1989: A year of courage and miracles

By Steve Crawshaw, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International. He was East Europe Editor of the Independent from 1988 to 1992.

Newspaper headlines are usually about all the bad things happening in the world. That is with good reason: we need to be reminded of the bad things in order to understand our world better and to seek change. But 1989 was one year where that rule was turned upside down. For once, the good news dominated the front pages, day after day and month after month. This was a year of miracles – miracles that were made possible by millions of brave individuals, risking everything in order to create change.

People walk past the light installation Lichtgrenze (Light border) on the course of the former Berlin wall in Berlin ©AFP/Getty Images.
People walk past the light installation Lichtgrenze (Light border) on the course of the former Berlin wall in Berlin ©AFP/Getty Images.

The dramas centred on the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, which reshaped Europe and whose reverberations continue to be felt around the world today.

But that remarkable moment did not come in isolation. One key trigger for this remarkable retreat by the East German authorities was the courage of many East Germans in the previous months.

The tens of thousands who poured on to the streets of Leipzig on 9 October, exactly a month earlier, played a key role. As a journalist for The Independent at that time, I was privileged to be in Leipzig that evening (before I was thrown out of the city by the secret police, later that night; I had already filed my story from the post office, in a world before mobile phones, so was content to be kicked out).

I saw the extraordinary impact of individual courage, multiplied many times over. The East German authorities had threatened to kill those who continued with “counter-revolutionary actions”; the authorities backed off from using lethal violence against the peaceful protesters only at the very last moment, when too many Leipzigers remained uncowed. In that sense, Leipzig’s modern name, “city of heroes”, is not just hyperbole. Their courage, against deadly odds, changed the course of history.

More broadly, the process of change had begun long before East Germany became restive. In the 1970s, I lived as a student in the Soviet Union, at a time when it seemed impossible to imagine that basic rights could or would ever be observed anywhere in the Soviet bloc. But extraordinarily brave Russians and other east Europeans stood up to demand the human rights provisions which had been theoretically agreed as part of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975.

At the time they were made, those promises seemed worthless. But the creation of Helsinki monitoring groups across the region ensured that the promises could not be wholly ignored. Despite constant harassment and jailing, human rights activists continued to hold their rulers to account. In 1978, Czech dissident Vaclav Havel wrote his landmark essay, “Power of the Powerless”, which described the potential impact of, as he put it, “living in truth”. Some regarded the essay as naïve. Later, the essay itself became real in Prague and elsewhere.

Some of the most dramatic changes came in Poland in 1980 – when millions of Poles demanded basic rights such as freedom of expression, association, assembly and more. Against all the odds, the Poles gained remarkable victories. I was living in the city of Krakow when Solidarity, a trade union-cum-rights movement, was formed in August 1980 – five years before the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. Those were astonishing days to live through – a real sense that the impossible could become real. Despite the subsequent banning of Solidarity, those achievements were never wholly reversed. Adam Michnik, a leading Polish thinker and prisoner of conscience, described in the New York Review of Books the remarkable energy that he found after his release from jail: “What I saw after my release exceeded not just my expectations but even my dreams.”

That energy brought results. Just a few years later, Solidarity was re-legalized. After yet more remarkable events, Poland gained an elected prime minister in August 1989. That happened three months before the Wall came down.

All those events may now seem obvious, a natural daisy chain, which happened in parallel with the collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa (Nelson Mandela was released in January 1990). But it all happened because people demanded rights which seemed unthinkable, until they were achieved.

For human rights activists and human rights organizations across the world, it was natural to stand in solidarity with the demands of those who were jailed, in the Soviet bloc and apartheid South Africa alike. But at the time many Western politicians insisted that the demands for basic rights were “unrealistic”, or even counter-productive.

Even today, you hear the same narrative – that it is better to accept, than to challenge. The narrative was wrong then, and is wrong today.

Global solidarity remains as important today as it was then. In 1988, it would still have been unthinkable for Amnesty International to exist legally in Poland, or anywhere in the Soviet bloc. Today, Amnesty International’s Polish section is the driving force behind the organization’s global Write for Rights Campaign, which focuses on individuals jailed for claiming basic rights around the world. Other Amnesty International sections are active throughout the region where all human rights organizations were once banned.

The achievements of courageous activists, and the events that led to fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, remind us of an obvious truth summed up by the English poet John Donne, more than 400 years ago: “No man is an island.”