Interpreting the Visual Evidence

Representing the People in Eastern Europe, 1989

The enthusiasm of the mass demonstrations that preceded the revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe in 1989 gave the events a sense of immediate drama, and images of Eastern Europeans massed together in protest, crossing boundaries that had been closed to them, and celebrating the downfall of their repressive governments spread quickly around the world. The symbolism of these images was stark and resonated with a triumphant story about the progress of democratic ideals in an increasingly unified and integrated Europe. In the East, the people's desire to join with the West, long denied, had finally been realized.

The unity of these early days nevertheless obscured a basic uncertainty about the aspirations of the populations of the newly independent nations in Eastern Europe. Many East Germans expressed reservations about the rapid pace of German reunification, and people from the West and the East continued to talk about "the wall in the head" long after the Berlin wall had been torn down. The unity of Czechoslovakia's peaceful velvet revolution in 1989 led quickly to the "velvet divorce" that produced the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Throughout the region, many commentators continued to speak of a persistent Ostalgia—a nostalgia for an alternative Eastern European past that had been lost in the abrupt transition.

We have seen in earlier chapters how representations of the people served to give meaning to moments of rapid social and political change in the French Revolution or in the unification of Germany (see Interpreting Visual Evidence in Chapter 18, page 566 and Chapter 21, page 662). The images here, from media coverage of the events of 1989, also serve to frame the interpretations that contemporaries gave to the unfolding events. Image A shows a crowd in Prague waving the Czechoslovakian flag in November 1989. Image B shows a line of East Berliners forming in front of a West Berlin grocery store in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Image C shows the last of the Leipzig Monday demonstrations on March 12, 1990—the caption reads, "Also after the last demonstration: We are the People. We are one people." "We are the people" was the slogan of the weekly demonstrations in Leipzig in 1989 that did so much to discredit the government in the months before the wall fell. "We are one people" became the slogan of Helmut Kohl's government as it pushed for rapid reunification of the two Germanies.


Questions for Analysis

1. In image A, how should one interpret the wave of nationalist enthusiasm that engulfed Czechoslovakia in 1989, in light of what we know of the subsequent failure to keep Czechoslovakia together as a unified nation?
2. Photographs such as image B were extremely common in the media in 1989, showing East Berliners shopping in Western stores. What do such images suggest about how the East’s previous isolation was interpreted in the West, and what does it say about how both sides may have viewed the consequences of their newfound freedom?
3. What is the difference between “We are the people” and “We are one people” as political slogans?

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