5) The Crisis Years


There was a cascade of crises between the years of 1956 and 1962. The Suez Crisis and Hungarian Revolution took place in 1956, the Berlin Crisis took place between 1958 and 1961, and the Cuban Missile Crisis took place in 1962. The Cold War became global which led to a rise in the Third World. For example, Nasir of Egypt humiliated the British and French during the Suez Crisis. Europe was still the battleground, but to a lesser extent due to it becoming increasingly ideological. Europe was very fluid as there was still unsurety surrounding the placement of borders and whether there would actually be a split. Decolonisation was also taking place, an eminent rise of the Third World, a Soviet offensive which led to a US response in the Third World, and there was a linking and reinforcing of crises in Europe and the global south.

Destalinisation was working within the Soviet Union, but it wasn't in the satellite states as they hoped for more freedom. This didn't happen and so there were subsequent crises and Soviet intervention. Destalinisation was incompatible with controlling the satellite states, and it was this, the German Question and the nuclear arms race which were the major causes of the deterioration of the Little Detente.

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The German Question was made worse by the disparity between the FRG and the GDR. They were beginning to look like 2 completely different countries and had developed completely different political and economic systems. The west seemed to be winning due to the greater freedoms, for example, and the East Germans started leaving the eastern bloc moving to the west. So, the economy was losing lots of people with good qualifications.

The nuclear arms race was made worse due to nuclear stockpiling and the development of new delivery methods, like using missiles creating a missle gap between the US and the Soviet Union. But, the Soviets were winning this. The Soviet Union also launched Sputnik into orbit and sent the first man into space. The US dramatically invested in its space programme following this to catch up. The crises developed due to fears about a nuclear Armageddon, superpower restraint and European settlement. The Europeans were asking the US for restraint in their nuclear weapons.

By 1963, the tensions had died down to some degree due to things like the non-nuclear status of West Germany and a large US military presence in Germany. But there were still consequences. For example, the division of Europe was largely accepted (including of the Berlin Wall), there was an 'emancipation' of western Europe ('Paris-Berlin axis'), and there was a shift of main tensions away from Europe to the Third World.

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‘International’ De-Stalinisation

Destalinisation didn't mean desovietisation. What had been stalinised had to be reversed to some degree without desovietising. But, this was difficult as they were both very interlinked. Certain stalinist methods of government on the economic, social and political level of satellite states and Russia itself were eradicated. This was manageable within Russia, but the 'internationalisation' of it led to false hopes and expectations among the satellite states. The Soviets were the leaders and so they had to be followed, but China was now rising and were trying to be the leaders. The questioning of the Soviet communist world leadership ultimately led to the Sino-Soviet split. The Chinese didn't like destalinisation as they liked the stalinist ways.

At the 20th congress of the CPSU in February 1956, Khrushchev gave his 'secret speech'. He set out a new agenda to return to the 'Leninist ideal' and it's this speech that made destalinisation official. He denounced Stalin's crimes and showed the people what Stalin had done and how many he'd killed. His cult of personality was targeted and the speech rapidly became known to the outside world. The speech was met with scepticism in the western bloc and confusion in the eastern bloc.

Political, economic and social measures were introduced to try and increase wealth. Khrushchev's vision involved sustainable political stability through a general process of destalinisation; a concentration of resources on internal development due to peaceful coexistence; economic growth, sufficient food supplies and tolerable living conditions; and maintenance of the basic structure of the Leninist-Stalinist communist system.

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Destalinisation varied from country to country and there was no forced imposition of radical changes. Moscow simply sent out messages asking for regimes to change. The little Stalins used their own interpretations of what to do. The GDR, Czechoslovakia and Romania all claimed that no radical changes were necessary, and there was a large-scale amnesty and release of prisoners in the GDR, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the summer of 1956. Bulgaria's dictator, Chervenkov, was forced to hand over the party leadership to Zhikov in 1954, and then also lost the office of PM as he sabotaged the destalinisation process quite a bit. Poland's leading stalinist, Bierut, died following the 20th CPSU Congress and was replaced with Ochab by Khrushchev to implement 'controlled liberalisation' which involved a fair bit of destalinisation. Hungary's Rákosi managed to stay in power until July 1956. Barriers were removed within the Soviet bloc, the visa system was abolished, and there was a promotion of tourism and freer movement.

The Kremlin were worried about the internal developments within the Soviet bloc and that destalinisation could get out of control. In the summer of 1956, there was growing discontent due to hopes of gaining more freedoms being fruitless, and reformist destalinisation was gaining traction in these regimes. There were soon more demonstrations and uprisings. On the 28th June 1956, there was an armed uprising in the Polish city of Poznań which confirmed Soviet concerns. This uprising was very dramatic and violent with many people dying. But, the worst was yet to come.

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The Polish Crisis

The Polish crisis started violently and ended 'peacefully'. The aftermath of the Poznań uprising involved growing social ferment, calls for reform and change, and patriotic fervour. The leadership of the Polish United Workers' Party decided to make Władysław Gomułka the First Secretary to diffuse tensions (had been removed from power during stalinisation). Die-hard stalinists were also removed from the top levels. But, the Soviets hadn't been consulted about Gomułka's election, and so they were fearful it could increasingly lead to a complete collapse and disinitegration of the Soviet system. Khrushchev led a delegation to Warsaw in October 1956 to make the Polish cooperate and prove their allegiance to the Soviet Union. But, he also brought Soviet troops to intervene if necessary. This was all a surprise to the Polish, and there was a danger that Khrushchev's demonstration of power could lead to an armed conflict as Gomułka was left with little room to manoeuvre. Poland had been the Soviet Union's biggest ally in eastern Europe but Khrushchev had created the danger of an armed conflict with them. The Soviet's eventually accepted the leadership changes, but this was only due to Polish assurances that they would maintain communist rule and remain in the Soviet bloc.

Gomułka was very ambivalent though. He had massive popular support because he wasn't a stalinist and was more of a reformist, and he believed he protected Poland's path to socialism against the Soviets. The Poles were calling for a withdrawal of Soviet troops, but he convinced them they were required to protect Poland's western borders from Germany's revisionist agenda (might try and take back their territory following a WWII deal). He ultimately justified Khrushchev's trust and retained the essentials of the stalinist system without radical reform.

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The Hungarian Revolution

The Hungarian Revolution of October-November 1956 started 'peacefully' and ended in bloodshed. There were thousands of deaths and tens of thousands persecuted after. More than 200,000 Hungarians moved into eastern Europe and the revolution greatly discredited the Soviet Union in the world's eyes. Nagy's vision for Hungary involved socialism but with greater pluralism in domestic politics and neutrality in the international sphere. The revolt was a consequence of a 're-Stalinisation' after Rákosi won the power struggle against Nagy with Soviet support in 1955. After this, destalinisation went too far.

Nagy's vision was shared among intellectuals and reformists in the Hungarian Communist Party. There was popular discontent with the 're-Stalinisation' that Rákosi was imposing, and Khrushchev's secret speech intensified this dissent. The Petőfi Circle (discussion club of intelligentsia and critical party officials) held a meeting in June 1956 that turned into a rally of thousands in favour of free speech and against censorship. The Soviets sent Anastas Mikoyan on a fact-finding mission in July where he spotted the need for a regime change. So, Rákosi was forcibly retired on the 19th July 1956.

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But, the Soviets' intervention wasn't enough to diffuse tensions, especially after choosing Ernő Gerő as Rákosi's replacement. There was soon a student revolt in late October led by an illegal autonomous student association showing a public solidarity with the Poles. They also had a list of demands including the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Workers joined the rebellion which led to clashes with security forces. There were popular calls for Nagy's return. Gerő ended up having to ask for Soviet help. After much hesitation, the Kremlin agreed to help Gerő which transformed the rebellion into an anti-Soviet battle for liberation. The Hungarian population became radicalised and the revolution spread across the country. Power was being taken from local authorities. On the 24th October, Nagy was made PM to diffuse the situation, and he attempted to use a middle-course, which was criticised by the Hungarian people and western propaganda.

Nagy aimed to place the party at the head of the movement behind the revolution. He needed to extract concessions from the Soviets, and on the 28th October, Moscow accepted the programme of Nagy's government to dissolve the secret police, legalise the revolutionary organisations and withdraw Soviet troops. On the 30th October, the Soviets promised to a more equal relationship with socialist countries and non-interference in internal affairs. But, there were 2 conditions for Soviet tolerance. The first was the maintenance of the communist regime, and the second was loyalty to the Soviet Union and bloc.

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The Soviets hoped for a 'Polish solution'. On the 31st October, the Soviets decided to plan a massive military operation instead of pulling out the Red Army. The installation of a multiparty system, the dissolution of the secret police, the collapse of the party leadership, a passivity of the armed forces, the freedom of the press, and violent acts against communist officials led to this decision. Nagy's government rapidly learnt that an invasion was imminent so they announced the country's withdrawal from the Warsaw pact and claimed neutrality. They appealed to the UN, but on the 4th November, the Soviets invaded and crushed the revolution. Nagy took refuge in Yugoslavia, but he was soon captured and executed along with many of his colleagues as he was seen to be the revolutionary leader. The western powers didn't intervene which gave Moscow confidence.

The legacies of the revolution included a European acceptance of the post-war European status quo through non-intervention, a western solidarity with Hungarian refugees, and a long lasting condemnation of the Soviet intervention, but only at the propaganda level and in the UN General Assembly. The east European communist leaders learned that reform could get out of control and lead to a collapse of the communist political monopoly, Moscow won't hesitate to use force to restore order, it was dangerous to ignore social demands and public opinion, it contributed to the construction of a post-stalinist Soviet order, and it was the end of the illusion that active revolt was the path to freedom as the Red Army was too much.

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The Berlin Crisis

There was constant competition between the FRG and the GDR. The GDR was a police state that controlled all citizens and was part of the Warsaw pact whereas the FRG was the opposite and part of NATO. They had opposite political, economic and social models, and had opposite popularity and success.

  • The FRG was a Western European Union (WEU) and NATO member, was the founding member of the ECSC and the EEC, created the Hallstein Doctrine (where they didn't recognise the GDR as a state), had the economic miracle, a functioning democracy, and there were social and economic improvements for ordinary German workers.
  • The GDR was the stalinist 'outpost'. It was a WAPA and Comecon member, had rapid economic growth with a focus on heavy industry, it was a one-party state with a 'stalinised' SED, and they had a secret police (stasi) which people were afraid of.

There was an exodus of East Germans to the west through Berlin while they could still escape. But, this negatively impacted the economy. Berin was an anamoly as it was a 4-power controlled city in the heart of the GDR. There was effectively a western outpost in the middle of the GDR allowing an escape route. It was a strong symbol and a point of friction with the potential to lead to military and nuclear escalation. There were 380,000 troops stationed in Berlin.

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But, the Sputnik shock soon highlighted the missile gap in 1957. The west had been relying on their nuclear superiority, but now there was a potential of Soviet ICBMs targeting the US homeland and the Europeans were worried the US would no longer protect them because of this. So, NATO's strategic nuclear forces were strenghtened, there was an increased European control of tactical nuclear weapons, and a British and French nuclear build up. Khrushchev played on the US fears of missiles and gave his ultimatum in November 1958 which said:

  • The Soviets would hand over all control of their border crossings, land communications and airspace to the East German government within 6 months.
  • If the western governments tried to oppose this and not withdraw their forces, general war could break out.
  • Diplomatic notes were sent to western occupation powers calling for the demilitarisation of the western zones of Berlin and Germany and for them to be united in a confederation.
  • It was followed up by a proposal for a peace conference where the GDR and FRG should be invited.

They effectively wanted a recognition of the GDR and the German-Polish border, and an end to the anomaly of Berlin.

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The west's response was mixed. Adenauer was very opposed to Khrushchev's demands, but he was also scared at the threat of conflict. De Gaulle didn't want a united Germany as they could then be more powerful than France, but he wanted the FRG as an ally. Macmillan angered his European counterparts by visiting Moscow in early 1959 to gauge the Soviet position, but he prepared the ground for negotiations. The 4 powers met in Geneva from May to August 1959. The western counter-proposal was for free elections in Berlin and Germany leading to a unified, free and democratic Germany. But, this elicited a negative Soviet response, although it didn't derail the spirit of the dialogue, the shooting down of a US U-2 spy plane over the USSR in May 1960, however, did.

Khrushchev and Kennedy were at odds. They met at the Vienna Summit on the 4th June 1961. Khrushchev officially recognised the 2 Germanies, and handed over the control of access to the western zones of Berlin to the GDR. Kennedy insisted on a western position in Berlin and Germany, but was cautious due to the fear that a miscalculation could lead to war. Khrushchev tried to use outrage to force the west into giving him concessions, but it didn't work. When he realised he wasn't getting anywhere, Khrushchev made his demands public. There was then another mass exodus from the GDR. In August 1961, the Warsaw Pact decided to allow Ulbricht to block off East Berlin, and on the 13th August, the construction began on the Berlin Wall. But, this led to a western propaganda triumph as it looked like they were imprisoning their own people to make them stay. But, the FRG lost a little faith in the US after they failed to intervene in the building of the wall.

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After the Berlin Crisis and the construction of the wall, Germany and Europe remained divided for the rest of the Cold War. The division of Europe and the lessons from the Cuban Missile Crisis led to a more stable and less dangerous world. Also, the superpower negotiations over Germany without Bonn drove Adenauer into de Gaulle's arms.

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