Politically, the Cold War defined the borders of Eastern Europe. Cultural unification of Eastern Europe proved more difficult, however. Soviet-supported regimes introduced communist holidays as well as the Sovietization of cultural life, including schools and universities. But beneath this veneer, national traditions remained and throughout the years grew even stronger. Social and cultural transformation was perhaps most thoroughly accomplished in the artificially constructed GDR and in Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania.
The political reshuffling of Eastern Europe also brought economic restructuring. Moscow established the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1949 with the aim of creating economic autarky within its sphere of influence and sealing its empire off from the forces of capitalism. All Comecon members were united by a commonality of fundamental class interests and the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and took common approaches to economic ownership (state versus private) and management (planned versus market-driven). By the end of the 1970s, with the exception of Poland's agricultural sector, all Comecon countries had converted to a socialist system.
Soviet domination of Comecon was a function of its economic, political, and military power. The Soviet Union possessed 90 percent of Comecon's land and energy resources, 70 percent of its population, and 65 percent of its income as well as industrial and military capacities second only to those of the United States. The location of many Comecon committee headquarters in Moscow and the large number of Soviet nationals in positions of authority also testified to the power of the Soviet Union within the organization. In addition, from 1955 on East European Comecon members were also militarily conjoined with the Soviet Union via the Warsaw Pact.
Nevertheless, trade between East and West never completely stopped. The GDR was indirectly connected to the West European Common Market through its ties with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). The Hungarian economy also became intertwined with the global market in the years after 1956. Beginning in the 1960s, other Comecon members developed economic relations with the outside world, especially with the industrialized West.
Thus, from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, during a time in which there was no world shortage of energy and raw materials, the Soviet Union inexpensively supplied its East European clients with hard goods in exchange for finished machinery and equipment. This indirect subsidization ceased in the 1970s, when oil prices soared. The Soviet Union decreased its exports to Eastern Europe and increased its purchases of soft goods. This policy forced Eastern Europe to turn to the West for hard goods despite the fact that they had fewer goods to export in return for hard currency. Both economic interdependence with and indebtedness to the West grew enormously and in the end contributed to the economic and political collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Moscow's political control of Eastern Europe was the decisive factor in defining the region. World War II also brought societal transformation to Eastern Europe. The Yugoslavian revolutionary Milován Djilas recalled that Soviet leader Josef Stalin once said to him during the war that the victors' armies would bring their social systems to the territories they occupied. In Eastern Europe, communist parties (usually backed by the Red Army) began nationalizing industry and dividing up large estates among the peasantry as soon as the war ended. The implementation of Stalinist rule was completed throughout Eastern Europe during 1944–1949, but not to the same extent in each country.
Immediately after the war, indigenous communist regimes in Yugoslavia and Albania were installed without any serious resistance and without the need for Soviet support. In Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria, communist-dominated states were set up with substantial help from Moscow. Poland was not only occupied by the Red Army in 1944–1945, but its borders were also redrawn by the Soviet Union. Moscow claimed the eastern territories and extended the western boundary at the expense of Germany. These border changes were accompanied by the forced resettlement of 4.5 million Poles, more than 8 million Germans, and thousands of Ukrainians.
In Bulgaria, a new communist-dominated republic was proclaimed in September 1946 after which the royal family was forced to flee. Industrialization and agricultural collectivization there made the country one of the most prosperous in the Soviet bloc. In Romania, it took until 1948 before the monarchy was abolished and a communist Romanian People's Republic was proclaimed. Industrialization was forced upon this mainly agricultural country, leading to serious food shortages and widespread deprivation. In Germany, the Red Army had to deal with the Allies, which delayed Sovietization of their occupation zone, partly to keep safe access to the coal mines of the Ruhr area and to postpone Anglo-American control of West Germany. Only in 1949, after the FRG came into being, did Stalin approve the proclamation of the communist-dominated GDR.
In Hungary and Czechoslovakia it took until 1947–1948 before a single-party state was created. Czechoslovakia was an especially uneasy Soviet ally. Klement Gottwald, chairman of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, became prime minister in 1946, but a power struggle had already developed between communist and democratic forces in early 1948. This struggle ended with the communist-staged and Soviet-backed coup d'état that February. Gottwald remained in power.
Beginning in 1947, a clearly visible rift between East and West had emerged. Comecon and the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan divided Europe economically into two camps. Militarily, Western Europe sealed its alliance against the Soviet bloc in 1949 with the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These developments and the explosive 1948 Soviet-Yugoslav split compelled Moscow to stage a fierce campaign against Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. In its wake, all socialist regimes were purged of revisionist elements, and the Kremlin tightened the reins of its client states. In the following years, harsh repression and purges were common in most East European states, during which thousands were imprisoned and executed.
The years 1953–1956 saw a process of de-Stalinization across the region, which ended with violence. In October 1956 student demonstrators in Budapest demanded the withdrawal of Soviet troops and were fired upon. Imre Nagy, the Hungarian reformist minister of agriculture, was named prime minister and tried to establish peace. He promised to abolish the hated secret police. The conflict intensified, Hungarian military forces joined the rebels, and Nagy announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact. Soviet troops then moved into Budapest and crushed the uprising. Some 25,000 people were killed in the fighting, and 2,000 more, including Nagy, were executed in subsequent reprisals. Another 200,000 fled the country. Following the revolt, the Hungarian Communist Party reorganized, and János Kádár became party head and premier. After 1956, Hungary maintained the party line politically but abandoned strict central economic control in favor of a limited market system.
The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, effectively sealed off the GDR from the West. Because the Berlin question was now resolved but painfully so, the focus of the Cold War shifted to other areas. Eastern Europe literally disappeared behind a wall.
There was nevertheless maneuvering room within the Eastern bloc. Soviet troops withdrew from Romania in 1958, and after 1960 Romania adopted an independent foreign policy under two leaders, Georghe Gheorghiu-Dej and his protégé Nicolae Ceauşescu. Albania too loosened its close collaboration with the USSR after a conflict with Moscow over a submarine base. Albania broke off diplomatic relations with the Soviets in 1961 and reoriented itself toward the People's Republic of China (PRC). In 1968, Albania also left the Warsaw Pact.
The Prague Spring constituted the last hope for many sincere adherents of socialism. In April 1968, the new first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubček, introduced "socialism with a human face," an attempt to liberalize the regime. The Prague Spring provoked Moscow, leading to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by 200,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers on the night of 20 August 1968. The Prague Spring was crushed. Renewed dictatorship resulted in the removal of thousands of communist officials. Many party members, intellectuals, and educated professionals lost their jobs.
A decade later, in 1977, this repression led to the formation of a Czechoslovak citizens' movement, Charter 77. This human rights group explicitly linked itself with the outcome of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. This small group of Prague intellectuals functioned as an underground opposition throughout the 1980s.
In the meantime, in Poland, waves of strikes and protests in 1970, 1976, and 1980 signaled growing dissatisfaction with the communist-dominated regime there. Polish officials responded with coercion and concessions but became more and more isolated from the Polish population. This culminated in the strikes of 1980–1981, led by the Solidarność (Solidarity) Movement. The regime survived only by imposing martial law in 1981, thereby preventing a Soviet military intervention. The opposition, backed by the large nationalist Catholic Church, grew more confident.
From 1985 on, the USSR's new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, implemented a process of fundamental restructuring, known as perestroika (reform) and glasnost (openness). This political change was most visible in Hungary. In June 1987 Károly Grosz took over as Hungary's premier. After Kádár's forced retirement in 1988, Grosz also became party secretary-general. Hungary then began moving toward full democracy, and communists gave up their power monopoly in February 1989. Hungary was the first country to literally cut through the wire fences of the Iron Curtain in May and September 1989, thereby allowing East Germans and others to flee to Austria. The democratic opposition won elections in March 1990, and Hungary changed political systems with little turmoil.
In Poland, the opposition was able to force the regime to hold free elections in June 1989. The communists failed to win even one seat, while Solidarity became the political embodiment of Polish independence and nationalism. These elections triggered a succession of events that soon brought about the collapse of the entire Soviet bloc.
The opening of the Berlin Wall on 9–10 November 1989 symbolically and definitively tore down the Iron Curtain. In the GDR after 1953, the population never again had dared to stand up against the regime. In the summer of 1989, the exit of thousands of refugees via Hungary to the West and the GDR's civil rights movement together created a momentum that grew into mass demonstrations. On the eve of 7 October 1989 the regime celebrated its fortieth anniversary. But Gorbachev, who was present at the celebration, no longer assured GDR leader Erich Honecker of Soviet backing. Without this support and in the face of mounting protests, the regime could not survive, and a peaceful dissolution took place.
Gorbachev's reforms and the fall of the Berlin Wall raised expectations elsewhere in Eastern Europe. A student march in Prague on 17 November 1989 was smashed, however, by the Czechoslovakian police. Finally, daily demonstrations and a general strike on 27 November culminated in the wholesale resignation of the Communist Party. This Velvet Revolution brought opponents of the regime to power in June 1990.
In Bulgaria, an internal communist coup in November 1989 led to the resignation of President Todor Shivkov. The Communist Party subsequently abandoned its monopoly on power and changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In the first parliamentary elections in 1990, the former communists were elected to power again.
Only after the death of Premier Enver Hoxha did Albania revise its isolationist path, and under Ramiz Alia it began a liberalization program. In June 1990 student protesters and refugees incited the collapse of the regime. In December, the government allowed the formation of opposition parties. The March 1992 elections finally ended forty-seven years of communist rule.
Romania was the last Soviet satellite to fall. Ceauşescu, president since 1974, conducted a chaotic and megalomaniacal domestic policy characterized by nepotism. The West had always regarded Romania as an ally, however, because of its independence within the Soviet bloc. Only in the late 1980s did the United States withdraw Romania's most-favored nation trading status. On 15 December 1989, Father Lászlo Tökés ignited an uprising, causing Ceauşescu to proclaim martial law. The same month, demonstrators urged the police to arrest the dictator and his wife, who were summarily executed by a firing squad. In May 1990, however, former communists were elected back into power.
Beatrice de Graaf
Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. London: Penguin, 2005.; Naimark, Norman, and Leonid Gibianskii. The Establishment of Communist Regimes in Eastern Europe, 1944–1949. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1997.; Schöpflin, George. Politics in Eastern Europe, 1945–1992. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1993.; Stirk, Peter, ed. Mitteleuropa: History and Prospects. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.; Stokes, Gale, ed. From Stalinism to Pluralism: A Documentary History of Eastern Europe since 1945. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.; Tismaneanu, Vladimir, ed. The Revolutions of 1989. London: Routledge, 1999.