the ANC are also affected. Certainly, a scenario similar to that outlined by Hitchens would have led to a dramatic cooling in East-West relations and the birth of a ‘new Cold War’ in 1989, which would have had far-reaching implications for international relations on a global scale as we entered the twenty-first century. Twenty years on, I think this makes one realise and reflect on just how pivotal the events of 1989 really were.
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