Adam Roberts: The peaceful revolution of 1989

Apart from civil resistance, one crucial factor was the huge role of Gorbachev

If 25 years ago you had said that within a few years communist rule would end in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union would cease to exist as a state – and that all would happen with very little violence – you would have been thought seriously deranged. Yet, in fact, a nuclear-armed superpower did fold its tents, and its empire did cease to exist.

Civil resistance – non-violent action in pursuit of social goals – was part of this surreal story. In 1989-91 it was clearly part of the dramatic series of events that ended communist rule in Europe – and thereby brought to a conclusion the Cold War between the Soviet Union and Western states that had dominated international politics for nearly half a century. Was civil resistance a main cause of change – or just one element in a process that involved many other factors?

The claim that it played an essential part in the changes is strong. In Poland, industrial strikes under the banner of Solidarity undermined the whole raison d'être of a workers' state. In East Germany, a huge emigration movement through Hungary and Austria exposed the futility of the Berlin Wall as a means of containment, while demonstrations in the streets showed that even those who stayed wanted change.

The consequences of these actions were far reaching. Poland was the "icebreaker". It was there that Solidarity, a highly effective civil resistance movement, sat down at a round table with communist officials and hammered out a transition to free elections and a multiparty democracy. After Solidarity then went on to win the June 1989 elections, it provided the basis for a new government, formed in August, headed by a non-communist prime minister. Such a transition away from Communist Party rule had never happened before.

Throughout Eastern Europe many people, and regimes, saw the Polish events as signifying that change might be possible. The pattern of popular civil resistance, followed by official capitulation and transition to a new political system, was repeated within a few months in both East Germany and Czechoslovakia. In Bulgaria the change had more the character of a "palace revolution" – a revolution which could never have happened if the ice had not been broken in Poland.

The effect of civil resistance did not end there. Already in August 1989 the two-million-strong "Baltic Chain" demonstration showed the remarkable unity of the inhabitants of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in calling for independence from the Soviet Union, into which they had been forcibly incorporated 50 years earlier. Even the ruling communist parties of these three states approved the demonstrations – another sign of a fundamental shift in the communist world. By September 1991, all three states had regained their independence.

The culminating contribution of civil resistance to the end of European communism came in August 1991, when in response to a latter-day communist coup d'état against the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, citizens went on to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate their opposition. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, famously stood atop a Soviet tank and urged people to resist. The coup's organisers were isolated, eventually backing down in face of a large but peaceful crowd.

How should this apparent triumph of "people power" be viewed today? It is easy to view these events as a triumph of politics from below: the people in the street prevailing over their rulers and their armed forces. However, more factors have to be brought in to explain the astonishingly peaceful end of European communism. Civil resistance operated in conjunction with force in a number of key ways. In Moscow in August 1991, the putschist soldiers reacted not only to the arguments of the demonstrators, but also to the clear indications that Russian state power would be used against them if they continued their rebellion.

Even the clearest cases of civil resistance against communist rule involve interesting ambiguities about the use of force. The leaders of these movements were not pacifists, and saw some uses of force as necessary. They would have been horrified at any suggestion that Nato should simply fold its tents. And after some of them came to power – for example, in Poland and the Czech Republic – they supported admission into Nato.

Apart from civil resistance, other crucial factors that ended communist rule in Europe included, of course, the huge role of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose principled stand against the use of force contributed greatly to the success of civil resistance. War played a part: perhaps change in Eastern Europe could never have been so complete, and so peaceful if the Soviet Union had not just emerged from a debilitating war in Afghanistan.

Do the number and complexity of factors involved mean that civil resistance was unimportant? Far from it. If you ask yourself a question – might communist rule have survived for much longer if it were not for the Solidarity struggle in Poland? – the answer will be almost certainly yes.

What these events do show is that the tradition of viewing civil resistance as in a category of its own needs to be modified. There has long been a tendency to view it as a phenomenon that is not sullied by any involvement in power politics, and can even transform international politics on its own. In fact, it operates in conjunction with other elements of power. The events of 1989 show the potential of this form of action – but also challenge us to rethink familiar assumptions about it.

Adam Roberts is the president of the British Academy and the co-editor, with Timothy Garton Ash, of 'Civil Resistance And Power Politics: The Experience Of Non-Violent Action From Gandhi To The Present', published by Oxford University press;