In Gale Stokes book The Walls Came Tumbling Down, the author examines the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe from 1968 to 1989 with a brief epilogue that explores the transition of these nations from communism to pluralism between 1989 and 1992. For Stokes, the twentieth century tried three political experiments, the antirational or fascism, the hyperrational or communism, and the pluralism or democracy, and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union represented the triumph of pluralism. With pluralism’s success in Eastern Europe, Stokes sets out to demonstrate how pluralism overcame hyperrationalsim by focusing on the people and ideas that were the most influential and prominent in antigovernment and dissident organization. In this context, Stokes reveals how the ideas and individuals constituted a growing civil society within the Eastern Block. While the majority of the narrative demonstrates the success of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, the author also shows that the collapse of communism can lead to violence by briefly narrating the events in Romania and the deterioration of Yugoslavia.
Stokes begins his narrative with the year 1968 as opposed to 1945 because this earlier period is well documented by historians and because the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to stamp out the limited liberal reforms permitted by Alexander Dubcek in 1968. This invasion, which suppressed the Prague Spring, “marked the end of the era when serious people could hope that it would be possible to change the socialist system from within, either economically or politically.” (11) Following 1968, the author narrates the development of opposition groups within several Eastern European nations including the Solidarity trade union in Poland, Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, the New Economic Mechanisms introduced in Hungary, and the Monday demonstrations in the East German city of Leipzig which depict how the opposition slowly whittled away the power of the ruling regime. However, Stokes also reveals that the communist regimes in place were not out maneuvered in every instance and at times successful at stamping out dissident behavior which is especially evident in Poland where General Jaruzelski’s government suppressed Solidarity throughout the mid-1980s. Yet, even with their success in maintaining power, these regimes ultimately capitulated giving way to new pluralist governments.
Stokes interpretation of communism’s defeat in Eastern Europe is heavily focused on the ideas and people involved in the antigovernment and dissident movements and how these organizations developed into legitimate oppositions to the communist regimes. By focusing his narrative on these dissident movements and what he sees as a burgeoning civil society, Stokes overlooks two important features in the collapse of communism. First, as Stokes acknowledges, communism’s retreat from Eastern Europe is not possible without Mikhail Gorbachev’s relaxation of the Brezhnev Doctrine yet, after introducing Gorbachev and his policies, the Soviet Union plays only a marginal role in Stokes study. This then suggests that the Soviet Union and Gorbachev played almost no role in communisms collapse whereas in many cases the leaders of the Eastern European communist regimes often appealed to Gorbachev for aid and advice. By marginalizing Gorbachev, Stokes suggests that his role was not as important as the dissident movements and also ignores the fact that those who held the power in Eastern Europe also played an important role in the demise of communism.
The actions of the leaders of the East European regimes are important as well because, except for Poland where Solidarity encompassed the entire nation, the opposition groups that Stokes examines were small. As the author states “Charter 77 was never a large movement” but, by focusing on small dissident organizations in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria, the author contends that these movements encompassed much of the population. (149) This interpretation then appears to mythologize these small dissident organizations and discounts how those that held the levers of power in the communist nations slowly, but eventually, relinquished power to the leaders of dissident movements in peaceful negotiations (except for Romania). By incorporating how the leaders of the Eastern Europe regimes understood the dissident movements and eventually entered negotiations with them into his narrative, Stokes study would demonstrate that the fall of communism was not a one sided event and present a much broader understanding of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.