Why Revolt? A Comparative Analysis of Poland and East Germany in 1989

Seminar Paper, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: G (Good)


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Method

III. Theoretical Discussion

IV. A Comparative Analysis of Poland and East Germany
4.1. Political Opportunity Structure: The Gorbachev Factor in Connection to a

Framing Analysis

V. Conclusion


I. Introduction

The collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s was one of the most important occurrence in the 20th century. In only a few months – starting with the institutional compromises in Poland and Hungary and the non-violent revolutions in the GDR and ČSSR[1] - the Soviet-led East European statesystem and later the Soviet Union as well, dispersed in a way and with such rapidy, nobody in the “West” and “East” believed to be possible. Real self-determination of the satellite states or indepenence of the former Soviet Republics and changes in the political and economic system were the consequences. At the highest historic level, the world´s geopolitical order changed dramatically, because the devision into two fields of interest was brought to an end and with it the Cold War. From a European perspective, after the downfall of the “Iron Curtain” the opportunity was opened to fulfill the idea of a European Community, also in a much wider sense, and for Germany the over 40 year lasting existence of two states was repealed with the reunification.

In the following passage of the main part I will try to explain why in Poland an institutional compromise was achieved, whereas in East Germany a non-violent revolution broke out. With references to Poland, we can speak of an institutional compromise because the “impetus for change came from the elite, which undertook negotiations with the opposition over the shape of the new institutions”, while in East Germany a revolution took place because “the impetus for change came directly from the mobilization of a broad-based opposition engaged in non-accepted means of mass collective action; the result was systematic change in both the political and the socioeconimoc system”.[2]

II. Method

The comparative method in this paper will be the macro-causal type of analysis, the Method of Difference based on John Stuart Mill.[3] This method seeks to explain differing outcomes (institutional compromise – non-violent revolution) of countries which are as similar as possible, through identifying and explaining crucial variable(s). Of course, this approach is only ideal-typical: that one independent variable, which is a crucial factor in one country but does not occur in the second country, explains the dependent variable, the phenomenon of the different outcomes. Even if the starting positions or structures are in both cases very similar, in my opinion several causes frequently lead to different outcomes, above all macrosociological occurences .

In by and large the neighbourstates Poland and East Germany were more similiar than different. Therefore, the most impotant fact is that both were a part of the Soviet led East European statesystem and by this means – according to Steven Saxonberg’s neo-marxian approach - representatives of an independend socioeconomic system, characterized by a new mode of production, neither capitalist nor socialist. [4] The means of production were not under the control of a bourgeoisie or the workers, but rather posessed by the bureaucratic apparatus of the ruling party[5], the SED in East Germany and PZPR in Poland. Moreover the party had the monopol of truth in all political, social and ideological questions. Furthermore both states were – until the election of Gorbachev - to a large extent dominated and restricted by the influence of the Soviet Union in domestic and foreign policy.

III. Theoretical Discussion

The theoretical backround of this paper will be on the one hand the political opportunity structure approach and and on the other hand a framing analysis. I chose these approches because in my opinion it is necessary for an adequate explaining of macrosociological events - like the democratic transformation in Poland and the non-violent revolution in the GDR - to use a perspective, which is related to “structure“ and “agency”-oriented facts. If these two approaches are fruitful, the following analysis will show.

The concept of political opportinity structure was introduced by Peter Eisinger in 1973, as he took up the notion of Tocqueville that revolts emerge when a closed system of opportunities has began to open, and not when people are most oppressed by the system.[6] The starting point of this approch is the opening of a broader set of the political-institutional structures as the context, which offer possibilities and “shape the prospects for collective action and the forms movements take”[7]. If we focus on the scientific outcomes, we might face a certain amount of inscrutability, because scholars make use of differing adaptations of identifying political opportunities with different focuses and dimensions. This led to the point - as William A. Gamson and Dacid S. Meyer acknowledged - that this approach gets into danger “of becoming a sponge that soaks up virtually every aspect of the social movement environment - political institutions and culture, crises of various sorts, poltitical alliances, and policy shifts”[8]. However, the basic dimension of the changes is always the “formal legal and insitutional structure of a given polity” [9] in a national context. Examples for this would be a divided elite, a failed reform or the erosion of authority over the state bureaucracy.[10] In my opinion this basic dimension of the approach is not very fruitful with regard to my chosen cases. As the example of East Germany illustrates, a mass-mobilization emerged without an opening of “windows of opportunities”; the SED was not devided, the inner party continued to possess authority among the lower rank members of bureaucracy. In Poland on the contrary the opportunity to participate opened up for the opposition because the institutional change was initiated by the ruling party, but the main reason which made this possible has to be seen in the political opportunity structure of the “international political environment(s)”[11], that means the changes in the Soviet Union. For this reason I will only refer to the change in the Soviet Union, here called the “Gorbetchev factor"[12], in the main part, which had a crucial influence on the events in Poland and East Germany but caused different reactions among each ruling party.

The framing processes are based on the complex social psychological dynamics like collective interpretation, attribution and social construction, through which meanings are constructed that finally legitimate and motivate actions.[13] Snow and Benford offered the most generally influential approach to the analysis of social movements as they have developed the concept of framing by elaborating Goffman’s idea of frame and applying it to the cultural contribution of movements. The term ‚frame’ denotes a “schemata of interpretation” that enables individuals “to locate, perceive, identify, and label occurrences within their life space and the world at large”.[14] An important aspect within the framing theory on social movements is the point that frames are closely related to political opportunitiy structures. Changes in structures engourage mobilization “not only through objective effects that they have on power relations, but by setting in motion framing processes that further undermine the legitimacy of the system“[15]. For this reason, I attempt to approach the framing analysis with respect to the notion of perception: the perception of the political opportunity structure, based on Gorbachev’s reform policy, which turned the already eroding legitimacy of the system into illegitimacy.

IV. A Comparative Analysis of Poland and East Germany

4.1. Political Opportunity Structure: The Gorbachev Factor in Connection to Framing Analysis

As I said before Gorbachev’s election in 1985 and the following reforms had far-reaching consequencen for the states in Eastern Europe. He was elected of the Politburo in the first place because of the deep economic crisis in the Soviet Union, which called for an unorthodox and reform-oriented general secretary.[16] With the fundamental reforms of “glasnost” (transparency) and “perestroika” (transformation) – which were for example expressed in loosening of ideological restrictions and censorships, multiple canditate election and changes in political structures, economy and bureaucracy - he tried to oppose economic problems and inserted therefore a indirect pressure on the regimes of the satellite staates to follow these reforms as well. But he did not oblige the countries to do so, he rather let them decide freely, therefore his political acting must be interpreted as passive.[17] Of special meaning was also the abolision of the so called “Brezhnev doctrine”, as he assured the states of the Eastern bloc their independence with regard to questions of domestic politics and especially the renunciation to intervene militarily. [18]

In the following passage I will refer to the particular governments in order to show how they acted in the 1980s, how the opening opportunities - that occurred since Gorbatchev’s election – functioned as an influencing factor, which strategy the governments chose and also how it was perceived by the population and influenced their behaviour. The continuing economic crisis has to be seen as the starting point for both governments as well as the failed reforms to end this problems, that led to a further reaching lack of legitimacy among the population.[19]

As Jaruzelski came to power in 1981 he initiated and ruled through the “Military Council for National Salvation” (WRON) and imposed the martial law on Poland. An further improved organisation of the opposition and closer moving together of the intellectuals, workers and the church had preceded the events. After the bloody put down of the worker revolts in 1976, the KOR (Committee for the Defense of Workers), a group of intellectuals, was formed that attempted to support the workers with legal means. In the course of the following events, a connection of intellectuals and workers was achieved under the “master frames”[20] of reforming the system through liberalisation and democratisation. Whereas in the GDR this was only achieved after the Gorbachev’s reforms. A collective action repertoire and a protest culture of sit-down strikes and factory occupation was formed under the leadership of a strike commitee.[21] In order to adopt a clear position opposing the government, also a symbolic boundary occurred, through utilizing for example symbols of early social movements like the Polish crowned white eagle.[22] Massive protests and strikes in Gdansk led to a legal recognition of Solidarność and so for the first time an independent trade union of a Communist country. Soon about ten million members belonged to the union, three quarters of all workers of Poland.[23] In the following month Solidarność made increasingly active demands for a social-political movement with a democratic und liberal mission, and not only as a socially and economically-oriented organisation of workers.[24] This caused a raising pressure on domestic politics that finally was even increased under the pressure of foreign politics of the Soviet Union, which indirectly threatened to intervene militarily.[25] Jaruzelski came to power to oppose both crises and his answer was the material law – this time was called by the population “In War”[26], detensions and finally the prohibition of Solidarność. But he strove to induce the populace to accept his rule for pragmatic grounds, but the opposition identity was too advanced and the organisation continued on a local level, so that Jaruzelski’s following measures failed. On the one hand he tried to point out that he saved Poland from an invasion, that it was necessary to bring order to the country to prevent something even worse from happening and that his regime as a political necessity represented a “lesser evil”, due to the maintaining of national interests.[27] On the other hand he introduced during the following years relatively reformist politics in connection to a coopting of parts of the opposition[28], which can within the scope of this paper only very superficially be dealt with. So he initiated with the OPZZ a new trade union and created together with the “Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth” (PRON) a political forum in which all legal political and social organisations were represented to discuss the society´s problems. Moreover he set up a consultive council with non-party specialists on economic and social policy, but of course without decision making power.[29] In order to end this part about the political reforms and the attempts to win the oppostion over, I will name equally important aspects: “amnesties for political prisoners, reform proposals advocating privatization schemes and extensive use of the market, the etablishment of closer relations with the church, looser censorship”[30]. The following events show that his attempt to court with these measures a pragmatic acceptance among the population failed in by and large. At first the failing of a referendum from a package of economic reform in 1987, which meant for Jaruzelski that the Soviet-type system had exhausted its possibilities. The opposition interpreted this referndum in the first place as a question to support the regime as a whole or not and encouraged the citiziens to boycott it.[31] And secondly the strengthening of a new round of strikes because of the worsening economic conditions, initiated by a new generation of more radical trade unionists.[32] To sum up, already the reforms until 1987 would have been very difficult to carry out without a general secretary who adopted a moderate and passive position with regard to foreign-policy. Due to his non-intervention politics the path of pragmatic acceptance – that the Soviet Union did not allow a different type of system – became invalid. Furthermore the expectations increased among the population because of his liberalization policies, connected to an unsolved economic crisis and the failing of coopting of the opposition, led to the ermergence of a potentially revolution in Poland.[33] Under these difficult and dangerous conditions Jaruzelski and other moderate party members introduced a “pacted transition”[34] and cleared the way to the “Round Table”, that met from February, 6th until April, 5th in 1989. The reason for this was the government’s view into the fact that the solution of the social and economical crisis will only be possible together with parts of the opposition, so that they could coopt in sharing resposibility for necessary reforms on the one hand [35]| ; on the other hand they would have a better negotiation position as initiators of the unavoidable pact[36]. The “Round Table” entailed three critical compromises: 1. semi-free elections for Sejm, as 65% of the seats were occupied for the ruling coalition, 35% could be elected; 2. creation of a second court of the Senate, that was determined in free election, 3. creation of a presidenty that was equiped with several authorities and was silently reserved for Jaruzelski. He was elected for president, but after the overwhelming success in the senat elections, the candidate of "Solidarnosc", Mazowiecki, became the first non-communist prime minister on August 24th in 1989. The results since the “Round Table” have to be seen in a close connection to the international power relations. Gobatchev had to agree upon results whose development he did not start but indirectly encouraged, interventions would have meant the end of an approach to the West as well as the end of his reforms politics. And the Polish example, as well as the Hungarian, had far-reacing international effects in all Eastern regimes[37].


[1] Steven Saxonberg, The Fall: A Comparative Study of the End of Communism in Czecheslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland, (London/New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 4.

[2] ibid., p. 4

[3] Theda Skocpol & Margaret Somers, “ The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Theory”, in Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 3, no. 22, 1980, p. 183.

[4] Saxonberg, The Fall, p. 40.

[5] ibid., p. 40.

[6] Sidney Tarrow, “'Aiming at a Moving Target': Social Science and the Recent Rebellions in Eastern Europe”, in Political Science & Politics, no. 3, 1991, p. 14.

[7] Doug McAdam & John D. McCarthy & Mayer N. Zald, “Introduction: Opportunities, mobilizing structures, and framing processes – toward a synthetic, comparative perspective on social movements”, in Doug McAdam et al., eds., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 ), p. 3.

[8] William A. Gamson & David S. Meyer, “Framing political opportunity”, in Doug McAdam et al., eds., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 ), pp. 275-290.

[9] Doug McAdam, “Conceptual origins, current problems, future directions”, in Doug McAdam et al., eds., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 ), p. 27.

[10] Anthony Oberschall, “Opportunities and framing in the Eastern European revolts of 1989”, in Doug McAdam et al., eds., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framing, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 95.

[11] ibid., p. 94.

[12] ibid., p. 94.

[13] McAdam & McCarthy & Zald, “Introduction”, pp. 5/6.

[14] Robert D. Benford & David A. Snow, “ Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment”, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 26., 2000, p. 611.

[15] McAdam &McCarthy & Zald, “Introduction”, p. 8.

[16] Saxonberg, The Fall, p. 366.

[17] ibid., p. 127.

[18] Bernd Lindner, Die demokratische Revolution in der DDR 1989/1990, (Bonn: bpb, 2001), p. 16.

[19] Saxonberg, The Fall, p. 163.

[20] Benford & Snow, “ Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment”, p. 619.

[21] Oberschall, “Opportunities and framing in the Eastern European revolts of 1989”, in p. 104.

[22] ibid., p. 104.

[23] Juan J. Linz & Alfred Stepan, “Authoritarian Communism, Ethical Civil Society, and Ambivalent Political Society: Poland”, in Juan J. Linz, Alfred Stepan, eds., Prroblems of Democratic Transition and Consilidation. Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, (Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 262/263.

[24] Dieter Bingen, “Tausend Jahre wechselvoller Geschichte”, in Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, ed., Informationen zur politischen Bildung 273: Polen, (Bonn: bpb, 2001), p. 12.

[25] Michael Gehler, “Die Umsturzbewegungen 1989 in Mittel- und Osteuropa. Ursachen – Verlauf – Folgen”, in Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, vol. 41, no. 42, 2004, p. 36.

[26] Brigitte Jäger-Dabek, Polen. Eine Nachbarschaftskunde, (Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 2003), p. 57.

[27] Saxonberg, The Fall, pp. 174/175.

[28] ibid., p. 367.

[29] ibid., p. 187.

[30] ibid., p. 188.

[31] ibid., pp. 188/189.

[32] Linz & Stepan, “Authoritarian Communism, Ethical Civil Society, and Ambivalent Political Society: Poland”, p. 265.

[33] Saxonberg, The Fall, p. 374.

[34] Linz & Stepan, “Authoritarian Communism, Ethical Civil Society, and Ambivalent Political Society: Poland”, p. 264.

[35] Saxonberg, The Fall, p. 7.

[36] ibid, p. 375.

[37] Linz & Stepan, “Authoritarian Communism, Ethical Civil Society, and Ambivalent Political Society: Poland”, pp. 264/267.

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Why Revolt? A Comparative Analysis of Poland and East Germany in 1989
University of Dalarna  (Master Programme of European Political Sociology)
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1989;, DDR, Polen, Revolution, soziale Bewegungen, Political Opportunity Structure
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Stefan Lochner (Author), 2004, Why Revolt? A Comparative Analysis of Poland and East Germany in 1989, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/180362


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