Chapter 26 Postwar Europe and North America, 1945-1968
the two decades after World War II, the Soviet Union expanded its
most of Eastern Europe. Though the countries of the Soviet sphere were
supposedly independent, the governments there ruled with guidance from
the Soviet union and were maintained in power by the Red Army. Behind
the Iron Curtain, the Soviets ruthlessly put down resistance to
authority. The people of Eastern Europe were in fact subjects of a new
in the Soviet Union
other European nation suffered more than the Soviet Union during World
War II. The German advance of 1941 had laid waste to much of the western
Soviet Union. The Soviet counteroffensive of the following years
destroyed much of what the Germans had not.
20 million Soviet citizens were killed during the war, although no
precise total can be determined. Most of these casualties were due not
to the Germans but to Stalin's brutality against his own people. The
fighting also left approximately 25 million homeless. Many of the cities
of the western Soviet Union were in ruins; much of the country's best
and most productive farmland was left barren. Roughly one quarter of the
country's capital stock-productive resources such as industrial
machinery and farm equipment-had been destroyed. Hunger and disease were
so, the Soviet Union was among the victors, and victory had its
rewards. The Soviet Union in 1945 included nearly 200,000 square miles
more territory than it had before 1939. The new territories included the
formerly independent Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia;
a sizable portion of eastern Poland (which Stalin had gained in his 1939
pact with Hitler); East Prussia; territory along the Soviet border with
Romania; and the formerly Japanese Kuril Islands off the Pacific coast.
the war had enhanced the reputation of the Stalinist government among
many Soviets. Most had no way of knowing that Stalin's incompetence had
been largely responsible for the near-defeat by Germany in 1941.
During the war Stalin had downplayed communist ideology in favor of
traditional themes of Russian patriotism. The dislocation of the war
also often hid his ongoing brutal repression of potential rivals. After
the war Soviet citizens continued to face arrests, torture, and
imprisonment at the hands of the secret police.
March 1, 1953, a bodyguard, worried because Stalin had not been seen
since afternoon, broke into a room in Stalin's country home. He found the
Soviet leader lying on the floor unable to speak; four days later Stalin
died. His death led to a power struggle among top Communist officials.
Eventually, Nikita Khrushchev,
party secretary of the Ukraine, took over as leader of the Soviet Union.
the beginning of 1956, Khrushchev was sure enough of his leadership
position to denounce the excesses of Stalin's policies. In a dramatic
"secret speech" given to the Twentieth Congress of the
Communist Party in February 1956, Khrushchev condemned Stalin for
fostering a "cult of personality," for murdering thousands
of loyal and honest Communist officials and party members, for weakening
the Red Army to the point of nearly losing the war against Germany, and
for various other crimes against the Soviet people.
attack on Stalin produced a profound shock. As Vladimir Osipov, later an
editor of an underground journal, recalled:
the man who had personified the existing system and ideology to
an extent that the very words 'the Soviet power' and 'Stalin' seemed to
been synonymous [meant the same thing]. ...
Khrushchev's speech and the 20th Congress destroyed our faith, having
extracted from it its very core ... Joseph Stalin."
This de-Stalinization extended to economic affairs. Where Stalin had emphasized industrial growth to the exclusion of almost everything else, the new government made greater allowances for consumer tastes. Food production, in particular, was stepped up. "Communism cannot be conceived of as a table with empty places," declared Khrushchev. Nevertheless, the brutal police state that Stalin created continued to be the foundation of the Soviet government's power.
Germany and Poland
To the Soviets' way of thinking, the most important countries of Central and Eastern Europe were East Germany and Poland. Germany had attacked their territory twice through Poland. To prevent another such attack, the Soviets wanted to keep a tight grip on these countries.
contrast to West Germany, no economic "miracle" took place in
East Germany. Many of the East German factories not destroyed in the
fighting were relocated to the Soviet Union as reparations. Though East
Germany became a Soviet ally, ordinary Russians had long looked upon all
Germans as the enemy. An East German technician sent to the Soviet Union
was astonished at Soviet hostility:
a whole day arguing with them and telling them that our part
was friends with them and that we were building socialism. But it didn't
seem to matter. For them, Germans were Germans and they hated us
the early 1950s the Soviet government stripped East Germany of
resources, leaving the East Germans few means with which to rebuild
their devastated country. The harsh treatment provoked a reaction. In
June 1953 construction workers in East Berlin dropped their tools and
went on strike. It was not long before the strike grew into a full-scale
revolt against the communist government. The government, with assistance
from Soviet tanks, brutally put down the uprising, killing dozens of
people. Over 100 more were executed as traitors in the revolt's
relations were tense between the Soviet Union and East Germany, tensions
were even greater between the Soviets and Poles. The events surrounding
the end of the war only made matters worse. In August 1944 Polish
resistance fighters in Warsaw rose up against the German occupation
forces. Stalin ordered Red Army troops approaching the city to halt,
giving the Nazis time to smash the Polish forces and eliminate any
potential competitors to Stalin's handpicked Polish communist
briefly gained hope from the interest Roosevelt and Churchill expressed
in Poland's future at Yalta, but as it became clear that neither the
United States nor Britain was willing to risk war with the Soviet Union
over Poland, the Soviets crushed all opposition. However, opposition
gradually revived. In 1956, following Khrushchev's anti-Stalin speech,
Polish protesters began insisting on greater rights for the Polish
people. Polish workers carried signs demanding "Bread and
time the Soviets did not respond with overwhelming force. They allowed
the return to power of Wladyslaw Gomulka,
former Polish leader deposed by Stalin for wanting to take Poland in a
more independent direction. Gomulka proved to be one of the shrewdest
and most durable of the Eastern European Communist rulers. He remained
in power for 14 years, walking a fine line between what the Polish
people demanded and what Moscow would tolerate.
most other countries in Central Europe, Czechoslovakia had been a
functioning democracy between the wars. This helped the nation resist
Soviet domination longer than its neighbors. In April 1945, with
Stalin's support, prewar president Edvard Benes (BEN-esh)
office and appointed a national coalition government. Parliamentary elections in
May 1946 gave the largest share of votes to the Communist Party,
which then formed another government with several other parties.
February 1948, however, the Czech Communists staged a coup. Having
staffed the key positions in the important ministries with party
loyalists and enjoying the backing of the Soviet army, the Communists
were able to seize complete power with relative ease. One of the last
of the democratic leaders, Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk (MAHsah-rik),
found dead outside his office building, the result of a fall from his
upper-story window. The Communists maintained that he jumped, but many
in Czechoslovakia believed he was pushed.
Hungary the opposition to Soviet control came from small landholders. In
the November 1945 elections, the anticommunist Smallholders Party won a
majority and formed a new government. This victory surprised the
Hungarian Communists, who then plotted to destroy the government. In
February 1947 the Communists seized the secretary general of the
Smallholders Party, eventually executing him on charges
of treason. Harassment of the government continued, finally resulting in
the forced resignation of the premier in May 1947.
the course of the next several years the Communists consolidated their
control over Hungary, but in 1956 the strong de-Stalinization movement
in the Soviet Union encouraged Hungarians to attempt something similar.
Premier Imre Nagy (NAJ)
that Hungary must find a way to adapt socialism to fit Hungarian
circumstances-"to cut our coat according to our cloth." He
eased police repression and suspended collectivization. The reform
movement, however, soon turned into an anti-Soviet revolution. In
October, spurred on by the demonstrations in Poland, Hungarian
protesters took to the streets of Budapest by the hundreds of thousands,
chanting, "We shall never again be slaves!" Police fired on
the crowd, converting the demonstration into a riot. Rioters destroyed
Soviet flags and toppled statues of Stalin. An observer recalled the
saw young students, who had known nothing but a life under Communist
and Russian control, die for a freedom about which they had only heard
from others or from their own hearts ....
I saw a girl
blow up a Russian tank, and grandmothers walk up to
the excitement, Nagy promised free elections and Hungary's withdrawal
from the Warsaw Pact. On October 30th, the Soviets had pulled
their troops out of Budapest. After it became obvious that the Western
powers were not going to come to Hungary's aid, however, the Soviet
leadership decided to crush the revolt. On November 4th a huge armored
force, including some 2,500 tanks rolled across the border into Hungary.
Thousands of Hungarians died in the fighting; hundreds of thousands more
fled the country for the West.
power also flowed into the Balkans along with the Red Army at the war's end.
The Soviet Union had the easiest time taking over Bulgaria. For a long
time Bulgaria had been relatively proRussian. It also was the only
country under the wartime domination of Germany to successfully resist
Berlin's demands to contribute troops to the invasion of the Soviet
Union. In September 1944 Bulgaria submitted to Soviet armistice demands
and accepted a coalition government with Communists in key posts.
the course of the next several months the Communists pushed their
coalition partners aside and directed a bloody purge of supporters of
the monarchy. By November 1945 the Communists in Bulgaria had come to
dominate the governing coalition. Thereafter, Communist control of the
government was never seriously challenged.
The Red Army invaded Romania about the same time it entered Bulgaria. The Soviets took a more direct role in Romanian politics, however, partly because of traditional Romanian hostility to Russian imperialism and partly because of Romania's strategic position on the Soviet Union's border. In March 1945 Stalin forced King Michael to hand over government authority to the leader of the left-wing Plowmen's Front. In December 1947 Communists forced King Michael to abdicate. The following March the Communist People's Democratic Front won more than 90 percent of the vote in a rigged election.
The Yugoslavian Exception
story of communism had both a different beginning and a different ending
in Yugoslavia than elsewhere in the Balkans. Communism emerged as a
powerful force in Yugoslavia through the wartime efforts of Josip Broz,
commonly called Tito, and his anti-German partisan comrades. Although
Soviet forces came to Tito's assistance in 1944, effective power in the
country resided with Tito's Communist National Front.
For three years after the war, Yugoslavia aligned itself with the Soviet Union, but never very closely. In 1948 strong differences of opinion between the Soviets and Tito came to a head. Stalin refused to accept the idea of an independent communist government so close to the borders of the Soviet Union and abruptly recalled Soviet advisors from Yugoslavia. In June 1948 he expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform. As Tito became an outcast among his fellow Communists, he pursued closer relations with the West, particularly the United States, which was happy to help a European communist power break free from the Soviets. American economic and military aid began flowing to Yugoslavia. Western influence remained limited, however; as long as he lived, Tito remained an autocratic dictator and ruled Yugoslavia with an iron hand under a tightly controlled totalitarian regime.