The Cold War: Eastern European Revolts


Figure 1.--East Germans here are tearing up a Soviet flag in sight of the Brandenburg Gate during the worker demonstraions in 1953. The faces in the photograph were blacked out to prevent the police from identifying who had participated in the demonstrations.

Stalin and his sucessors encountered much more difficulty subjecting the people of Eastern Europe to totalitarian rule than the Russian people. The Soviets brutally supressed attempts by Eastern Europeans to overthrow Soviet imposed governments: East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956), Czecheslovakia (1978), and other outbreaks--especially in Poland. The first revolt broke out in East Germany after the death of Stalin. Efforts to end the mass terror and liberalize the Soviet system were met in East Germany by demands for real democratic rule. Soviet officials concluded that reforms were dangerous and threatened the Soviet system. [Harrison] As a resuly, for three decades efforts at reform were brutally supressed. The Hungarian Revolution ocurred in the midst of Nikita Khruschev's de-Stalinization program. One historian contends that Khruschev did not want to appear weak in the face of Western Operations in Suez, thus explaining the massive use of force in supressing the Hungarian rebellion. [Hitchcock] Finally it was in Eastern Europe that the whole Soviet system would begin unraveling. The Communist regime in Poland was brouhjt down by the very workers it claimed to represent. And it was in the Baltics, the most European area, that the Soviet Union itself began to implode.

Eastern European Challenge

Stalin and his sucessors encountered much more difficulty subjecting the people of Eastern Europe to totalitarian rule than the Russian people. The Soviets brutally supressed attempts by Eastern Europeans to overthrow Soviet imposed governments: East Germany (1953), Poland (1956), Hungary (1956), Czecheslovakia (1978), and other outbreaks--especially in Poland. The first revolt broke out in East Germany after the death of Stalin. Efforts to end the mass terror and liberalize the Soviet system were met in East Germany by demands for real democratic rule. Soviet officials concluded that reforms were dangerous and threatened the Soviet system. [Harrison] As a resuly, for four decades efforts at reform were brutally supressed. ot all of Eastern Rurope rose up against Communist rule. There were no important risings in Bulgaria and Romania. A factor here were the cultural and historical connections that Bulgaroia had with the Russians. It is less clear why there was no uprisings in Romania, give the corruption and incompetence of the Ceaușescus. Two countries split with the soviets, but did not overthrow the national communists (Albania and Yugoslavia).

Individual Eastern European Countries

Each of the Eastern European satellite countries presented unique challenges to the Soviet Union in maintaining its Eastrn European empire. None of the regimes were freely elected. The road to power wa paved in mkst countries by the Red Army and NKVD. The actual process varied because Stalin thought it necessary to camouflage the often brutal seizue of power. The most crucial country for a variety of cultural and geo-political reasonns was Poland. Finally it was in Eastern Europe that the whole Soviet system would begin unraveling. The Communist regime in Poland was brouht down by the very workers it claimed to represent. And it was in the Baltics, the most European area, that the Soviet Union itself began to implode.

Albania

Ironically, Albania proved to be the most repressive of all the Eastern European Communist countries--but not because of Stalin. The Soviet Red Army never entered Albania, unlike all theother East Bloc countries. Albanian Communist partisans led by Enver Hoxa liberated their own country, or more acurately described, seized power after the Germans withdrew (October 1944). Hoxaz developed very good relations with both the Soviet Union and Communist Yugoslavia, but this became complicated with the Soviet-Yugoslave break (1848). Stalin lavished support on Albania as aresult of the split. Albania joined the Soviet run organization for coordinating economic planning within its empire--the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) (1949). Trade agreements followed with Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union--but not pariah Yugoslavia. The Soviets dispatched tchnical advisers and incouraged the satellite countries to do the same. They built a submarine base on Sazan Island. Hoxa was concened about Primier Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress (1956), primrily because he wanted to govern Albania like Stalin ruled th Soviet Union. There was no anti-Soviet revolt in Albania, because Hoxa himself broke with the Soviets and for the exct opposite reason that the anti-Soviet revolts occurred. When the Sino-Soviet Split ocurred. Hoxa sided with the People's Republic of China. This isolated them from the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire. lThis did bother Hoxa who actually wanted to shut Albania off from all outside influences so he could rule as an absolute potentate. The final break came at the Soviet 22nd Party Congress (October 1961). There were sharp exchanges between Soviet and Chinese delegates over Albania. Khrushchev excoriated Hoxa for executing a pregnant, pro-Soviet member of the Albanian party Politburo. The Soviet Union finally broke diplomatic relations with Albania (December 1961). . The Soviets proceeded to withdraw all Soviet economic advisers and technicians, even those hard at work on the show-case Palace of Culture. The Soviets also halted shipments of supplies and spare parts for equipment already installed. The Soviets also finished the dismantling of its naval installation on Sazan Island. Hoxa continued to rule Albania with Stalinst policies intil his death (1965).

Bulgaria

Unlike many of the other Eastern European satellites, the Bugarians looked on the Russians rather sympathetically. Here cultural, and ethnic issues were involved. This did not mean that Stalin did not orcestrate a thoough going purge of the Party as he did throughoutg his Eastern European empire. This was conducted by Primeminiter Vulko Chervenkov (1950–56). There after with the death of Stalin (1953) such blatant terrot and supression receeded. Todor Zhivkov rose tghrough the ranks of the Bulgarian Communist Party beginninvg during the purge era. He became prime minister (1962) and ruled Bulgaria for the 27 years until the fall of Communism. Zhivkov would be the unchallenged Bulgarian leader and loyal Soviet ally through much of the Cold War. At home he followed the Soviet economic line, emphasizing heavy industry and centralizing agriculture. At the same time he moved to moderate Communist rule by broadening political support. Generally speaking, the Soviets were willing to tolerate a wide range of reforms as long as the sattlelites followed the Kremlin line in economic and especially foreign affairs. Thus there was no anti-Soviet uprising in Bulgaria. The generally positive view of Russians among Bulgarins was also a factor. Zhivkov deftly maneuvered through a series of national and international crises such as the Prague Spring (1968) and the resistannce of communist hardliners to reforms and rapprochement with the West. Zhivkov oversaw a general expansion of intellectual and media activity allowing aider degree of free expression within limits. He was careful until the winds of change became apparent to carefully avoid steps that wiuld antagonoze Bulgaria's Soviet patron.

Czechoslovakia (1968)

Czechoslovakia was the first country seized by the NAZIs. It was liberated by the Allies, but fell into the Soviet ares of control. A soviet inspired coup imposed a Stalinist state (1948). After the 20th Party Congress (1956), the capricious nature of Stalinist terror was regularized, but Czechoslovakia and the other Soviet Eastern Europeans satellites contunued to be governed as a police state, strictly controlling people's lives. Fear gradually diminished and social and artistic freedoms increased in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s. This led to increasing discussion of political freedom. The Prague Spring (Pražské jaro) refers to a brief period of political reform and liberalization began in Czechoslovakia (1968). It is a term first coined in the West, but adopted by the Czechs themselves. It in part refers back to the Springtime of Peoples--the Revolutions of 1848. Czech Communistl leader Alexander Dubcek who came to power January 5, 1968 initiated a series of liberal reforms. Dubchek replaced hard-line leader Antonin Novotny as First Secretary of the Czech Communist Party. Dubcek was a relatively unknown Slovak Communist. Dubchek and his associates Novotny loyalists. Novotny finally resigned (March 28, 1968). Ludvik Svoboda who had served as Defense Minister became the new Czech president. A new government under Oldrich Cernik was appointed (April 8). Dubcek argued along with Western European Communists believed that Communism was not synonmamous with repressive police state rule. The Sovietswere unsettled by both the directon and speed of the reform program. In the end, the Soviet settled the debate--with Red Army tanks. The Prague Spring ended with and the invasion of 650,000 Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops (August 20, 1968). Only Romania refused to join the Soviets. Dubcek was arrested and transported to Moscow.

Germany (1953)

The 1953 East German worker uprising was the first in a series of violent uprisings that would periodically rock the Soviet Eastern European empire. Workers in the German Democratic Republic (DDR) began protesting working conditions conditions (June 17, 1953). Factory managers imposed unreasonable production set by DDR authorities quotas on (June 17). he uprising began as a demonstration against those quotas, but quickly spread to over 400 cities, towns, and villages throughout the DDR. The resulting riots threatened the very existence of the Communist East German regime. The spontaneous outburst shocked the leadership of of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) as well as their Soviet masters. This was not how workers were expected to behazve in a Socialist workers paradise. The riots occurred only 3 months after Stalin's death and the Soviet empire was still in a state of turmoil adjusting to a new political reality without Stalin. It was East German workers which set off the event, but it wsas soon embraced by a wide cross-section of East vGerman +society. And as it developed, the demonstators began expressing concerns far beyond factory quotas. The movement began to express a much wiudec range of political and social issues--including free elections. This of course was anethma to the the SED and the Soviets. And most shocking of all was when chants began to appeat like “Death to Communism” and “Long live Eisenhower!” One historians notes, As writes in his introduction, for the first time ever “the ‘proletariat’ had risen against the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.” [Ostermann] This was a critical turning pont in the Cold war. Living conditions and political oppression in the Soviet Union could be hidden from Western Communists and the freedom and affluence of the West could be hidden from the Soviet people. But Germany was different. East Germans could listen to West German radio and television at a time when the German bEconomic Miracle was taking hold. Some observers believe that vthe commercials may have been more influential than the programming. It was this in divided Germany that the stark dispsaities between East and West became starkly apparent The worker protests quickly turned violent. At the time as the workes were quickly supressed, the riots were nmot seen as particularly important. Some historians now believe that the impact of the riots were more significant than believed at the time. The confidence of the SED leadership including Walter Ulbricht.was badly shaken. The East German workers were brutally suppressed. The Soviets while shocked, reacted immediately by sending tanks into the streets and ordering Red Army troops to fire on the demonstratirs. At vthe time, the Soviet leadership was involved in a struggle for power following Stalin's death. The arrest of KGB Director Lavrentii Beria has been explained on his attitude toward Germany, although obviously other more practical matters were involved, namely the fear of other Politburo members for their saftey. Similar reactions occurred at different times in the Soviet satellite states: Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Poland (1970, 1976, 1980)

Hungary (1956)

The Hungarian Revolution was a spontaneous nationwide revolt in reaction to the Stalinist brutalities of Mátyás Rákosi who ran Hungary as brutally as Stalin had the Soviet Union. The Hungarian Revolution ocurred in the midst of Nikita Khruschev's de-Stalinization program. Hungarians began to expect changes in their country. Rákosi was one of the brutal dictators that Stalin had imposed on the people of Eastern Europe. The Revolution broke out October 23, 1956. Students in Budapest bravely staged a demonstration which attracted others as they marched through the central city to the national Parliament. A delegation of the students went into the Radio Building in an effort to broadcast their demands. They were detailed by authorities which could have meant a long prison term. The demonstrators outside demanded their release. The State Security Police (ÁVH) answered by firing on the demonstrators. The demonstrators moved back, but news rapidly spread throughout the city and soon the city erupted in widespead protests and violence. And the disorders appeared in other cities as well. Anti-goverment groups organized militias and attacked the ÁVH as well as Soviet troops. AVH prisons were opened and Communist officials were jailed. Some officials and AVH men were executed. Quickly organized councils seized control of municicipal giverments all over Hungary. A provisional government disbanded the ÁVH, announced a decesion to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, and committed to quickly holding free elections. The new governnment was in control of the country by the end of October. Soviet authorities announced a willingness to withdraw their militart forces. It is unclear if this was a ruse or that the Politburo actually changed its mind. One historian contends that Khruschev did not want to appear weak in the face of Western Operations in Suez, thus explaining the massive use of force in supressing the Hungarian rebellion. [Hitchcock] Soviet forces invaded Hungary (November 4). The Soviets killed thousands of civilians. The poorly armed militias were no match against Soviet tanks and well-armed and trained soldiers. The Revolution was ended by November 10 when organized resistance ceased. Mass arrests began. Hungarians that could, fled to the West. Austria opened its border and about 0.2 million Hungarians fled their country. Assessments of the Revolution vary. It caused many Communists in the West to question their beliefs. The brutality of the Soviet invasion and the Soviet supervised reprisals caused many in Eastern Europe at first to dispair amd conclude that the Soviets could not be confronted. Gradually Eastern Europeans began to conceive of non-violent approaches to challenging the Soviets.

Poland (1970, 1976, and 1980)

The most crucial country for a variety of cultural and geo-political reasons was Poland. Finally it was in Eastern Europe that the whole Soviet system would begin unraveling. The Communist regime in Poland was brouht down by the very workers it claimed to represent. The Soviets installed a Stalinist regime after World War II. Repressive rule and low wages and poor working conditions resulted in strikes break at Poznan. Workers wanted "bread and freedom" from Soviet rule. The Poles elect a reformist government which does not have Soviet approval. Khrushchev visits Warsaw and Soviet armies mass on the Polish border (1956). The Poles acceed to Soviet demands. Poland gradually rebuilds its industrial base, but under Communist economics it is uncompetitive with European industry and thus unable to provide workers a decent standard of living. Although Communist rule is repressive, they are unable to supress the Catholic Church. The popular Karol Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Krakow, who fought for a church at Nova Huta is elected Pope. As Jojn Paul II, he is the first non-Italian pope in almost nearly 500 years and further strengthens the Polish Church (1978). Declining living conditions result in strikes and riots (1980). The center of the unrest is the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk (former Danzig). The Government to avoid supressing the strike with the Army reluctantly reaches an agreement with the workers, allowing them to organize into an independent trade union, Solidarnosc (Solidarity). Independent labor unions were unheard of in the Soviet Empire. Solidarity elects strike leader Lech Walesa is elected as the head of Solidarity, and by November 60% of the Polish workforce is organized. Solidarity was organized by workers with limited politicl skills, but aided by the Church develops into a sophisticated non-violent, sociopolitical movement that Polish Communist authorities prove unable to control. The Soviets sensing that Solodarity is gaining the upperhand in Poland, threatens to invade. Polish authorities to avoid Soviet intervention declare martial law and arrest Solidarity leadrs (December 1981). The Polish Government officially disbands Solidarity, but a underground resistance continues (1982). The Communists can not repeal the laws of economics. The Polish economy goes into a tail spin. Inflation reaches 100 percent. The Government decided to negotigate with Solidarity. The Government lifts martial law (1983). The Government permits Solidarity to operate openly (1989). The economy continues to derteriorate. Inflation reaches 250 percent. Poland holds its first democratic electin since World War II (December 1990). Lech Walesa is elected Polan's new president.

Romania

Romania like Hungary were NAZI World war II Allies. Thus the Soviets as they installed a Communist government, also demanded reparations. Romania like most of Europe was dnaged economically by the war. Even so, the Soviets instead of promting recovery, actually drained resources from the country. The primary mechanism was the SovRoms-- tax-exempt Soviet-Romanian joint companies that gave the soviets control of Romania's most important enterprises, essentially covert reparations. There were also overt, publically announced reparations. As in the other Eastern Europeab satellites, there were bloody purges resulting in abuse, torture and/or death. A number of Party members were the victims of judicial executions, many more died unannounced while in custody--hundreds of thousands. Only gradually did Romania's communist government begin to question these reparations and moderate police state rule (1950s). The death of Stalin and the Hungarian Revolution both impacted soviet policy. The Soviet troops were withdrawn (1958). There wwre no revolt against the Soviets or even major demonstrations. Nicolae Ceaușescu became General Secretary of the Communist Party (1965), Chairman of the State Council (1967), and assumed the newly established role of President (1974). This essentially made him an absolute dictator. Firmy in power, Ceaușescu dared to denounce the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968). An all-to-brief relaxation in internal repression helped him earn a positive reputation both domestically and in the West. There was also aperiod of rapid economic growth made possible by foreign investments. The inherent weakness of socialism and planned economies combined with the incompetence, corruption, and arrogance of the Ceaușescus resulted in economic failure and widespread shortages. The Ceaușescus answered with austerity and political repression as well as a gross Stalinist cult of personality. The Sucuretate became one of the most feared secret police force in Eastern Rurope. Finall with Communist regimes falling throughout Europe, the Romanian people rose up (December 1989). He and his wife were shot trying to flee the uprising in Bucarest.

Yugoslavia

Yugoslaviaas different than the other East Bloc countries. The country was not liberated by the Red Army, but rather by Marshal Tito's Partisan movement. As a result Tito was not a puppet installed by Stalin after the War. There were no worker riots protesting Soviet control, but Tito and Stalin soon fell out. Tito had some definite ideas he wanted to pursue and objected to Soviet efforts to use Yugoslavi's economy to reconstructv the Soviet Union. Stalin was not used to this kind of indepencence. He saw Tito as another subordinate and Tito saw himself an equal to Stalin as an head of an independent state. The result was the first crack in the Soviet empire.

Sources

Harrison, Hope. George Washington University. Library of Congress Panel, March 5, 2003.

Hitchcock, William I. The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent (Doubleday), 513p. This is a thought provoking, well researched book. He has gained access to never before used Soviet archives. We do not agree with all of his conclusions. The author in many instances, for example, tends to explain Soviet actions as response to American policies rather than the inherent nature of brutal regime. O

stermann, Christian. "Introduction" Uprising in East Germany, 1953: The Cold War, the German Question, and the First Major Upheaval behind the Iron Curtain (Central European University Press: Budapest, 2001). This volume is part of of the “National Security Archive Cold War Document Reader” series.






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Created: March 7, 2003
Last updated: 6:44 AM 10/9/2015