Sunday, April 19, 2009

REVOLUTIONS OF 1989—Part 1: Tiananmen Square & After Effects in Europe

REVOLUTIONS OF 1989—Part 1: Tiananmen Square & After Effects in Europe

By Kevin Stoda

As a teacher of history and the social science, I have followed the recent research and discussions on the role of individual memory in how history is retold and what variety of slants the various peoples seem to receive over time concerning historical happenings.

In short, history is very interactive over time, with the memory of viewer of it, and in relation to change in perspectives and evidence concerning humanity.

Generally, history can be defined as a narration of events over time, especially as concerns the human race. At the same time history is often asked to be more complete than that, so historians attempt to provide a consistent and systematic narrative of past events, particularly in reference to groups of people, e.g., families, tribes, corporate entities, nations, nation states, and even international organizations and movements. (Meanwhile, biographies and psycho-history center more on the individual and her relationships to others and world events around her.)


On the other hand, history is also certainly best described in metaphor, like “the river” which one Greek philosopher used to describe it millennia ago.

In that Greek metaphor, “history is like a river because one can never step into the same river twice.”

In his classic history on the black struggle in America, Vincent Harding entitled the work: THERE IS A RIVER. Harding transformed the idea as history being a river to the movement of a people through history being a river.

This phrase perplexed one aging doctor of political science theory at Texas A & M whom I knew--and whom claimed to have never heard the phrase before. However, in that same seminar, one Jordanian (Jordan was once part of the Greek and Roman Empire) student chimed in that he was certain that the author of the phrase was Democritus, probably the most famous pre-Socratic scholars.

NOTE: Over the last decade, I have tried to ascertain whether Democritus, in fact, ever described history as a river and have found no evidence to confirm nor refute this. Nevertheless, this Greek metaphor of “history as a river” has been very important for historians. (I open to a researcher informing me of the roots of the “river” metaphor.)

This river-history metaphor essentially means first:

Organically, no measurement of a single river over time could show that the river’s dimensions and measurements of its waters were 100% identical to the consistency and the dimensions of the river when it was measured previously.

In a way, Greek “ river” metaphor’s perspective on historical accuracy and truth in recording historical occurrences is fairly similar to relativism over time as related to us in quantum in quantum theory --as well as concepts of time noted at the turn of the last century by Albert Einstein. (This should come as no surprise to us if we consider that Democritus was one of the philosophers who created the concept of atomism, accepted now as the bases of building blocks in natural species and objects.)

Therefore, it was extremely surprising and at the same time annoying that in America in this decade, a life-long doctor of political theory did not understand these basic concepts of time and the immeasurability of various historical events over time. Personally, I imagine this demise in theoretical conceptualization in political science and in political theory is reflective of the increasingly detrimental effects of specialization of the Social Sciences since the 1960s.

This has led to many manipulations of modern education by vested interests of bean counters and those who use the social and political-economic sciences to have control of modern society.


Some of the great myths about the Revolution of 1989 in Eastern Europe include the belief that Ronald Reagan’s going to the Berlin a few years earlier had a great deal to do with the opening of that same wall a few years later.

According to popular American school syllabi, this speech of Reagan’s at the Brandenburg Gate in June 1987 had a fairly direct influence on what occurred within two to three years in Eastern Germany—and Eastern Europe.

Nonsense! Most of the European press on both sides of the Wall ridiculed Reagan’s naivety at the time.

If, in the end, Reagan was correct in indicating that Gorbachev would be the one to open the Iron Curtain between East and West Germany, it was only correct due to the fact that Gorbachev was young enough not to die in office as had his predecessors as head of the Soviet Communist Party in 1982 (Brezhnev) , 1983 (Andropov) , and 1985 (Chernenko).

Another myth from 1989 memories and historical narration is that the combined Carter-Reagan arms build up led directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. This second myth actually has a bit more teeth to it, but it, too, is not easily measured over time. Like with the U.S. economy today, there is no clear argument to state that the arms build-up, with its huge budget deficit in the USA, needed to lead directly to a change in the system in the Soviet Union.

Yet, both political scientists and historians in Europe and the USA continue to make such connections year-after-year as though these myths are scientific fact.

Basically, these are a few of the great American history myths. The facts in Eastern and Western Europe, especially in the Germanies were quite a bit different. I think, for example, that in the narration of what was happening in East Germany in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of increasing tolerance of opposition, the role of the churches as an umbrella of incubation of democratic reform are ignored in American historical memory.

(In contrast, the history of the big man, like the Pope John Paul II and the institution of the Catholic Church in Poland are almost never ignored. This is because this movement could be described from the American perspective as a Western-driven movement, i.e. not always a clearly locally developed or indigenous movement.)

As another example, I also explained to my one-time professor of political theory at Texas A & M that it would not be difficult to claim that the image of the Tiananmen Square massacre had a more direct effect on what occurred in autumn 1989 in Eastern Europe than what Reagan had said at the Wall in 1987 or how much money the USA had spent or wasted on weapons from 1978 through 1989.

In short, with this first writing on the Revolutions of 1989, I need to emphasize that history reveals and will continue to reveal that the image of the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square in China in June 1989 had a much more profound and direct effect on the peoples and leaders of the Eastern Block and Soviet Union than did anything that Ronald Reagan said at the Wall two years earlier.

How do I know what the River of History was like in Europe in the 1980s?

Well, first of all, I lived it. I mean: “I lived in that River of History.”

For all but one year between 1983 and 1990, I lived in either Western Germany and France. Moreover, I made about ten visits to East and West Berlin between 1987 and 1990. The last visit found me climbing over the Wall with thousands of others in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

Between 1987 and 1989, I also traveled to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union before the Wall came down in Berlin.

Not only did I personally have the pleasure of climbing over the Wall at Brandenburg Gate on December 31, 1989, but in Wuppertal, Germany I had been leading weekly discussions (1987 to 1990) over “current political affairs, social issues and environment” for adults from across West Germany, Poland, Romania, East Germany and other European states, i.e. as the Wall opened up in November of 1989. (Note: These discussions were held at the Elberfelder-Volkshochule or Adult Continuing Education Center.)

Finally, through my own church interests, I had been involved in the following activities related to understanding the German-German conflicts:

(1) First, in 1987 I had the opportunity to lead groups of youth from socially disturbed or Sozialbrennpunktfamilie areas of West Berlin in retreat to Western Germany. Don’t forget that West Berlin was an island cocooned inside the East German Democratic [Communist] Republic.

(2) I had friends who were living in East Berlin and reporting on church and student activities from 1988 through 1991. I, myself also took several tours and made personal visits to East Berlin through these friendships. [I also met a soon-deported East German from Quedlinburg in East Berlin in May of 1987.]

(3) In November 1989, I actually had been preparing a visit to Rostock, East Germany with a university campus Christian organization right up until the very moment when the Wall came down [Instead of going to Rostock, we Western German Christians invited the East German Christian Youth from Rostock and East Berlin to West Germany, i.e. so we were able to debrief and encourage them face-to-face that Revolutionary autumn.]

Finally, I had a front-row seat to the rise and end of the Chinese student movement in Germany between April and June 1989.

Let me explain.

For most of the period between 1986 and 1989, I lived in a student housing unit in Elberfeld, West Germany just off the campus of the Bergische University in North Rhine Westphalia. In this housing complex were Western Germans and students from dozens of other nations.

In both East and West Germany, Chinese students were studying diligently—as they often do now in the USA. Both East and West German governments competed with each other to show their support to the developing world and offered scholarships and training programs for many from all corners of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Some of these students even went on the same study tours as I had to East and West Berlin.

Bergische University is a technical university and many Chinese students had chosen to study there. Therefore, on occasion, I had been invited to eat with some of these Chinese student-neighbors of mine in their various kitchens. Some had even studied the Bible with friends of mine.

Meanwhile in late April and May 1989 Chinese students began to gather publicly on campuses in Europe and around the world gathered to support their peers in Beijing who were standing up for freedom and accelerated reform.

Moreover, some of these same students in Wuppertal occasionally came to various English courses I had offered on campus.

In short, by the end of May 1989, as a whole, Chinese students in Germany (after the time I arrived at the Technical University in North Rhine Westphalia in 1986) had become more open and fun as each year and month went by.

On the one hand, this trend of change was barely noticeable, but as April and May 1989 rolled around (and the students of Tiananmen were doing their large protests for hope, more freedoms, and democracy in their land), the Chinese students at the Bergische University were virtually bubbling with joy.

NOTE: This opening in Spring 1989 for Chinese college students could be greatly contrasted with the secretiveness in 2000-2002 with which I found many students on Texas A & M University operating whenever references to reform in their homeland were made in the Political Science Department in the George Bush Building in College Station. Chinese students of that era were simply defensive and fully believed the party line when it came to any criticism of their own regime.


If one doesn’t recall history in order of time on a continuum (or river) of history very well, let me remind you that the protests in Tiananmen Square began in the weeks just prior to a visit was planned and undertaken by the Soviet Union’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev in May 1989.

The purpose of those talks was to end 30 years of infighting or “estrangement” between the two large Communist behemoths of the Asian continent.

NOTE: Perhaps had the two sides buried the hatchet a decade earlier, world history would be greatly different.

Quite possibly, the Soviet Union would have added a capitalist element to its economic development in time to possibly have slowed down the collapse of the Soviet system,i.e. which would follow two years later (after the Tiananmen Massacre.).

By the time, Gorbachev arrived in mid- to late May, Chinese students had built a statue to Democracy—i.e. a Liberty Goddess of sorts--,and some had even begun hunger strikes demanding more freedom and choice in their futures.

Because, throughout May, the confused Chinese Communist controlled leadership had not struck down the protests, Chinese youthful pride, vigor and hopefulness was flowing everywhere that spring.

Then a sort-of-pre internet technological miracle occurred in my West German dormitory.

Namely, the West German government (Deutsche Telekom-) run public telephone system broke down in my dormitory and hundreds of students—many of them Chinese—stood in line for well over 72 hours calling their friends and families all over the world for free.

Due to this technological accident (or miracle), unbelievable amounts of up-to-date information came to the Chinese students on that North Rhine Westphalia campus.

It was as if the internet had been invented and millions of pieces of new information about one’s homeland were suddenly available to the Chinese at the Bergische University—all for free.

Finally, as June arrived, the telephone system at my dormitory was no longer free, but the long lines to China continued.

However, the tones of those Chinese calling home became at first cries of anger, of frustration, and of pain.

It was, on June 3 and June 4, 1989 that the happiness and joy of the Chinese students in Germany disappeared quickly in trails of tears running all through the corridors of my campus dormitory in Wuppertal.

The Chinese cracked down quickly, thousands of students and supporters were arrested, hundreds killed and many more disappeared in Beijing in a matter of hours.

After two days of crying and tears, fears of reprisal (and of possible communist spies on campus) swept through the Chinese communities in Western Germany--and around the world.

Quickly an eerie silence took its place. Chinese were afraid of being ratted on by their peers.

The silence of the Chinese in the corridors of my dormitory was deafening that June 1989. However, the silence also sent fear and forced changes along in Eastern Europe at a more urgent pace over the next few months of that memorable year.


In summary, the same silence, sadness and hopelessness relating to the June3-4 Tiananmen Square massacres continued to reverberated across Eastern Europe.

Dr. Mark Jantzen, who served in East Berlin as both a theological student at the Humbolt University between 1988 and 1991, was also serving as the eyes and ears of the Mennonite Central Committee and for the Mennonite Churches of Europe at the time of greatest change in modern Eastern European history. In his book, THE WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL: AN AMERICAN IN EAST BERLIN DURING THE TIME OF THE PEACEFUL REVOLUTION (1993), Jantzen noted that the massacre of youthful seekers of democracy left its imprint in the peaceful movements for democratic change in East Germany throughout the rest of 1989.

In short, as October and November 1989 rolled around, the ghost of Tiananmen would float like a phantom over “the river of history” in the minds of those involved with the decisions for making peaceful protest as well as in the hearts of East German communist leadership alike.

Poland responded in 1989 by quickly producing stamps recognizing the victims of Tiananmen Square.

Meanwhile, East Germany was celebrating the 40th anniversary of its existence in 1989, so the totalitarian government led by Communist Erich Honaker was expecting a visit in October 1989 by the Soviet Premier Gorbachev.

Everyone wondered throughout the summer of 1989 how Honaker and his communist cohorts would respond to similar student and youthful protests if such protests were permitted to arise there.

One response to both Tiananmen and the opening up of Poland to Democracy was soon clear, though.

East Germans began to vote more-and-more with their feet starting that May 1989.

First, taking advantage of changes in Hungary’s relationship with the West over the previous decade, the Hungarian Communist leadership and neighboring Austria had taken down their barbed wire fences by late Spring 1989.

Suddenly, thousands of Eastern Germans in summer 1989 decided it was a necessary or important junction in the river of history to try and flee the despotic state East of the Elbe, known in the West as East Germany.

However, the East German’s voting for a life in the west involved a rather circuitous route most of 1989 would be indirect. First, many tried to get to West German through Hungary and Austria. Then others tried Poland. When that option was closed off by the East German authorities, the East German citizens tried to leave through Czechoslovakia.

In conclusion, on the one hand, people in Eastern European lands feared a crackdown, like in Tiananmen Square.

On the other hand, the fear emboldened some even as it made cowards of a few others.

Some East Germans chose to flee their homeland. Others decided to fight harder than ever to change the system that had run their lives for so long.

All across Europe from the Baltic to the Balkans, citizens were asking themselves: “Was a major crackdown coming across Eastern Europe in the next months as had just occurred in China?”

This uncertainty pushed unforeseen changes on both the Eastern and Western halves of Europe from June 4, 1989 onwards.



--END Part 1 REVOLUTIONS OF 1989: Kevin Stoda



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