The Downfall of Communism

East Berliners on top of the Berlin Wall, 1989
East Berliners climb onto the Berlin Wall to celebrate the effective end of the city's partition, 31st December 1989. (Photo by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Communism gained a strong foothold in the world during the first half of the 20th century, with one-third of the world's population living under some form of communism by the 1970s. However, just a decade later, many of the major communist governments around the world toppled. What brought about this collapse?

The First Cracks in the Wall

By the time Joseph Stalin died in March of 1953, the Soviet Union had emerged as a major industrial power.

Despite the reign of terror that defined Stalin’s regime, his death was mourned by thousands of Russians and brought about a general sense of uncertainty about the future of the Communist state. Soon following Stalin’s death, a power struggle ensued for leadership of the Soviet Union.

Nikita Khrushchev eventually emerged the victor but the instability that had preceded his ascent to the premiership had emboldened some anti-Communists within the eastern European satellite states. Uprisings in both Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia were quickly quelled but one of the most significant uprisings occurred in East Germany.

In June of 1953, workers in East Berlin staged a strike over conditions in the country that soon spread to the rest of the nation. The strike was quickly crushed by East German and Soviet military forces and sent a strong message that any dissent against Communist rule would be dealt with harshly.

Nevertheless, unrest continued to spread throughout Eastern Europe and hit a crescendo in 1956, when both Hungary and Poland saw massive demonstrations against Communist rule and Soviet influence. Soviet forces invaded Hungary in November of 1956 to crush what was now being called the Hungarian Revolution.

Scores of Hungarians died as a result of the invasion, sending waves of concern throughout the western world.

For the time being, the military actions seemed to have put a damper on anti-Communist activity. Just a few decades later, it would start again.

The Solidarity Movement

The 1980s would see the emergence of another phenomenon that would ultimately chip away at the Soviet Union’s power and influence. The Solidarity movement—championed by the Polish activist Lech Walesa—emerged as a reaction to policies introduced by the Polish Communist Party in 1980.

In April 1980, Poland decided to curb food subsidies, which had been a life-line for many Poles suffering through economic difficulties. Polish shipyard workers in the city of Gdansk decided to organize a strike when petitions for wage-increases were denied. The strike quickly spread across the country, with factory workers all over Poland voting to stand in solidarity with the workers in Gdansk.

Strikes continued for the next 15 months, with negotiations ongoing between the leaders of Solidarity and the Polish Communist regime. Finally, in October of 1982, the Polish government decided to order full martial law, which saw an end to the Solidarity movement.

Despite its ultimate failure, the movement saw a foreshadowing of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe.  

Gorbachev

In March of 1985, the Soviet Union gained a new leader -- Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was young, forward-thinking, and reform-minded. He knew the Soviet Union faced many internal problems, not the least of which was an economic downturn and a general sense of discontentment with Communism. He wanted to introduce a broad policy of economic restructuring, which he called perestroika.

However, Gorbachev knew that the regime’s powerful bureaucrats had often stood in the way of economic reform in the past. He needed to get the people on his side to put pressure on the bureaucrats and thus introduced two new policies: glasnost (meaning ‘openness’) and demokratizatsiya (democratization).

They were intended to encourage ordinary Russian citizens to openly voice their concern and unhappiness with the regime.

Gorbachev hoped the policies would encourage people to speak out against the central government and thus put pressure on the bureaucrats to approve his intended economic reforms. The policies had their intended effect but soon got out of control.

When Russians realized that Gorbachev would not crack down on their newly won freedom of expression, their complaints went far beyond mere discontentment with the regime and the bureaucracy. The whole concept of communism—its history, ideology, and effectiveness as a system of government—came up for debate. These democratization policies made Gorbachev extremely popular both in Russia and abroad.

Falling Like Dominoes

When people all across Communist Eastern Europe got wind that the Russians would do little to quell dissent, they began to challenge their own regimes and work to develop pluralist systems in their countries. One by one, like dominoes, Eastern Europe’s Communist regimes began to topple.

The wave started with Hungary and Poland in 1989 and soon spread to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. East Germany, too, was rocked by nation-wide demonstrations that eventually led the regime there to allow its citizens to travel once more to the West. Scores of people crossed the border and both East and West Berliners (who had not had contact in almost 30 years) gathered around the Berlin Wall, dismembering it bit by bit with pickaxes and other tools.

The East German government was unable to hold onto power and the reunification of Germany occurred soon after, in 1990. On year later, in December of 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated and ceased to exist. It was the final death knell of the Cold War and marked an end of Communism in Europe, where it had first been established 74 years prior.

Although Communism has nearly died out, there are still five countries that remain Communist: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam.