Discussion question.East EuropeThere is no disputing the determined effort of the Soviet Union to establish its domination over Eastern Europe after the war, although there were also domestic factors in these countries that facilitated Soviet control. Looking at the first decade after the war, what do you think was the main Soviet goal, to extend communism or to extend the Soviet Union’s defensive perimeter a few hundred miles westward.THE EASTERN BLOC
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At first glance it would appear that what happened in Eastern Europe is very easy to
explain: the Soviet Union imposed its communist system on a group of satellite states in
Eastern Europe. But that isn’t the end of the story.
Post-War Eastern Europe looked significantly different than Interwar Eastern Europe in
a lot of ways. One historian (Tony Judt) recently wrote that East Europe owed its
relative stability in the second half of the 20th century to Hitler and Stalin, a thought that
might strike us as odd. If we think back to our earlier discussions we will remember that
national minorities bedeviled almost all the new nations of Eastern Europe that were
formed after WWI. Most of them had a significant Jewish community, and most had a
substantial minority that probably felt a loyalty to a neighboring state. But with Hitler’s
annihilation of most of Europe’s Jews and Stalin’s gerrymandering, most of East
Europe’s post war states approached the 19th century ideal of the nation-state. Interwar
Poland, for example, was only about 65% Polish, while post War Poland was about
95% Polish. So national pride has to be seen as one of the factors that pushed East
Europeans to accept the new regimes, even if the people did not ascribe to the
communist ideal.
It is unclear whether the Soviets had a blue print in mind for creating puppet states in
Eastern Europe. (As far as I know, no such pre-1941 secret plan has come to light in
the archives that have been opened up since 1991.) What we do know is that in all bloc
states, the conquering Red Army installed a provisional government that had been
handpicked by Stalin. Rather than immediately establishing communist control, they
established “Peoples’ Democracies,” coalition governments that included noncommunists. One constant, however, was that in all the states communists controlled
the media and security forces, which put them in a perfect position to defame and, when
necessary, eliminate their opponents. After a couple of years, one by one, the
communists took full control of the state, sanctioned by “elections” in which opponents
were effectively prevented from participating. We should not totally exclude the
possibility that the Soviets held out hope for the communist parties winning public
approval. This is not because the communist program was that attractive, but because
of genuine hostility toward the pre-War parties, most of whose leaders spent the War in
London, something the communist dominated media made sure no one forgot. But the
Soviets were not prepared to see a non-communist regime take control.
The only successful challenge to Soviet dominance in East Europe came from Josip
Tito in Yugoslavia, who expelled his Soviet “advisors” in 1948 in anticipation of a Soviet
coup. One point I would like to emphasize is how in Yugoslavia the communists, under
Tito’s leadership, came to power on their own strength, emerging on top after an brutal
©Paul Heineman – All Rights Reserved
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civil war which featured ethnic massacres, communist and royalist partisan armies, not
to mention German occupation. This was far different from the other East European
countries, where the Soviet Red Army expelled the Nazis, and the communist
leadership was handpicked by Stalin. Thus, it is natural that Tito would be the one to
challenge Stalin’s undisputed control over the communist states. One of the ironies of
the Soviet Yugoslav split is that there were no real ideological issues involved. If
anything, Tito was more Stalinist than Stalin. (It was Tito, more than Stalin, who
supported Greek communists, which, in turn, led to the Truman Doctrine.) The main
issue was power. Perhaps because Yugoslavia had liberated itself without Soviet
assistance Tito did not show sufficient deference to Stalin. The breaking point was that
Tito suggested the creation of a “Balkan confederation,” comprising Yugoslavia,
Albania, and Bulgaria, presumably with Tito at the helm, which probably sounded
suspiciously like a junior Soviet Union. Tito’s break with Stalin prompted a split among
Yugoslav communists, some of whom preferred to remain in the Soviet camp, which in
turn set off another round of brutal purges. Rather than inspiring similar rebellions, the
Yugoslav “defection” caused the political leadership in Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria
to fear Tito’s ambitions, thus, ironically, solidifying their positions in the Soviet sphere of
While East European leaders were often selected in Moscow, that does not mean that
rivalries and politics were eliminated altogether. This was certainly the case while Stalin
was alive. Whether out of a personal quirk or a conscious management style, Stalin
always created naturally rival factions that he liked to play against one another, in
domestic politics and among the East Europeans. Stalin threw a monkey wrench into
the nationalist formula: a large percentage of the early generation of communist leaders
in East Europe was Jewish, selected to lead states where anti-Semitic traditions were
strong. It is almost as if Stalin hoped to create even more tension between rulers and
ruled. He perhaps feared that ethnic nationals would take the route of Tito and
challenge Soviet authority. So while the bloc communist leaders were secure in their
positions vis-à-vis non-communist rivals, there was always a natural competition within
the various countries to prove who was the most loyal to the Stalinist line, which often
made for some vicious politics. When Stalin died, some of these rivalries came out into
the open.
As for the economy, in the early years of the Soviet bloc there was probably not very
much input from the Soviets into the East European economies. The point can certainly
be argued, but one could say that in the absence of Soviet influence, East Europe might
have very well continued its pre-War status as a supplier of agricultural product and raw
materials to the more advanced economies of West Europe — Czechoslovakia was the
©Paul Heineman – All Rights Reserved
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one exception. The most important Soviet import was probably the model of a selfreliant, centrally planned economy that prioritized industrial development above all else.
If the communist experiment proved itself good for anything, it was in its method for
achieving rapid transformation from an agricultural to industrial economy, the process
that swept East Europe in this time. These nations did undergo important
transformations. As with the case of the USSR previously, they made the jump to
industrialization much more quickly than had been the case in the West. And, as with
the case of the USSR previously, this was a brutal process. One can argue about how
this was achieved, or about the ultimate meaning of it. One can compare the quality of
output produced in the East with that of the West, and find the East lacking. But one
cannot simply pretend that it did not happen.
The Soviet intent, it would seem, was to impose a division of labor over time among the
bloc states, with each state specializing in certain products or resources to serve the
greater good of the socialist world (read: the Soviet Union). But this didn’t happen.
Although East European leaders were happy to use communist brotherhood as
justification for their dictatorial rule, in some regards they acted much more like Poles,
Bulgarians, and Romanians than like communist-internationalists, fighting with one
another for larger subsidies from the Soviets and diverting, when feasible, resources for
industries that fell outside the Soviet master plan. Although we think in terms of the
Soviets exploiting Eastern Europe, it is in no way clear which side benefited more over
time from the flow of goods between the USSR and the bloc nations.
©Paul Heineman – All Rights Reserved

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