In this lesson, we explore the post-World War II settlement of Eastern Europe, and the subsequent Soviet domination of governments in Eastern Europe, as well as the creation of the Warsaw Pact.
Soviet Domination of Eastern Europe
Nobody likes a bully.
Yet everyone seems to have known one, especially when they were children. He or she generally traipsed about the playground, forming a posse of admirers more fearful than friendly, which the bully often forced to do his or her bidding.With this image in mind, it’s pretty apt to describe the Soviet Union as the bully of Eastern Europe in the second half of the 20th century. With its powerful military and internationally acknowledged influence over the region, the Soviet Union bent the states of Eastern Europe to its will for nearly a half century.
Eastern Europe After WWII
During World War II (WWII), and especially once it became apparent Germany would lose, leaders of the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union met at several conferences to determine what post-war Europe would look like.
The most decisive of these conferences took place at Yalta in the Southern Soviet Union. At Yalta, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill made key concessions to appease the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and hopefully secure his participation in the United Nations, which the Western governments instituted soon after the war.In return, the United States and the United Kingdom agreed to recognize the annexation of the Baltic nations the Soviet Union made before and during WWII. Additionally, and most importantly, the Western governments agreed to recognize Soviet influence over the governments of several Eastern European states. The Soviets claimed they needed this influence to create a series of buffer states to protect the Soviet homeland from future Western aggression.After the war ended, with Soviet troops still occupying most of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union saw to the creation of Soviet-friendly communist parties and governments within each state, and engineered their election. The Soviets essentially created client states out of most of Eastern Europe in states such as Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.
This group of states became known to the West as the Eastern Bloc. Yugoslavia was also a communist state, however it was not allied with the Soviet Union, and Albania began the post-war era as a Soviet client state, but broke off relations early in the 1960s.
Soviet control of the governments and economies of these Eastern European countries was almost complete. Though all Soviet client states had their own independent governments, the communist parties, which controlled these governments, were closely allied with the Soviet Union and directly connected to Moscow.
Additionally, the Eastern European states were integrated into the centrally controlled command economy of the Soviet Union, and external trade with Western Europe or the United States was forbidden.This relationship between the Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern Europe was further solidified in 1955 with the creation of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was an agreement between all of the Soviet client states and the Soviet Union for mutual military protection; that is, if one country was invaded or attacked, all of the other nations would rush to aid that country.The Warsaw Pact was little more than a show; with the Soviet Union in firm control of the entire region, any incursion by a Western country into any Eastern European country would surely have been met with a Soviet counterattack, Pact or no Pact.
In fact, one of the countries involved in the agreement, East Germany, had no military presence to speak of as part of the treaties which ended WWII! The creation of the Warsaw Pact was largely a response to the West’s formation of NATO, a mutual military treaty organization between most of Western Europe and North America.The Soviet Union’s firm grip upon the other nations in the Warsaw Pact is perhaps best exemplified by the Brezhnev Doctrine. Named for Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet premier and leader of the Communist Party from 1964 until his death in 1982, the Brezhnev Doctrine stated that all communist countries in Eastern Europe were responsible for promoting the health of the communist parties throughout the region. Any perceived weaknesses in a national communist party or any attempted relaxation of communist measures were to be met with military intervention by all other Warsaw Pact countries.
The strictness of this policy was made all too apparent in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the face of a struggling economy and popular distaste for communist measures, the Czechoslovakian Communist Party removed its leader and replaced him with Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek was a reformer, by communist standards, and he ended censorship of the press in 1968 and enacted some liberal economic reforms. The relaxation of press censorship allowed for greater public debate concerning communism and anti-communist demonstrations erupted across the country.
Fearing the unrest in Czechoslovakia might spread, Moscow resolved to invade Czechoslovakia and reinstall a more conservative communist government. Soviet forces faced minimal opposition as they rolled across Czechoslovakia, swiftly taking control of major cities. Before long, the Soviets had forced Dubcek to step down and imposed a strict form of communism and ended the short-lived freedom of the press.
Though guerilla movements fought Soviet troops in the countryside for another year or so, communist order was well and truly restored in Czechoslovakia.
The Soviet Union maintained its firm grip upon Eastern Europe until well into the 1980s. However, by the 1980s the Soviet economy was floundering, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempted reforms – ironically some of which were similar to those tried in Czechoslovakia in 1968 – only hastened the decline of Soviet control over the rest of Eastern Europe. In the late 1980s, communist governments across Eastern Europe fell to reform movements and Moscow made no attempts to retake the countries. The Soviet Union itself dissolved in December 1991.
The creation of the Eastern Bloc and the Warsaw Pact gave the Soviet Union virtual totalitarian, Western-sanctioned control over the affairs of several Eastern European nations.
The communist puppet regimes the Soviet Union set up in these countries were merely for show; nearly all were under the direct thumb of the Soviet government in Moscow. This control is best exemplified by the severe repression of economic and political reform in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Only with the weakening and eventual failure of the Soviet Union was Eastern Europe allowed to truly govern itself.
When this lesson is over, you should be able to:
- Describe the creation of the Eastern Bloc and Warsaw Pact after WWII by the Soviet Union
- Recognize the stranglehold Russia kept on the Soviet clients for over 40 years
- Recall Czechoslovakia’s failed attempt at political and economic reform in 1968
- Explain what led to the fall of the Soviet Union by 1991