1989: the year that determined much of the way we live today

Three decades on, the tumultuous events of '89 are a reminder that everything can change in a matter of months

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sipa Press / Rex Features ( 916809m )
A Trabant, a car produced in East Germany, crashing through the wall, by Birgit Kinder
Restoration of the 'East Side Gallery' on the Berlin Wall, Germany - 27 Apr 2009
For the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (Nov. 9, 1989), the original artists responsible for the murals that are known as the 'East Side Gallery' are returning to repaint their works. The art along the 1.3 km length of the former Berlin Wall, has been damaged by weather, pollution, vandals, tourists, and more recently graffiti artists.

We live in turbulent times, or so we are constantly told by the experts and the headline writers about the teenage years of the 21st century, or whatever label history eventually attaches to 2019.

Global terrorism, Sri Lanka, Christchurch, US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his nukes, fake news, Brexit, melting icecaps, rising seas, Extinction Rebellion, Syria, Palestine, Notre-Dame – the list goes on.

Some days when pulling back the bedroom curtains, it is a relief not to find the four horsemen of the apocalypse grazing their steeds on the garden lawn.

What then, to make of the world 30 years ago? For 1989 was one of those years where the familiar landscape of January was unrecognisable by December. The 1980s ended with 12 months that literally changed everything.

On New Year’s Day, the world was dominated by three great powers. By New Year’s Eve, one was collapsing, the other was apparently triumphant and the third still standing, but shaken to its foundations.

Two of these events were defined by place – the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square.

The latter was the gathering place for thousands of protesters calling for greater democracy in China. By late May, the Beijing square, at the epicentre of the communist government, was packed with up to 100,000 protesters, many of them students, as dissent spread to dozens of other Chinese cities.

On May 20, the increasingly unnerved Chinese leaders declared martial law, with troops armed with live ammunition and supported by tanks sent to clear the square on the evening of June 3.

A Chinese man stood alone to block a line of tanks heading east in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. The man, calling for an end to the recent violence and bloodshed against pro-democracy demonstrators, was pulled away by bystanders, and the tanks continued on their way. This photo, taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, went on to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and is now regarded as one of the most recognisable photographs of all time. Jeff Widener/Associated Press

How many died in the next two days and the repression that followed is unknown, with some estimates putting the number of victims at 10,000. One protester remains in the memory as a symbol of Tiananmen, defying a column of advancing tanks armed with nothing more than a shopping bag in each hand. The fate of “Tank Man” as, he became known, has never been determined.

If the Chinese Spring was crushed, it was a different story in the autumn. For more than 40 years, the Cold War had divided the West from Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe vassal states.

Both sides maintained huge nuclear arsenals, with the ideological divide symbolised by one structure. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, cut the city in two. For the communists, it was justified as protection against the decadence of capitalism. For millions of ordinary Germans, it was part of the Iron Curtain that effectively kept them in an ideological prison.

1989 was one of those years where the familiar landscape of January was unrecognisable by December

The first cracks began to show in the summer of 1989. Protests demanding independence from Soviet rule began to spread across Eastern Europe. In Poland, a leader of the once-banned Solidarity Movement was elected prime minister in late August.

From left: Janos Kadar of Hungary, Nikolae Ceaucescu of Romania, Erich Honecker of East Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR, Truong Chinh of Vietnam, Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, Gustav Husak of Czechoslovakia and J Batmunh of Mongolia pose before a Comecon meeting in Moscow in 1986. Tass / AFP

Authorities in East Germany at first attempted to block its citizens from leaving the country by closing its borders, then abruptly allowed free movement. On November 9, the checkpoints along the Berlin Wall were removed and East and West Germans mingled freely for the first time.

Over the coming weeks, the wall was demolished, sometimes with the help of ordinary citizens with hammers, while elsewhere the Soviet empire likewise crumbled.

Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution saw the election of a non-communist government in late November, while the violent overthrow of the Soviet-backed regime in Romania led to the televised execution of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife on Christmas Day. Within two years, the entire Soviet Union would dissolve.

In Africa, another repressive regime of a different political ideology was also beginning to implode. The white apartheid regime was becoming increasingly unstable, the result of external international pressure and growing unrest among the country’s black majority.

Real change began when the ailing hardline president Pieter Botha was forced to retire as leader of the ruling National Party after a stroke in February.

Standing down as president of South Africa in August, Botha held his first face-to-face meeting with the imprisoned African National Council leader Nelson Mandela on July 5, before being replaced with the more liberal Frederik de Klerk, the white leader who would free Nelson Mandela within six months and end apartheid with free elections four years later.

These dramatic political shifts took place against a backdrop of other headline-grabbing events. March 24 saw one of the world's worst environmental disasters when the supertanker Exxon Valdez split open after running aground in Prince William Sound on the coast of Alaska.

Dead oil-soaked sea otters found on Green Island in Prince Williams Sound after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground

Nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil polluted 2,100 km of what was a wildlife haven, causing the deaths of about 250,000 seabirds and with an estimated 21,000 gallons of oil still remaining on beaches and coves today. An inquiry found that the tanker’s radar was broken at the time of the accident, the result of Exxon deciding it was too costly to fix.

January alone saw the Gulf of Sidra incident when US fighter shot down two Libyan MiGs, the death of the Japanese emperor Hirohito, a major aviation crash in the UK and the start of the presidency of George HW Bush.

In February, the last Russian forces left Afghanistan and a fatwa was issued by Iran against the British author Salman Rushdie over his Satanic Verses. April saw the Hillsborough disaster, when 96 Liverpool-supporting men, women and children were crushed to death while attending a football match in Sheffield in the UK. In December, the US invaded Panama to overthrow the general and dictator Manuel Noriega.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - APRIL 15: People place their hands on the Hillsborough memorial outside Liverpool's Saint George's Hall as people pay their respects on the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy on April 15, 2019 in Liverpool, England. Liverpool supporters and members of the public are taking part in the commemoration outside St George's Hall where a candle is lit for each of the 96 victims who lost their lives during a crush at the Hillsborough football ground in Sheffield, South Yorkshire in 1989. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

So tumultuous was 1989 that Francis Fukuyama, a scholar working as a policy adviser for the US state department, was moved to write his essay – later a bestselling book – called The End of History.

But as we are now all too well aware, history did not end 30 years ago. That’s the first lesson from 1989.

The second is this. That we don’t always see the whole story at the time. Little reported 30 years ago were a couple of events that determine the way we live today in 2019.

In November, a company in the US offered the first dial-up connection to the public for something called the internet.

Seven months earlier, a 34-year-old British computer engineer called Tim Berners-Lee had published his blueprint for a way that would make this new creation useful to us all. He called it the world wide web.

James Langton

James Langton

James was one of the original founding editors for The National back in 2008, responsible for news features. Now back in the UK, he contributes to The National on a wide range of topics from space flight to heritage. In a long career in journalism, he worked for the London Telegraph and Evening Standard, and as a correspondent in New York.