The collapse of communism in the late 1980s marked the end of Soviet rule over the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. The change was sudden and swift in most of these countries, resulting in greater social and personal freedoms, as well as economic upheaval and political chaos. The end of Soviet domination also unleashed pent-up ethnic and national grievances, leading to sometimes-brutal confrontations over centuries-old borders and political supremacy. Free of the Soviet yoke, these former satellite countries began to develop their own political parties, hybrid capitalism and a mish-mash of personal freedoms and social organizations.

New Freedoms

Few of the countries in the region had histories of democratic governance, but the collapse of communism spurred attempts at political democracy in all but Romania. Poland, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia in particular enjoyed a period of political openness, freedom of speech and the press and the formation of many new political parties and interest groups. In the initial exuberance for political transformation, most things associated with the former Soviet-dominated regimes were destroyed, replaced or discredited. Communism and all its accoutrements were roundly denounced. Former Soviet-approved leaders in these countries were promptly replaced with popular figures, such as long-time poet, author and dissident Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.

Openings to the West

In a move welcomed, encouraged and reciprocated by the U.S. and key countries in Western Europe, the newly sovereign nations in the East eagerly sought to establish new connections of all kinds to the West. From fashion and music to free elections and free trade, the former Eastern Bloc countries reveled in trying to duplicate all things Western in their previously closed societies. Significantly, states such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic later applied for entry into the European Union and the U.S.-Western Europe military alliance, NATO. This was a clear symbol of these countries' complete repudiation of their former involuntary alliances to the communist Soviet Union.

A Special Case

One of the most memorable events of the period of popular activism at the end of the communist era was the fall of the Berlin Wall. The world watched as young people from both sides of Germany began destroying the ugly symbol of communist rule, erected by the Soviets and East Germans in 1961 to choke off Western access to this strategic location. Both literally and figuratively, tearing down the wall represented the new opening to the West and Eastern Europe's "coming out" from behind the Iron Curtain. Economic, psychological and social obstacles remained, but both Germanys moved promptly to reestablish a single, reunified country.

Ethnic Divisions

For all the criticisms of the harshness and oppressiveness of communist rule during the Cold War era, it did serve to tamp down centuries-old ethnic rivalries and keep them at bay. Freed from Soviet control, such divisions resurfaced promptly. Yugoslavia separated into multiple countries along ethnic lines, as did Czechoslovakia, which split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Lesser squabbles threatened to erupt along the Hungarian-Romanian border in Transylvania, as well as on portions of the German-Poland border. Ethnic and religious divisions also manifested themselves in the creation of new political parties, several of which aimed to redress ages-old grievances.