2. Support and cooperation, repression and protest (1945 - 1968)


The years 1945 to 1968 saw several states within Eastern Europe attempt to protest against and/or to reform the governments which ruled them. Although none of these protests were successful in fundamentally challenging Communist rule, the consequences were to have profound effects for Eastern Europe and for the Soviet Union itself.

Guiding questions

Why was there an uprising in East Germany in 1953?

What were the characteristics of the GDR after 1953?

What influence did the Soviet Union have on the GDR during this period?

Why did Poland avoid a Soviet invasion in 1956?

Why was the Hungarian uprising brutally suppressed?

Why did Brezhnev invade Czechoslovakia?

The countries of the Eastern bloc shared many characteristics by 1950:

  • They were all police states with secret police organisations modelled on the KGB and reinforced by inofrmers
  • All were one party states; although elections took place only 'official' candidates were allowed to stand in elections.
  • Media and education was controlled
  • State propaganda underpinned the system
  • Personality cults developed around the leaders
  • The ruling paries followed the lead of the Soviet Union in economic and social polices; they all took the Soviet version of Marxist-Leninsm with its belief in an ultimately classless society as the ultimate goal and all followed the dictates of Soviet foreign policy
  • Ultimately regimes were kept in power by oppression; the threat of Soviet intervention remained in the background.

Despite this control and repression, there were challenges to this system in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland between 1950 and 1968. None of these challenges were successful in fundamentally changing the system, and  Communist rule remained secure. Nevertheless, the suppression of each protest had severe consequences for the country involved, for the Soviet Union itself and, ultimately, for the very survival of Communism.

East Germany 1945 to 1968

1. Why was there an uprising in East Germany in 1953?

Following the official establishment of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in October 1949, (see  1. Soviet motives for taking control in central and eastern Europe 1945 - 1955) Walter Ulbricht became First Secretary of the SED and he remained the most powerful leader of the GDR until 1971. The period 1949 to 1961 was officially labeled 'the creation of the basis of socialism'.

Under Ulbricht, the SED Party (the socialist party which had been established before Germany's split - see 3. Theme 3 - Cold War Crises (ATL) ) had the role of guiding society through its transition to socialism and remained the dominant party. Although freedom of speech, the right to strike, freedom of assembly and freedom to practice religion were allowed in theory, in practice such freedoms were subordinated to the building of socialism and its relationship with the USSR. The SED sought to control the police and justice system and to ensure that schools taught the new political principles. A secret police was established and the SED infiltrated the mass organisations, such as the Free German Trade Union (FDGB) and the Free German Youth (FDI).

Agricultural policies were modeled on those established in the USSR by Stalin - collectivisation in agriculture and Five Year Plans for industry. The results of these policies saw industrial output increasing, but also a scarcity of consumer goods and a failure to improve living standards and increase housing. Enforced collectivisation led to 15,000 East German farmers moving to the West and the process led to food shortages and heavy rationing. As you will see from the video below, the general discontent caused by this situation led to the 1953 Uprising.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch the following CNN video from 4 minutes 20 seconds until 16 minutes and answer the following questions:

  1. What was the economic strategy of Ulbricht?
  2. What were the living condition of workers in East Germany?
  3. What were the features of Ulbricht's state?
  4. What was the reaction of many East Germans?
  5. What actions did workers take in 1953?
  6. What was the reaction of the East German government?
  7. What was the reaction of the Western governments in Berlin?
  8. What was the reaction of the Soviet government?
  9. Why did Adenauer in West Germany want to join NATO?
  10. What was the Soviet reaction to this development?
2. What were the characteristics of the GDR after 1953?

Stasi files kept on the lives of East Germans

The 1953 uprising had several consequences:

  • Ultimately, Ulbricht's position was strengthened. Although Ulbricht had been under pressure to soften his reforms before 1953, the USSR now took the view that any thought of liberalising East Germany's internal politics had to be abandoned. Ulbricht was thus able to use the 1953 rebellion as an excuse to carry out massive political repression. This included 6,000 arrests. Around 20,000 civil servants lost their jobs, as well as 50,000 lesser party members; this included former Social Democrats.  The Ministry for State Security (Stasi) was reformed and put under firmer party control. Thus authoritarian rule was consolidated and the rebellions of 1956 which affected Poland and Hungary did not spread to East Germany.
  • The USSR now recognised the GDR which it had not done before as it was clear that it had to build up the GDR diplomatically and economically as a separate entity from West Germany
  • The failure of the West to intervene seemed to indicate that the Western powers were unwilling to act outside of their own zones

Task Two

ATL: Research and communication skills

The The Ministry for State Security or Stasi was called 'the Sword and the Shield of the Party'

Research the role of the Stasi in East Germany. Create a presentation on its functions, how it operated and its impact on the lives of East Germans.

Below are some suggestions of sites that you may find useful - though there are many individual stories that you can research. The film, Lives of Others will also give a good idea of the actions and impact of the Stasi.

You will find these websites useful:

Radio Free Europe

The Local

The spies who loved me: my dad, the Stasi agent (the Guardian)

At 14, Sven Schramm was approached by Stasi recruiters. Was his father involved? €˜Stasi children€™ reveal how they are coming to terms with their parents†roles in the GDR€™s secret service

You can also find a video about the Stasi here on the AlJazeera site

Ulbricht continued to develop East Germany's economy along Soviet lines with Five Year Plans based on heavy industry. However, after the 1953 rising more attention was given to consumer goods. In 1956 a second Five Year Plan proved a failure and was abandoned. In 1959 a Seven Year Plan was introduced with ambitious targets in the production of energy, chemicals and development of engineering; Ulbricht predicted that by the end of 1961 the GDR's economy would have overtaken that of West Germany. However this plan was also abandoned; it's economy continued to grow at about 3% but this was low compared to the 8% of the FRG.

The state of the economy was the main reason for the growing emigration of East German workers to the West; indeed during the period 1950 to 1961 the population of East Germany fell from 18.5 million to just over 17 million. This undermined East Germany economically as it lost its best workers; it also undermined it ideologically as it proved that East Germans preferred the West to their own country.

Go to 3. Theme 3 - Cold War Crises (ATL) for links to videos and ATL on the Berlin crisis of 1958 to 1961 which resulted in the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The building of the wall benefited the GDR:

  • the hemorrhage of labour ended
  •  the government could now plan it's economic polices knowing that it had a guaranteed labour supply
  • the wall also increased stability inside the GDR since many East Germans now had to come to terms with life in the GDR and worked to make the best of it rather than consider emigrating to the West; previously the scale of emigration to the West had called into question the legitimacy of the country.
3. What influence did the Soviet Union have on the GDR during this period?
  • The economic and political system followed that of the Soviet Union
  • Ulbricht’s government was dependent on the Soviet Union as seen by the Soviet intervention in the 1953 uprising and the Soviet Union’s backing for the building of the wall.
  • It was a member of the Warsaw Pact and its own army, the National People’s Army of NVA was supported by the Soviets as East Germany was on the ‘front line’ of Cold War tensions and so had to be well-armed

Note however, that Ulbricht had hoped for a harder line against the West. He had hoped that the West would be pushed out of Berlin and that East Germany would have sovereignty over Berlin.

2. Why did Poland avoid a Soviet invasion in 1956?

Gomulka; leader of Poland between 1956 and 1970.

As you have read in the previous section ( 1. Soviet motives for taking control in central and eastern Europe 1945- 1955), the situation with regard to Poland at the end of the war was particularly complex due to its geographical location. At the start of the war it had been carved up between Germany and the Soviet Union as part of the Nazi Soviet Pact, and during the war it lost 6 million – which was proportionally more than any other country.

Despite the efforts of Churchill in particular to establish free elections in Poland and allow a range of parties, by 1947 the communist Polish Party had gained supremacy via the use of salami tactics as discussed elsewhere. In addition, purges were used to clamp down on dissent both within and outside of the Party. Ninety-seven concentration camps were identified in Poland by the early 1950s.

When Boleslaw Beirut died unexpectedly in 1956, Khrushchev nominated Edward Ochab to take over and to implement destalinisation. After the Secret Speech (see this page on The Secret Speech: 3. Khrushchev and Brezhnev (ATL) ), many Poles started to demand more political freedom and national sovereignty. At the end of June 1956, workers in the industrial city of Pozan revolted. In the next few months the Polish communist Gomulka, who had been outlawed in Stalin’s day, was brought back to political prominence (without Khrushchev’s approval). He represented the reformist wing of the Party and he implemented a rapid de-Stalinisation programme. On 19th October 1956, Khrushchev flew to Warsaw and Soviet military forces moved into a threatening position. However, Gomulka refused to be intimidated by Khrushchev, even threatening to arm the Polish workers and resist the Soviets. Importantly, however, Gomulka also told Khrushchev that he had no intention of taking Poland out of the Warsaw Pact. This calmed Khrushchev’s fears and he agreed that Gomulka could remain if he agreed not to carry our reforms that might threaten local communist rule, of the unity of the Soviet bloc.

Task two

ATL: Thinking skills

Read the following speech which Gomulka made to the Central Committee:

The workers of Pozan did not rebel against People’s Poland, or against Socialism, they protested against the evil which got into our social system and which offended them deeply…It would be politically naïve to try to present this tragedy as the work of imperialist forces and of provocateurs. The causes of the Poznan tragedy, of the profound dissastisfaction of our working class, lie in us, in the leadership of the Party, in the government…The loss of the confidence of the working class means the loss of the moral basis of power…We must tell the working class the painful truth. We cannot afford at the present moment any considerable increase of wages…

The mapping out of the Russian road to socialism passed gradually into the hands of the Central Committee into the hands of an even smaller group of people, and finally became the monopoly of Stalin…In Poland, too, tragic events occurred when innocent people were sent to their death. Many others were imprisoned often for many years, although innocent, including Communists…We have put an end to this system, or we are putting an end to it once and for all.’

What, according to this source, were the reasons for the riots in Pozan?

With reference to origins, purpose and content, assess the value of this source for  historian studying the riots in Poland in 1956

Gomulka succeeded in relaxing the Soviet stranglehold over Poland; thousands of Soviet officers who had been serving with the Polish Army had been sent home and he insisted that any Soviet troop movements on Polish soil should first be approved by the Poles. Thus Gomulka received the support of many Poles because he had preserved a Polish path to socialism rather than conforming to Soviet views. Why did Khrushchev allow this? Tony Judt writes that 'Khrushchev had read [Gomulka] well...The price of Communist control in Poland might be some personnel changes and liberalization of public life, but Gomulka was a sound Party man and had no intention of abandoning power to the streets or to the Party's opponents'. (Postwar, Vintage books, 2010, pg 312)

It is also interesting to note that Khrushchev was mindful of the fact that the Chinese were supporting the Polish Communist Party; this played a role in the decision not to use force.

3. Why was the Hungarian uprising brutally suppressed?

'Arise Hungarians, your country calls you.

Meet this hour, what'er befalls you.

Shall we free men be or slaves?

Choose the lot your spirit craves'

A verse which inspired the Hungarian revolution of 1948, used once again in 1956.

Khrushchev, however, did not compromise over Hungary and here it became clear that Khrushchev was as determined as Stalin to maintain Soviet control over the satellite states.

News of the Polish success had spread to Hungary where people lived under the repressive regime of Rákosi. Under Rákosi some 480 public figures had been executed between 1948 and 1953 and over 150,000 people had been imprisoned.

Crowds took to the streets and demanded that Rákosi be replaced with the more moderate Imre Nagy. Khrushchev agreed to this but riots continued. Khrushchev ordered the Red Army to restore order, but surprisingly it failed to achieve this and Nagy was able to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet forces on 28th October. Shortly afterwards he announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw pact and become a neutral state. He was also planning to share power with non-Communist groups.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

Why, according to Judt, did Nagy fail to keep control of the situation in Hungary?

Nagy's gamble - his sincere belief that he could restore order in Hungary and thus stave off the unspoken threat of Soviet intervention - was supported by the other Communists in his cabinet. But he had relinquished the initiative. Popular insurrectionary committees, political parties and newspapers had sprung up all over the country. Anti-Russian sentiment was everywhere ...And most important of all, the Soviet leaders were losing confidence in him. By the time Nagy announced, on the afternoon of Octobers 31st, that he was beginning negotiations to secure Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, his fate was probably sealed.

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch this CNN video from 28 minutes in answer the following questions:

  1. Why did a rebellion start in Hungary?
  2. Note down the key events of this rebellion
  3. What was the impact of this rebellion for Hungary?
  4. What were the actions of the Americans with regard to the rebellion?

Note that two more videos on the Hungarian Uprising can be found here: 8. The Soviet Union and Russia: Videos and activities 

Task Two

ATL: Thinking and communication skills

Work in pairs. You are advisors to Eisenhower. Draw up a briefing paper for Eisenhower where you set out what is happening in Hungary and what you think the response of the US should be. Make sure you consider different scenarios and draw up the pros and cons of Western intervention before reaching any conclusions. You will also need to consider the wider context of the Cold War and Eisenhower's Cold War aims as President.

Each pair should then present their brief to the President (teacher).

As you will have seen from the video, Khrushchev  could not tolerate Nagy's actions regarding sharing power with non-Communist groups and leaving the Warsaw pact. Aware that the attention of the West was focused on the Suez crisis, the Soviet forces launched a general offensive against the Hungarians. There was bitter fighting in the streets of Budapest: 20 000 Hungarians and 3 000 soviet troops were killed and an estimated 200,000 people - over 2 percent of the population - fled Hungary in the following weeks and months.

But the Soviets were successful in bringing Hungary back under their control. A new government under Janos Kádár was created; Nagy was later executed by the Russians.

The Hungarian revolt had been encouraged by CIA broadcasts on Radio Free Europe which led Hungarians to believe that they would get American support. However, the Americans made it clear to the Soviet leaders that the US would take no action to save Nagy. It is true that their attention was being diverted by the Suez crisis, but there is no evidence that Eisenhower ever considered interfering in Hungary. This was because he believed (probably mistakenly) that Khrushchev may well have been prepared to risk nuclear war rather than lose this satellite state.

In Poland, the communist Party retained control of affairs while in Hungary they lost control: Nagy’s decision to declare Hungary a neutral state would have meant the exclusion of Soviet influence and a weakening of the defensive ring of states established on its Western borders since 1944. Khrushchev’s actions in Hungary showed that de-Stalinisation did not mean a softening of the USSR’s fundamental attitude. When the Communist Party was in danger of losing control over state machinery or where its control of the Eastern bloc was challenged it was prepared to use whatever pressure was necessary to pull the satellites back into line.

4. Why did Brezhnev invade Czechoslovakia?

'Alexander Dubček and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end'. Tony Judt

From 1957, the leader of Czechoslovakia had been Antonín Novotný who was a hardliner, disliked for his promotion of Czech rather than Slovak interests. Novotný's 1960 constitution abolished most Slovak institutions on the premise that internal national rivalries were no longer relevant. He had also resisted attempts by destalinisers to initiate economic reform and rehabilitate victims of the purges. However he had enemies within the party who forced him to resign in 1968. His successor was Alexander Dubček.

Dubček was a loyal Communist and considered himself a loyal ally of the USSR. However, Novotný's fall from power increased pressure for change from Dubček's more radical supporters. Thus, in April 1968 the Party published its 'Action Programme'. This aimed to create 'socialism with a human face' and to build a 'new profoundly democratic model of Czechoslovak socialism, conforming to Czechoslovak conditions'.

There were also to be wider powers for trade unions, expansion of trade with the West and freedom to travel abroad. In June Dubček even abolished censorship and encouraged criticism of the government. Conscious of what had happened to Hungary in 1956, he was careful to assure the Russians that Czechoslovakia would stay in the Warsaw pact and remain a valuable ally.

Task One

ATL: Thinking skills

In pairs, read this section of the Action Programme and discuss the following questions:

  1. What criticisms are made of the actions of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia?
  2. What are the aims of the constitution to be?
  3. How are these aims to be achieved?
  4. Can you see any problems in Dubcek's aim of allowing popular participation of different groups in society while at the same time maintaining Communist Party control?
  5. Why were these reforms unlikely to be accepted by the Soviets?

Task Two

ATL: Thinking skills

Watch this clip from the CNN Cold War video on the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Make notes on:

  • Dubček's reforms in the Prague Spring and their impact in Czechoslovakia
  • The fears of the Soviets regarding these reforms and their response
  • Why the Prague Spring led to the Soviet invasion
  • The impact of the invasion

As you will have seen from the video, Brezhnev and the other leaders of the Warsaw pact became increasingly worried at the events in Prague and decided to resort to force. In August 1968, together with the other members of the Warsaw pact invaded Czechoslovakia and ended the Prague Spring. A new government was installed which was subservient to Moscow.

In order to justify his actions in Czechoslavakia, Brezhnev laid down what became known as ‘The Brezhnev Doctrine’:

Task Three

ATL: Thinking skills

Read this article which was published in Pravda, 26 September, 1968 explaining the Brezhnev Doctrine.

1. What, according to this article, is the justification of the Brezhnev Doctrine?

There is no doubt that the peoples of the socialist countries and the Communist parties have and must have freedom to determine their country's path to development. However, any decision of theirs must damage neither socialism in their own country nor the fundamental interests of other socialist countries... This means that every Communist Party is responsible not only to its own people but also to all the socialist countries and the entire Communist movement. Whoever forgets this is placing sole emphasis on the autonomy and independence of Communist Parties, lapses into one-sidedness, shirking his internationalist obligations. Just as, in V.I. Lenin's words, someone living in a system of other states constituting a socialist commonwealth cannot be free of the common interests of that commonwealth.

According to the Brezhnev Doctrine, the actions of one socialist country affected all; therefore collective action to deal with any threat to the socialist community was justified and necessary. It was now clear that any attempt at ‘liberalism’ by a state of the Eastern bloc would not be tolerated. As a result, reform plans throughout the regions were abandoned with disastrous economic consequences of the future of the Soviet bloc.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia seriously damaged the international reputation of Communion and the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia, Albania and China condemned the Soviet action in Western Europe; many communists stopped looking to Moscow for guidance. However, it had no major impact on East West relations. It momentarily slowed down the détente process but did not throw it off course.

The invasion of Czechoslovakia created instant tensions with the East European nations that had not taken part in the operation. As for the nations remaining in the Soviet-led alliance, the invasion confirmed that autonomous political reforms would no longer be tolerated. In a broader international socialist movement, the invasion seriously damaged Moscow’s ability to build a united front against the Chinese.

Task Four

ATL: Thinking skills

  1. What, according to this speech, were the causes of the Prague Spring?
  2. With reference to origin, purpose and content, what is the value of this source to a historian studying the Warsaw uprising?

From a speech by Leonid Brezhnev to the Communist Party at the Lenin Centenary Celebrations in the Kremlin, 21 April 1970.
The anti-socialist conspiracy in Czechoslovakia was a long-premeditated attempt by the remnants of the former exploiting classes, in alliance with the right-wing opportunists and with the support of world imperialism, to destroy the foundations of the socialist system of Czechoslovakia. This conspiracy aimed to isolate Czechoslovakia from her allies, and thereby to strike a heavy blow against the position of socialism in Europe. But the Marxist-Leninist core of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, and the determined action by those loyal to the principles of socialist internationalism, frustrated the dangerous enemy plans directed against the common interests of socialism and, in the long run, against peace on the continent of Europe.
The Soviet Union takes a firm stand in favour of socialist internationalism and the restoration of good relations between socialist countries wherever they have been broken. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Soviet government will continue to work actively and consistently in this direction.

Task Five

ATL: Thinking skills

What, according to Tony Judt, were the consequences of ending the Prague Spring?

The illusion that Communism was reformable, that Stalinism had been a wrong turning, a mistake that could be corrected, that the core ideals of democratic pluralism might somehow still be compatible with the structures of Marxist collectivism; that illusion was crushed under the tanks on August 21st 1968 and it never recovered. Alexander Dubček and his Action Program were not a beginning but an end. Never again would radicals or reformers look to the ruling Party to carry their aspirations or adopt their projects. Communism in Eastern Europe staggered on, sustained by an unlikely alliance of foreign loans and Russian bayonets; the rotting carcass was finally carried away only in 1989. But the soul of Communism had died twenty years before: in Prague, in August in 1968'

Judt, Postwar, pg 447

Task Five

ATL: Thinking, communication and self-management skills

1. Working in pairs identify examples of:

(a) support and co-operation between the Soviets and the satellite states during the period 1945 to 1968

(b) repression within the satellite states

(c) protest within the satellites states

2. What similarities can you find between how each of the protests covered here were suppressed? How did the suppression in each country differ?

3. Create a mind map for each protest to show the results on both that country and the Soviet Union

4. What similarities and differences can you see between the impact of each protest - both within the relevant country, and for the Soviet Union itself?

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