Project Reviews

Making the History of 1989: The Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe
Created and maintained by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University

The jubilant celebration of twenty years of freedom from Communist rule for countries in Eastern Europe is forever etched in the minds of those who lived through the tense and unpredictable months of 1989. Pivotal events led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and a domino effect throughout Eastern Europe. The dismantling of the political, social, and economic foundations of Communism are not fully understood by the new generation of students entering today's high school classes and collegiate lecture halls. Making the History of 1989 is a comprehensive digital project designed to promote classroom conversations on the fall of communism in Eastern Europe by providing teachers and students with the tools and source materials necessary for accurate assessment of the times. These educational materials were developed for teachers and their students who have little access to historical documents in English conveying the events of 1989. Project materials seek to increase the understanding of how historical learning takes place by including interaction with primary sources in an effort to grow the analytical skills used by historians. The project consists of a primary source archive, introductory essays for historical introduction and context, and interviews with scholars who lived through the epochal events. Instructors will find the teaching modules and case studies to be of particular interest for formulating lesson plans designed for high school and undergraduate study. The whole project encompassed a two-year period of development with contributors from George Mason and many other institutions in the United States with collaboration and funding from the German Historical Institute and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The importance of creating a narrative for the events of 1989 is addressed by the introductory essay section of the site. The traditional narrative framework provides a starting point or context in which the causes leading to the fall of Communism can be explored in an effort to allow the individual users to arrive at their own complex endings. The essay is broken down into sections for each country that facilitates those interested in single cases to refine their search and reading. A suggested reading list enables the prospects of further research outside of the site's limited resources.

The primary sources for Making the History of 1989 utilized hundreds of selective documents, political posters, and transcripts of speeches that have been translated from their original language into English. The accompanying descriptions and summaries for each entry provide the additional contextual explanation needed before digging deeper into the sources. The sources are designed to be used in conjunction with teaching modules and case studies.

There are currently six teaching modules available that cover a diverse set of causal factors leading to the fall of Communism. Examples include "Solidarity Comes to Power" and the "Catholic Church in Poland" that analyze religious and union involvement in removing the Communists from power in Poland. The other interesting topics range from a look at everyday life in Eastern Europe to the popular revolt in Romania resulting in a violent end for the Ceausescu family. Each of the teaching modules include a lesson plan and teaching strategy with questions and writing prompts for the students. The case studies submitted by history professors on other specific topics of interest pose similar probing questions within the text of their narratives and include a few supporting documents.

Scholar interviews add a great deal to the overall experience of this site. The questions asked to the scholars brought out the personal experiences which included perilous travels between Hungary and Romania and curious observances from inside Eastern Europe. The additional questions posed of the panel ranged from the key moments of 1989 to research challenges and opportunities for teaching and learning.

The project succeeds at what it set out to do by setting up a substantial set of resources for the development of teaching skills in recreating the historical parameters under which the period of rapid change in 1989 occurred. The navigation and search functions including extensive use of tagging are fluid and intuitive. The ease of use is due to its simple design structure and utilization of the proven Omeka software platform for creating digital projects. The creators utilized the feedback of high school teachers who beta-tested the site for potential problems with functionality and aesthetics. The high level of professional involvement is evident in the polished operation and neat thematic organization. The audience and development team successfully collaborated to improve the content and overall experience. The benefit of creating a digital project at CHNM is clearly seen in the level of detail in presentation and the potential for collaboration from renowned scholars and archival sources. While there is always room for expansion of primary sources and teaching modules, the amount of information available is more than sufficient for instructors and students to explore the many themes and outcomes of events in 1989. The scholar interviews are an important element that make the digital format essential for the discourse as newer scholars and instructors explore the methodology and historical approaches that could subsequently aid them in the effort to accurately portray the significance of this period of events.

Shawn O'Donnell
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: December 2009