Chapter 26 Postwar Europe and North America, 1945-1968

Section 3 The New Soviet Empire

During the two decades after World War II, the Soviet Union expanded its control to include 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 their authority. The people of Eastern Europe were in fact subjects of a new Soviet empire.  

Changes in the Soviet Union

No 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.

Some 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 widespread.

Even 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.

Moreover, 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.


On 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, former party secretary of the Ukraine, took over as leader of the Soviet Union.

By 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.

Khrushchev's attack on Stalin produced a profound shock. As Vladimir Osipov, later an editor of an underground journal, recalled:  

"Overthrown was the man who had personified the existing system and ideology to such an extent that the very words 'the Soviet power' and 'Stalin' seemed to have 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.

East 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.


East Germany. In 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:  

'"I spent a whole day arguing with them and telling them that our part of Germany 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 all."  

Through 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 aftermath. 

Poland. Although 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 government.

Poles 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 Freedom."


This time the Soviets did not respond with overwhelming force. They allowed the return to power of Wladyslaw Gomulka, a 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.  

Czechoslovakia and Hungary

Unlike 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) reassumed 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.

In 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), was 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.

In 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.

During 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) announced 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 scene:

"I 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 of fourteen blow up a Russian tank, and grandmothers walk up to Russian cannons." 

Amid 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.


The Balkans


Soviet 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.

During 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

The 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.