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How Empires Fall

On the Berlin Wall, the “August Coup,” and the decline of Great Powers

Governments crumble and empires fall in all kinds of ways. A relentless army of insurgents can overwhelm a national military, as we saw in Afghanistan this week. A shocking act of protest can set off a chain reaction, as when a Tunisian street vendor lit himself on fire in December of 2010, leading to the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011 across the Middle East. Massive popular demonstrations can force the end of repressive control, as we saw when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and when the Soviet Union finally dissolved two years later.

These are exceptions to the rule; for long historical stretches, the continuity of power can seem impossible to break. The demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square were crushed in June of 1989. Widespread protests in Hong Kong failed in recent years to moderate China’s attempts to tighten control of the former British colony. The Chinese Communist Party has expressed a deep fear of ethnic separatism, and leaders have doubled down on measures to prevent Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong from demanding increased autonomy or independence, even in the face of widespread criticism from the West.

The United States sometimes seems as resistant to structural change as China. From the first days of the Trump administration, this nation witnessed some of its largest street protests ever—the Women’s Marches on January 21, 2017, attracted more than four million people spread through at least six hundred cities. Only a year ago in May and June, weeks of sustained protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, were estimated to have drawn between fifteen and twenty-six million Americans to rallies and marches. None of it seemed to have made an immediate difference in cracking the minority-rule grip of elected Republicans in state and federal office or weakening Trump’s retrogressive agenda during his four-year term. Nor were the hundreds of deluded insurrectionists who descended on Washington on January 6 able to prevent Joe Biden from being certified as the new president.

Yet, in recent years, progressives and conservatives alike came to believe a coup of some sort could happen in the United States. Some of the most unhinged elements on the far right apparently still think one is imminent: this is the month Trump was to be reinstated in the White House, after “evidence” would emerge to prove he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. Normally, though, strong military support is necessary for a successful coup d’état. And even then, things can fall apart. It was thirty years ago today that the “August coup” in Moscow was stopped in its tracks by angry protests in the streets. The people of Moscow rejected the coup attempt—engineered by disgruntled Communist Party members in league with the Soviet Armed Forces and the KGB. The hardliners wanted to end the liberalizing reforms of the USSR’s president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the streets of the capital, and the coup failed after pro-democracy demonstrators physically blocked troops from seizing control of the Soviet White House, the parliament building of the USSR. The coup attempt was the last gasp of the old order. By the end of the year, communism had collapsed in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a political entity.

Every generation sees windows open and close. There is no historical pattern that tells us whether widespread protest will carry the day, or when military force will prevail, or whether governments that seem unshakable will fall. It may seem a safe assumption that the United States is not nearly as unstable as the Soviet Union was in 1991. Yet during these years of deep anger at a system that is failing to take the basic needs of the people into account, we’ve seen how weak our democratic norms and institutions really are. Even if a military coup here is unimaginable, the hijacking of the next presidential election is not. Could it be stopped by massive demonstrations in the streets? The history of those tumultuous years in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s speak directly to us now, offering both high hopes and dire warnings. Because I spent time in 2014 studying history in Berlin, that moment in 1989 when history took a sudden U-turn kept coming back to me during the Trump years. Those events remind us that decisive political moments are rarely expected, and even more rarely planned. Governments change all the time. But every once in a while, empires fall.

In 1984, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), commonly known as East Germany, was the most prosperous nation in the communist world. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had effectively prevented the “brain drain” that threatened the collapse of the East German economy. The national secret police force maintained an extensive security regime to keep a close eye on “counterrevolutionary” agitators. The political leadership of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, or SED) felt secure in its control over the state and population. Yet just five years later, a wave of unrest rocked the entire Eastern Bloc. The Berlin Wall was brought down on a single night in 1989. By 1990, elections had swept the SED out of power. Later that year, East Germany ceased to exist altogether, absorbed into a newly unified Federal Republic of Germany.

Before the late 1980s, few thought that the Iron Curtain could fall so swiftly, or that so many of the communist parties in Eastern Europe would abdicate without the need for violence. But the protests of 1989 overwhelmed the old system and overcame habits of fatalism and compliance. In cities across East Germany, police officers were hesitant to engage protesters because the scale of the demonstrations made them impossible to control with violence. Stasi agents, among the most feared men in Europe at the height of their power, trembled after the fall of the Wall as protesters stormed their offices and made millions of pages of classified documents publicly available. The Peaceful Revolution in Germany turned traditional power structures on their head.

In January of 1989, Erich Honecker famously declared that the Berlin Wall would still be standing “in fifty and even in one hundred years.”

There were any number of consequential events that prepared the ground for this transformation. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power as the general secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985; the following year, he instituted a new openness to freedom of expression (glasnost) and economic reform (perestroika). By 1988, East Germany was struggling to service its debts to Western countries, exports were dropping, and standards of living had stagnated. Protest movements were already beginning to force reform in neighboring socialist nations. Even as unrest escalated, Gorbachev declined to deploy Soviet troops to prop up regimes across the Eastern Bloc.

Still, the GDR was one of the most hardline communist states in the Eastern Bloc. Longtime party leader Erich Honecker maintained that adherence to Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy was the only way to defend socialism. He believed that any move in the direction of political pluralism or market reform could lead to the destruction of the East German state. He also greatly resented Gorbachev for his aggressive reform program in the USSR and his refusal to intervene on behalf of socialist governments in Eastern Europe. The SED dominated the political landscape of East Germany, and party leadership made most decisions internally on behalf of the state. These policies often stood at odds with public opinion.

Since its foundation in 1950, the Stasi (shortened from Ministerium für Staatssicherheit) had built a legendarily effective surveillance network to defend communist rule. Agents maintained detailed records on millions of East German citizens. Nearly two hundred thousand people worked as informants for the Stasi by the end of the 1980s. Protesters and dissidents were systematically surveilled, harassed, discredited, arrested, and jailed in the name of public order. Alongside the Volkspolizei (People’s Police), the Nationale Volksarmee (National People’s Army), and the party bureaucracy, the Stasi played a key role in maintaining strict control over most aspects of political, social, and economic life in the GDR.

In January of 1989, Honecker famously declared that the Wall would still be standing “in fifty and even in one hundred years.” But by then fundamental changes to the old power dynamic were already stirring in the Eastern Bloc. Mass movements for reform in Poland and Hungary energized dissent in the GDR, bringing thousands to the streets in the autumn of 1989. Protesters were incensed by their government’s sweeping restrictions on travel to the West, their relatively low living standards as compared to their much more prosperous western neighbors, and limitations on freedom of speech, press, and assembly.

Demonstrations in Dresden, Leipzig, East Berlin, and elsewhere were initially met with a violent crackdown by police. Many feared that the East German government would send in the army to force an end to the demonstrations, as the Chinese government did at Tiananmen Square. But as the number of protesters grew into the hundreds of thousands, spreading across East Germany in September and October, the Stasi found itself unable to quiet the streets. Severely outnumbered, secret police agents and other security forces were unequipped to deal with such large demonstrations. Communist officials were not confident that the military (largely made up of conscripts) was loyal enough to send into the fray. They also wanted to avoid martyring demonstrators and provoking a full-scale popular uprising like the one in communist Hungary in 1956. Russian troops that would normally be deployed in situations like these were confined to their bases by Gorbachev, who promised self-determination for Eastern Europe.

Outside of the GDR, Hungary opened its borders to the West in the summer of 1989. Thousands of East Germans used travel to Hungary as a way to circumvent the Wall and flee the Eastern Bloc. SED officials feared that their grip on power was weakening. The parades and speeches organized on October 7 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the GDR’s founding were marred by protests and public unrest. As the western media watched on, the East German police struggled to maintain control.

Erich Honecker was ousted in an internal political coup on October 17, 1989. He was replaced by the more moderate Egon Krenz, who believed that some concessions would be necessary to save East Germany. Krenz promised “dialogue” with protesters, committed to relaxing travel restrictions, and pledged to draft a program of political and economic reform modeled on Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. In doing so, he hoped to strengthen the position of socialism in the GDR and regain the support of the protesters. Krenz solidified the already cautious policies of the Honecker government with regards to state intervention in protests, and demonstrations remained overwhelmingly peaceful as security forces were ordered to disengage.

The East German system was on the ropes, but it wasn’t until a single misstep by a party bureaucrat that the Wall came down. In early November, communist officials drafted a relaxing of the emigration law that had prevented East Germans from traveling West. In a fateful press conference on November 9, that policy was read aloud to the foreign press and was broadcasted on television. The presenter (an official named Günter Schabowski) had not reviewed his notes before the conference; he mistakenly announced that changes to the emigration policy would take effect immediately rather than the following day. As tens of thousands of East Berliners showed up unexpectedly at the Berlin Wall in the middle of the night, the guards had no choice but to open the checkpoints. Before long, the exuberant Germans began to dismantle the Wall. The Iron Curtain had fallen.

Many East German protesters did not want to see an end to socialism, only to oppressive single-party rule. After the fall of the Wall, no one knew exactly how the transition to a new government would look. Many East Germans remember those days as a unique time of political opportunity and democracy. And yet, upending a regime is a different challenge than building a new government—the latter isn’t done through protest but through negotiation.

It wasn’t long before the West German government and their conservative, anti-communist East German counterparts took control of events. They began a massive diplomatic, political, and public relations effort to ensure that the GDR would be reintegrated into the West as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Cries in the streets of “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”) turned to “Wir sind ein Volk!” (“We are one people!”), and the Christian Democrat-led coalition elected in East Germany in March of 1990 favored immediate reunification on West German terms. This process was completed on October 3, 1990. The German Democratic Republic was dissolved less than one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Thirty years ago, the “August coup” in Moscow was stopped in its tracks by angry protests in the streets.

West German political and business leaders saw the reintegration of East Germany as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The process simultaneously opened up a new domestic market for West German goods and granted access to a massive, inexpensive labor force. Nearly all East German factories were shut down or absorbed by West German companies. Newspapers, magazines, television stations, book publishers, and other state-owned media outlets were similarly supplanted or destroyed. Generous food and rent subsidies ended, unemployment soared, and the comprehensive East German health care system was replaced with a West German model that prioritized those with expensive private insurance. Germany’s multi-billion-euro investment program in the newly integrated federal states focused overwhelmingly on improving productive infrastructure and largely neglected the needs of East German workers.

By the time the Berlin Wall came down, the East German economic and political system was essentially non-functional. The GDR had constitutionally defined itself as a “nation of workers and peasants,” but the SED failed at the basic task of representing the interests of those it supposedly drew legitimacy from. Attempts at reform from above had come too late to prevent the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, and this led to widespread suffering as formerly communist nations integrated themselves into a neoliberal economic framework.

Meanwhile, the ossified Communist Party in the Soviet Union was faring no better. Not only was the USSR losing control of its satellites like East Germany, Poland, and Hungary; attempts to control events in Afghanistan were collapsing. The USSR had invaded in December of 1979 to prop up a Soviet-friendly government under attack from all sides, especially from Muslim mujahideen fighters. Backed by covert U.S. aid, the mujahideen drew the Soviets into a long, doomed war. In February of 1989, the USSR withdrew its armies in defeat.

By 1991, life in the Soviet Union itself was in a state of upheaval. The market reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, intended to save the Soviet economy from ruin, had devolved into chaos. The lifting of media censorship resulted in widespread criticism of the ruling Communist Party, and protests against state leaders became common in all fifteen republics. Riots against Soviet rule broke out in the Caucasus and elsewhere, and the Lithuanian and Latvian SSRs became the first to declare their independence in the spring of 1990.

Gorbachev spent the last year of his tenure as general secretary fighting to keep the Soviet Union together. In the summer of 1991, he successfully negotiated a treaty with most of the remaining Soviet republics that would reform the USSR as a decentralized federation with significant autonomy for constituent republics. It would also protect the constitutional role of both the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the local party branches in each of the republics. For a brief moment, it looked like the Soviet Union could be saved.

Then came the August coup. Hardliners in the Communist Party mistrusted the proposed New Union Treaty, which they believed would destroy communism in the USSR. On August 19, 1991, the day before the treaty was to be signed, the coup plotters deployed loyal soldiers to Moscow to occupy the city. They put out warrants for the arrest of key pro-government leaders and declared that Gorbachev (who was placed under house arrest in his vacation home in Crimea) was unfit to serve due to illness. They vowed to reverse the reforms of Gorbachev and return to Marxist-Leninist rule under an ad hoc committee consisting of the plotters.

As protesters swarmed the streets of the capital, the plot fell apart. The New Union treaty was never signed. Days after the coup, Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the CPSU. Liberal nationalist Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, became the leading figure in Soviet politics. He oversaw the formal dissolution of the USSR, the massive privatization campaign that thrust millions of Russians into poverty, and the construction of the national conservative political program that dominates in Russia to this day.

Looking back with the benefit of thirty years of hindsight, we can see that democratic hopes were not allowed to flourish in Russia—nor was the military power of the Soviet Union strong enough to maintain control even over the comparatively tiny nation of Afghanistan. (The power of the United States was also not up to that task, as we would come to learn later.) Perhaps there are no “lessons” here for those who wonder about the future of democracy in America. What we learn from history is that democracy is easily derailed, but that every once in a while, authoritarianism bends under the weight of organized popular uprisings.

The left’s potential strength comes in its ability to organize the masses to force a realignment of the present political system. Political and social movements of the type that create opportunities for the left—that is, for those who wish for a true multiracial democracy—do not come on a fixed schedule. A system that seems absolutely solid and predestined to proceed in one direction can falter and open the door for radical change. It is beyond the power of the leaders of a movement to create these moments, but their job is to marshal an activated public to take full advantage of them when they arrive.