The limits of people power

Did we learn the wrong lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall?

(Greg Klee/Globe Staff Photo Illustration )
By Drake Bennett
November 15, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

With the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall earlier this week, the news was filled with images of that epoch-ending night, and of the equally historic events that led up to and followed it. Those images, for the most part, are of crowds: strikers in Poland, the multitudes at the reburial of Hungary’s former prime minister Imre Nagy (executed in 1958 on orders from Moscow), the throngs in Prague chanting “Havel to the Castle,” the massed hecklers in Bucharest who forced Nicolae Ceausescu to try unsuccessfully to flee - and, of course, the thousands of East and West Germans who gathered restively at the Berlin Wall’s checkpoints on the night of Nov. 9 and flooded through when they opened.

Scenes like these vividly symbolize the popular conception of the upheavals of 1989: a mass uprising, rippling across Eastern Europe, that swept away the Berlin Wall and with it the brittle, corroded regimes that made up the Soviet empire.

It’s hardly surprising that this is the narrative that has taken hold. It’s a stirring idea, and a powerful one, comforting in the role it accords oppressed people to rise up and make their own fate. And the crowds in the streets are what the world saw at the time. But in the intervening two decades, as the participants themselves have written their

memoirs, as transcripts and memos have been declassified, and as documents have emerged from behind the former Iron Curtain, many historians have begun to emphasize a different account. In this telling, it’s not the marching of the crowds on the street that made the difference, but something less visible: the unprecedented inaction and acquiescence of those at the top. In country after country, leaders responded to open challenges to their power by essentially giving in.

“People power,” in other words, didn’t end the Cold War, not alone. And the extent to which the popular understanding of those revolutionary months centers on the masses in the streets suggests that we may have learned the wrong lesson from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Especially here in the United States, where rioting mobs helped spark the American Revolution and marchers spurred the Civil Rights movement, there is a particular faith in the power of taking it to the streets, and it was possible to see echoes of those American movements when mass protests erupted in Eastern Europe, or at various times in countries like Ukraine, Lebanon, Burma, the Philippines, or, most recently, Iran. But, historians say, what ultimately matters in authoritarian regimes is the resolve of those at the top, and that imposes stark limits on the power of the people.

It’s not just a question for Cold War scholars to debate. Misunderstanding the potential of popular protest can have tragic results, leading today’s dissidents, whether they’re in the Arab world or Southeast Asia or elsewhere, to risk life and limb in situations where there’s little prospect of success - where, unlike in Poland and Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s, the leadership is firmly committed to doing whatever it takes to maintain the status quo.

“Regimes collapse when there’s a loss of will at the top to do whatever’s necessary to do to stay in power,” says Mark Kramer, a historian and head of the Harvard Project for Cold War Studies. “The Chinese communists showed that if you were willing to kill huge numbers of people and resort to ruthless violence, you could stay in power.” In Eastern Europe, he argues, “If that had been done early in the process, in August or September, had the Soviet Union given a green light for it, it certainly would have worked.”

There’s little doubt that mass demonstrations, planned and unplanned, played a vital role in the events of that fall, building on one another and making the public desire for change impossible to ignore. And there are Cold War scholars like Timothy Garton Ash who do argue that the crowds themselves were decisive. But the Soviet empire had been roiled by mass protests for decades - in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Poland - and the communist governments, with Soviet aid, had only tightened their grip through brutal crackdowns. Five months before the wall came down, the Chinese government had done the same at Tiananmen Square.

Today, some historians are looking in more depth at what it was that changed in the minds of the communist leaders - especially Mikhail Gorbachev, whose refusal to lend Soviet support to any crackdown forced the hand of those Eastern European governments more reluctant to change. This analysis, in which the Cold War ended not because of the many but the few, suggests that, for all the longer-term economic and political currents that shaped it, the end of the Cold War wasn’t a historical necessity. With a few different decisions, the events of 1989 might have unfolded very differently - or not at all, leaving the world frozen even today in a hostile superpower face-off. Rather than being a puzzle for historians, the end of the Cold War could still be a distant ambition of policymakers.

“There were so many points at which the whole process could have been interrupted by relatively small changes,” says Kramer. “It easily could have happened that the Cold War wouldn’t have eased much at all.”

In nearly every historian’s account, the central figure in the end of the Cold War is Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan may have disturbed the status quo with his bellicose rhetoric, and West Germany’s Helmut Kohl may have seized the initiative on uniting the two Germanys soon after the wall came down, but it was Gorbachev who bore the most responsibility, by steadfastly refusing to act as the dominos in communist Eastern Europe fell.

He acceded to the political liberalization the Hungarian regime pursued in 1988 and 1989. In the summer of 1989, when Poland elected a non-communist government - the first in postwar Eastern Europe - Gorbachev did not object. Most importantly, that fall, when Eastern European leaders like Erich Honecker in East Germany and Ceausescu in Romania pleaded with Gorbachev to use Soviet troops to suppress the swelling crowds, he repeatedly rejected the notion. Without the threat of a Soviet crackdown, the crowds only grew.

“Gorbachev was no visionary, but his choices had dramatic consequences - many of them unintended,” says William Hitchcock, a historian of 20th-century Europe and the Cold War at Temple University.

Why Gorbachev let Eastern Europe go so easily is a question that Cold War historians continue to puzzle over. A crop of new books has been published in this anniversary year, and many try to decipher Gorbachev’s behavior from different angles. In doing so they take advantage of the fact that many vital government documents from Russia, Europe, and the United States are now beginning to be released to the public. Fewer of the new books are memoirs written by participants, and more are by historians, interested not only in what happened, but how well the participants themselves understood the events they found themselves in the middle of.

Gorbachev’s reluctance does seem to have been driven in part by his horror at the violence of previous crackdowns in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and he also mistakenly believed what was unfolding in 1989 was the first stirrings of a process of gradual reform. In reality, of course, people were protesting the fact that they had been living under a de facto foreign occupation for four decades, with no political rights and fewer and fewer economic prospects.

In recent years, historians have suggested other factors, as well. Vladislav Zubok, a Soviet historian and, like Hitchcock, a professor at Temple, argues that Gorbachev was simply overwhelmed with problems closer to home - the perilous state of the Soviet economy, unrest in the Baltics - and had little time for Eastern Europe. James Sheehan of Stanford argues that Gorbachev fell in love with the idea that the Soviet Union might find a place, culturally and economically, in the steadily integrating community of Western European nations, and therefore had little interest in playing the role of Eastern Europe’s brute enforcer.

Whatever the reason, though, the protests and elections of 1989 were allowed to continue. And with the exception of Romania - where Ceausescu ordered troops to fire on protesters and, shortly thereafter, was driven from power, tried by a military court, and executed along with this wife - Eastern European governments gave way with little resistance.

In some cases, says Jeremi Suri, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the governing elites weren’t so much giving way as coming into agreement with the protesters. “Some of the leaders at the top,” he says, “became convinced that what the dissidents were saying was right.” Top Gorbachev aides like Anatoly Gromyko and Georgy Shakhnazarov, Suri says, began to believe, like the dissidents, that the repressive nature of the Soviet system was strangling its development - leaders, in other words, became protesters themselves.

In Hungary, protests weren’t even necessary: The Communist Party there, which had always been the least dogmatic in Eastern Europe, reformed itself, then reinvented itself - the month before the wall came down, the Hungarian Communist Party was reborn as the Hungarian Socialists.

The contrast to China is stark. There, the government, led by the country’s great economic reformer, Deng Xiaoping, sent in troops to clear Tiananmen Square of the massive pro-democracy protest that had taken root there in the summer of 1989. Exact casualty figures are still not known, but estimates range from a few hundred to a thousand. The student leaders of the protests were jailed or driven out of the country. And today China is a thriving world power with a fast-growing economy and strong commercial and political bonds with the same nations that imposed sanctions in the weeks after the massacre.

“China still has a Politburo, and we still don’t know what happened to all those poor people in June 1989,” says Mary Sarotte, a historian at the University of Southern California and author of the just-published “1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe.”

“China shows that there’s still a path forward for countries that call themselves communist into a 21st-century world.”

China is the biggest counterexample, but it isn’t the only one: The protests that greeted the results of the Iranian election this summer also ended bloodily and, so far, fruitlessly, so did the 2007 mass demonstrations in Burma.

According to Suri, there are three major factors that determine how a government, especially an authoritarian government, responds to this sort of popular protest. The first is how effective the traditional organs of state power and repression are - everything from the police and military to the state-run media. The second is the sort of international obligations the government has: In 1989 the Soviet Union was deeply indebted to the United States and Western European countries, and Gorbachev, he argues, had much to lose by alienating them, while China’s government had more faith in its economy’s ability to survive as an international pariah. And the third is simply how comfortable, all things being equal, the country’s leadership is with violence.

Dissidents, of course, are never blessed with perfect insight into the minds and economic obligations of the authoritarian governments they seek to overthrow. And it’s hard to say the Tiananmen protesters were any more rash than those in East Germany, with its notoriously brutal secret police, where Honecker had made no secret of his admiration for the Chinese government’s response to Tiananmen. In both countries, the protesters were driven not by patient political calculations so much as a deep sense of frustration and injustice, and in both cases what they did was incredibly brave. But if the Eastern European fall of 1989 is one story of the power of protest, the Chinese summer should be at least as potent a one.

Cold War scholars still wonder what the Soviet Union might have looked like today had Gorbachev been more like Deng. Some, like Robert Hutchings, a former diplomat and top adviser on European affairs in the first Bush administration, believe Eastern Europe would nonetheless have attained a measure of autonomy and even democracy, while the Soviet Union, including the republics in the Baltics and central Asia, would have remained firmly in Moscow’s control.

Others, like Kramer, believe that the two decades between 1989 and today might have passed with little change at all. The Warsaw Pact would have continued to have serious economic difficulties, but, he argues, that isn’t necessarily a death sentence.

“They were inefficient and so forth, but lots of countries have inefficient economies. Italy does to this day,” he says.

Or the world might have ended up with a Soviet Union that looks, for all intents and purposes, like today’s Russia: a large, populous country with a powerful but aging military, widespread corruption, coffers filled with oil and gas money, an authoritarian government, and a pronounced interest in asserting its power over Central Asia and Europe. In other words, something neither Gorbachev nor the protesting masses he encouraged had in mind.

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail