The Cold War in Europe 1945–68

After cooperating in the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union became antagonists. Immediately after the Potsdam and Yalta agreements in 1945, Stalin demanded a Soviet ‘sphere of influence’ in eastern Europe and a new division appeared in Europe with the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’, a border behind which the Soviet Union isolated itself, and the countries within its sphere of influence, from the West. Puppet regimes were installed in Soviet-occupied territories, characterized by Communist rule, and strict government controls on freedom and dissent, reinforced by secret police and repressive laws. In February 1948, the Soviet-sponsored Communist Party of Czechoslovakia assumed control of the government in a coup d’état, ushering in four decades of Communist rule.

The Berlin Airlift

In Germany the Allies introduced the new Deutsche Mark in June 1948 to replace the chronically devalued Reichsmark, and the Soviet Union, aiming to keep Germany economically weak, cut off electricity supplies and blocked all Allied rail and road traffic to West Berlin, which was under post-war Allied administration. This left the two million inhabitants of West Berlin without any means of receiving the 1,500 tons of supplies they required daily. The Allies’ only option was to begin a round the clock airdrop to combat the blockade as the Soviets would not risk shooting down unarmed aircraft. After crashes and severe planning failures on ‘Black Friday’, 13 August 1948, initial flaws in Operation ‘Vittles’ were ironed out. Smaller C-47 transport aircraft were replaced with C-54s and by September 5,000 tons of supplies were being landed from 1,500 flights per day across the three flight corridors. Coal requirements increased massively over winter but the operation was so successful that the Soviets ended the blockade after 11 months.

In 1949 two new German states appeared. The eastern half became the German Democratic Republic, aligning itself with the Soviet Union, whilst the West became the Federal Republic of Germany. West Berlin became an isolated enclave within East Germany. Alarmed by all these developments, President Harry S. Truman responded by speedily implementing the Marshall Plan, an American initiative which provided over $13 billion in aid to Western Europe to assist with economic reconstruction. The US also joined with western European democracies and Canada in NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in 1949. This was to provide military protection to western democracies under threat of Soviet encroachment. Tensions were also heightened by the Soviet distrust of the US; prior to Hiroshima, the Soviets were not aware that their erstwhile allies had the A-bomb. This is the beginning of the ‘cold war’, a non-combat state of geo-political tension between US-led liberal democracies and the Soviet Union and its satellites.

The Warsaw Pact

Stalin set about the systematic imposition of Soviet control in eastern Europe through Communist one-party rule, economic integration (via the institution of Comecon), and military integration through membership of the Warsaw Pact, which was set up in May 1955. In practice, subservience to the party line from Moscow was far from uniform. East Germany and Bulgaria proved the most compliant, under General Secretaries Ulbricht and Zhivkov respectively. However, in Yugoslavia, the leader of the wartime Communist resistance movement, Marshal Tito, went on to take control of the country in 1945. Initially allied with the USSR, his plans to absorb Albania and Greece alienated Stalin, who feared a powerful political entity in eastern Europe, and Yugoslavia was expelled from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) in 1948. While remaining Communist, Yugoslavia became non-aligned, receiving aid from, and enjoying commercial and diplomatic relations with, the West. Hoxha in Albania chose to align with Communist China rather than the Soviet Union. Romania under Gheorgiu-Dej, and then Ceacescu remained in the Warsaw Pact, but actively sought trade deal with western countries.

Rebellion and Repression

Elsewhere, the Russians suppressed attempts at liberalization in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In October 1956 a nationwide uprising against the Communist government in Hungary, which started with a student demonstration, overthrew the regime. The Soviets were initially willing to negotiate withdrawal of their troops, but then moved to crush the revolution. As the tanks rolled into Budapest, 2,500 Hungarians lost their lives and over 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. By January 1957 all public opposition had been obliterated. In 1968 the Prague Spring was a period of a few months when the reformist Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and started to liberalize the regime. Once again, the Soviet Union was determined to eliminate opposition and sent 650,000 soldiers into the country. After determined, but peaceful, resistance by the Czecks the Soviets prevailed, and a period of ‘normalization’ ensued, in which all the reforms were overturned.