Stalin’s moves to establish communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe relied largely on local elements and tools already tested in the USSR
The Ukrainian Week is launching a series of articles on the communization of Central and Eastern Europe after the victory of the USSR in the Second World War. Several factors combined to create a conducive environment for Stalin’s efforts to impose his own totalitarian model and decisively fix the region within the Kremlin’s sphere of influence: the relatively simple surrender of the region by the Western allies, nationalist movements deflated by the war and Nazi dictatorship, and an overall dizziness with the military successes of the occupying Red Army.
“This war is not like the previous one. Now he who subjugates a territory dictates its political system. Everyone imposes his own system in the geographical territory where his army is located. This is how it is, and it cannot be otherwise,” Stalin once told Milovan Đilas, a leader of the Yugoslav communist movement and later prisoner and victim of the system. The Soviet tyrant knew what he was talking about.
In 1949, the world communist camp finally took shape. That year, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed and the German Democratic Republic emerged. The states that Stalin had been eyeing (Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the GDR with the exception of Yugoslavia and, after 1960, Albania) found themselves under the thumb of the Soviet empire.
However, despite Stalin’s rhetoric, the future of Central and Eastern Europe did not seem to be set in stone. There was still some hope that these countries would be able to choose their paths independently without Moscow’s guidance. However, one had to reckon with the fact that the Soviet Union had not only emerged from 25 years of international isolation but had also assumed a top position among the victors of WWII, with the Red Army controlling countries previously occupied by the Third Reich or connected to it. It would be a long time before Germany could fully restore itself, so the geopolitical void in the continent had to be filled by Anglo-Saxons and the Soviets. The question was only who would have more influence.
Communist parties which, with the exception of the one in Czechoslovakia, had been small, illegal, or “sectarian” in the interwar period now became full-fledged political entities with great potential. At the same time, public opinion and political forces in these countries demanded fundamental changes, modernization and a departure from the dramatic wartime past. Czechoslovakia, which was a bourgeois democracy before the war, was again an exception here.
The Soviet chief took a pragmatic approach to the future of the region occupied by the Red Army. Initially, he did not wish to give any freedom to communist leaders, many of whom were appointed by Moscow, including Mátyás Rákosi in Hungary or Bolesław Bierut in Poland, but he was flexible in his thinking. As he strove to keep his new trophies (the Baltic states, Bessarabia, Königsberg, Transcarpathia, and annexed Polish regions), he wanted to see how far he could go in his dealings with the Western allies. They agreed that the USSR had to be surrounded by sympathetic countries. On this issue, the Western leaders were partly helpless.
Stalin did not rush to Sovietize even those countries which he wanted to have under direct control, i.e., Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. At the same time, he wanted to have room for further expansion, so he ordered to have a semblance of parliamentarianism established in these countries. As a result, several communist parties, including that of Hungary, put together programmes that could be described as social-democratic. Moreover, the real social democrats were more radical than communists, who were initially kept in check by Moscow. As is known, the main difference between the two was that the former stuck to the foundations of parliamentary democracy, while the latter pursued complete power and the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. To the communists, parliamentarianism was simply a means to an end.
According to Stalin’s conception, the post-war continent had to consist of three parts: 1) non-communist – Western Europe, where Stalin constrained coup attempts by the strong French and Italian communist parties, and Greece, where he cut off assistance to communist guerrillas; 2) communist – Poland, part of Germany, Romania and Bulgaria; 3) middle ground where coalition-based political systems would exist and the influence of communists would gradually rise – Yugoslavia, Finland, Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
The communist dictator tried to divert the attention of the Western allies from the second zone, so he initially made concessions in the third. For example, Stalin agreed to free elections and accepted the fact that, as a result, communists were removed from coalitions in Finland and Austria. This is how the Soviet policy was made to conform to the specific conditions in the region, while the Soviets withdrew in the face of stronger resistance.
The lure of a “people’s front”
After the Second World War, political coalitions in the form of “people’s fronts” sprang up across Europe, in both eastern and western regions. They emerged pursuant to decisions reached in Yalta whereby future governments would have to “widely represent all democratic population groups”. The parties in these coalitions were partners and opponents at the same time, and none of them were able – nor in some cases willing – to rule on their own.
These coalitions emerged under pressure from great powers in line with international decisions and usually in the presence of foreign troops. Even when elections were held in a country, the new government also took the form of a “people’s front”. Coalitions came across as quite variegated. They were held together only by external forces, not by common interests. This, of course, played into the hands of communist parties, which seemed to be integral and disciplined “battle-ready companies”. Communists maintained tension by taking advantage of “bourgeois” political forces which, due to their democratic structure, were easy targets. The Communists also employed the tactic of running crypto-communist parties which joined coalitions and recruited supporters from among the leaders of opposition forces, thus destroying them from the inside.
Meanwhile, due to the proximity of the USSR or the tactical presence of the Soviet army, communists could not be removed from coalitions, even though they could have probably survived even so. Moreover, unlike the other parties, the communists knew why they needed a parliamentary majority: it was a way to seizing total control. For example, the Hungarian and Czechoslovak communist parties received orders from Moscow instructing them to destroy the coalition while at the same time keeping it intact.
A question then arises: why did opposition forces cooperate with the communists if they had suspicions, if not convictions, that the latter were trying to annihilate them? On one hand, opposition parties were encouraged to do so by the Western allies, as was the case with Ivan Šubašić in Yugoslavia or Stanisław Mikołajczyk in Poland. On the other hand, they had to do everything in their power to reduce the influence of the communists and urge the West not to support any party but theirs. Even so, most opposition members believed that despite unfavourable circumstances, they had to prevent the Communists from coming to power; they were afraid that if they did not cooperate with the communists, they would be supplanted by more pliant forces. One thing that kept the opposition in Central and Eastern Europe from jointly resisting Sovietisation was a conviction shared by some parties (primarily social democrats, socialists and peasant parties) that they had more in common with the communists than with other opposition forces.
Initially, communist party leaders said plenty about the importance of close cooperation with other political forces. Statements to this effect were made, for example, by Władysław Gomułka in Poland, Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia, Georgi Dimitrov in Bulgaria and József Révai in Hungary.
Apart from Czechoslovakia, communist parties did not enjoy massive popular support and were unable to form ruling cabinets on their own. Stalin was aware that a government including communists could only be legitimate if it also involved other political forces. This element was crucial in view of the stance taken by the West. One advantage and, at the same time, flaw of the communist parties that emerged prior to the Second World War was that they had received support from the Soviet Union and were thus viewed as Moscow’s henchmen. Therefore, they strove to somehow transform this image.
While the communist party had been legally registered in Czechoslovakia since 1918 and had more than one million real members in March 1946 and twice as many in May 1948, its counterparts in other countries were quite thin when they emerged from the shadows and entered the political arena. However, their membership soon experienced an exponential explosion: from 25,000 in 1944 to 500,000 in late 1947 in Bulgaria; from 20,000 in 1944 to one million in autumn 1948 in Poland, from 2,000 to 806,000 in 1948 in Romania; from 2,500 in late 1944 to 887,000 in June 1948 in Hungary.
This data shows that in Europe, which gravitated towards the left in the first post-war years, many people expected something new, and were eager to leave behind systems of autocratic power and “bourgeois” democracies that had been in crisis even before 1939.
The military successes of the Red Army and the victory of the Soviet Union over the Third Reich made a colossal impression on Europeans. Communist parties with their new radical programmes were seen as a viable alternative against a backdrop of “weighty” bourgeois forces when it was already clear, particularly in the cases of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and, in a way, Poland, that returning to the previous order was out of the question. The communists were indeed able to stir up the masses, primarily young people, to advance their causes. Their ranks swelled partly because many neophytes seized the opportunity to conceal their unsavoury pasts. In Hungary, former members of Ferenc Szálasi’s national socialist Arrow Cross Party joined the Hungarian Communist Party en masse. Many converted to communism “in the spirit of the times”, i.e. simply as a way of adapting to new circumstances.
Rallying with Moscow’s blessing
According to Yalta accords, the countries of the region had to hold free elections because this was the only way to legalize their new governments. Government coalitions that were forged prior to the electioneering campaigns and primarily to facilitate them (hence their “temporary” status in a number of countries) were faced with a choice: 1) run together with the “people’s front” even though other parties were able to nominate their candidates independently (this was the case in Bulgaria, Poland and Romania), or 2) run independently provided that members of the previous coalition agreed to maintain its pre-election format. Czechoslovakia and Hungary took the latter path.
With some exceptions (such as in Hungary in 1945 and Czechoslovakia in 1946), the elections were held within an atmosphere of terror and intimidation and with large-scale falsifications. These elections could justly be pronounced illegitimate and invalid. The communists tried to artificially boost their performance and were not averse to rigging election results. If a partner started to have doubts about the value of the coalition, they resorted to a wide range of coercion methods including arrests, forced emigration, and the stimulation of interparty rifts. For a while, there was still a need for coalitions, real or illusory.
The so-called governments of national unity that emerged as a result became puppets in the hands of the communists and eventually fell apart as the foundations upon which they rested crumbled. In Central and Eastern Europe, coalition governments were replaced with communist one-party governments (or fictitious multiparty systems involving satellite parties). It became clear in 1947-48 that a deep chasm now divided the victors of the Second World War, leading to open intimidation and ultimately the Cold War. Proof of this fact came from both sides of the conflict. On one side, the Americans launched the Marshall Plan as well as a containment policy to stop Soviet expansion beyond its sphere of “privileged” influence. On the other side, the Information Bureau of the Communist and Workers’ Parties (Cominform) was established and began operation in autumn 1947.
The Kremlin could not allow any country under its control to accept the Marshall Plan, viewing it as a direct challenge. Moreover, it would have dealt a blow to a Soviet sore spot: the USSR was unable to compete with the U.S. economically. Amidst escalating tensions with the West, the only scenario acceptable to Moscow was to rally satellite regimes around itself in order to keep them from falling for the U.S.’s enticements and prevent departures from the Soviet model. This foundation was implemented in the Cominformburo.
From late 1947 to the end of 1948, the communists seized power in Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary. The task was made easier by the fact that they had controlled key power structures since late 1944 or early 1945. Further developments in these countries followed an almost identical scenario. A “dictatorship of the proletariat” was introduced, which meant the dissolution of other political forces. United workers’ parties were created, allowing the communists to absorb social-democratic and socialist parties. The result was a single-party system with small satellite parties surviving in some places but always accepting the leadership of the Communists. Political representation essentially ceased to exist, elections turned into mere shows, and parliaments became pro forma institutions. In 1949-53, classical Stalinism with all its political and economic consequences began to reign supreme in the countries of “people’s democracy”. The relations between the Soviet Union and its satellite states saw some changes during this period. A serious crisis of this model was marked by mass protests in the GDR and Czechoslovakia in 1953 and in Poland in 1956, which culminated in the Hungarian Revolution in autumn 1956.