The Downfall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe

The shocking fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe in the late eighties was remarkable for both its rapidity and its scope. The specifics of communism’s demise varied among nations, but similarities in both the causes and the effects of these revolutions were quite similar.

As well, all of the nations involved shared the common goals of implementing democratic systems of government and moving to market economies. In each of these nations, the communist regimes in power were forced to transfer that power to radically different institutions than they were accustomed to. Democracy had been spreading throughout the world for the preceding two decades, but with a very important difference. While previous political transitions had seen similar circumstances, the actual events in question had generally occurred individually.

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In Europe, on the other hand, the shift from communism was taking place in a different context altogether. The peoples involved were not looking to affect a narrow set of policy reforms; indeed, what was at stake was a hyper-radical shift from the long-held communist ideology to a western blueprint for governmental and economic policy development.

The problem inherent in this type of monumental change is that, according to Ulrich K. Preuss, “In almost all the East and Central European countries, the collapse of authoritarian communist rule has released national, ethnic, religious and cultural conflicts which can not be solved by purely economic policies” (47). While tremendous changes are evident in both the governmental and economic arenas in Europe, these changes cannot be assumed to always be “mutually reinforcing” (Preuss 47).

Generally it has been theorized that the most successful manner of addressing these many difficulties is the drafting of a constitution. But what is clear is the unsatisfactory ability of a constitution to remedy the problems of nationalism and ethnic differences. Preuss notes that when the constitutional state gained favor in North America, it was founded on the principle of the unitary state; it was not designed to address the lack of national identity which is found throughout Europe – and which is counter to the concept of the constitutional state (48). “Measured in terms of socioeconomic modernization,” writes Helga A. Welsh, “Central and Eastern European countries had reached a level that was considered conducive to the emergence of pluralistic policies” (19).

It seemed that the sole reason the downfall of communism, as it were, took so long was the veto power of the Soviet Union. According to theories of modernization, the higher the levels of socioeconomic achievement, the greater the pressure for open competition and, ultimately, democracy. As such, the nations in Eastern and Central Europe were seen as “anomalies in socioeconomically highly-developed countries where particularly intellectual power resources have become widespread” (Welsh 19).

Due to their longtime adherence to communist policies, these nations faced great difficulty in making the transition to a pluralist system as well as a market economy. According to Preuss, these problems were threefold: The genuine economic devastations wrought by the communist regimes, the transformation of the social and economic classes of the command economy into the social and economic lasses of a capitalist economy and, finally, the creation of a constitutional structure for political entities that lack the undisputed integrity of a nation With such problems as these to contend with in re- engineering their entire economic and political systems, the people of East Germany seemed to be in a particularly enviable position.

Economically, they were poised to unite with one of the richest countries, having one of the strongest economies, in the entire world. In the competition for foreign investment, such an alliance gave the late German Democratic Republic a seemingly insurmountable lead over other nations. In regards to the political aspects of unification, it effectively left a Germany with no national or ethnic minorities, as well as having undisputed boundaries. As well, there was no need to create a constitution (although many of the pitfalls of constitution- building would have been easily-avoided due to the advantages Germany had), because the leaders of the GDR had joined the Federal Republic by accession and, accordingly, allowed its Basic Law to be extended over their territory.

For all the good that seemed to be imminent as a result of unification, many problems also arose regarding the political transformation that Germany was undergoing. Among these problems were the following: the tensions between the Basic Law’s simultaneous commitments to supranational integration and to the German nation state, the relationship between the nation and the constitution as two different modes of political integration and the issue of so- called “backward justice” (Preuss 48).

The Federal Republic of Germany’s Basic Law has been the longest-lived constitution in Germany’s history. Intended to be a short-lived, temporary document, the Basic Law gained legitimacy as West Germany continued to march towards becoming a major economic power and effective democratic society. There seemed to be, at first, a tension between the Basic Law’s explicit support of re- unification and its promise to transfer sovereignty to a supranational institution that would be created.

The conflict between West Germany’s goals of national unity and international integration remained the main issue in the country’s politics for many years. As Preuss notes, “It will be extremely difficult to escape the economic and, in the long run also political, implications of this double-bind situation of Germany, one that remains a legacy of the postwar order” (51).

Since the unification of Germany was accomplished through accession, it meant, strangely enough, that neither West nor East Germany had a say in the other’s decision on whether to form a unified state or what conditions such a unification would be contingent upon, respectively. Put simply, the net effect of the extension of the Basic Law to all of Germany did not guarantee the implementation of a new joint governing policy or a new constitution for the country. It seemed, as a result of some esoteric articles of the Basic Law, that the GDR would cease to exist legally and the FRG would survive. It was impossible to draw the conclusion that both would die out and be replaced by a new political identity. Many of the Federal Republic’s laws immediately applied in the GDR (Gloebner 153).

Article 146 of the Basic Law, put simply, allowed for the annulment of the Basic Law, to be replaced with another governing system, without previously binding the people to any specific rules. Seemingly, it sanctions revolution, and, “as proved to be the case in 1990, this is not a purely theoretical conclusion” (Preuss 52).

Some suggest that, by unifying through accession, Germany has made problems which could end up overshadowing the benefits of unification. The suggestion is that the implementation of a constitution by a society without experience in utilizing it, without the necessary institutions and without the corresponding value system will bring about more harm than good (politically). The imposition of the Basic Law was the root for much of the mistrust between East and West Germans following unification. In regards to the East Germans, the Law was effectively self- imposed, and “neither submission nor voluntary self-submission is likely to engender the social and political coherence which is a necessary condition for a stable democracy” (Preuss 54).

In regards to the economic aspects of unification, some major problems exist in the transition to democracy and market economics. According to Preuss, the two main issues included in the realm of “backward justice” are the privatization of large pieces of state property, and the punishment of the elites of the previous regimes and their comrades under the headings of “self- purification” and “collective amnesia.” The privatization issue is among the thorniest involved in any country’s transition from communism. For one, a system of procedures must be developed simply to transfer such large amounts of property to private citizens.

Also, there must be mechanisms put in place to both protect new owners from claims of previous owners and to satisfy former owners without alienating possible future investors. The problem boils down to the fact that private property laws do not always coincide with the “fair” concept of restitution. As Petra Bauer-Kaase writes, “East Germans still have difficulties in adjusting to a political system where individuals have a great deal of responsibility for their own life” (307).

The former East Germans look upon this issue with contempt, because it is the Westerners who have control over the rules, as well as the enforcement of those rules. This is merely one of a multitude of instances where this mistrust manifests itself. There are also the issues of self-purification and collective amnesia. Due to the pervasive nature of the communist regime’s surveillance programs and so forth, there is very little room for anyone to claim pure hands. While West Germans can claim that they are innocent by virtue of geography, East Germans are never able to escape the suspicions that they may have been part of the machine.

Government jobs are denied to those who were affiliated with the Stasi, and private businesses also may deny employment to these citizens. While unification has occurred theoretically, in reality the Germany today is one of de facto separate-but-equal citizenship. There is no denying that there have been many problems associated with the unification of East and West Germany. The transition from communist state to liberal democracy is a very difficult one, and there is no real way to predict how the German experience will turn out.

As Preuss writes, “The transition from an authoritarian political regime and its concomitant command economy to a liberal democracy and a capitalist economy is as unprecedented as the short-term integration of two extremely different societies – one liberal-capitalist, one authoritarian-socialist – into one nation state” (57). In other words, the unification of Germany is one of the most complicated and unprecedented historical events since.

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The Downfall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe. (2018, Aug 11). Retrieved from