What factors contributed to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe?

The most important factors that contributed to the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe were, in order, Mikhail Gorbachev's unprecedented reforms and tolerance of dissent, severe economic problems, and widespread nationalism in the occupied states.

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Communism fell peacefully in all of the countries of Eastern Europe—except Romania. In Romania, a dictator had to be overthrown and executed. But all of the other Communist-led governments, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, transferred their power without violence. East Europeans were generally dissatisfied with their dysfunctional economies...

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Communism fell peacefully in all of the countries of Eastern Europe—except Romania. In Romania, a dictator had to be overthrown and executed. But all of the other Communist-led governments, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, transferred their power without violence. East Europeans were generally dissatisfied with their dysfunctional economies and Communist rulers.

Communism had been forced on these nations at the end of World War II by occupying Soviet troops. Those same troops were used to crush revolts in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968). However, with the ascension of reformer Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet leader in 1985, Moscow pulled back. Gorbachev was not willing to use force to crush protests. Moreover, he would not allow the leaders of the various nations to use force either. This was the most important reason for the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe.

Some historians have given credit to President Ronald Reagan for changes that led to the end of the Cold War. He gave a much-lauded speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987. But he was almost powerless to affect the course of events in East Germany or elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Only Gorbachev had the decisive influence that could facilitate historical change.

Starting in 1985, Gorbachev allowed the East European nations to reform and open up politically and economically. All of them did so in varying degrees, except for Romania. In Hungary, for example, economic problems led to government reforms; one key Hungarian move was opening the border with Austria. Thousands of East Germans then fled to the West through Hungary's border with Austria. This meant that the Berlin Wall was practically useless, and its opening soon thereafter led to a united Germany.

Nationalism was, in fact, a factor in the end of the Communist regimes. The East Germans wanted to rejoin their more prosperous kinfolk in West Germany; German nationalism was more potent than political ideology. Eastern European nations, especially Poland, resented Soviet occupation and wanted to run their own affairs.

The end of Communism gave hope to the peoples of Eastern Europe. But they were still poor, and the transformation to free-market societies would be difficult and painful.

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