Year
1989

East Germany and Hungary move toward democracy

On October 18, 1989, the Iron Curtain nations of East Germany and Hungary take significant steps toward ending the communist domination of their countries to replace it with more democratic politics and free market economies. In Hungary, the Communist Party had disbanded on October 7. This action was followed by the razing of the barbed wire fence that had for years separated Hungary from Austria. The destruction of the fence effectively marked the end of the Berlin Wall as an impediment to travel between East and West Germany, since East Germans could now simply travel to Hungary, enter Austria, and go on from there to West Germany. Not surprisingly, the Berlin Wall came down shortly thereafter.

On October 18, the Hungarian constitution was amended to allow a multiparty political system and free elections (which took place in 1990). Many of the state controls over the economy were removed and Hungary moved toward a limited free market system. Meetings of workers, students, and others across the nation issued statements denouncing past “crimes” committed by the communist regime.

The changes were perhaps even more dramatic in East Germany, where on October 18 the nearly 20-year rule of communist strongman Erich Honecker came to an end. Honecker had been the Communist Party General Secretary in East Germany since 1971, and had ruled as head of state since 1976. With vanishing support from the Soviet Union, the effective end of the Berlin Wall (through Hungary’s action), and widespread criticism of his government from the East German population, Honecker fled to the USSR and was replaced by a more reform-minded regime. He later returned to East Germany, where he was tried and convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of East German refugees killed trying to go over the Berlin Wall since its erection in 1961. His sentence was commuted because of his poor health.

Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz as the Communist Party leader. Krenz enjoyed a good deal of popular support due to his role as a peacemaker in the demonstrations earlier in October. On October 7, only four months after the Tienneman Square massacre in China, Honecker ordered troops to be prepared to open fire on demonstrators in Leipzig. Luckily, Krenz, then in charge of security, arrived in Leipzig two days later to rescind Honecker’s order. Krenz’s attempt to save the party’s image by preventing violence merely allowed the revolution to proceed in a non-violent manner.

The actions in East Germany and Hungary reflected not only the growing dissatisfaction of their citizenry with over 40 years of communist rule, but also the steadily weakening hold of the Soviet Union over its East European satellites.

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