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One Bright Moment in an Age of War, Genocide and Terror? On the Revolutions of 1989

18 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2008 Last revised: 5 Mar 2014

Chris Armbruster


Date Written: August 30, 2008


1989 was described as ‘annus mirabilis’, and its revolutions hailed as one of the great moments in human history. In subsequent years, the re-emergence of war, genocide and terror led to re-interpretation: Europe became a dark continent, the 20th century its darkest hour. Was 1989 merely a bright moment in a dark age?
This contribution acknowledges European war, genocide and terror and examines in some detail the contribution of this history to the self-limiting or negotiated revolutions of 1989. It is argued that horrific violence – Stalinist terror, World War II, the Cold War as well as genocide, ethnic cleansing and deportation – resulted processes that contributed to the revolutions of 1989 in the following ways:
• The legacy of Stalinist terror resulted in a structural stasis that prefigured the breakdown of the Soviet empire;
• Integration into global warfare enabled the perpetuation of Soviet rule but also provided the window of opportunity for overturning the Soviet legacy:
• State building was constrained by the Soviet imperial cage but ultimately resulted in independent states and societies able to purposefully organise change after 1989.
The argument is that the self-limiting or negotiated revolution of 1989 (Staniszkis 1984, Lawson 2005) was more than just a utopian moment in that it contains a new idea for organizing large-scale, rapid social and political change, which is relevant the twenty-first century. Contrary to received historical wisdom, revolutions may in future be the non-violent means of organising large-scale and rapid change, if negotiated.

Keywords: 1989, war, genocide, terror, Soviet empire, Cold War, self-limiting revolution, negotiated revolution, state building, large-scale change, transition, transformation

JEL Classification: N14, N44, P21, P31, P33

Suggested Citation

Armbruster, Chris, One Bright Moment in an Age of War, Genocide and Terror? On the Revolutions of 1989 (August 30, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Chris Armbruster (Contact Author)

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Berlin, 13158

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