The opening of the Berlin Wall on the 9th of November 1989 is probably the most emblematic moment in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. A less remarked upon, but perhaps more ultimately significant, event took place twenty years ago yesterday. On the 17th of April 1989, the ruling communists in Poland agreed to hold partially competitive elections. The elections were meant to leave the communists in power, as 70 out of 100 seats in the Polish parliament's lower house were reserved for them and their allies in various front parties. When the elections were held (on the 4th of June), the communists were humiliated - they and their allies failed to win a single one of the contested seats in the lower house, while the communists only won one seat in the Senate (where all seats were contested). Although they still had a massive parliamentary majority, their political bankruptcy was exposed, and the opposition Solidarity movement was invited to form a non-communist government.
People still argue over what caused the collapses of communism in Eastern Europe. Whatever the cause, my own view is that once one of the Soviet satellites started unambiguously on the road to free elections the jig was up for the lot of them. Any one country's progress down the road to freedom made it apparent to oppositions and governments everywhere that the Soviets were not going to send in the tanks to shore up their allies. None of the communist regimes ultimately had the wherewithal to maintain themselves in power, and they all fell to the upsurge in oppositional activity triggered by developments in Poland.
Poland's history since the transition has been... interesting. Successive governments have had to grapple with the economic bankruptcy bequeathed by the communists, while the inevitable break up of Solidarity made politics somewhat chaotic. People like Lech Walesa, who were genuinely heroic in opposition, seemed somewhat less than suited for the nuanced world of democratic politics. Nevertheless, the country has made impressive progress, apparently weathering the current economic storm better than most.
Some interesting pieces on the BBC website:
How Poland became an aid donor (one of the more benign views of Poland's "shock therapy" transition to market economics).
Children of the Solidarity revolution (the human cost borne by those whose family members ultimately brought down the dictatorship)
1989: Key events in Europe's revolution (a series of pieces on the momentous events of 1989)
1989 - Europe's revolution (more on that great year)