World History 2 251 - 14.4.1 Tensions in Europe

Joseph Stalin died in 1953. He was replaced as leader of the Soviet Union, briefly by Georgy Malenkov and then by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was as ardent an opponent of the Western Bloc as Stalin had ever been, bragging at one meeting that communism would “bury” capitalism, but he also favored a new attitude toward the United States and a new direction for the Soviet Union. In February 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Khrushchev denounced the late Stalin and accused him of crimes against the Soviet people. He then embarked on an aggressive process of de-Stalinization, changing Stalin-era policies such as censorship of the arts, releasing many whom Stalin had jailed for political reasons, dissolving the special tribunals that had convicted them, removing Stalin’s name from public buildings, and taking monuments to him down.

In the Eastern Bloc countries, this signaled the beginning of a political thaw. In June 1956, workers in the Polish city of Poznan rioted to protest food shortages and poor housing along with other grievances. In the autumn, protests began in other cities as well. They had a distinctly nationalistic character and called for such changes as the expulsion of the Soviet army from Poland and the removal of Russian language classes from Polish schools’ curricula. In October, Władysław Gomułka, who called for governmental reforms, was made the leader of the Polish Communist Party and thus the leader of Poland.

Alarmed by the possibility of reforms that might remove Poland from the Eastern Bloc, Khrushchev mobilized Soviet troops in Poland and marched them toward Warsaw even as he flew there in person. After Gomułka assured Khrushchev that he had no intention of ending communism or Poland’s relationship with the Soviet Union, Khrushchev agreed that reforms could take place. Accordingly, the collectivization of Polish agriculture was ended, Soviet advisers were sent home, political prisoners were released, and greater freedom was given to the Roman Catholic Church.

The success of the Poles inspired others. On October 23, 1956, students marched through the streets of Budapest, Hungary, demanding among other things the removal of Stalinist symbols, improvements in wages, economic reforms, and the removal of Soviet troops from the country. The State Security Police opened fire on students who gathered outside the main radio station to read their demands on the air, and several were killed. An uprising began, with angry citizens fighting both the police and Soviet troops. As protesters attacked the parliament building, Ernő Gerő, the head of the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and leader of the country, fled along with his prime minister, András Hegedüs. Imre Nagy, a reformer, took office as prime minister. Unlike Gomułka, Nagy did not wish to institute internal reforms while otherwise remaining loyal to Moscow. On October 28, he called for a cease-fire, dissolved the State Security Police, and demanded that Soviet troops leave Budapest. On November 1, Nagy announced that Hungary was no longer a member of the Warsaw Pact and would remain neutral in international affairs.

Three days later, Soviet forces entered Hungary to join those the USSR had been on the point of withdrawing until Nagy’s announcement. Khrushchev may have feared that Nagy’s declaration of Hungarian neutrality threatened the security of the Soviet Union. He may also have wished to demonstrate his resolve to more conservative communists and to the leaders of the other Soviet states. Some argue that the Western Bloc’s failure to intervene emboldened him. The uprising came to an end on November 10 after about 2,500 Hungarians had been killed, and the communist government was reestablished under János Kádár. Approximately twenty thousand Hungarians were arrested and another 200,000 fled the country. Soviet troops were permanently stationed in Hungary, and Nagy was tried and executed in 1958.

The United States did not become involved in the events in Hungary, a decision Khrushchev later mocked. However, despite not wishing a confrontation with the Soviets, the United States soon found it could not ignore Khrushchev’s ultimatum regarding Berlin. In 1958 and again in 1961, Khrushchev demanded that Britain, France, and the United States leave West Berlin, demands that went unheeded. The capitalist part of the old German capital was a thorn in Khrushchev’s side. Not only did its prosperity arouse discontent among the residents of the communist eastern districts, but the openness allowed there enabled many people from East Germany—and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc—to escape to freedom.

On the evening of August 12–13, 1961, East German troops erected a barbed wire fence to divide the western part of Berlin from the eastern. In the days that followed, cement walls went up as well to stop the free passage from east to west. On October 22, a dispute erupted between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding the free passage of U.S. government employees between East and West Berlin. The United States maintained that, in keeping with agreements reached at Potsdam at the end of World War II, members of the Allies could travel freely throughout Berlin. To test the Soviets’ commitment to abide by this agreement, the U.S. began to send cars carrying U.S. officials across the dividing line to see if they would be stopped. If they were, U.S. troops, sometimes riding in tanks, then accompanied them across.

On October 27, the USSR responded by sending some of its own tanks to the entrance to East Berlin. U.S. and Soviet tanks aimed their guns at one another. A fight was narrowly averted when Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to remove their tanks at the same time.

Link to Learning

The Berlin Wall separated the residents of East and West Berlin from 1961 until it was destroyed in 1989. While it stood, it provided a canvas for the people of West Berlin to record their whims and fantasies as well as political messages. This website shows photographs of the Berlin Wall and its art six months before it was torn down.

Tensions flared in Europe yet again in 1968 when Czechoslovakia, like Poland and Hungary before it, sought to loosen its ties to the Soviet Union. Early in the year, the country’s conservative leader Antonín Novotný was replaced by Alexander Dubček. Dubček instituted economic reforms and ended government censorship. As Czechs called for even greater reforms, the Soviet Union became alarmed, as it had in Poland and Hungary in 1956. Fearing that changes in Czechoslovakia would stimulate calls for reform elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc or in the Soviet republics themselves—and confident the United States would not intervene, just as it had failed to do before—the new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered an invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968. By early 1969, resistance had largely disappeared, and the Soviet Union replaced Dubček with the conservative Gustáv Husák, who reversed Dubček’s reforms. Censorship was restored, and government control increased again. For the Soviets, this was a successful application of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the pledge to assist communist governments in danger of being overthrown.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax