Hello, Europeanists! Welcome to Week 9. Today our teaching assistant is Dante. I have a few quick announcements for you.
First, thank you to all who posted on the blog last week! I’m recording this on Sunday, March 29, and about half of you have posted your comments. I think it’s going well so far! I appreciate the close reading and critical thinking you all are doing. I think we’re still managing to have a substantive discussion to the best of our abilities, given the limits of this format. For those of you who have not managed to post on the blog yet, I want to reiterate that that’s okay. Whenever you get your comments posted, you will get full credit. But I recommend that you try to keep up with our regular schedule, so things don’t pile up on you. Also, if you opt to respond to my discussion questions, I want to clarify that you do not need to answer all of them. You can just pick one question to focus on. If you have a particular situation that is making it hard for you to post on the blog, please let me know by email.
Also, this week we are reading excerpts from Heda Margolius Kovaly’s memoir Under a Cruel Star. In case anyone doesn’t have their book with them, I’ve scanned the assigned pages and posted them under Week 9 Reading & Viewing for you on the course website.
Another thing to keep your eye on is that we are coming up on the final paper assignment. Sometime this week I will email the assignment to you and post it on the blog.
So, let’s get to work on chapter 8 of Mazower’s Dark Continent, which is our subject for today. This will be a bit of a long video, since we have so much to cover. Last week, we talked about the rise of the Cold War in the late 1940s, as the wartime alliance between Western Europe, the US, and the Soviet Union broke down and into a situation of mutual suspicion. This week, we’re looking at Eastern Europe during the height of the Cold War, in the 1950s and 1960s. I’m not going to give you a full lecture about this era, but I will go over some key events, which will help to contextualize the assigned reading for this week.
Mazower gives you a pretty good overview of the establishment Soviet-friendly regimes in the Eastern Bloc. As he details, this was not the result of a fully worked out master plan. Rather, it was a process. It took time, and its course was altered by events as they unfolded. These new regimes were of course heavily influenced by events in the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union, in turn, was influenced by them. I’m going to trace some of those interactions for you now.
As I noted in last week’s video, Stalin remained in power the Soviet Union after WWII until his death in 1953. These years, which we call the Late Stalinist Era, were marked by both sacrifices and successes. Despite the major destruction the Soviet Union suffered during the war, it managed to rebuild its prewar industrial capacity by 1950. But this was achieved on the backs of ordinary citizens, who endured serious deprivation in these years. This era also saw a series of ideological campaigns launched against artists and intellectuals, which disproportionately targeted Jewish citizens. These campaigns drew both on internal concerns about re-establishing the state’s authority and on external concerns as the Cold War got underway. They also introduced a tone of official anti-Semitism that was new in Soviet discourse.
Stalin died in 1953 and was succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev had a very different political style. He was no Stalin, and he knew it. But Stalin’s legacy still had to be dealt with. Khrushchev decided the best way to proceed was through de-Stalinization. The centerpiece of this new policy was Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech,” in which he officially acknowledged and denounced Stalin’s crimes and urged the Party to return to the path of Lenin. At the same time, Khrushchev released many Stalin Era convicts from the Gulag and introduced a new openness into society and culture by reducing censorship and making it more possible for Soviet citizens to interact with the West. Thanks to this change in tone, the Khrushchev era is known as the “Thaw.”
All of this had a huge impact on Soviet society, as well as on the societies of the Eastern Bloc. As in the West, the generation that came of age after the war was less interested in politics than in private life. They wanted to hang out, have fun, dance, go to the movies. They were also really interested in Western music and fashion, which they had more access to under Khrushchev. Their desires dovetailed with Khrushchev’s new emphasis on light industry, new housing, and consumer goods. In the 1950s and 1960s, even as the US and Soviet Union competed furiously in the space race and development of nuclear weapons, a major focus of their Cold War competition revolved around who could best provide “the good life” for their citizens. As Mazower explains, in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, this new generation’s materialism worried their parents and governments, even as their desires were shaped by official policy.
The Soviet Union’s radical change of direction under Khrushchev had a major impact in the Eastern Bloc nations, which, as you read, had just survived a tumultuous decade of consolidating new communist regimes, urbanizing and industrializing their economies, and suffering through Stalinist political purges. Serious effects were felt across the Bloc. In June 1956, Polish workers in the city of Poznan staged a protest against their poor conditions, which spread across the country and forced the government to institute Khrushchev-style reforms. Four months later, in October 1956, intellectuals and students in Hungary launched a similar movement. In this case, the hardline head of the Communist Party was ousted and replaced by a reformer, who tried to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev ordered Warsaw Pact troops to intervene, and the revolution was crushed. This was deeply shocking for Soviet citizens and Eastern Europeans. It’s worth considering how Khrushchev’s decision-making here was shaped by his political apprenticeship under Stalin.
Despite generally warmer relations with the West during the Khrushchev Thaw, the Cold War never let up. In fact, some of its tensest moments date to this era. The divided Germanies continued to be a locus of tension, though both countries also benefitted from heavy investment by the superpowers. West Berlin was a particular thorn in the Soviets’ side. East German citizens used the city to flee to the West by the thousands in the 1950s. In 1959, Khrushchev finally demanded that Western forces withdraw from the city, which they refused to do. Tensions ramped up for the better part of two years, until, on the night of August 12, 1961, Soviet troops constructed the Berlin Wall, and the Western powers decided not to fight it. Berliners were the chief victims of this development. Families found themselves separated, and over the next three decades, hundreds of people were killed trying to cross.
By the early 1960s, Khrushchev was becoming increasingly erratic. Famously, he nearly brought on WWIII when, in 1962, he got the bright idea to send Soviet missiles to newly-communist Cuba, which triggered the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then embarrassingly had to back down. Fed up with such missteps, the Politburo ousted him in 1964 and replaced him with Leonid Brezhnev, who remained in power until his death in 1982.
Brezhnev was more conservative than Khrushchev, and also more of a hard-liner. This became clear in 1968, when a Khrushchev-style reformer, Alexander Dubček, became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Dubček wanted to create what he called “socialism with a human face”—to address areas of popular dissatisfaction, open up the political process to multiparty elections, and build bridges across the Cold War divide. In August 1968, Brezhnev decided Dubček had gone too far. Invoking the Brezhnev Doctrine (which was quite similar to the Truman Doctrine), he sent Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia, deposed Dubček, and forcibly installed a new, more compliant government. This was even more shocking to Soviet and Eastern Bloc citizens than the events in Hungary in 1956. The twelve years between these events had featured openness, moderate reform, and hope. The invasion of Czechoslovakia signaled that the Thaw was definitively over.
In the Soviet Union, the Brezhnev Era was one of shrinking horizons. Increases in censorship, cronyism in government, and the beginnings of economic stagnation caused many Soviet citizens to begin to feel disillusioned. A dissident movement began to take root and built a network of citizens who opposed the government’s policies. It’s important to note that the dissidents still believed in communism. They didn’t want to overthrow the government, but they hoped that it could be reformed from within. For them, the invasion of Czechoslovakia was particularly distressing. They thought the Czech reforms were a good idea and hoped the Soviet government might adopt them. Instead, it crushed them.
These developments—corruption, stagnation, and dissidence—were common across the Eastern Bloc from the late 1960s onward. We’ll talk about them more in a few weeks, when we learn about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. But now let’s get to some questions about chapter 8 of Dark Continent.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. When Mazower writes about the formation of the People’s Democracies, he explains that a lot of Eastern Europeans were genuinely enthusiastic to try out communism and the Soviet model of governance. They hoped it would work better than liberal democracy, which had failed them after WWI. Of course, the Soviet Union would not have willingly let these countries escape its authority, and the West had agreed to respect the Soviet sphere of influence. Here is my question for you: Should we understand the Eastern Bloc as a “Soviet empire,” as the West framed it during the Cold War, or should we see it as an arrangement chosen by Eastern Europeans for their own reasons? What factors must we consider in answering this question?
2. The first decade of communist power in Eastern Europe is difficult to assess. On one hand, communism brought these countries the industrialization and modernization they needed, which interwar capitalism had failed to do. But on the other hand, it also brought them Stalinist terror. How can we make sense of these intertwined legacies? Do the successes make the suffering worth it? Can we write off the Stalinism and appreciate the long-term effects of the modernization? Or did the Stalinism have just as lasting an effect? What are the implications of a country having such horrors embedded in its foundational moment?
3. Eastern Europe experienced de-Stalinization alongside the Soviet Union. Mazower argues that this de-Stalinization didn’t go far enough. What is his basis for this argument? Does he convince you or not? Was complete de-Stalinization really possible? Can a country ever leave something like that fully in its past? (This is related to Question 2, and you may choose to respond to them together.)
4. The Soviet Union expanded its economic planning to coordinate with the Eastern Bloc, as well. As Mazower notes, for Eastern European countries this often meant that wealth they produced went to the Soviet Union, rather than staying in the domestic economy. In some ways, this resembles European global empires—but in other ways, it doesn’t. In your analysis, was the Eastern Bloc an economic empire or not? If you think it was an empire, would you extend the same label to other instances of economic coordination like the Marshall Plan in the 1940s-1950s or the European Union today?
5. As I mentioned a few minutes ago, by the 1950s a major area of Cold War competition had to do with which system could most clearly offer “the good life” to its citizens. Consider the communist welfare state as described by Mazower on pp.277-279. Compare it with the postwar welfare states in the West, which we learned about from Beveridge’s “New Britain” speech? Which welfare state would you prefer to live in?
6. In analyzing the postwar generation, Mazower describes a kind of “OK, Boomer” moment. Parents and party leaders kept pushing political ideology on them, but these young people really just wanted to have nice things and enjoy their lives. Even so, Mazower argues that the younger generation’s materialism was based in a worship of modernity, which made them the Party’s children after all. Can you unpack his argument? Are you convinced by it? Why or why not?