Domino effect of resistance toppled Eastern European regimes

March 26th, 2009 - 8:57 am ICT by IANS  

Berlin/Warsaw/Budapest/Prague, March 26 (DPA) When the world marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism this year, attention will focus on the Berlin Wall, a potent symbol of that system.
But while the focus is there - events include a plan to topple giant domino stones to dramatise the fall of various Communist regimes - some people who lived under Communist rule say the seeds for change were sown elsewhere.

Gerd Poppe, 67, a former East German opposition leader, closely followed the build-up of events during the 1970s and 80s that finally brought down the Communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

The relaxation of political controls implemented by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave a crucial signal, Poppe says.

But the Cold War veteran believes it was a series of developments across Poland, Hungary and the then Czechoslovakia that heralded the changes that brought down the Berlin Wall.

With an eye on the country’s eastern neighbour, Poppe said: “In Poland, there were signs that something was changing in the entire system.”

The 1960s and 70s in Poland were characterised by factory revolts, student protests and a significant demonstration in 1970 against food price hikes in which security forces killed 44 shipyard workers.

The rise of the Solidarity trade union movement and its iconic leader Lech Walesa brought the country’s pro-democracy struggle international attention. Walesa, who had taken part in the shipyard protests, founded the country’s first free trade union in 1980.

Despite martial law and repressive crackdown attempts, thousands took part in Solidarity’s struggle - from the kids who passed out illegal leaflets in Warsaw’s suburbs all the way up to politically active union leaders.

Poland’s struggle for democracy, in turn, gave inspiration to opposition groups in Hungary, where Communism had relaxed its iron grip as early as 1968.

In 1981, Hungary’s intellectual opposition followed the Polish example by launching a clandestine Samizdat (”self-publishing”) journal, providing a mouthpiece to the resistance struggle.

The underground opposition movements solidified into political organisations. During the symbolic reburial of reform communist Imre Nagy in June 1989, a young political leader, Viktor Orban, set the tone when he called for Russian troops to leave Hungary.

The road was harder in East Germany, where the government long remained in denial about the changes sweeping the continent. Dissident groups keenly followed the achievements in Poland and Hungary.

“We weren’t living on the moon,” Poppe said. In East Berlin, where he lived, it was easy to pick up West German television signals.

Egged on by developments across the border, the opposition movement grew beyond the informal gatherings taking place in private homes. East German churches played a crucial role, providing meeting spaces for political meetings, while the Samizdat printing presses allowed local opposition groups to communicate.

A growing tide of people wishing to emigrate out of East Germany added to the political pressure. From 1986 onwards, individual applicants started coalescing into a movement demanding greater travel freedom.

“Everybody thought about leaving at some point,” Poppe said. But he differentiated clearly between those wishing to leave the country and people like him, who were trying to change it.

As the Poles were holding their first free elections and millions of Germans began voting with their feet, Czechoslovakia’s dogmatic leaders still held a choking grip, in the face of a resistance movement populated with dissident intellectuals and long-haired musicians.

It was the 1977 arrest of an underground band, the Plastic People of the Universe, which had prompted the Charter 77 human-rights petition.

Those who signed were persecuted. They lost their jobs and their children were not able to study. While millions joined Poland’s Solidarity movement, by the late 1980s a mere 2,000 people had signed the Charter 77 petition.

The Communist government had tried to appease the resigned public with loans and family-friendly policies, but dissatisfaction prevailed. Central planning was ineffective, and people longed for the Western goods that weren’t available in socialist stores.

Jiri Fiedor, a manual worker who had been persecuted for organising art shows and music festivals, signed Charter 77 in 1988.

“The changes were in the air in 1989,” Fiedor said.

In January 1989, protesters gathered for a week in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to commemorate Jan Palach, a student who had set himself ablaze 20 years previously.

“Five years earlier they would not have let people to gather on Wenceslas Square, day after day, for a week,” Fiedor said of the easing political atmosphere.

Witnessing events unfold across the continent, Poppe said they did realise in East Germany at the time that “the pressure is so strong that it will give us new opportunities too”

“That it would lead to the collapse of the Wall,” he mused, “We couldn’t even remotely suspect at the time.”

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