___I. East -Central Europe and the Great Powers___Vissza

The Soviet Union

After Stalin’s death, the new Soviet leadership attempted to make significant changes in both the domestic life and foreign policy of the empire. In the late-1940’s the Soviet Union—whose economy had still not recovered from the trauma of World War II—began spending heavily in order to keep pace with the United States in the arms build-up which had begun with the Cold War. Following the formula which had proved effective in the 1930’s, the capital necessary for weapons production was to be generated through an extensive diversion of resources from the agricultural and consumer-goods sectors of the economy. It is for this reason that the new Soviet leadership, especially during Malenkov’s premiership (1953-1955), attempted to mitigate domestic unrest by establishing a more balanced economic structure marked by reduced emphasis on heavy industry, particularly arms production. However, the Soviet plan to reduce expenditures on arms could only be implemented within the context of a general improvement of East-West relations, which had until then been based upon mutual fear of direct confrontation.

Accordingly, beginning in 1953 Soviet foreign policy became much more flexible and for the first time since the closing stages of World War II the Soviet Union displayed a willingness to negotiate and compromise with the Western powers. This change in Soviet comportment ultimately opened the way for an end to the Korean War and led to such a significant reduction in East-West tension that the mid-1950’s are justifiably referred to as the first period of dètente.

1. Soviet foreign policy had four main trends in the years preceding 1956. (13)First of all it was marked by attempts at a rapprochement with Britain, France, and the rest of Western Europe as well as the United States without seriously considering any change in the status quo. With the onset of détente, the Soviet Union’s relations with the West, based on a growing parity in the balance of power as well as a mutual respect for the post-World War II status quo in Europe, was to receive a new definition. Although Moscow did in fact respect the sanctity of the European spheres of influence throughout even the chilliest years of the Cold War, Western Europeans were nonetheless constantly worried about the possibility of a Soviet attack. The new course in Soviet foreign policy gave rise to a greater sense of security in Western Europe. The increased Soviet inclination toward negotiation was also largely due to the fact that even though they had, with the development of the hydrogen bomb, largely caught up to the United States in the arms race, the differing geopolitical location of the two countries still left the Soviet Union in a vulnerable position since it was not capable of direct attack on the American continent until the intercontinental ballistic missile was developed at the end of the 1950’s. The Soviet shift to a more conciliatory foreign policy also had another, more concrete motivation: they hoped to prevent the rearmament of West Germany by sowing discord within the Western alliance.

The Soviets nonetheless clearly defined the limits of the compromises they were willing to make throughout the entire course of negotiations with the West, and it soon became obvious that they were only disposed to discuss issues such as that of the status of Germany and Austria which the great Western powers had been unable to agree upon among themselves. The irreconcilability of Soviet and Western positions regarding the reunification of Germany ultimately prevented the sides from reaching any kind of agreement, and when West Germany had joined NATO in 1955, the question was taken off the agenda for quite some time. The resolution of the Austrian question in the same year nevertheless demonstrated the willingness of the Soviet leadership to bargain with the West: in exchange for a pledge to withdraw their troops from the country, the Soviets were able to get the Western powers to agree to permanently uphold Austria’s strict neutrality and to allow those Eastern European countries which were not already members of the United Nations to join the world organization. However the Soviets never considered the issue of the satellite countries to be negotiable; in fact, since the Soviet Union’s ratification of the Austrian State Treaty in 1955 would remove the legal basis for continued presence of its troops in Hungary and Romania, the Soviet Union used this as an opportunity to strengthen the cohesiveness of its empire by establishing the communist bloc’s military alliance, the Warsaw Pact, one day before the signing of the treaty on Austria.(14)

2. Even though the Soviet leadership itself respected the post-war European status quo, this did not mean that they had given up on the idea of expanding the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in general. Soviet expansionist ambitions centered now on the new countries born in the wake of the rapid disintegration of the colonial empires after World War II, i. e., the Third World. Contrary to the strong-arm methods it had used to subjugate Eastern Europe after World War II, the Soviet Union was able peaceably to bring many of these primarily Arab and Asian countries into its political orbit. People in these underdeveloped countries, where there was a strong and natural demand for an accelerated modernization were often allured by the Soviet social and economic model emphasizing equality and centralized planning. Beginning in the mid-1950’s Soviet foreign policy was aimed at exploiting opportunities for ideological expansion into the Third World through intensive propaganda and, where necessary, economic aid. By this time the Soviets had also begun discreetly to provide some of these countries with arms and military advisors. Soviet prudence in this area was proved later at the time of the Suez crisis in October-November, 1956: not only did the Soviets completely exclude the option of providing direct military support to Egypt, but Soviet military specialists and advisors immediately left the country so as not to become embroiled even indirectly in conflict with the Western powers. (15) A few days later, when it became clear that the United States itself would compel Great Britain and France to cease their armed attacks on Egypt, the Soviets resumed their propaganda strategy of portraying themselves as the champion of the independence of the Arab countries and the small peoples of the world in general.

3. A primary objective of the new Soviet leadership was to repair the cracks and fissures which had appeared in the socialist bloc through the break with Yugoslavia in 1948. In May of 1955 Khrushchev and Bulganin went to Belgrade in an attempt to make amends with Tito, blaming Stalinist policies for the deterioration in relations between the two countries and communist parties. Throughout 1955 and 1956 the Soviets made several conciliatory gestures toward Yugoslavia, such as giving public sanction to the tenet that there could be more than one valid way to build socialism. The Soviet leadership, which was still only capable of thinking in terms of military blocs, did not really believe in what they were saying: their policy of conciliation toward Tito was, in fact, designed to bring Yugoslavia slowly and peacefully back into the socialist camp and, more specifically, to draw it into the Warsaw Pact. These steps, however, did not imply that Moscow was prepared to accept the Yugoslav model for its east European satellites.

4. One of the most important aims of Soviet foreign policy in East-Central Europe was to maintain stability at any cost. The Soviets were so keenly aware of the mounting social unrest in East Germany that in early June of 1953 they invited East German party leaders to Moscow and instructed them to introduce a more liberal political direction to their country. This, what was to be a short-lived period of reform in East Germany (Neue Kurs/New Course) was marked not only by a reduction in heavy industrial production and a corresponding increase in the production of consumer goods, but also meant reduced restrictions on travel abroad, the suspension of the collectivization of agriculture, an end to curbs on religious practices and even, for a short time, the removal of the word ‘socialism’ itself from the regime’s propaganda vocabulary. For the Soviets all this served - besides alleviating social discontent - the purpose of creating better conditions for future negotiations with the West on the potential reunification of Germany. The Berlin uprising in June of 1953 erupted despite all these precautions, and partly because the GDR leadership was reluctant to follow the instructions from Moscow.(16) Soviet political intervention to suppress the turmoil was vigorous and concise, though Moscow continued to try to moderate East Germany’s radical policies.

It was the same concern which made the Soviets intervene politically in Hungary and replace Rákosi with Imre Nagy in June 1953. And though the permissible pace and scope of post-Stalin political reform in Eastern Europe depended greatly upon which faction happened to have the upper hand in the incessant power struggles within the Soviet leadership, there was never any question in Moscow that the satellite states would remain inside the Soviet empire. But they were prepared to consider a moderate revision of the principles underlying relations between the Soviet Union and its East European allies and to regulate this relationship. This revision found expression in the Soviet government declaration of 30 October, 1956, which, contrary to earlier assumptions, was formulated before the upheaval in Poland and Hungary, in mid-October at the very latest, and was merely updated in accordance with the new political developments. (17) Beyond outlining considerably more equitable foundations for relations between the Soviet Union and its satellite states, this pronouncement asserted unambiguously that each country had the right to find its own way toward internal political reform only as long as it did not stray beyond the confines of the Soviet bloc.

The Soviets were, however, extremely wary of Yugoslavia’s growing influence in Eastern Europe, most importantly in Poland and in Hungary, suspecting reasonably that what people knew of the Yugoslav socialist model—with an active popular front and extensive workers’ self-management as well as consideration for local and national concerns—might prove to be more attractive in this region than the Soviet pattern. Therefore, at the end of the summer of 1956 the presidium of the CPSU sent a secret communiqué to the leaders of the satellite countries cautioning them that the Soviet Union took a dim view of exaggerated promotion of the Yugoslav model.

At the same time the Soviet leadership, worrying about the East European political developments, especially following the Poznan uprising in June, 1956, were eager to avoid further outbreaks of social discontent in the region by applying means of political intervention. This is why in July, 1956 Moscow eventually decided to replace Rákosi as the head of the Hungarian party in order to ease the political tension in the country. Mikoyan was sent to Budapest on whose advice the Central Committee accapted Rákosi’s resignation and elected Ernõ Gerõ as the head of the party. However, Mikoyan also informed the Hungarian leaders that should unexpected events occur in the country, the Soviet union would not hesitate to come to the help of the Hungarian party.(18) A similar message was communicated by Khrushchev to Tito through Micunivic, Yugoslav Ambassador in Moscow informing him that in case of the further deterioration of the situation the Soviet leadership was prepared to use every possible means to overcome a crisis in Hungary since the Soviet Union can by no means allow to make a breach in the front of the camp.(19)

The Western Great Powers

The policy of the first Eisenhower administration (1953-56) toward those countries of East-Central Europe that had landed in the Soviet sphere of influence after World War II was characterized by a peculiar duality.(20) Eisenhower and his would be Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles had made the so-called peaceful liberation of captive nations an integral part of their campaign platform; they firmly believed that the Truman administration’s policy of containment of communism was not befitting the United States as leader of the free world and that ultimately only a more offensive posture would compel the Soviet Union to surrender its East European domains. Accordingly, the American government devoted considerable sums toward funding of subversive radio stations and other such organizations as well as Eastern European emigré organizations. Reference to liberation of the captive nations—though exactly how it was to be accomplished was never made clear—was, all the way up until October of 1956, a mandatory component of all high-level American political pronouncements, which were subsequently transmitted to Eastern Europe by various propaganda organizations, particularly Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. All this served to create the illusion, not only in Eastern Europe and the United States, but throughout the entire world, that the United States, which had in fact never shown any real interest in the region, had made the liberation of these nations the cornerstone of its foreign policy and of East-West relations in general.

In reality, however, American foreign policy of this era was based on a thorough pragmatism characterized by recognition of the post-World War II European status quo and the prevailing balance of power with the Soviet Union as well as the avoidance at all costs of superpower conflict. The United States, together with the other Western powers, tried to exploit the new disposition of the post-Stalin Soviet leadership in order to open negotiations regarding issues which they found to be vital to their interests such as ending the Korean War, a settlement in South-East Asia, disarmament, reunification of Germany, and the status of Austria.

Thus, particularly after the American government discovered that the Soviets had made unexpectedly rapid progress toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile, especially from 1955-56 the United States sought to mitigate East-West political tension by finding an acceptable modus vivendi with the Soviet Union—one which was to become known to the world as peaceful coexistence.

The communist countries of Eastern Europe did not receive a prominent role in this process since the United States, in its typical great power way of thinking, considered the Soviet Union to be its only legitimate negotiating partner. During this period of East-West reconciliation and rapprochement the Western powers sought to put the issue of the so-called satellite states on the negotiating table with the Soviets(21) but it became quickly apparent—especially at the time of the Geneva summit in July of 1955 and in the interval prior to Khrushchev and Bulganin’s official visit to Britain in April of 1956—that the Soviet Union, which in certain respects had already surpassed the United States in the arms race, was only willing to negotiate from a position of strength. In this way the Soviets were only prepared to discuss issues which had not yet been settled from their perspective and any mention of their previous foreign conquests continued to activate a Stalinist rejection reflex.

Thereafter the United States and the other Western powers considered the question of Eastern Europe to be of secondary importance to that of overall East-West détente, a position which is quite understandable when viewed from an international political perspective. Though they had not abandoned hope that the peoples of Eastern Europe would eventually regain their independence, by the autumn of 1956 Western political officials had come to the conclusion that, for the time being, the Yugoslav political model—’national communism’—offered these countries the greatest opportunity for gaining a certain degree of both internal and external autonomy. (22)

Thus the Western powers—contrary to what was to become one of the principle elements contained in communist propaganda for decades thereafter—not only did not help to ignite the Hungarian revolution or the resistance of Poland to Moscow, but did not even remotely expect that an open conflict, let alone an armed uprising, would erupt in one of the Soviet satellite states. The Western powers had no pre-existing strategy—except that military intervention was absolutely ruled out of the question under any circumstances—designed to deal with such an unexpected event.

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Copyright © 2000 National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive
Utolsó módosítás:  2006. szeptember 18. hétfő

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