Last nightÂ BBC4 showed a program on the Hungarian uprising of 1956. This was just the most violent of several attempts to loosen the grip of Moscow in various Socialist countries.
The first SocialistÂ regime to be established after the Soviet Union in 1917, was in fact in Hungary two years later, but it did not last long. The next SocialistÂ government was established in Mongolia, which had recently come under Chinese rule, but had previously been under the dominance of Tsarist Russia.
Mongolia came under increasing Soviet influence, but never became part of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. included countries occupied by Tsarist Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
What is quite significant, is that the Soviet Union, even under Stalin’s autocratic rule, never expanded beyond its borders until the threat from Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Fearful of invasion from Nazi Germany, Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Hitler in order to buy time, and part of this notorious agreement was the division of Polish territory between the Soviet Union and the Third Reich.
This Soviet-Nazi pact was soon broken when Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union. The tide of the war was turned at Stalingrad, and as the Nazi troops were pushed westward, the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia were incorporated into the Soviet Union as nominally autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics.
As the Red Army continued to liberate Eastern and Central Europe from Nazism whilst the Western Allies liberated Western Europe, the shape of the post-war world was set, with minor adjustments.
At the various conferences at the end of the Second World War, the three main Allies, USA, USSR and UK, carved up Europe between them. The de facto situation was that the Red Army occupied the Baltic States and much of Eastern and Central Europe, whilst the Americans and British occupied much of Western Europe.
After being invaded by Nazi Germany and losing some 17,000,000 people in the war, the Soviet Union was not about to withdraw the Red Army from Eastern and Central Europe without safeguarding its frontiers. So in agreement with the Western powers at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, Eastern and Central Europe was assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence. Nominally independent Socialist republics were established, but most came under the direct influence of Moscow.
Only Tito’s Yugoslavia and Hoxha’s Albania really managed successfully to build Socialism independent of the Moscow line. But they had largely liberated themselves from Nazism with their partisan armies, and anyway were far enough away from the Soviet border not to pose a possible threat.
The first unrest in Central and Eastern Europe occurred in 1953 in the German Democratic Republic. It was soon crushed, as wasÂ similar unrest in Poland in 1956. However the Polish unrest led to reforms in the Socialist system there.Â The most violent uprising against Soviet hegemony was in the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1956, following Kruschov’s denunciation of Stalin at the 20th CPSU Congress the same year.
The Hungarians involved in the uprising drew hope from the reforms which had occurred in Poland under the new Gomulka regime, and from the Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Austria the previous year, with an agreement that Austria could remain neutral. Of course Austria did not have a land border with the Soviet Union, but Hungary did.
Nevertheless, the Hungarians involved in the 1956 uprising hoped to achieve withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and Hungarian neutrality, and reforms of the Socialist system.
However hardliners in the Soviet Politburo finally persuaded Krushchov that Hungarian neutrality and reforms, allowing non-Socialist parties to contest elections for instance, would lead eventually to a capitalist state in Hungary. So the Soviet Union at the invitation of some Hungarian government members, such as Janos Kadar, invaded and deposed the new, liberal Nagy government. Imre Nagy was quickly executed.
Janos Kadar became the Hungarian leader, and gradually over the next decades he rather ironically managed to institute many reforms, and gain considerable independence from Moscow. The same was true of Ceaucescu’s Romania, which although autocratic,Â refused to support the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechslovakia in 1968 to suppress the Alexander Dubcek reforms.
TheÂ decisive factors as to whether Moscow let one of its satellites go its own way to some degree or suppressed attempts at independence from the Moscow lineÂ andÂ reforms of the Socialist systemÂ wereÂ
a) whether the country had a land border with the Soviet Union
b) the country’s recent history
c) whether the Marxist Leninist Party (which was often an amalgamation of the Communist Party and Social Democratic Party) was in full control, and if it lost control, whether the country wouldÂ then pose a real threat to the Soviet Union.
The last uprising was in Poland, with the rise of the Solidarity movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This was crushed initially by the Poles themselves under General Jarulzelski. But after the election of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, Solidarity increased its influence again.Â Meanwhile, Gorbachov became Soviet leader and started implementing glasnost and perestroika – a reconstruction of the Socialist system and liberal reforms inside the Soviet Union itself.
Encouraged by the knowledge that Gorbachov would not intervene with Soviet troops, Hungary opened its borders to the West for all people from Socialist countries. A lot of these could travel to the West now anyway, due to gradual liberalization back home. But East Germans in particular could not visit the West until they reached pensionable age. However, once Hungary opened its borders, East Germans had an escape route to the West which didn’t involve scaling walls or negotiating minefields. This made the Berlin Wall largely redundant, and it was demolished by Berliners in 1989. The collapse of Socialism thruout Central and Eastern Europe, including in Yugoslavia and Albania, also Mongolia, quickly followed in the ensuing years.
Why did the Soviet Union maintain such a stranglehold on Eastern and Central Europe from 1945-1989, and why did the West not intervene to help the Poles, East Germans, Hungarians and Czechoslovaks when they tried to shake off Soviet hegenomy?
I was in East Germany when the Soviet-led invasion ofÂ Czechoslovakia in August 1968 took place. Our East German hosts explained whyÂ this happened.Â They told us to just look at a map. IfÂ theyÂ allowed Czechoslovakia to join the Western camp, the West German revanchists (revenge seekers for defeat in World War II) would be able to march thru Czechoslovakia into the Soviet Union again.
Indeed, Czechoslovakia had land borders with both West Germany and the Soviet Union. It should be remembered that many West German maps and politicians at the time claimed the ‘lost territories’ of pre-First World War Germany in Czechoslovakia, Poland and parts of the Soviet Union (including the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and East Prussia mainly in Poland, but which also included the now RussianÂ enclave of Kaliningrad in the Soviet Union). To the Soviets, the threat seemed very real.
As to Hungary, they were allies of Nazi Germany in World War II. The Soviets would not have wanted the threat of another Nazi regime on its border there.
East Germany also was seen as a potential threat for obvious reasons. Many former Nazis remained in East Germany, and were even in the Volkskammer (People’s Chamber), members of the National Democratic Party of Germany. They were part of the coalition government which ruled East Germany, but which was firmly under the control of the Socialist Unity Party (the Marxist-Leninist Party, formed from the old Communist and Social Democratic parties).
Poland had a huge land border with the Soviet Union and East Prussia, now mainly part of Poland, was part of the ‘lost’ German territories, so Poland also had to be kept firmly in the Soviet camp, lest the Germans tried to invade the Soviet Union again from that direction.
What can we learn from all this history? First and foremost, that one war begets the next, or at the very least, cannot lead to genuine liberation. Britain went to war with Germany in 1939 ostensibly because Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. Was Poland free after Nazi Germany was defeated? No, it was under Soviet domination for the next 44 years, as was Czechoslovakia and most of Eastern and Central Europe. Why was this? Because the Soviet Union feared another invasion from the West, in particular from Germany.
It is significant that Moscow never expanded its hegenomy beyondÂ the western borders of the Soviet UnionÂ until after it had lost 17 million of its citizens in the war against the German invaders. Only Mongolia, which had historically been a puppet state of Tsarist Russia, came under Soviet influence before the Second World War.
The second lesson to learn from thisÂ history isÂ that the Western powers had no intention of ever assisting the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe to free themselves from Soviet domination. They had sat down with Stalin and agreed that these states should be under the Soviet sphere of influence to protect the USSR from any future invasion from the West. In return, the Soviets promised never to invade Western Europe. Both these promises were kept – in fact the Red Army marched OUT of Eastern Austria in 1955.
Thirdly, Soviet hegenomy over Eastern and Central Europe was little different from U.S. hegenomy over states it felt crucial to its own security. The U.S. supported wars, invasions and coups in places like Chile and Vietnam to protect what it saw as its vital interests. It even tried to invade Castro’s Cuba in the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco. In more recent years we see the hypocrisy of Western proclamations of supporting democratic regimes when autocraticÂ regimes like Saudi Arabia are propped up by the West, but Iraq is invaded not because it was more autocratic than Saudi Arabia, but because the West wanted access to its oil supplies.
Fourthly, we must learn the lesson that no state, be it capitalist or Socialist, should try to impose hegenomy over other states. Both USSR and USA have said in the past to other countries they consider vital to their own security: You can have democracy, so long as it is the kind of democracy we approve of. As American satirist Tom Lehrer put it: ‘They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, until someone we LIKE can be elected.’ Of course, all their rights were clearly NOT respected by either the Americans or the Soviets, U.S. and Soviet interests came first and foremost.
So Eastern and Central Europe got Soviet-style ‘Socialist democracy’, which insured the Communist Party or its successor Marxist-Leninist party always remained in control, whilst countries considered vital to USA got Western ‘democracies’ like Pinochet’s Chile, Saudi Arabia’s feudalÂ dictatorship which violates human rights daily, and the VietnameseÂ were prevented from electingÂ Ho Chi-Minh as theÂ leader of the united country for years by America’s intervention after the French colonialists left. The Americans knew, in genuine free elections, the Communist Ho Chi-Minh would win, even in the South. So they established a succession of puppet dictatorships in South Vietnam, and sent in thousands of troops in a vain attempt keep the Communists out, fearing that if all Vietnam went Communist the rest of Southeast Asia would quickly follow (‘the domino’ theory).
In any future attempts at establishing Socialism, each state, each country must be allowed to go its own way, to find its own formula. Capitalist states must also refrain from trying to impose their will on other countries.
Ultimately, supra-national federations are surely the answer, in which independent countries voluntarily come together, all with equal rights, and with no member state dominating or exerting hegenomy over another. I see the EU as eventually becoming just such a supra-national federation, with a great deal of autonomy and independence for member states. I hope one day a European Socialist Union can be formed, with similar independence and autonomy for member states. And I also look forward to a worldwide federation or confederation of both Socialist and non-Socialist states under the auspices of the United Nations or its successor, which would become a democratic World Government maintaining world peace, whilst devolving power, autonomy and independence to member states and federations.