Scholar Interviews

What moment stands out for you in the events of 1989?


There are several moments that stand out for me in 1989. I was not in Eastern Europe at the time, so I didn’t personally experience any of the great events. But I think the great moment for me was the opening of the borders of Hungary, looking back on it at least, because you might say also the election in Poland on June 4. Something that I would be interested in seeing would be how, for example, the election in Poland was played off in the American newspapers in comparison to Tiananmen Square, which happened at the same time. How much space was given to Tiananmen Square, how much space was given to the Polish election.

But for me it’s a Hungarian evolution that led to the opening of their borders, is a very significant aspect of the revolutions of 1989, because one of my basic points about 1989 in Eastern Europe, is the fact that the Eastern Europeans actually are the ones who made a good deal of the revolution. There are a lot of explanations given why 1989 occurred. Gorbachev facilitated it, Ronald Reagan facilitated it, economic change or, I mean, economic—insufficiency of the East European economies. But, my view is that one of the most important elements, which is not emphasized very much, is the actual operation of East European events, especially in Poland, with Solidarity. Solidarity started before Reagan and Gorbachev, or what have you, and there had been similar events in Poland before that, but Solidarity was not part of the larger international arena, when it started in 1980.

And in Hungary, the communist government had been making reform, starting early in ‘80s, joining the IMF, the World Bank, changing their banking system, a lot of technical reforms. Then reformers in the party came to power by the end of the ‘80s, and it’s they who opened—made the first big crack in the Iron Curtain by permitting people to cross over into Austria, Germans, East Germans then, whereupon they went to West Germany.

So, I think that’s a pretty big moment, the opening of the borders there. It’s the real—we talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall, of course, naturally, a very important event, as if it were the walls come tumbling down, the collapse of communism as symbolized by that wall, but it’s actually the Hungarians who really were the first ones to open it up. And that supports, in my mind, my argument that, whereas other issues are important, it’s the East Europeans who made these changes in this revolution.

How to Cite

Gale Stokes, interview, "What moment stands out for you in the events of 1989?" Making the History of 1989, Item #706, (accessed May 28 2021, 3:22 pm).