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9-08-2015, 22:04

THE PRICE OF VICTORY AND THE EXPANDING EMPIRE

Victory over Nazi Germany and its allies came as an immense relief to the Soviet Union. No victorious power had suffered more. The war had devastated European Russia, 25 million were homeless, factories were destroyed, railways disrupted, mechanised farm machinery virtually nonexistent. Of the population of 194 million before the war, 28 million had lost their lives; more than one in four Russians had been killed or wounded. Stalin did not expect much help from the capitalist US once the defeat of the common enemies was accomplished. Supplies had been shipped to Russia under the wartime Lend-Lease programme, but this was severely curtailed after the victory over Germany and was ended altogether in August 1945, after Japan’s defeat, for all countries. But crucial Western food supplies still reached the Soviet Union in 1946 under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), mainly financed by the US. This programme saved devastated regions from famine. The Soviet Union tried to obtain immediate assistance by taking away from the former enemy countries everything that was movable: rails, factory machines and all kinds of equipment. It was an inefficient operation and probably only a small proportion could be used again when it reached the Soviet Union. The rest rusted away in railway sidings. Joint Soviet and Eastern European companies were formed on terms dictated by the Russians; special trade agreements were reached with former allies, generally favouring the Soviet Union. Another important source of help came from reparations, exacted not only from the Soviet zones of Germany and Austria but, for a short time, with Anglo-American cooperation, from the Western occupation zones as agreed at Potsdam. Destruction in the Soviet Union was on a scale almost unimaginable, and during the war the Germans had treated the Russians worse than animals. This helps to explain the Soviet insistence on huge reparations from the production of West German industry. But Soviet demands soon ran counter to Western occupation policies. The Western Allies realised that it was they who would in the end have to make good these losses or continue to support the Germans in the Western zones with their own subsidies for years to come. The inter-Allied conflict on the reparations issue became one of the causes of the Cold War. There were desultory negotiations for a US loan after the war which never came to anything. In the last resort, Stalin had to rely on the sweat of the Russian people. There was work for the millions demobilised from the Red Army. During the war there had been some ideological relaxation. Now there was a return to orthodoxy. Stalin had not mellowed in old age: coercion resumed and an army of forced labour was herded into the Gulag Archipelago, the vast network of labour camps east of Moscow. Hundreds of thousands labelled as traitors were transported from the Baltic states, which had been annexed in 1940; many more from all over the Russian empire were also deported to virtual slavery. The Communist Party was allowed to re-emerge as Stalin’s instrument of control over Soviet society. There was rigid ideological censorship of science and all forms of culture, even of composers. The party exploited to the maximum the labour of the peasants and the workers. Military heroes were relegated to the status of ordinary citizens. The last decade of Stalin’s rule was stifling. Terror returned. Stalin’s Soviet Union was a country of immense hardship. Nascent internal nationalism was savagely crushed but could never be entirely suppressed. Jewish national feelings, especially after the foundation of Israel, drew world attention to another aspect of Soviet persecution. Rights, taken for granted in the West, did not exist in Stalin’s Russia. As in the 1930s, Stalin’s economic plans gave precedence to heavy industry at the expense of consumer goods, so the standard of living recovered only to a rudimentary level. Draconian labour laws deprived workers of all freedom and exposed them to punishment for lateness or drunkenness. Heavy burdens were laid particularly on the peasantry: the collectives were more tightly regulated and controlled; the productive private plots of the peasantry were taken away; in 1947 collectivisation was extended to the former Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. But agricultural production, unlike industrial activity, hardly recovered from the wartime lows. Food was forcibly taken from the peasantry for ridiculously low prices. There was widespread famine in the Ukraine in 1946–7. By 1952 the grain and potato harvests had still not reached the 1940 pre-war level. The failure of ‘socialist’ agriculture has remained a feature of the Soviet economy. Stalin’s emphasis on heavy industry was conditioned by his fear of Western industrial superiority. He took for granted the implacable hostility of the capitalist West to the Soviet Union. His grip over Eastern Europe and the maintenance of a large peacetime Red Army were to compensate for Russia’s economic inferiority. Every effort was also made to catch up in the field of nuclear weapons. But Stalin clearly wished to avoid a war with the West. In 1946 he cautiously withdrew demands made earlier on Turkey, and later pulled the Red Army out of northern Iran and Manchuria. Yet the Soviet position in the post-war world would depend in the first instance on the Red Army. Globally the Soviet Union stood on its own, exhausted and deeply wounded by war. Stalin feared that the Red Army, as it advanced westwards, would become aware of the much higher standard of living enjoyed by the ‘fascists’ and capitalists. The success of Soviet propaganda depended on keeping the Russian peoples from Western contact. Fraternisation with local populations was therefore severely limited where it was allowed to occur at all. Within the Soviet Union, rigid censorship about the world outside continued and a distorted picture of Western hostility and hate was propagated. The party and Stalin’s leadership were glorified. Stalin’s post-war revenge was indiscriminate. The victims of Yalta, those Russians who were forcibly repatriated by the British and Americans after the war from the zones of occupation, were lucky if they ended up in the Gulag Archipelago. Others were simply shot. But these thousands of men, women and children were just the tip of the iceberg. Whole national groups, such as the Muslim Tatars and Kalmycks, were deported with great brutality from the Caucasus when it was reoccupied by Soviet armies in 1943 and 1944. More than 1 million people were collectively punished and deported. Stalin’s ferocity exposed his fanatical determination to wipe out any danger to ‘Russian’ communist power and Soviet unity from within. The years from 1945 to Stalin’s death in 1953 were as repressive as the terrible 1930s had been. Stalin ruled by coercion and terror; he was omnipresent yet totally remote, never meeting the Russian people face to face. His character was, in Khrushchev’s words, capricious and despotic, brutal tendencies that only increased as his faculties weakened in old age. But he never lacked henchmen and supporters for his policies; policies that no one man could have carried through alone. Coercion and terror formed one essential element; the other was compliance. To this end, Stalin’s immediate helpers received material benefits. A slave army of millions of Russians, arrested for one reason or another and incarcerated in Gulag camps, provided forced labour intended to help Soviet recovery; but it was an inhuman and wasteful use of manpower. Nationalism posed a threat in two ways: ‘bourgeois’ and ‘nationalist’. Wherever nationalist consciousness manifested itself, especially in communist states such as Yugoslavia, its advocates were fiercely denounced. In the communist states the leadership exercised its will through the one (communist) party that was allowed to function. The party’s control was usually in the hands of one man, sometimes a small group, whose wills then became ultimate law. The party apparatus was essential as a means of government, providing the link between policy decisions and their execution. Only one party could be tolerated. After 1948, the nations which the Soviet Union dominated had to conform in leadership and party organisation to the Soviet model, even down to the details of the ‘personality cult’ and the theatrical plaudits for the leader. Their alliance with the Soviet Union was not a question of free choice: loyalty to this alliance was the price exacted for freedom from direct Soviet military control. Between 1940 and 1945 Stalin expanded Soviet rule over new territories, though he was well aware of the difficulties such absorption of hostile ethnic groups could create for the Soviet empire. Where possible, he reasserted the historic rights of pre-1917 tsarist Russia. Poland was a special and most difficult case if only because there were so many Poles – some 30 million in 1939, but reduced to 24 million in 1945. In reestablishing the 1941 Soviet frontier, a mixed population of Belorussians and Ukrainians in the countryside and Poles in the towns was brought within the Soviet Union, and this was only mitigated by population exchanges of Poles, Ukrainians and White Russians. The frontier between Poland and the USSR had some historical justification, since it basically followed the demarcation proposed at the Paris Peace Conference by Lord Curzon in 1919. Finland, too, lost territory but retained more of its independence. Stalin shrank from incorporating the fiercely independent and nationalist Finns. Instead, he made sure that they understood that as Russia’s neighbour, and located as they were far from possible Western help, they would have to follow a policy friendly to the USSR as the price of their comparative freedom. In 1945 Stalin retained, without Allied approval, the territories of the once independent Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which it had been agreed in the Stalin–Hitler pact of August 1939 should fall within the Soviet sphere. The Red Army occupied them in 1940 and set up puppet assemblies, which promptly abandoned their countries’ independence and acceded to the USSR. Also in 1945, but this time in agreement with the Allies, the northern third of pre-war East Prussia was ‘administered’ by the Soviet Union – in practice incorporated into it. In the Balkans, Stalin wanted Bessarabia (Moldavia). It had been Russian until 1918. After the First World War ethnic Romanians of Moldavia had declared for union with Romania. In 1940, with the acquiescence of Hitler, Romania was forced to cede the territory back to Russia. Finally, to gain a direct link and common frontier with Hungary, Stalin pressured the Czechs to cede a part of their territory, Ruthenia, to the USSR. In this way he accomplished large acquisitions of land all around the periphery of the Soviet Union from the Baltic through central Europe to the Balkans in the south. But, even beyond these annexations, the Soviet Union desired further influence and control, to destroy the pre-war block of hostile states, the cordon sanitaire, with which the West had tried before 1939 to surround and contain communist Russia. During the years from 1945 to 1948 Stalin brought Eastern and central European politics and societies under Soviet control. He was obsessed by the fear that eventually the capitalist powers would take advantage of their superiority to attack the Soviet Union, which therefore had only a few years in which to prepare. In Asia, he was reticent and pacific. The real danger, he believed, would develop in Europe. To avoid the danger of too vehement a Western reaction, central and Eastern Europe was only gradually integrated into the Soviet system. One-party communist states tied to the Soviet party remained the goal. To reach it, Stalin had to overcome the obstacle not only of Western opposition but more seriously of the intense nationalism of the ethnic groups living in this region of Europe. It proved impossible to extinguish the loyalties to their own countries of Yugoslavs, Hungarians, Poles and Romanians. Their acceptance of the communist embrace, despite genuine gratitude for their liberation, fell far short of seeing in the Soviet Union a desirable overlord. Polish history had consisted of the struggle for freedom from Russia; the powerful Catholic Churches in both Poland and Hungary identified themselves with their countries’ national feelings. Added to such opposition was the resistance to the social and economic revolution demanded by the communists. The relationship between the Soviet Union and its allies in the socialist camp thus moved uneasily between attempts at rigid party and Soviet control and relaxation of that control to the extent of limited independence. The central and East European states through which in 1944 and 1945 the Red Army marched on its way to Vienna and Berlin can be divided into two groups: the Allied nations, Poland, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and technically Albania too; and the former enemies, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. The ability of Britain and the US to intercede effectively for allies was, paradoxically, smaller than the ability to secure some say in the future of the enemies. In the case of allies, the only option was to withhold recognition of the government installed by the Russians in 1945 only for recognition to be granted two years later. Over the future Czechoslovakia, Allied influence was especially weak. President Benesˇ had decided that Czechoslovakia’s post-war future left no choice but to accept Soviet ‘friendship’, which meant acquiescing in whatever limits Stalin chose to place on its independence. Benesˇ was rewarded by being the only Allied head of state to return to his own country by way of Moscow. As for Yugoslavia, the royal government in exile could not conceivably be re-established without the support of a large Allied army, for Tito and his communist partisans had assumed control of the country, moreover without direct Soviet help. The position of the enemies, of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, was different, although each was under Red Army occupation. Their governments and frontiers could not be regularised without peace treaties involving the consent of Britain and the US. The Allies kept up a constant stream of protest at the undemocratic conduct of these regimes set up by the Soviet Union and withheld their recognition and their signature to the peace treaties until 1947. In Poland, which he recognised as the most vulnerable country under Soviet control, Stalin kept the tightest grip, making few concessions. Poland remained under the thinly veiled direct military occupation of the Red Army. The Polish army, which had accompanied the Red Army, was largely officered by reliable Soviet officers. In the new communist-dominated government, the only politician with a considerable following was Stanislav Mikolajczyk, a non-communist and leader of the Peasant Party who had joined the Lublin government from London and now served as a deputy prime minister. The communist secretary of the Polish Workers’ Party, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was the real power in Poland. The communists adopted their usual tactics of attempting to secure the agreement of the Peasant Party and the non-communist coalition partners to elections on a ‘single list’; this meant the voters would be presented not with a choice of parties, but with one agreed list of candidates, of which the Peasant Party and others would be allowed only a minority. Stalin had promised the Western Allies early free elections. But, because the communists could not guarantee the results in 1945 despite holding key internal ministries and controlling the police, the army and much of the administration, they simply postponed the elections for two years. During these years there was open violence and armed struggle. The Home Army, operating in Poland but loyal to the London government in exile, was dissolved in July 1945. Embittered by their experiences, some desperate units went underground again and with a few thousand members of the Ukrainian Independence Army began terrorist attacks on administrative officials of the Communist Workers’ Party. In parts of the countryside, fighting escalated into civil war. Civilian administrators and police were attacked and killed. Jewish survivors once more became the murder victims. Not until 1948 could this violence be broken. Until then, the terrorist attacks served the interests of the communists, for they made the postponement of elections plausible. By fair means and foul the communists did all they could to undermine support for their political opponents, who happened also to be their coalition partners in government. Nevertheless, the road to socialism was to be Polish and not Soviet. The economic plans were publicly declared to be based on the coexistence of a private, a cooperative and a public state sector. All the same, there was not much left but the state sector of industry by 1947. All industrial undertakings employing more than fifty workers per shift were nationalised, which effectively brought 91 per cent of industry and banking under state control. The land question was the most immediately important. In ‘old’ Poland all the large farms and estates were broken up and distributed to the peasantry. In the ‘new lands’, vacated by the Germans, peasant settlers were encouraged to join collective farms. This largesse politically neutralised the peasantry. Few lamented that the prewar gentry and wealthy industrialists would not be allowed back their possessions. Intimidation of political opponents did the rest. Despite the appalling conditions, huge efforts were made to rebuild the devastated economy and the towns and villages of Poland, especially Warsaw. In the election, finally held in January 1947, the communists won and almost eliminated their principal rivals, the Peasant Party, many of whose candidates had been intimidated or imprisoned. The Catholic Church remained intact, however, sustaining its links with the majority of the Polish people. Gomulka tried to reconcile the Poles to communist rule, but his efforts were to be negated by the need to abandon the Polish road to socialism. During the barren harshness of Stalin’s last years the Communist Party was disrupted by purges and Gomulka was disgraced in January 1949. Soviet policies in Romania exemplified a different, gradualist approach determined by internal events and by the military situation. At first, Stalin may well have planned a ruthless and simple takeover, with communist-trained Romanians such as Anna Pauker setting up an administration in the wake of the Red Army’s conquest. But the unexpected happened. In August 1944, King Michael led a coup that overthrew the fascist government and then changed sides, from Hitler’s Germany to that of the Allies. This threw the country open to the Red Army which, with Romanian troops, chased the Wehrmacht into Hungary. Romania again lost Bessarabia to the Soviet Union, but was rewarded by the return of Transylvania, which in 1940 had been transferred to Hungary by Hitler. Meanwhile a Romanian government, including pre-war Romanian communists, was established, though these ‘native’ communists were not trusted by Stalin. At Moscow’s behest, the popular-front-type governments, which included non-communist parties, were reshuffled in December 1944 and March 1945 to provide the communists with greater though still incomplete power. Soviet army intervention in local administration eroded popular support for the non-communist parties. Joint Soviet–Romanian companies were founded, landed estates were broken up, communists and fellow travellers were labelled ‘democratic’ and other parties showing any signs of independence were stigmatised as ‘fascist’. Socalled ‘free elections’ were held in November 1946. There was intimidation, and the results may well have been doctored, but the communists had won for themselves a sufficient power base to make their overwhelming electoral victory acceptable to the Romanian people. In any case the people had little choice beyond acceptance since Western protests would be limited to words. Britain and the US had already recognised the communist-controlled government before the elections. Despite the unsatisfactory elections and the Anglo-American detestation of communist regimes, Romania had been written off as inevitably forming part of the Soviet camp, and a peace treaty was signed in February 1947 which recognised this. King Michael was forced into exile and Romania became a ‘people’s democracy’, the beginning of four terrible decades. Although Bulgaria was not at war with the Soviet Union, Churchill had made it clear to Stalin in 1944 that it would be allowed to fall within the Soviet sphere. War having been hastily declared on Bulgaria, Soviet troops entered and overran the country in September 1944, without real Anglo-American opposition. Unlike its Romanian equivalent, the Bulgarian Communist Party had had a substantial popular following before the war and in Georgi Dimitrov a leader of international reputation following his acquittal in Nazi Germany for complicity in the Reichstag Fire. Although he became an influential figure in Moscow as general secretary of the Comintern in the 1930s, Dimitrov was not at first allowed to return to Bulgaria in the wake of the Soviet invasion. Instead, Bulgarian communists were installed in 1944 in another popular-front government, the Fatherland Front, and to begin with the opposition was not ruthlessly suppressed. But the respite was only temporary. With the Red Army stationed in the country and Stalin determined to consolidate Soviet power, and with no effective Western counter-measures forthcoming, the fate of the Social Democratic and Agrarian Peasant opposition and its party leader Petkov was sealed. Dimitrov was now allowed to return to Bulgaria to strengthen the communists. Despite the muzzling of the press, the elections held in October 1946 saw a striking success for the non-communist opposition. For a few months, 101 deputies elected by over a million votes were able to act as a parliamentary opposition to the communist regime. But in August 1947 Petkov was arrested, tried and sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of working for ‘Anglo-American Imperialism’. He was shot the following month. Britain and the US had made public protests before his execution, but Dimitrov only reinforced the impression of judicial murder by declaring that Petkov might have been spared but for the Anglo-American protests. Of course, the execution could not have taken place without Stalin’s acquiescence. To Britain and the US events in Eastern Europe showed the extent to which Stalin was prepared ruthlessly to ignore his international obligations. Like their Romanian counterparts, the Bulgarian communists turned their country into a particularly brutal and repressive ‘people’s democracy’. The Hungarians had been ruled from 1919 until 1944 by anti-communist regimes under the Regent Admiral Horthy. It was his fatal error to throw in his lot with the German invaders of the Soviet Union in 1941. When events revealed his error, he tried to disengage and achieve a peace with the Soviet Union, but it was too late. It was the Germans instead who first occupied his country. In pre-war Hungary army support for the authoritarian structure had been decisive, and the need for social reform had gone unsatisfied. The dominant aspiration of successive Hungarian governments was the recovery of territory lost principally to Romania (Transylvania) by the Peace Treaty of Trianon in 1920. It was this aspiration that drove Hungary into the arms of Germany and even to declare war on Russia in 1941. By then Hungary had already been rewarded, in 1940, by the transfer of northern Transylvania from Romania, as well as of portions of Czechoslovakia. Defeat in 1945 entailed the loss once more of all these gains as Stalin redistributed the territories, Britain and the US again raising no objections. Stalin’s opportunism is well illustrated by the first anti-German Hungarian government set up by the Red Army in the part of Hungary they had liberated. Soviet military requirements at this time made it expedient to include many former supporters of Horthy, as well as communists and members of other parties. As circumstances changed, so would the composition of the government. The leading Hungarian communist was Mátyás Rákosi, who had lived in Moscow since 1940; he now returned to participate in coalition governments. He began with patriotic appeals in 1944 promising democracy and peaceful progress, yet within four years Hungary was transformed into one of the most ruthless of the Stalinist ‘people’s democracies’. Rákosi’s approach corresponded to Stalin’s own: cautious opportunism ruthlessly pursued. Hungarians, not Russians, would be allowed to transform politics and society and would guarantee national loyalty to the Soviet Union. Three parties besides the communists were allowed to organise and participate in national politics. The Catholic Church too played an important role, acting as a bulwark against atheistic communism. Stalin proceeded in Hungary with caution, permitting free elections in November 1945. The communists lost badly. Stalin was not going to repeat such an error. Still, Rákosi, with Soviet backing, retained the key to power through his control of the Interior Ministry and the secret police. He skilfully exploited differences between the government coalition parties, cynically commenting later that he had sliced them away like salami until only the communists were left. First the Smallholders’ Party was eliminated, then the Social Democrats. In the 1947 elections, communist victory was no longer left to the whim of the voters. Within a few months, Rákosi and his lieutenants had taken over the country, and a new ‘constitution’ in 1949 turned Hungary into a Moscow-style ‘people’s democracy’. There were few indications in 1945 that Yugoslavia would differ in any significant way from the other states in Eastern Europe liberated from the Nazis with the help of the Soviet Union. If anything, Yugoslavia was more obviously communist, controlled from the start by Marshal Broz Tito as undisputed leader organising a one-party state, ideologically bound to Marxism–Leninism. The military victory of the partisans who had been fighting the Germans left little alternative but to accept Tito’s terms for the post-war reconstruction of Yugoslavia. Only a military occupation, Soviet or Allied, could have altered that. Interestingly, in 1944 Stalin had encouraged the idea of an Allied landing in Yugoslavia, evidently already seeing in Tito’s Yugoslav communism a dangerous national deviation. A closer study of Yugoslavia shows both similarities with and important differences from the general pattern of the communist takeover of the central and Eastern European states. None of the communist resistance forces was strong enough to defeat the Wehrmacht without the victories of the Red Army. This was no less true of Yugoslavia, although there the partisans actually liberated the country from German occupation. Tito was well aware that the partisan victory would be dependent upon the victory of the Soviet Union. He also followed Lenin’s precept of a tightly disciplined party as indispensable for maintaining communist power. During the war the German and Italian occupation had destroyed the pre-war social and political order. Yugoslav communists and the royalists fought each other for predominance at the same time as they fought the Germans. This triangular struggle was complex, the two Yugoslav sides accusing each other of helping the Germans to eliminate the internal enemy. Initially Tito drew his support overwhelmingly from Serb peasants attracted by promises of greater social justice and by appeals to their patriotism. The Serbs were the largest national group and Tito succeeded in winning over far more to his side than the royalist Chetniks did. But from the first he was also aware that Yugoslav unity required the support of all the major national groups – Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Slovenes. He created people’s committees in villages, towns and provinces, promising full national rights to the major nationalities in a post-war federal Yugoslavia. Milovan Djilas, Tito’s friend and supporter until 1954, has described Tito vividly as a man born a rebel, who combined a distinctive zeal for communism with a personal zest for power; like some Eastern potentate Tito, once the hardened partisan leader, built villas and palaces after the war for his exclusive pleasure, even though he could spend little time in any one of them. The dictatorship of the proletariat became in practice personal power wielded by an autocratic leader. Tito created a new party hierarchy, himself at the pinnacle and the secret police as the instrument for securing compliance by dealing ruthlessly with his opponents. In 1946 a constitution on the Soviet model was established, which guaranteed the cultural and administrative rights of all the nationalities in a federal Yugoslav state; this went some way towards solving the nationality conflicts of pre-1945 Yugoslavia, at least for a time. Tito’s second achievement was his resolute defence of Yugoslavia’s own road to socialism in 1948 in the face of Stalin’s onslaught, and the assertion of Yugoslavia’s independence from Moscow’s control. The monolithic Soviet empire cracked for all the world to see. The road to total communist power was different again in Czechoslovakia. Edvard Benesˇ, the president of the Czech government in exile in London, had signed a formal alliance and friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in December 1943 by which the Russians undertook not to interfere in Czechoslovakia’s internal affairs. But Stalin had already established a communist émigré group in Moscow, led by Klement Gottwald. The experience of Munich in 1938, when Britain and France had forced the Czechs to give in to Hitler’s territorial demands, had convinced Benesˇ that he should stay on good terms with the Russians, because Western protection could not be relied upon. He hoped that by demonstrating the Czechs’ genuine friendship he would be allowed to maintain democracy and Western values. He saw Czechoslovakia’s role as forming a bridge between East and West. As if to emphasise Czech reliance on the Soviet Union, Benesˇ returned to Czechoslovakia via Moscow in the spring of 1945. Ominously he now had to agree to new terms which further limited his freedom of action. The government in exile would be replaced by a new National Front government for liberated Czechoslovakia in which only the parties of the left would participate, and key ministries for the internal control of the country would be in communist hands. In return, Benesˇ received Stalin’s empty promise that the Soviet leader would deal with any communists who gave him trouble. Benesˇ had also to agree to a social and economic transformation (designed to pave the way to communism) and to the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans. Real democracy through representative government was not re-established in 1945, only its appearance. Czechoslovakia was bound to follow the Soviet Union in any policy Stalin regarded as important, even before the communist takeover in 1948; the Czech recantation of participation in the Marshall Aid Programme in 1947, on Moscow’s insistence, was a good illustration of this. The Czech communist leader, Klement Gottwald, was told by Moscow to content himself with a gradual path to absolute power. During the war the communists had organised a resistance movement against the Germans; after it they not only held the key ministries and dominated the trade unions, but established their national committees in villages, towns and provinces. Economic transformation began with the nationalisation of large industries and businesses even before the provisional parliament met in October 1945. But later that month the American forces and the Red Army, who had jointly liberated the country, agreed to withdraw, giving hope to the democrats, although the country was split between the communists and the democratic parties of the left. Elections were held in May 1946, but they were not absolutely free since only the parties comprising the National Front were allowed to participate. Furthermore, many Czechs feared that, if the communists failed to win, the Red Army would return. Given all their preparatory work and control, it is hardly surprising that the communists polled 37 per cent of the votes. But, even with their fellow travellers among the Social Democratic Party, this did not give them absolute control. Nonetheless the democratic opposition, stronger in Slovakia than Bohemia and Moravia, was weakened by being split among three parties. In the new government, formed after the elections, Klement Gottwald became prime minister; the two Czechoslovaks best known abroad retained their former positions, Benesˇ as president and Jan Masaryk as foreign minister. But soon the communists inside and outside the government started to behave high-handedly, and mass arrests of their opponents were ordered. Clashes in parliament and between government ministers became increasingly heated and the supporters of the democratic parties were considering whether they would not have to resist violations of justice if democracy was to survive. But to the outside world the presence of Benesˇ and Masaryk appeared to guarantee the preservation of civil rights; that illusion was shattered early in 1948. One of the major headaches for the Eastern European communist leaders was the difficulty of discovering what Stalin really wanted. At lower levels, Russian advice and influence were at times confusing or contradictory. Gottwald, a loyal communist, believed in 1947, for example, that Stalin would not object if Czechoslovakia participated in the Marshall Aid Programme; as we have seen, he was rapidly obliged to recant. But whenever Stalin made his views known the communists made speed to fall into line. A façade of representative institutions would placate the West; meanwhile the US was pulling most of its armed forces out of Europe. Firm communist bases in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland and the Soviet zone of Germany were established. Everywhere communists were strongly entrenched and dominant in coalition National Front governments. The political activities of other parties were controlled, and those labelled ‘fascist’ were banned. The influence of the landowners was removed by dividing up their estates, and for the time being the peasantry benefited from the redistribution of land: for this, the communists gained the credit. Large industries were nationalised, and progressively the smaller ones as well. The economic base of the dominant wealthy pre-war social groups was destroyed; in Poland it had already been destroyed by the Germans. With local committees established in every community, the communists entrenched their influence to prepare for ultimate control as soon as the Kremlin judged the time right. In each country there were differences too. The Catholic Church was powerful enough in Poland and Hungary to form an opposing force. Social and economic conditions also differed, Poland having suffered more grievously during the Second World War than any other Eastern European state apart from the Soviet Union. The strength of the anti-communist opposition varied from country to country too, as did the tactics adopted by the communist leaders. In Czechoslovakia, the communists were sufficiently strong to seek control by semi-legal means; in Yugoslavia, the communists took control from the start. But all the countries in the Soviet orbit had this in common: the dynamics of the social and political changes introduced after 1944–5 were bound to end in a communist victory. Communist domination after 1948 did not mean the end of political strife. The Moscowtrained communist leaders turned on the ‘native’ communists in great purges during the closing years of Stalin’s rule. The revolution began to eat its own children. Moscow’s was a savage dominance over a turbulent region.

 

 

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