Country Profiles

East Germany

February 1945 – The United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union agree at the Yalta Conference to divide Germany up into occupation zones following the war.

May 8, 1945 – The Nazis surrender unconditionally to the Allies.

Following the defeat of the Nazis, East Germany was divided into four zones of influence: American, French, British, and Russian.

June 1945 – The Soviets take control over their zone in the eastern part of Germany and begin the process of converting this region to a Communist system. They also commit terrible acts of brutality, including the rape of millions of women and girls, against German civilians.  The Russian zone of influence would eventually become East Germany while the other zones would become West Germany.

1949 – In response to the formation of West Germany (a.k.a. the Federal Republic of Germany), the Soviets grant East Germans a degree of autonomy; and East Germany (a.k.a. the German Democratic Republic) is officially established.

1953 – East Germans revolt against Stalin’s increased demands for productivity and stage an uprising that is swiftly put down by the Soviet government.

1955 – West Germany joins NATO and East Germany enters into the Warsaw Pact, further cementing the division between the two countries.

August 13, 1961 – Construction begins on the Berlin Wall.

1971 – Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev removes East Germany’s leader Walter Ulbricht, who led the country since 1950, from power and replaces him with Erich Honecker.

1972 – East Germany and West Germany sign the Basic Treaty, an agreement in which each country formally recognizes the other for the first time.

1973 – East Germany joins the United Nations, and finally gains the international legitimacy it had been seeking since its establishment in 1949.

May 1989 – Rigged local elections anger an already disgruntled populace.

August 1989 – Hungary removes border restrictions with Austria, allowing East Germans to move into the West by first traveling through Hungary and then Austria.

October 1989 – Mass protests occur all across the country with the largest coming in Leipzig.

October 17, 1989 – Erich Honecker is ousted in a Politburo meeting in an attempt to calm the social unrest. His deputy Egon Krenz replaces him.

November 9, 1989 – The GDR does away with travel restrictions into West Germany, and the Berlin Wall ceases to be a barrier between East and West. Jubilant East Germans cross into West Berlin to celebrate with their countrymen.

December 3, 1989 – Krenz resigns. Hans Modrow takes over, and East Germany’s collapse becomes inevitable.

March 18, 1990 – The Christian Democratic Union, a party in favor of reunification with West Germany, handily wins the first free election in Germany, paving the way for a united Germany later in the year.

October 3, 1990 – Germany is officially reunified, and East Germany ceases to exist.

Erich Honecker (1912-94) – Honecker led East Germany from 1971 until just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He was placed in power by the Soviets, who saw him as the man who could normalize relations with the West. The early years of his leadership were quite successful, and he presided over both economic growth and improved relations with the West. During the middle of the 1980s, though, Honecker began to run into problems. The East German economy was performing poorly, and he was unwilling to implement the democratic reforms being proposed by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Honecker was eventually forced out of power in October of 1989. Following his removal from power, Honecker was charged with several crimes and diagnosed with terminal cancer. During the final years of his life, Honecker sought asylum in several countries, hoping to avoid criminal proceedings. His asylum attempts were unsuccessful, so he faced trial; however, the legal proceedings were halted when it was determined that Honecker was too ill to stand trial.

Helmut Kohl (b. 1930) – Kohl served as Chancellor of Germany from 1982 to 1998, and in many ways he is the architect of modern Europe. His early years as Chancellor were nondescript; however, the fall of the Berlin Wall presented Kohl with an opportunity to shape history. He put his full weight behind German reunification, and he presided over the difficult integration of East Germany into greater Germany. Kohl was also instrumental in laying the groundwork for the creation of the European Union in the early 1990s. Many, including multiple US presidents, have called Kohl “the greatest European leader of the second half of the 20th century.”

Feeling B and Die Skeptiker – Two major punk/alternative bands in East Germany that helped capture the popular discontent with the GDR.

Heiner MullerHeiner Müller (1929-95) – (Pictured at left, Zandonai Editore) Müller is considered to be the most important East German playwright and director. His art was experimental, postmodern, and often fragmentary. His most famous work is Hamletmachine, a loose and highly theatrical adaptation of Hamlet.  Müller’s political legacy is perhaps even more complicated than his drama. He considered the GDR to be a dictatorship, but he was also a committed Socialist who disapproved of German unification. He was even an informant for the Stasi.

 

 

 

For Germany the great challenge after the fall of Communism was the reunification of East and West. Although all Germans share a common language and ancestry, the disparate experiences of those living in East and West during the second half of the 20th century created large economic and cultural divides. Those living in the East were far behind those living in the West economically. This led to a large migration of Germans from the eastern portion of the country to the western portion. In the years following reunification, the German government also had to invest a tremendous amount of resources in reviving the moribund economy in the East. Generally, though, the consensus is that everyone has benefited from the reunification; however, there are still many living in eastern Germany who are nostalgic for the days of the GDR and who perceive the reunification of East and West as an exercise in imperialism.
Initially, East Germany seemed prepared to reconstitute itself as a non-Communist constitutional democracy, but by February of 1990, thanks largely to the efforts of the West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, there was strong momentum for reunification with West Germany. In the March 1990 elections, parties supporting reunification won an overwhelming victory, and by October of that year Germany was once again one unified nation.  In the decades following, the destitute East has grown into an economic driver of the larger German economy, which is now one of the largest and most stable among the countries of the European Union.
 

Hungary

1941 – Hungary officially joins the German fight against the Soviet Union.

1944 – After signs that Hungary was collaborating with the British, the Nazis invade Hungary and install a puppet regime.

1945 – The Soviet army liberates Hungary, making Hungary one of the Soviet satellite states.

1947 – After several years of existing as a partial democracy, the Communists consolidate power and begin a crackdown on dissenters. The repression, trials, and executions would last until 1953.

1953-55 – Imre Nagy becomes Prime Minister and ushers in a series of reforms that provide relief from the brutality of the previous six years.

1955 – Nagy is ousted from power, and hardliner Mátyás Rákosi again assumes control of the government.

1956 – Hungary has a popular uprising, and Nagy again returns to power. The USSR is so threatened by the uprising that they invade Hungary and depose Nagy. János Kádár then assumes leadership of the country and will remain in charge until 1988.

1957-63 – Another period of repression and brutality. Included in this crackdown is the execution of Imre Nagy in 1958.

1963-85 – Kádár significantly relaxes Hungary’s restrictions on personal freedom and makes modest economic reforms that relax state control of goods. These reforms help Hungary achieve a reputation as the “happiest barrack” in the Communist Bloc and make it easier for Hungary to eventually transition out of Communism and into Capitalism.

1985 – Hungary begins overborrowing, paving the way for a debt and inflation crisis that will eventually help topple the regime.

1988 – Kádár, in part because of failing health, resigns.

1989 – The government takes down the “Iron Curtain” separating Hungary from Austria, and after a series of roundtable discussions, the Communist party dissolves and becomes the Hungarian Socialist Party.

1990 – Free elections are held, and the Hungarian Democratic Forum is victorious.

Following Hungary’s liberation by the Soviet army in 1945, it began a slow (by post-World War II standards) conversion to Communism. By 1947 Hungary’s transformation was complete. The most famous event during Hungary’s Communist era was the 1956 uprising. This popular revolt against the Communist regime was unprecedented in Europe in the 1950s (and perhaps the only other comparable event was the Prague Spring of 1968). Remarkably the uprising almost succeeded, and Hungary seemed primed to become a multi-party democracy again. Those dreams were crushed, however, when the USSR directed its full military might against the Hungarians. After suppressing the democratic aspirations of the Hungarian people, the Soviets anointed János Kádár the county’s leader. Kádár would lead Hungary until 1988. Kádár’s government initially enacted a series of repressive measures, but it ultimately abandoned that approach and opted for a more moderate path. By the 1970s Kádár was thought to be the most humane and reasonable Communist ruler in Eastern Europe. His more reasoned policies also made the fall of Communism far less chaotic and violent than in many Eastern European countries. Since the fall of Communism, Hungary has become increasingly conservative and nationalistic. These tendencies could be seen throughout the 1990s, but it was not until the 21st century that the Right assumed control of the country.

János Kádár (1912-89) – Kádár is a difficult figure to evaluate. On the one hand, he presided over a reign of terror following the 1956 uprising, but then he reversed course in the 1960s when he supported a number of economic reforms and granted amnesty to many “enemies” of the state. His stated policy that “who is not against us is with us” was radical in a Communist world that demanded complete fidelity from its people. Above all, Kádár appears to have been the ultimate pragmatist, always opting for the practical decision over the ideological decision; however, this in no way makes him a saint.

Imre Nagy (1896 – 1958) – Nagy was the great hero of Hungarian politics during the 20th century. Although Nagy was a member of the Communist Party, he supported a number of measures that strayed from official Party doctrine. Between 1953 and 1955 he served as Prime Minister and ushered in a slew of reforms before falling out of power. Despite his time as Prime Minister, he is best known for being the face of the 1956 uprising. The uprising briefly restored Nagy to power, and during his 12-day rule he announced Hungary’s intent to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. After the Soviet invasion, Nagy was abducted and secretly executed in 1958. As Communism was falling apart in 1989, Nagy’s remains were reburied and his life was celebrated in a ceremony attended by more than 250,000 Hungarians.

Of all the Communist countries, Hungary was the one that permitted its writers and artists the most freedom. There were certain topics, such as the 1956 uprising, that remained taboo, and Hungarian artists were expected to self-censor; nevertheless, Hungarian artists were able to experiment with form in a way that writers from other Communist countries could not. In a strange paradox, though, Hungarian artists and writers failed to equal the impact and notoriety of dissident writers in more repressive countries. Perhaps because they had less to protest and did not suffer as much for their art, their work has been unfairly relegated to the back pages of history.
Since the fall of Communism, Hungary has slowly become more nationalistic with center-right and far-right parties gathering more influence in each election cycle. Hungary continues to struggle with anti-Semitism, and anti-Jewish rhetoric is frequently a part of Hungarian political discourse. Also, like many countries in Eastern Europe, Hungary still has policies that discriminate against the Roma people (also referred to as “Gypsies”); however, none of these conflicts have led to ethnic cleansing or catastrophic destabilization.
 
Hungary

Poland

1945 – January, Soviet forces capture Warsaw.

1947 – Soviet-dominated elections lead to the formation of the Communist People’s Republic of Poland under the leadership of Boleslaw Bierut.

1955 – Poland joins the Warsaw Pact military alliance.

1956 – Rioting in Poznan leads to the death of over 50 people.  Demands for greater freedoms are made. Liberal Communist Wladislaw Gomulka becomes leader of Poland.

1970 – Edward Gierek becomes party leader after food price riots in Gdansk.  The protests are suppressed and hundreds are killed.

1978 – Karol Wojtyla, Cardinal of Krakow, elected Pope.

1979 – Pope John Paul II visits Poland, leading to resurgence of Communist Opposition.

1980 – Solidarity trade union forms amidst disturbances at the Gdansk shipyard.  Lech Walesa elected union leader.

1981 – Martial law imposed. Many of Solidarity’s leaders, including Walesa, are imprisoned.

1983 – Martial law lifted.

1989 – Round table talks between Communist Party, Solidarity, and the Catholic Church lead to partially-free elections.  Widespread success of Solidarity leads to its inclusion in coalition government.

1990 – Walesa elected president of Poland. Market reforms, including large-scale privatisation, are launched.

1999 – Poland joins Nato.

Wojciech Jaruzelski- The last Communist leader of the Polish People’s Republic.  Jaruzelski was primarily responsible for declaring martial law in 1981 in an attempt to crush the pro-democracy movements, including Solidarity.  Opposition activists were arrested or killed and journalists silenced.  The resulting economic crisis led to food rationing and a 40 percent decline in median income.  Nearly 700,000 people fled the country during this period.  He resigned his position in 1989 after the Polish Round tAble Agreement of 1989.

Lech Wałęsa- The first president of a post-communist Poland and the leader of the Solidarity trade union, Walesa was presented the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.  He began his work as an electrician in the Gdansk shipyards.  For his dissidents activities and attitudes, he was persecuted by the Communist government, placed under surveillance, repeatedly arrested, and fired in 1976.  In 1980, he was instrumental in negotiating the Gdansk agreement between striking workers and the government.  As a co-founder of Solidarity, he was again arrested when martial law was imposed.  Upon his release, he continued his activism and played a prominent role in negotiating the semi-free elections of 1989.  He was elected to the Presidency in 1990.  However, his economic and social policies for transition to a market economy were unpopular.  He lost his bid for reelection in 1995.

Władysław Gomułka- Gomulka was the Communist leader of Poland from 1945 to 1948, and then again from 1956 to 1970.  He is known for a relatively liberal ideology that allowed for some independent activities.  His long tenure of leadership would help to foster the organizations that would later help to end Communist rule.

Bolesław Bierut- Bierut was the President of Communist Poland immediately following the Soviet takeover in the aftermath of World War II.  He is noted for being a particularly hard-line Stalinist.  It is also commonly believed that he was an agent of the Soviet NKVD (the predecessor to the modern KGB) agent and was put in place by the Soviets to ensure Polands membership in the Eastern Bloc.

Karol Wojtyla- Also known as Pope John Paul II, he was elected to the papacy in October of 1978.  He was the second-longest serving Pope in Catholic history.  He was also the first non-Italian Pope elected in over 400 years.  His visit to his native Poland in 1979 is credited with helping to bring about the end of Communist rule by energizing grassroots organizations in opposition to the Comunists.  One month following his death in 2005, the cause of his canonization as a saint was undertaken.  He was declared venerable in 2009, beatified in 2011, and canonized a Saint in 2014.

Adam Michnik– An intellectual force behind Solidarty, Michnik spent five years in prison during the 1980’s for his dissident activities. As an advisor to Walesa, ge took part in the Round Table talks of 1989.  He has been the editor of Gazeta Wyborca since the first issue.  The paper was born in 1989 out of a desire to provide unbiased information to voters in the first elections.

The postcommunist transition in Poland turned primarily upon the role of the party in labor relations and, particularly, the status of the Solidarity trade union.  Though the plays of Slawomir Mrozek provided commentary on the totalitarian regime and were popular with Polish and Western European audiences, their overall influence on the course of change was minimal.  Mrozek did write a play, entitled “Alfa,” about the imprisoned dissident Lech Walesa.  It remains the only play Mrozek claims to have regrets about writing.  Mrozek himself fled Poland for France in 1963, living as an emigre.
Postcommunist Poland was not marked by extensive religious conflict, but does have sizeable minorities of Silesians and Germans.  Following World War II and the stablishment of the People’s Republic of Poland, there were extensive expulsions of minorities which lead to a high degree of homogeny in Poland.  There is also disagreement about levels of Polish cooperation with the Nazi’s in the Holocaust.
A shock therapy programme, initiated by the Polish government in the early 1990s enabled the country to transform its socialist-style planned economy into a market economy. As with all other post-communist countries, Poland suffered temporary slumps in social and economic standards, but it became the first post-communist country to reach its pre-1989 GDP levels, which it achieved by 1995 largely thanks to its booming economy.  Poland is now a member of NATO, the EU, and the Eurozone. It has one of the healthiest economies of the former Eastern Bloc states and is a leading proponent of greater European integration.
 
Poland round-table

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Credits: This page curated by Burning Coal Theatre.