The Cold War Ends in Europe

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Apr 25, 2014

The Cold War Ends in Europe

To the Western world, communism appeared to collapse almost all at once. In fact, there were different degrees of communism in the Eastern European nations. In some nations the level of authority was much harsher than others, and some began an active fight against communism sooner than others. By 1990, all the Communist governments of Eastern Europe had fallen.


In 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland became Pope John Paul II—the first non-Italian to hold the Church’s highest office since the early 1500s. In the wake of his election, Poland became the focus of a great deal of international attention. This played a significant role in bringing about political reform.

Beginning in 1980, soaring prices led Polish laborers to stage a series of strikes and to demand the right to form trade unions. The Polish government gave in to the workers’ demands in September, and the workers formed Solidarity, a national council to coordinate independent trade unions. Solidarity members created a list of demands that made it clear they wanted real reform, not just higher wages: a union’s right to strike, freedom for dissenters being held in prison, and the lifting of censorship. Dock worker Lech Walesa, who headed Solidarity, would later become the president of a democratic Poland.

The Polish government was naturally hostile to Solidarity, which had made itself a national political party rather than just a labor organization. Despite an outright 1981 ban on Solidarity, the political tide had turned in Poland. By 1989 the government was forced to legalize Solidarity once again, and the party swept the elections held that year. Combined with Gorbachev’s public withdrawal of Soviet influence in Iron Curtain nations, the Communist Party in Poland was thrust aside for good.


Although several years of Stalinist repression had followed the 1956 rebel- lion, Hungary had been gradually flexing its political muscles since the Soviet thaw of the early 1960s. In 1968, Hungary announced the New Economic Mechanism, which moved state controls on the market and allowed for free enterprise. Karol Grosz, who took office in 1987, supported Gorbachev’s policies of openness and greater political freedom. With the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet interference in Hungarian affairs, Grosz ordered the opening of the border between Hungary and Austria. This was the first official lifting of any part of the Iron Curtain, and it caused an immediate flood of Eastern European immigrants into Hungary and across the border.


In the wake of Communist crackdowns meant to prevent the workers from uniting in imitation of Solidarity, popular demonstrations occurred in the streets of Prague and other cities in the fall of 1989. In a series of events known as the Velvet Revolution, the Communist premier Gustav Husak resigned and was replaced within the month by the democratically elected Vaclav Havel. Alexander Dubcek, the hero of the 1968 Prague Spring, became the head of the Czechoslovak Parliament. Longstanding ethnic hostility between Czechs and Slovaks caused the 1993 separation of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia (also called the Slovak Republic) and the Czech Republic.

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