Today in history: An era ends in Eastern Europe

On this date in 1990, 25 years ago, the Supreme Soviet gave approval to switch to a free market economy, the signal for the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) to leave the now moribund Warsaw Pact. On this same date West German President Richard von Weizsäcker signedthe reunification treaty which would lead to official reunification on October 3, 1990.

The “end days” of socialism in Eastern Europe took place over the span of a couple of years, but perhaps Sept. 24th can be said to be the final turning point, if not the crown on the movement to restore capitalism.

The Soviet bloc was often accused of trying to “export socialism.” But in the wake of the dissolution of the bloc, what did the West do but “export capitalism?” Those first few years of “shock capitalism” in Eastern Europe spelled a precipitous drop in the standard of living, even a shortening of the life expectancy in the former USSR by as much as 20 years. By some measures, such as in industrial output, employment, healthcare and education, a full recovery to former socialist levels has still not been achieved.

East Germans generally did not feel that reunification after 45 years of different social systems between West and East was a melding and combination of the best features of each system. Rather, they saw it as an annexation, a hostile takeover by appropriation, the stronger absorbing and eliminating the weaker partner.

In a sense that was what had taken place for years in other forms. Well-meaning liberals and progressives instinctively made common cause with right-wing critics of the Berlin Wall, for example, but showed little understanding of its larger meaning, and even necessity. The Wall went up in 1961, a wall not between the two German states but rather around West Berlin, a city in the middle of the GDR. Westerners would casually cross over into East Berlin and scoop off the shelves manufactured products, supplies and staples that were cheaper in the East than in the West because the socialist government heavily subsidized those goods for their own people. Ordinary East Germans who may or may not have loved their government saw the social product created by their labor evaporate in the Western visitors’ shopping bags and piled up in the back seats of Volkswagens.

In addition, the GDR spent a fortune in the lean post-World War II recovery years educating and training teachers, doctors, nurses, athletes and trainers, at no cost to these students, only to watch them and their advanced degrees simply march westward for better paying jobs in their chosen fields.

Perhaps the biggest immediate result of building the Wall was ending the very real threat of war breaking out over Berlin. On street corners throughout the city, before the Wall went up, U.S. and Soviet tanks pointed their guns at one another from just a few feet apart. The right wing in the U.S. was pushing for open warfare over Berlin. The impetus toward wardisappeared when the Wall went up,the soldiers disengaged, and the world felt reliefover the easing of the prospect of nuclear annihilation.

To civil libertarians in the West the Wall appeared to imprison people behind socialist bars. But for a state struggling to maintain its legitimacy and a respectable German role in the post-Nazi world, the Wall protected the new socialist country on German soil from a life-threatening hemorrhage of human capital. The Wall came down in November 1989, and had achieved its desired effect: The GDR had become one of the top industrialized nations of the world.

During its 40 years of existence, the GDR, along with other socialist countries, contributed generously to the liberation movements in the underdeveloped world, without expectation of recompense, at a time when the capitalist world waged endless, merciless war against Africans and Asians struggling for independence and freedom.

Those who question why, for example, South Africa, in 1990 not yet a multiracial democracy but heading toward its first free elections in 1994, did not move directly to socialism, and instead maintained much of the old class system, might pause to contemplate the new balance of forces in the world. If the USSR and the socialist bloc had still been around, they would have given substantial material and moral support for a socialist South Africa. Many critics have argued further that the demise of socialism in Europe also created a “unipolar” world, at least for a time, that allowed for a steep deterioration in workers’ rights and living conditions even here in the U.S., which no longer had to compete with socialism in those areas of the economy where socialism was doing a better job than capitalism (elimination of poverty and racism, unemployment, education, healthcare, construction of affordable housing etc.).

Capitalism is still “exporting” into former Soviet lands: Witness the integration of many former Soviet republics into NATO and other Western-dominated regional blocs on Russia’s western and southern flanks. Much of the present conflict in Ukraine can be traced to Western efforts to peel off that country from its historic cultural and trade relationships with Russia. Russia understandably sees itself as increasingly surrounded by powers that seek its even greater destruction as a major world nation.

Historians will never cease arguing over the reasons why the USSR and its socialist bloc imploded. Was it primarily decay, fatigue or betrayal from within? Or was it more the result of capitalism’s never-ending anti-socialist crusade that dated back to the very foundation of the Soviet government in 1917?

These questions cannot be dealt with adequately in a brief column, but certainly some context and reference can be established for what happened “today in history.”

John Wojcik contributed to this article.

Photo: Wikimedia (CC)


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.