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10-08-2015, 21:13

FERMENT IN EASTERN EUROPE

The key to Moscow’s security along the western frontier of the Soviet Union was the string of satellite states that had been created in Eastern Europe after World War II (see Map 8.1). Once Communist power had been assured in Warsaw, Prague, Sofia, Budapest, Bucharest, and East Berlin, a series of “little Stalins” put into power by Moscow instituted Soviet-type five-year plans that placed primary emphasis on heavy industry rather than consumer goods, on the collectivization of agriculture, and on the nationalization of industry. They also appropriated the political tactics that Stalin had perfected in the Soviet Union, eliminating all non-Communist parties and establishing the classical institutions of repression—the secret police and military forces. Dissidents were tracked down and thrown into prison, while “national Communists” who resisted total subservience to the nation were charged with treason in mass show trials and executed. Despite such repressive efforts, however, Soviet-style policies aroused growing discontent in several Eastern European societies. Hungary, Poland, and Romania harbored bitter memories of past Russian domination and suspected that Stalin, under the guise of proletarian internationalism, was seeking to revive the empire of the Romanovs. For the vast majority of peoples in Eastern Europe, the imposition of the “people’s democracies” (a euphemism invented by Moscow to refer to a society in the early stage of socialist transition) resulted in economic hardship and severe threats to the most basic political liberties. The first indications of unrest appeared in 1953, when popular riots broke out against Communist rule in East Berlin. The riots eventually subsided, but the virus had begun to spread to neighboring countries. In Poland, public demonstrations against an increase in food prices in 1956 escalated into widespread protests against the regime’s economic policies, restrictions on the freedom of Catholics to practice their religion, and the continued presence of Soviet troops (as called for by the Warsaw Pact) on Polish soil. In a desperate effort to defuse the unrest, in October the Polish party leader stepped down and was replaced by Wladyslaw Gomulka (1905–1982), a popular figure who had previously been demoted for his “nationalist” tendencies. When Gomulka took steps to ease the crisis, the new Soviet party chief, Nikita Khrushchev, flew to Warsaw to warn his P olish colleague against adopting policies that could undermine the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the Marxist phrase for the political dominance of the party) and even weaken security links with the Soviet Union. After a brief confrontation, during which both sides threatened to use military force to punctuate their demands, Gomulka and Khrushchev reached a compromise according to which Poland would adopt a policy labeled “internal reform, external loyalty.” Poland agreed to remain in the Warsaw Pact and to maintain the sanctity of party rule. In return, Warsaw was authorized to adopt domestic reforms, such as easing restrictions on religious practice and ending the policy of forced collectivization in rural areas. The developments in Poland sent shock waves throughout the region. The impact was the strongest in neighboring Hungary, where the methods of the local “little Stalin,” Matyas Rakosi, were so brutal that he had been summoned to Moscow for a lecture. In late October, student-led popular riots broke out in the capital of Budapest and soon spread to other towns and villages throughout the country. Rakosi was forced to resign and was replaced by Imre Nagy (1896 –1958), a “national Communist” who attempted to satisfy popular demands without arousing the anger of Moscow. Unlike Gomulka, however, Nagy was unable to contain the zeal of leading members of the protest movement, who sought major political reforms and the withdrawal of Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. On November 1, Nagy promised free elections, which, given the mood of the country, would probably have brought an end to Communist rule. Moscow decided on firm action. Soviet troops, recently withdrawn at Nagy’s request, returned to Budapest and installed a new government under the more pliant party leader János Kádár (1912–1989). While Kádár rescinded many of Nagy’s measures, Nagy sought refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy. A few weeks later, he left the embassy under the promise of safety but was quickly arrested, convicted of treason, and executed. The dramatic events in Poland and Hungary graphically demonstrated the vulnerability of the Soviet satellite system in Eastern Europe, and many observers throughout the world anticipated an attempt by the United States to intervene on behalf of the freedom fighters in Hungary. After all, the Eisenhower administration had promised that it would “roll back” communism, and radio broadcasts by the U.S.-sponsored Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe had encouraged the peoples of Eastern Europe to rise up against Soviet domination. In reality, Washington was well aware that U.S. intervention could lead to nuclear war and limited itself to protests against Soviet brutality in crushing the uprising. The year of discontent was not without its consequences, however. Soviet leaders now recognized that Moscow could maintain control over its satellites in Eastern Europe only by granting them the leeway to adopt domestic policies appropriate to local conditions. Krushchev had already embarked on this path when, during a visit to Belgrade in 1955, he assured Josip Tito that there were “different roads to socialism.” Eastern European Communist leaders now took Khrushchev at his word and adopted reform programs to make socialism more palatable to their subject populations. Even János Kádár, derisively labeled the “butcher of Budapest,” managed to preserve many of Imre Nagy’s reforms to allow a measure of capitalist incentive and freedom of expression in Hungary. Czechoslovakia did not share in the thaw of the mid- 1950s and remained under the rule of Antonin Novotny (1904 –1975), who had been placed in power by Stalin himself. By the late 1960s, however, Novotny’s policies had led to widespread popular alienation, and in 1968, with the support of intellectuals and reformist party members, Alexander Dubcˇek (1921–1992) was elected first secretary of the Communist Party. He immediately attempted to create what was popularly called “socialism with a human face,” relaxing restrictions on freedom of speech and the press and the right to travel abroad. Reforms were announced in the economic sector, and party control over all aspects of society was reduced. A period of euphoria erupted that came to be known as the “Prague Spring.” It proved to be short-lived. Encouraged by Dubcˇek’s actions, some Czechs called for more far-reaching reforms, including neutrality and withdrawal from the Soviet bloc. To forestall the spread of this “spring fever,” the Soviet Red Army, supported by troops from other Warsaw Pact states, invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and crushed the reform movement. Gustav Husak (1913– 1991), a committed Stalinist, replaced Dubcˇek and restored the old order (see the box on p. 166). Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Stalinist policies continued to hold sway. The ruling Communist government in East Germany, led by Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973), consolidated its position in the early 1950s and became a faithful Soviet satellite. Industry was nationalized and agriculture collectivized. After the 1953 workers’ revolt was crushed by Soviet tanks, a steady flight of East Germans to West Germany ensued, primarily through the city of Berlin. This exodus of mostly skilled laborers (soon only party chief Ulbricht would be left, remarked one Soviet observer sardonically) created economic problems and in 1961 led the East German government to erect the infamous Berlin Wall separating West from East Berlin, as well as even more fearsome barriers along the entire border with West Germany. After walling off the West, East Germany succeeded in developing the strongest economy among the Soviet Union’s Eastern European satellites. In 1971, Walter Ulbricht was succeeded by Erich Honecker (1912–1994), a party hard-liner who was deeply committed to the ideological battle against détente. Propaganda increased, and the use of the Stasi, the secret police, became a hallmark of Honecker’s virtual dictatorship. Honecker ruled unchallenged for the next eighteen years.

 

 

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