Fall of Communism

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Time Line

1953 Death of Stalin
1957 Treaty of Rome establishes EEC (later European Union)
1968 Prague Spring
1980 Formation of Solidarity in Poland
1985 Mikhail Gorbachev becomes head of Soviet Union
1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia; Grosz lifts Iron Curtain in Hungary; Berlin Wall falls; Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe fall
1990 East and West Germany are reunited; civil war begins in Yugoslavia
1991 Soviet Union is dissolved; Commonwealth of Independent States is established


Fall of Communism

Between 1989 and 1991, several key events signaled the end of the Cold War. First, Communist dictatorships collapsed throughout Eastern Europe. Second, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were reunited. Third, the Soviet Union broke up.

To many people, it had appeared as though the Cold War would drag on permanently. When it ended, it did so abruptly and rapidly and with almost no bloodshed (the disastrous civil war in Yugoslavia was not the result of Cold War issues). The swiftness of the change happened for a variety of reasons: peace and prosperity in the West, the unifying factor of the destruction of World War II, and the persistent underground resistance to communism behind the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War.

Economically, the West had prospered during the Cold War years. Those in the East were well aware that their own governments prevented them from enjoying much of a share in the postwar boom. The Communists always insisted that workers in the capitalist nations were oppressed and unhappy, but Eastern Europeans knew that Westerners enjoyed higher wages and a higher standard of living than they did.

World War II had been enormously destructive, but Europeans managed to create positive effects from the destruction. It created a genuine spirit of cooperation among Western nations, including the United States. With all nations working busily to rebuild and repair, employment was high and the atmosphere was one of courage and hope. Eastern nations also had to repair and rebuild, but without the freedom to choose their own employment, to form trade unions, or to install the latest technology, they felt less of a personal stake in the outcome. The atmosphere was one of stagnation and resignation.

The basic philosophy behind communism is that each person should con- tribute what he or she can to society and the economy and take as much as he or she needs. Most would agree that such an idea is compassionate, generous, and fair. Unfortunately, communism in practice did not reflect its philosophy. It meant censorship and oppression. When people are not permitted to say what they think, to write what they please, to travel where they wish, or to describe accurately the conditions they live in, they are not free. The history of modern Europe shows a constant progress toward freedom—the human freedom to live as a reasonable being with the right to make one’s own basic choices. Communism was intolerable to many precisely because it refused to allow such freedom. Throughout the Cold War, many Eastern Europeans resisted it—some vocally, some silently, but all consistently. Individuals—sometimes prominent ones—defected to other nations. Writers smuggled their works out of the country for publication. Leaders led actual armed revolutions. Workers fought for their rights to bargain for higher wages and safer conditions. Without courageous resistance from within, the Communist governments of the East would never have fallen so rapidly.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Fall of Communism Practice Test

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