by: Aditya Bothra
The Politics of the Cold War played a significant role in the Communist transformation that took place in Eastern Europe post WWII, but the indigenous factors were in no way irrelevant. To the contrary, the external factors were more of a catalyst to the indigenous factors that were already in play in Eastern Europe. Internal similarities in the social, political and economic problems that in many ways superseded the differences between Eastern states are critical, along with structural realities, to fully comprehend the rise and fall of Communism in the so called “successor states” of Europe in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The political traditions of Eastern Europe served as the foundation to the rise of Communism in the late 1940s, political frailties that were evident to Stalin and the Red Army when it entered the region as liberators towards the end of WWII. As George Schopflin notes in Politics of Eastern Europe, “The power of society failed to develop and concentrations of autonomous power could not and did not emerge, or at any rate they could not attain the necessary critical mass.” Unlike Western Europe, where Enlightenment ideas had given rise to notions of Liberalism and Democracy and in turn propelled the state to develop complex systems of government, Eastern Europe was yet to comprehend the idea of a shared national identity and at best was in the primitive stages of statehood after the scars left by decades of foreign rule in the 1930s. Among the Eastern Europeans, the idea of a sovereign nation was new and even uncomfortable after having been subjects to four great empires, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Prussian and Russian empires. While their Western cousins had long freed themselves from the clutches of empire and established nation-states, the Eastern states were still reeling from the not too distant reality of empire with the last vestiges fading only after the end of WWI. The prolonged presence of empire in Eastern Europe due its status as buffer zone to invading armies, according to Michael Roskin in The Rebirth of Eastern Europe, had left the impoverished and undeveloped region with weakened and suppressed native institutions and a dependence on a dominant state analogous to that of child to parent in the management of affairs such as defense, economy and politics. The states of Eastern Europe were simultaneously weak and strong; the governments were “no more than greedy, corrupt and brutal class regimes,” weak in their fulfillment of basic needs of the people and implementation of modernization reforms, and strong in their use of intervention and violence to suppress any uprising. Furthermore, the fragile process of state formation that had only begun for countries like Romania and Bulgaria after WWI was hampered by political inexperience and disparate populace that assured the “failure of either social or ethnic integration into a single relatively homogeneous civil society.” The allied powers that liberated the states of Eastern Europe in WWI saw them as future bastions of democracy in the region, but were left in awe as military coups, dictatorships and rise of fascist ideologies mitigated any such hope during the interwar year leading to WWII.
WWII eradicated any limited progress made by East Europe post liberation and ultimately led to the chasm between the East and the West that was to be removed only in 1989. Going into WWII the countries of Eastern Europe already stood weakened and divided along the lines of ethnicity, making them easy targets for Hitler’s army in its conquest of Europe. While countries like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria guided by fascist leadership joined Germany, those that stood up on hopes of Western intervention and aid, like Poland and Yugoslavia, were quickly crushed and still others, like Czechoslovakia, were invaded without any resistance. This inaction of the West as Hitler’s army marched and ravaged the East was seen by the people of Eastern Europe as betrayal and alienation on the parts of Britain and France. This antipathy towards what had become the distant and alien West converted to a fondness for neighboring Russia in its role as liberators at the end of WWII. The weakened East, more impoverished than ever before with food shortages and widespread destruction of key infrastructure after WWII, saw in the Soviet Union a state they could model their own countries after, for they shared a common Slavic heritage and had long established economic and trading ties. The stories of the People’s Revolution and the Soviet standoff with the Germans only elevated the status of the liberating army further as it marched from Sofia to Budapest, driving out the Germans.
The end of WWII and entrance of the Red Army into Eastern Europe sped up the political factors well in position to skew the states towards the appeal of Communism. As author Ben Fowkes notes in The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, “the impact of war on society is generally to radicalize it and arouse expectation.” The situation in Eastern Europe was such after WWII that radical solution were seen as increasingly attractive in the face of poverty and misfortune. Whereas before the people were content in the large scale ineffectiveness and disregard of the state towards the people’s needs, the new lows of the war served as a beacon of radical change that was further spurred by the revolution in the USSR. This change played on the simultaneous fear and anger against Fascists post WWII and led to countries like Hungary to code into law the death penalty for political prisoners and those convicted of membership in Fascist organization. Liberal democracy, the antithesis of Communism, faced the brunt of the people’s anger as the free electoral process was the reason behind Fascist rise to power throughout Europe that ultimately devastated the continent. Arrests and imprisonment carried out during this period were targeted towards Fascist, but the broad definition of political prisoner all but ensured that the drive was to eradicate all opposition. Much of the electoral support gained by Communist during this period were “cast by people who don’t know or care what the Communists stand for but who dislike the existing system.” This drive to remove the far right elements and for change furthered the appeal of the leftist movements in its radical notions of proletariat-driven revolution to create a more utopian world and led directly to the consolidation of Communist rule within Eastern Europe.
The deplorable state of the economy throughout Eastern Europe was another key factor that led to the dramatic changes post WWII. As Robin Okey said, “peasant Eastern Europe was a hopelessly under-capitalized, over-populated bottom rung of the European economy.” The majority of East Europe sans Czechoslovakia was composed of largely unindustrialized nations with peasant population ranging from eighty percent in Bulgaria to fifty-five percent in Hungary and second rate countries to the technologically advanced states of Western Europe. This large agrarian population directly led to a dearth in adoption and development of technology, urbanization and economic autonomy, all key factors in the push for industrialization and rise of capitalism in the West. Furthermore, Eastern Europe’s geography as largely landlocked and isolated did not help trade or facilitate commerce. The little industrialization that was seen in the development of light industries and consumer products, according to Geoffrey Swain in Eastern Europe Since 1945, was largely the result of foreign investments coming from Germany, France and Britain. The large inflow of capital in the nineteen twenties and thirties resulted in states like Poland and Hungary having upwards of fifty percent of the capital in foreign hands. Having large parts of their economy under the whims of foreign players played a role in further destabilizing the region as was seen with the outbreak of WWII.
While industrialization never really took off in East for a host of reasons mentioned, it wasn’t as if the East had turned a blind eye to development and modernization taking place in the West. Schopflin mentions that the Eastern Europe in many ways looked towards the West as the criterion of modernity sans in much more simplified terms. To the East Europeans, Western modernity was something that could simply be adopted as is without any alteration; this assumption was their mistake. Western Europe’s industrialization and modernization was based on decades of personal challenges and changes in thought led by Capitalist and free market ideas. It could not be simply carried forward and implemented without first creating the environment necessary to nurture its growth. Their simplified definition of modernity gave rise to the false belief that modernity was only a few changes away (or in Hungary’s case a railroad system away, yet the reasons behind its development was the emulation of West rather than an imminent need to transport people and goods). The failure of the government to modernize in response to broad calls from citizens to institute land reforms and economic investment served to only quicken the rise of Communism.
The combination of economic and political factors led to the stark structural realities of Eastern Europe that eventually gave rise to Communism. Ben Fowkes in The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe states “integration implies that the overwhelming majority of society accepts the constitutional and political framework, together with broad, imprecisely defined goals of political and social development within the state.” Such a definition delineates that Eastern Europe lacked both social and political integration, as they remained for much of their early sovereign life in the twentieth century stratified on the basis of religion and ethnicity. Eastern Europe essentially functioned through a self imposed caste system that all but limited social mobility and, together with economic factors, restricted the development of a middle class. The semblance of a middle class made up of largely Jews was practically non-existent after the war. The development of a middle class or even a working class may have been critical, as Renske Doorenspleet hypothesizes, for the countries of East Europe to make a transition to democracy in the interwar years. The largely peasant population of Eastern Europe was unable to unite together to ignite the cause of democracy, and instead fueled the fire of Communism.
Much as in the rise of Communism, the fall of Communism was orchestrated by a host of indigenous factors that combined with the external changes taking place to bring an end to the “Iron Curtain.” The four decades of Communist rule in Eastern Europe had brought about changes unlike the ones promised when the Left rose to power post WWII; this empowered the people much like it did post WWII to demand change to better their lives. While external factors such as Soviet Union’s policy change towards the East and its involvement elsewhere in the world, and US - Soviet political and military standoff increased pressure and campaigning from the West and expedite the end of Communism, it was always the internal movements in countries of East Europe that were as isolated and disregarded by the West in 1980s as in 1940s that finally brought the curtains down.
Economic reforms was high on the agenda of Communist parties that rose to power in East Europe to address years of backwardness in the region, but by 1989 they had largely failed to successfully address the needs of the people. East Europe became more industrial in the most rudimentary definition of the word under Communist rule due to its emphasis on self sufficiency and development of heavy industries to fend off any future aggression by the West, but in the process pushed the countries of the region into a prolonged economic crisis. The people had jobs and earned wages, but the planning commission had not planned for or projected the demands of a rising urban consumer society that would have needs that go beyond steel bars and sub-par auto parts. It did not help the economy that there was uniform underutilization of resources, desperate need for capital infusion, unpopular collectivization of agriculture, lack of technological implementation and know-how, and high rates of inflation with “too much money chasing too few good.” Furthermore, the gap between the East and the West that had once inspired the countries of East Europe for change stood in the 1980s at perhaps its greatest with the economies of East faltering while the Capitalist West recovering to be stronger than it had ever been. While the West set standards of living throughout the world, countries such as Poland that had become highly indebted to foreign capital, as much as $39.2 billion in 1987, sought to restore living standards to that of 1978 and still failed. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, such as Roman and Bulgaria, the quality of life was at an all time low with inadequate infrastructure and social services. But the government was in no position to attend to these marginal concerns of society, as it too was struggling to pay workers their wages and keep the economy from falling apart.
Overall, the people of Eastern Europe felt duped by their government as none of the utopian fairy tales that had once inspired them to seek change in the end of WWII was to be had, despite constant reassurance of their Communist leadership. Far from the dreams of a classless society, a whole generation grew up between 1956 and 1989 to whom “communism did not mean the struggle against fascism and the vagaries of the free market, but economic stagnation and political oppression,” according to Geoffrey Swain. The mass discontent that had been shaped by the dismal state of affairs of East Europe led them to take power in their own hand through large scale protests and violence against the Communist governments. Solidarity, the most famous of the movements taking place in Eastern Europe, started in Poland in September 1980 with the first non-Communist trade union. The organization and its members, from all walks of Polish life, set about on anti-communist social movement which received widespread coverage from press and in turn educated the Western world on the plight faced by Communist East Europe. There were very few cities in Eastern Europe and those that did exist lacked economic and political autonomy, the commitment to interaction and innovation found in the West. While initially thwarted by government efforts to impose martial law, Solidarity eventually gained in popularity and support to force Poland to hold its first semi-free election in 1989. The success of Solidarity influenced through the domino effect the countries of Eastern Europe to renew anti-Communist activity that had quelled since the violent suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising and 1968 Prague Spring by Soviet interference. The Revolution of 1989 which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union was composed of many such Solidarity-like movements throughout the Eastern bloc.
The rise and fall of Communism in Eastern Europe was very much the result of indigenous factors at play. Denying the role of these indigenous factors would be ignorant of the plight of East European in the years leading up to the rise and fall of Communism. The external factors all but played a supporting role in expediting the rise and prolonging the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. The Russian revolution was a trigger for the start of revolution in the East; Western indifference towards the East made the rise of Communism easier; Soviet military intervention ensured the rise of the “Iron Curtain” was delayed; the arms race between the Soviet Union and US diverted attention away from Eastern Europe but ultimately it was the key local ingredients that gave rise to and led to the collapse of Communism in East Europe.
Bideleux, Robert , and Ian Jeffries. A History of Eastern Europe: Crisis and Change. New York: Routledge, 1998. p. 469-470
Chirot, Daniel. The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe: Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages until the Early Twentieth Century. London, England: University of California Press, 1989.
Doorenspleet, Renske. "The Structural Context of Recent Transitions to Democracy." European Journal of Political Research 43(2004): 309-335.
Fowkes, Ben. The Rise and Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993.
Okey, Robin. Eastern Europe 1740-1985: Feudalism to Communism, Second Edition. 2nd Edition (Digital). New York: Taylor & Francis, 2007.
Roskin, Michael G. The Rebirth of East Europe. Fourth. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Swain, Geoffrey, and Nigel Swain. Eastern Europe Since 1945. New York: Palgrave, 1998.
Schopflin, George. Politics in Eastern Europe, 1945-1992. New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.
"Revolutions of 1989." Wikipedia. 1 Mar 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutions_of_1989>.
"Solidarity." Wikipedia. Wikipedia. 1 Mar 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity>.