The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc took place in four phases: 1) liberalization, reforms and a degree of democratization in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev from 1985 to 1988; 2) liberalization in Eastern Europe and chain of events that led to the downing of the Berlin Wall and the ouster of Communist governments there in 1989 and 1990; 3) protests, more democratic reforms, and efforts by individual republics to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991; and 4) the failed coup, the replacement of Gorbachev with Yeltsin as the leader of Russia-Soviet-Union and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In June 1989, Poland held relatively free parliamentary elections. Solidarity swept the elections and the communists lost every contested seat. Around the same time Hungary opened up its borders to Austria and allowed the formation of political parties and legalized the right of assembly. The Hungarian communist regime had steadily accelerated its reforms, rehabilitating Imre Nagy, the reform communist leader of the 1956 uprising, and dismantling fortifications along Hungary's border with Austria.

In September 1989, the Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn allowed East German refugees to leave Hungary for Austria. At the end of the summer, East German vacationers began escaping to the West through this hole in the Iron Curtain. They also poured into the West German embassy in Prague. The East German state began to hemorrhage as thousands of its citizens sought a better and freer life in the West. Daniel Pedersen wrote in Newsweek, "In retrospect it looks inevitable: but at the time no one knew whether it end in world war, or a new Stalinism."

With the East German government under increasing pressure to stem the outflow, East Germans who stayed behind demonstrated on the streets for reform. When the ouster of East German communist party leader Honecker failed to restore order, the authorities haphazardly opened the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The same night the Berlin Wall fell, the Bulgarian Communist Party deposed its longtime leader, Todor Zhivkov. Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia embarked on its "Velvet Revolution," quietly deposing the country's communist leaders. At an impromptu summit meeting in Malta in December 1989, Gorbachev and United States president George H.W. Bush declared an end to the Cold War. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Throughout 1990 and 1991, Soviet-controlled institutions in Eastern Europe were dismantled. At the January 1990 Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) summit, several East European states called for disbanding that fundamental economic organization of the Soviet empire, and the summit participants agreed to recast their multilateral ties. At the next summit, in January 1991, Comecon dissolved itself. In March 1990, Gorbachev called for converting the Warsaw Pact to a political organization, but instead the body officially disbanded in July 1991. Soviet troops were withdrawn from Central Europe over the next four years--from Czechoslovakia and Hungary by mid-1991 and from Poland in 1993. By midsummer 1990, Gorbachev and West German chancellor Helmut Kohl had worked out an agreement by which the Soviet Union acceded to a unified Germany within NATO.

Gorbachev and East Europe

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, pushing forward reforms and opening up to West. His influence spread to eastern Europe and a climate of detente lead to increasing demands for greater freedom. Under Gorbachev, relations between East and West Germany improved. Talks were held on reducing troop numbers and fostering cultural, scientific and educational cooperation. Gorbachev spoke of a "common European home" taking shape and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl talked about "the disintegration of ossified structures in Europe."

Soviet relations with Europe improved markedly during the Gorbachev period, mainly because of the INF Treaty and Soviet acquiescence to the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe during 1989-90. Since the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviet Union had adhered to the Brezhnev Doctrine upholding the existing order in socialist states. Throughout the first half of Gorbachev's rule, the Soviet Union continued this policy, but in July 1989, in a speech to the Council of Europe , Gorbachev insisted on "the sovereign right of each people to choose their own social system," a formulation that fell just short of repudiating the Brezhnev Doctrine. By then, however, the Soviet Union's control over its outer empire already was showing signs of disintegration. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Gorbachev's removed the threat repression, promoted the creation of some representative assemblies and inspired calls for independence throughout the Eastern Bloc. In 1989, Gorbachev did nothing as Poland elected it first non-Communist government, the first in East Europe, and Communism collapsed in East Europe. Despite pressure from his general, he refused to send troops into East Germany to prevent it from reuniting with West Germany.

East Germans Begin Fleeing Via Hungary and Austria

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union began in 1989 when the first link of in a rusty-barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria was snipped with a pair of wirecutters.In September 1989, the Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn allowed East German refugees to leave Hungary for Austria setting in motion the series of events that led to the fall of Communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Rod Pedersen wrote in Newsweek, "Suddenly that summer East German young people all went on vacation, and instead of the usual beaches in Romania or Bulgaria, they were heading to landlocked Hungary. Word was out that the Hungarians were easing the controls along their stretch of the Iron Curtain, and people could slip across freely to Austria and the West. Many of the refugees crossed between Hungary and Austria on a narrow wooded path. between the Hungarian village of Fertorakos and the Austrian town of St. Margarethen.[Source: Daniel Pedersen, Newsweek, November 22, 1989 <=>]

On August 19, 1989, several hundred East Germans used a symbolic picnic of Austrians and Hungarians to escape to freedom. Organized by the Austrian Pan-European party and opposition parties in Hungary, the event allowed the Germans on the border to mingle with the crowd and slip into Austria. Austrians citizens in the border region of Burgenland helped give food, shelter and assistance to the refugees.

In a speech later, Kohl said, "On August 19, 1989, the reunification of Europe began with the opening of this border...Every day East German citizens left everything behind, came here, pretended to be on holiday, always afraid they'd be caught...They ducked through these woods and suddenly they were free.”

Pedersen wrote: Afterwards "Erich Honecker's regime in East Germany pressured Hungary to toughen up, it did. The taste of freedom was too sweet, though, and many thousands of East Germans took refuge in West German embassies in Hungary and elsewhere rather than return home....The elegant old embassy in Budapest soon looked like a holiday camp, full of kids in cutoff jeans and T shirts, all their belongings in backpacks, and young couples with small children crammed in the backs of their little Trabant cars...The early September heat was stifling, but no one much minded. With the entire world press on hand, the refugees just laughed when East German authorities set up a battered van across the street offering amnesty to anyone who would return...Instead, at night people slipped off to scout for holes in the Iron Curtain, while more and more arrived each day to take their place." <=>

More East Europeans Flee Via Hungary and Austria

In October 1989, large numbers of East Germans began escaping into Czechoslovakia, then to Hungary and freedom in Austria and finally to West Germany. The easing of controls lasted only a couple of weeks. Pedersen wrote: "I hooked up with a dogged little German named Arnold Pfeiffer...That summer he had given up his machinist job to come to Hungary and help smuggle his countrymen across—a way of repaying what Germany had done for him, he said. Arnold the Passer, as they called him, guided his charges to the last stretch of no man's land and then gave them detailed instructions on how to sneak across to the Austrian town of Deutschkreuz. He took no money for his services, and ferried all their possessions across in his own car so they could travel light." [Source: Daniel Pedersen, Newsweek, November 22, 1989 <=>]

"We set off at dawn with a pair of 23-year-old electricians, Andreas and Holgar, following drainage ditches and crawling through cornfields. Then just 50 feet from a stretch of battered barbed wire, a pair of Hungarian soldiers on foot patrol stopped them at gunpoint. We knew they were under orders not to shoot but who could be sure?" <=>

“Andreas hesitated, then took his chance and bolted for the fence—leaping over it one smooth motion—and was free. Holger hesitated a bit longer, and was captured; he stared after his disappearing friend with a look of profound regret." Not long after that the Hungarian frontier was opened and Holgar and tens of thousands of East Germans fled, many of them popping Russian champagne as experienced their taste of freedom. <=>

In the months that followed around 38,000 refugees—Germans, Poles and others—made their way toe West Berlin alone. Of these, 10,000 didn’t have jobs and 23,00 didn’t have homes and the West German social-welfare was hard pressed to figure out what to do with them.

Collapse of the East German Government

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl telephoned U.S. President George Bush at 3:00am on October 23, saying: "The changes in East Germany are quite dramatic. None of us can give a prognosis. There is an enormous unrest among the population. Things will become incalculable if there are no reforms. My interest is not to see so many flee East Germany, because the consequences there world be catastrophic."

One East German guard described the situation then as much more tense than when the Berlin Wall came down. "We should have stopped them," he told National Geographic "that was our job. On the other hand we wanted them to go. And yet we had sworn to the flag, to the party. That was our struggle—between our allegiance and our hearts." [Source: Pritt Vesiland, National Geographic, April 1990]

The breach in Warsaw Pact discipline encouraged more people in East Germany to take to the streets in protest and huge crowds began gathering around Gethsemane Church in East Berlin. Celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the founding of East Germany held in October 1989 were the sites of mass demonstrations, particularly in Leipzig, where a half million people gathered. There, protesters marched around the city's Ring Road with candles to symbolize a more enlightened form of Communism and sang and carried banners that said, "We are the People." Large demonstrations were also held in Dresden. The Communists were dealt another blow when the Lutheran church drafted a proclamation for greater democracy.

Also in October 1989, around the same time all this was happening, the East German leader Erich Honecker was ousted in a palace coup. After he was ousted, his successor, the last Communist leader of East Germany, Egon Krenz, tried to hammer out a compromise that would keep the Communists in power, but his efforts were quickly drowned out by the protests and people who didn't trust him or the Communists. Krenz lasted only a few weeks. He eased out Honecker and tried to defuse the protests by easing restrictions on travel outside East Germany. Under pressure form the events, the Communist leadership in East Germany resigned en bloc as the protests paralyzing their ability and will to act.

East Germans Head to Berlin Wall as Travel Restrictions Are Dropped

Ar around 6:00pm in the evening of November 9th, 1989, East German Politburo member and Communist party spokesman, Günter Schabowski announced "reforms" that included eased travel restrictions. This meant that East Germans would have the right to get a passport and travel to among other places West Germany.

Michael Meyer wrote in Newsweek: "For a nation locked so long behind the Iron Curtain, this was tremendous news. There was a sudden hush, followed by a ripple of whispers. Then from the back of the room, as the camera rolled, broadcasting live to the nation, a reporter shouted a fateful question: 'When does it take effect?' Schabowski looked confused. He perched his glasses on the end of his nose, shuffled through his papers—and shrugged. " Sofort," he guessed. Right now. Immediately."

The rules were supposed take effect the next day, November 10th. Schabowski had no idea what his announcement would trigger. Tens of thousands of ordinary East Germans began to head towards the Berlin Wall. Karen Breslau wrote in Newsweek, "East Germans would be permitted to apply for round-trip visas to the West by going to their neighborhood police stations. But instead of proceeding obediently to their police precinct houses for applications, East Berliners simply began walking out of their apartments and towards the wall."

Partiers Versus Nervous Guards at the Berlin Wall

On Thursday evening, November 9, 1989, authorities were overwhelmed by the numbers of people. The guards at the Berlin Wall were given no orders of what to do so they took matters into their own hands and opened the gates and were unable to do anything but watch them walk by. West German partiers sat on top of the wall outside Brandenburg Gate, drinking champagne and lighting candles. They faced a semicircle of East German troops, spaced about a meter apart inside the wall around the gate. East German authorities brought in water canons to disperse them. [Source: "Berlin's Ode to Joy" by Pritt Vesiland, April 1990]

Describing the scene at Checkpoint Charlie, the famous border crossing in the heart of cold-war Berlin, Michael Meyer wrote in Newsweek: A heaving crowd of East German faces a thin lone of politzei, nervously fingering their weapons. The stand off has entered the forth hour. "Open up! Open up!," the people cry out. Past the police and their guards, past the watchtower and curling barbed wire of the infamous death strip, on the other side of the Berlin wall come the answering call from an equally boisterous mob of West Germans: "Come over! Come over!"

"Blazing televison lights suddenly flip on from the West, silhouetting the wall and the guards, intensifying the eerie scene. Inside his lighted, glass-walled command post, the captain of the East German border guard, a beefy guy with a square face and dark bristly hair, stands dialing and redialing his phone. For hours I've vainly watched him seeking instructions. Clearly he is confused. Perhaps he is also frightened; the crowds have grown so fast."

“Now they have pushed so close to the barriers that their breath, frosting in the night air, threatens to mingle with that of his guards. Once again he puts down the phone. He stands rock still...Then at precisely 11:17pm he walks out of his command post, surveys the teeming throngs—and shrugs, " Alles auf," he orders—open the gates. With a joyous roar the crowds surge forward across the frontier that for five decades divided East from West. Within a blink of the eye, it seems Germans are again Germans, Berliners, no longer "East" or "West."

Party at the Berlin Wall

Meyers wrote, "East German guards were grinning and slapping hands with the people streaming past them. Others shaking their heads in disbelief, were abruptly consigned to the sidelines of history. A young woman with blonde hair, a coat wrapped around her baby-blue nightgown, was among the first to race across the border. 'I'll be back in 10 minutes,' she shouted to friend."

“People thrust champagne bottles into my hands...'We're so happy!' 'It's crazy!' 'It's the eighth wonder of the world!' People shouted and hugged. They took turns boosting one another up the wall in front of the nearby Brandenburg Gate, lit up by spotlights...Atop the wall, people became The People, heroes in a drama of their own making. ' Die Mauer ist weg, they cried out, punching the air with their fists. 'The wall is gone!'"

Breslau wrote: "People began streaming across the once deadly checkpoints. Many stopped to shake hands with the guards. West Berliners were waiting on the other side with roses, champagne, beer and cheers...By midnight, the party was in full swing. Hundreds of thousands of people were running through the streets; a huge crowd had gathered at the west side of the wall."

Euphoria of Crossing the Berlin Wall

Dieter Baumbach, a 40-year-old East German school principal at the time the wall came down, wrote in Newsweek, "On Nov. 9, I watched the 7 o'clock news and heard [Politburo member Günter] Schabowski read an announcement about new travel regulations. I thought I must have misheard something, because he seemed to have said that we would now have to show our personal-identification card to leave East Germany."

"Ever since I was 12, when the wall went up, the West had been a closed world. During the next few hours I kept switching between the East and West German channels, and it became more and more clear that the border was open. My wife came home at 10. She hadn't heard, and was astounded. It was then that we decided to try to visit my wife’s sister in West Berlin, whom she had been allowed to visit only once before."

"Leaving our son asleep in the apartment, we drove towards the Bornholmer Bridge that crosses into West Berlin . When we reached the area, just before midnight, we saw a huge crowd. We had to walk the last hundred ,meters to the bridge. In the middle of the bridge, a white line marked the boundary. A West Berlin policeman stood near it, but carefully remained on the Western side. People were laughing and joking, urging him on. "Step over the line," they said. "You'll be in the East." He kept hesitating. A group of young men pushed him over the line and everyone laughed.

"When we crossed, we found a taxi and drove to where my wife's sister lived, It was about 1:30 in the morning, and at first she didn't want to open the door since she had been asleep and hadn’t the faintest idea it could be us. Excited, we talked for two hours before we took a taxi back to the crossing point so we could get back to our son. By 5am, we were home. I felt it would be very different now. The world as I had known it was over."

Berlin Wall Comes Down

On Friday, November 10th, West Germans began taking turns with sledge hammers and chisels in an attempt to create breaches in the steel-reinforced, super-hard concrete Berlin Wall. As East German guards looked on, West Germans shouted "Freheit!" (Freedom!) and "Einheit!" (Unity!) as they heaved their sledgehammers. The wall was so strong only small pieces of concrete flew off.

Breslau wrote: "It was amazing how quickly the desecration of the wall proceeded. First people approached it, next they climbed on it, then they began dancing on top. Before long the whole place was bathed in television lights, giving a dramatic glow to the geysers of champagne...Then I hear the first taps. Someone was trying to hack loose a chunk of the wall. Soon there were hundreds of 'wallepeckers' at work, banging and scraping at the graffitti-smeared concrete with everything from hammers to pocketknives. The effect created an urban percussion concert."

Vesiland wrote: On Friday morning, East Germans fired water canons at the sledge-hammer-wielding protesters, but by the afternoon they were gone, and the first "stunned looking" East Germans began arriving in West Berlin as West Germans, some of them dressed in folk costumes, welcomed them with flowers. People sang "Glory, glory hallelujah! The Wall is Kaput" and punk rockers joined hand with television crews and businessmen for "the biggest block party and sweetest family reunion in German history."

Chancellor Kohl telephoned U.S. President Bush at 3:30 on November 10, "I've just arrived from Berlin. It's like witnessing an enormous fair. It has the atmosphere of a festival. The frontiers are absolutely open. At certain points they are literally taking down the wall and building new checkpoints. At Checkpoint Charlie, thousands of people are crossing both ways...This is a dramatic thing; an historic hour."

On Sunday, November 12th, East German troops, pressured by the East German people, brought in bulldozers in the early morning to knock a dozen openings between East and West Berlin. At daybreak floods of East and West Germans poured through the wall and border guards escorted old ladies to visit relatives they hadn't seen in decades. Later that day there was an announcement on East German television that after 28 years of "virtual imprisonment," they were free to go. [Source: Pritt Vesiland, National Geographic, April 1990]

Impact of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

News that wall had been breached reached Chancellor Kohl while he was on a visit to Warsaw. He suspended his engagement for a day and hurried to Berlin where he addressed a crowd of 20,000 from the balcony of Schöneberg town-hall. He asked people to remain calm and thanked Gorbachev for not cracking down. The German government ordered nearly all the Berlin Wall to be quickly torn down and almost all the watchtowers destroyed. All along the 860-mile German-German border the gates, fences and walls were opened.

The world was caught unprepared by the suddenness of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In December 1989, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan warned against any use of force to address the German issue but Gorbachev said that Moscow would not leave East Germany "in the lurch." The Soviets were particularly worried that events unfolding as they were in East Europe would led to East Germany's departure from the Warsaw pact and that would upset the balance of power in Europe.

The Scorpions heavy metal anthem l Winds of Change is about the Berlin Wall coming. Not everyone was elated by the event. On receiving a piece of the wall, one German woman told Otto Freidrich of Smithsonian magazine, "I shall honor it as a souvenir but none of us here hopes for a united Germany. It has done too much harm in the past."

Events in East Europe After the Berlin Wall Came Down

Chancellor Kohl telephoned U.S. President George Bush at 8:00am on November 17, saying: "I had a long conversation with Gorbachev. Of course the Soviets are concerned. I told Gorbachev that if Krenz [the East German leader] does not carry out reforms as in Poland and Hungary, the system will fail.”

Within weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, Czechs took to the streets by the tens of thousands and won their demand for elections, which were held in early 1990. Not long afterwards, Bulgaria’s party chief Todor Zhivkov was ousted. Not long after that Romanian premier Nicolae Ceauşescu was executed after hundreds—maybe thousands—of protesters were killed by secret police and coal miners hired as thugs by the government. By that time Poland and Hungary were already well on their way towards reforms.

On December 16, in Leipzig, East Germany, 160,000 demonstrators descended on local Stasi headquarters A new East German government headed by Hans Modrow demanded rapid reforms but insisted that East Germany remain a separate state. At the same time Kohl proposed a ten-point plan for achieving national unity through the establishment of "contractual arrangement" based on a confederate system and said East Germans should decide for themselves the speed and nature of unification with West Germany. In March 1990, free elections were held in East Germany. In August 1990, after the East German Parliament voted in favor of reunification; and the East and West Germany became completely unified as the Federal Republic of Germany on October 3, 1990.

The signing of the Treaty on the Final Settlement (the Two-Plus-Four Treaty) in Moscow on September 12, 1990—which marked the formal reunification of Germany—is viewed as the end of the Cold War. After Communism collapsed in East Europe, mass demonstrations were held in Russia and millions of people took to the streets to protest abuses by the Communist party and the KGB.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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