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1989 - Fall of Berlin Wall

Fall of the Berlin Wall - On November 9, 1989, people gathered at the wall to begin tearing it down after it was announced by the East German Communist Party that citizens of the German Democratic Republic could cross the border whenever they pleased.

The fall of the Berlin Wall happened nearly as suddenly as its rise. There had been signs that the Communist bloc was weakening, but the East German Communist leaders insisted that East Germany just needed a moderate change rather than a drastic revolution. East German citizens did not agree.

Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev was attempting to save his country and decided to break off from many of its satellites. As Communism began to falter in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1988 and 1989, new exodus points were opened to East Germans who wanted to flee to the West. 

In East Germany, protests against the government were countered by threats of violence from its leader, Erich Honecker. In October 1989, Honecker was forced to resign after losing support from Gorbachev. He was replaced by Egon Krenz who decided that violence was not going to solve the country's problems. Krenz also loosened travel restrictions from East Germany.

Suddenly, on the evening of November 9, 1989, East German government official Günter Schabowski blundered by stating in an announcement, "Permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints between the GDR [East Germany] into the FRG [West Germany] or West Berlin."

People were in shock. Were the borders really open? East Germans tentatively approached the border and indeed found that the border guards were letting people cross.

Very quickly, the Berlin Wall was inundated with people from both sides. Some began chipping at the Berlin Wall with hammers and chisels. There was an impromptu and massive celebration along the Berlin Wall, with people hugging, kissing, singing, cheering, and crying.

The opening of the Berlin Wall triggered a series of events that led to an unexpectedly rapid unification of East and West Germany on October 3, 1990.



Further Reading


The Conversation - The Fall of the Berlin Wall

New York Times - How the Fall of the Berlin Wall Really Happened

The Berlin Wall - A Multimedia History

ATIPhotos Of The Day The Berlin Wall Fell

Jean Claude Coutausse - Photos from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

1989 - Romanian Revolution

Romanian Revolution - anti-communist demonstrators overthrow the repressive government of Nicolae Ceausescu and execute the leader and his wife

As the winds of change buffeted the communist world in the 1980s, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s Stalinist-style dictator, hunkered down.

The “Genius of the Carpathians” had once been genuinely popular at home and lauded abroad for his refusal to toe the Kremlin’s party line, but Ceausescu and his wife Elena were soon living the cliche of absolute power and absolute corruption. By the late 1980s, instead of Christmas, the most festive day in Romania had become Ceausescu’s birthday.

Obsessed with paying off the country’s debt, Ceausescu sold much of the country’s raw materials to foreign creditors, leading to extreme shortages of food, heating, and electricity. During Romania’s winters, hundreds froze to death inside their dimly lit apartments, or died of asphyxiation as gas stoves -- the only source of heat for many -- were shut off, then turned back on without warning, filling sleeping apartments with gas.

But as living standards plummeted, Ceausescu spent vast sums to demolish one of Bucharest’s loveliest suburbs and erect the colossal House of the Republic. Reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev described Romania at the time as resembling “a horse being whipped and driven by a cruel rider.”

But in 1989, as one after another of Europe’s communist regimes collapsed, Ceausescu made clear there was to be no reform in Romania. That December, as another bitter winter loomed, the population was primed to explode.

The spark came in the western town of Timisoara. When a popular ethnic Hungarian priest was beaten up for criticizing the regime (apparently by members of the Securitate, Ceausescu’s feared network of secret police), a demonstration of support for the priest soon expanded into an uprising against Romania’s Communist regime.

The crackdown in Timisoara, when it finally began on December 17, was ruthless. Dozens of people were killed. Local and international media broadcast inflated casualty numbers, while the actual number dead was later reported to be around 100.

As inflated news of the Timisoara killings filtered into Romania, sporadic protests broke out across the country. Ceausescu, freshly returned from a trip to Iran, called for a mass rally in Bucharest. The speech, intended to demonstrate the support he still commanded, was a disaster. As Ceausescu plodded through his introduction, a section of the crowd broke into chants of protest, sparking screaming chaos in the throng. A live television broadcast captured the moment the elderly despot recoiled in fear and confusion.

The dictator had lost control. That night, Bucharest echoed to the din of battle as apparent Securitate gunmen loosed streams of tracer fire into protesters. The next morning the Ceausescus fled Bucharest by helicopter.

Military vehicles were now prowling through Bucharest, but the soldiers inside showed little will to fire on protesters. Soon the army went over to the revolution and tanks carrying cheering protesters were roaring through the streets. It was now the Ceausescus and their shadowy network of Securitate operatives pitted against the rest of Romania.

As snipers flitted through secret tunnels and fired into crowds from windows above Bucharest, the city became a chaotic battleground. The snipers were rumored to be a hardcore of Securitate loyal to the regime, although their identity has never been established. Revolutionaries, who had been handed weapons from the army’s arsenal, never knew who exactly was doing the shooting. Many deaths during the fighting were tragic cases of friendly fire.

Meanwhile, some 80 kilometers north of the capital, the Ceausescus had been captured. As fighting raged in Bucharest, a hastily compiled revolutionary government made the decision to have them executed. A cameraman recorded the couple as they were subjected to a show trial before being tied up and led to their deaths. In their final moments, Elena screamed abuse at her captors, while Nicolae reportedly hummed the communist anthem.

With more than 1,000 people killed, and a ruthless end for the Ceausescus, Romania’s revolution stunned the world for its violence. But hand-wringing over the murky details of the uprising would come later. On December 25, celebrations erupted across Romania as, for the first time in some 40 years, people openly celebrated Christmas Day.


Further Reading


Making the History of 1989 - The Unique Experience of Romania

RFERL 'Finally, We Called It Christmas Again': My Role In Romania's Revolution

Rare Historical Photos - Romanian Revolution In Pictures

BBC - The Timisoara Uprising

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Tiananmen Square protests - student-led demonstrations call for democracy, free speech and a free press in China. They were halted in a bloody crackdown by the Chinese government.

Pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, initially marched through Beijing to Tiananmen Square following the death of Hu Yaobang. Hu, a former Communist Party leader, had worked to introduce democratic reform in China. In mourning Hu, the students called for a more open, democratic government. Eventually thousands of people joined the students in Tiananmen Square, with the protest’s numbers increasing to the tens of thousands by mid-May.

At issue was a frustration with the limits on political freedom in the country—given its one-party form of government, with the Communist Party holding sway—and ongoing economic troubles. Although China’s government had instituted a number of reforms in the 1980s that established a limited form of capitalism in the country, the poor and working-class Chinese still faced significant challenges, including lack of jobs and increased poverty.

The students also argued that China’s educational system did not adequately prepare them for an economic system with elements of free-market capitalism.

Some leaders within China’s government were sympathetic to the protesters’ cause, while others saw them as a political threat.

On May 13, a number of the student protesters initiated a hunger strike, which inspired other similar strikes and protests across China. As the movement grew, the Chinese government became increasingly uncomfortable with the protests, particularly as they disrupted a visit by Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union on May 15.

A welcome ceremony for Gorbachev originally scheduled for Tiananmen Square was instead held at the airport, although otherwise his visit passed without incident. Even so, feeling the demonstrations needed to be curtailed, the Chinese government declared martial law on May 20 and 250,000 troops entered Beijing.

By the end of May more than one million protesters had gathered in Tiananmen Square. They held daily marches and vigils, and images of the events were transmitted by media organizations to audiences in the United States and Europe.

While the initial presence of the military failed to quell the protests, the Chinese authorities decided to increase their aggression. At 1 a.m. on June 4, Chinese soldiers and police stormed Tiananmen Square, firing live rounds into the crowd.

Although thousands of protesters simply tried to escape, others fought back, stoning the attacking troops and setting fire to military vehicles. Reporters and Western diplomats there that day estimated that hundreds to thousands of protesters were killed in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and as many as 10,000 were arrested.

Leaders worldwide, including Gorbachev, condemned the military action and, less than a month later, the United States Congress voted to impose economic sanctions against China, citing human rights violations.

One image of an unidentified man standing alone in defiance and blocking a column of Chinese tanks on June 5 remains a lasting one for much of the world of the events. He is now renowned as the 'Tiananmen Square Tank Man'.

Tank Man would not let the military vehicles pass. He succeeded. Eventually, he was pulled out of the way of danger by onlookers. But the image of unarmed man versus tank quickly came to symbolise the struggle of the Tiananmen protesters - peaceful protest met with military might.


As photographer Stuart Franklin said: "It demonstrates one man's extraordinary courage, standing up in front of a row of tanks, being prepared to sacrifice his own life for the sake of social justice."

Immediately after the military crackdown, the Chinese authorities began to hunt down those involved in the demonstrations. Thousands of people were detained, tortured, imprisoned or executed after unfair trials charged with ‘counter-revolutionary’ crimes.  

The Chinese authorities have never disclosed the total number of people detained, tried or executed throughout China since the June 1989 crackdown.  In the climate of terror which followed the massacre, the relatives of those killed were not only unable to seek justice for their loss; they were even unable to mourn openly the dead, who were officially described as ‘rioters’.

Tiananmen and the 1989 crackdown remains an official taboo topic in China. There is no official death toll. Attempts to discuss, commemorate and demand justice for what happened have been forcefully curbed, with no public discussion allowed. Since 1989 many people have been imprisoned for commemorating events or questioning the official line.


Further Reading


ThoughtCo - What Really Happened At Tiananmen?

ATI - The Hidden History Of The Tiananmen Square Massacre

AP - Key Events in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests

NPR - 30 Years After Tiananmen Protests, 'The Fight Is Still Going On For China'

1989 - Tiananmen Square protests
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