2019 - 2020 Modern Volume 11

Legacies of 1989; Can a Peaceful Revolution ever be Truly ‘Revolutionary’?

By Alex Cockhill

‘Revolutions’ are events that never fail to evoke images of uncertainty, upheaval and most of all violence. The legacy of the French Revolution on the popular memory has always been defined by the horror and scale of this revolutionary violence. This imagery has only been compounded by the other ‘great’ revolution, the Russian Revolution, which solidified our perceptions of revolutions as events that inherently involve mass violence. Indeed, Arno Mayer argued in The Furies, his history of the French and Russian Revolutions, that ‘there is no revolution without violence and terror’ and insisted that ‘revolution’ can only apply to the most violent and dramatic examples, namely France 1789 and Russia 1917. However, during a six month period of 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, no less than seven European states underwent sweeping political transitions that were, with the exception of Romania, largely bloodless affairs and demonstrated that European revolutions could not only be peaceful events, they could even be celebrated.

Certainly, the euphoria with which these events initially met with in the West has given way to cynicism. The moral story of a ‘surge to freedom’ has come under criticism for its simplicity and, most infamously, Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis is now regarded as hopelessly naïve. Indeed, there has been historical debate over whether the revolutions of 1989 represent ‘revolutions’ at all. This is due to their relatively peaceable character and the fact that, particularly in Poland and Hungary, existing regimes chose to ‘negotiate’ their own end rather than face dramatic political upheaval. In these reassessments it is argued that 1989 did not represent ‘revolution’ because, whilst the leadership of the communist states themselves changed, many of the members of the state bureaucracy such as judges and government officials continued in office. The lack of a violent opposition campaign and the relative absence of sustained popular mobilisation has led to the conclusion in some historical circles that 1989 did not represent a truly ‘revolutionary’ moment at all. 

This focus on violence ensures that many of the genuinely revolutionary elements of 1989 are missed. These revolutions undoubtedly bought unprecedented change, notably new rights to freedom of speech and assembly as well as the right to vote in competitive elections. However, the most notable difference between the revolutions of 1989 and previous European revolutions was the unwillingness of both national and Soviet leaders to use violence as a means of sustaining communist control in Eastern Europe. As stated above, revolutionary experience before 1989 was synonymous with violence, terror and civil war. Indeed, when crises had arisen in the Soviet bloc previously, as in 1953, 1956, 1968 and 1980-81, these challenges to the communist monopoly in Eastern Europe ended in Soviet military occupation or the imposition of martial law by the national government. The fact that the 1989 revolutions could occur with almost no violence was unthinkable to contemporaries and represented a clear break with the repressive violence that had defined previous attempts at Eastern bloc reform.

The lack of violence in the 1989 revolutionary experience must be attributed both to the peaceability of the protestors and to the unwillingness of political elites, except for Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, to view violence as a legitimate tool of preserving their power. As Mark Kramer has noted, Soviet leaders could have acted at any time in 1989 to reassert their political monopoly through force. Yet rather than hinder radical change, the Soviet leadership actively encouraged it. Left without a guarantee of Soviet support, national leaders were forced to recognise street protests and engage with opposition groups to facilitate a peaceful transfer of power.

The unwillingness of both old elites and opposition forces to the use of violence is the truly revolutionary element of 1989. With this reluctance, 1989 came to represent a total break with previous European revolutionary experiences and demonstrated that revolutions do not have to be inherently violent events. Peaceful political transitions are possible and, rather than being maligned for their non-violent character, should be celebrated. As historians, the over-fetishization of violence in revolutionary studies must be recognised and non-violent transitions must have their revolutionary character identified.



Barker, C. and C. Mooers, ‘Theories of Revolution in the Light of 1989 in Eastern Europe’, Cultural Dynamics 9.1 (1997), pp. 17-43

Brown, J. F., Surge to Freedom: The End of Communist Rule in Eastern Europe (Durham, 1991).

Kramer, M., ‘The Collapse of East European Communism and the Repercussions within the Soviet Union (Part 1)’, Journal of Cold War Studies 5.4 (2003), pp. 178-256.Mayer, A., The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, 2000).