Twenty-five years ago, on November 9, 1989, a bureaucratic mix-up allowed crowds of East Germans to cross the Berlin Wall. The subsequent scenes of dancing and celebration have become the defining image of the fall of communism, shown on television screens around the world. Yet the focus on one momentous event obscures the fact that the fall of communism was a long and gradual process, one that began well before 1989 and still continues today. This course will examine the roots, causes, and aftermath of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. We will consider economic stagnation and abortive attempts at reform; political crises and the rise of dissident movements; cultural exchange and the influence of mass media; and the role of social and nationalist activism.
Throughout, we will pay particular attention to the meaning and impact of the Cold War. Communism aspired to be a systematic alternative to the capitalist world, with its own principles of morality, work, and leisure. For this reason, contact between East and West presented a particular challenge for communist regimes and played a crucial role in their development. We will explore how the imperative of global competition drove communist policies at home and abroad; how communist leaders tried to respond to Western influences; and how the Cold War framework shaped the transition from communism to democracy. In so doing, we will come to see that the fall of communism was not a singular event but rather a lengthy process of raising the Iron Curtain.