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Central and Eastern European States -

How was Soviet control established? - Poland 

The Second World War had a devastating and unparalleled impact on Poland. The War began with yet another partition of Poland, by Germany and Russia. Although the Poles were able to inflict 50,000 casualties on the invading forces, by mid-October Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was able to claim that, 'Poland has ceased to exist'. The broader campaign that followed would result in the deaths of 18% of the total pre-war Polish population. This compares to 0.2% in the USA, 0.9% in the UK, 7.4% in Germany, 2.2% in Czechoslovakia and 11.2 % in the USSR. (Davies: 56). During the 40 years of communist rule, the distinctive nature of Polish communism and also the groups that opposed it would be coloured by this experience of war. Over a quarter of the pre-war population had been Jews, Germans or Ukrainians. These minorities would be either murdered or forcibly relocated during or after the war. As a result, Poland became a much more homogenous, Catholic country than at any time in its history. This characteristic Catholicism would surface again, in each of the crisis moments in its post-war history. It helped define the national identity and also the identity of opposition. Unlike other Central European states, at no point was the Communist Party strong enough to challenge the hegemony of the church. The history of opposition and the history of the Church were constantly interlaced. Although communism would transform Polish society, the transformation was much less profound than in neighbouring countries where religious and historical national identity was less pronounced. 

CNN - Warsaw Uprising

Of all the countries 'liberated' by the Russian Red Army at the end of the war, the experience of Poland felt the most like occupation. The difficult relationship with its eastern neighbour would not only characterise the opponents of Communism, but also the relationship of the Polish Communist Party itself with the parent party in Russia. In 1939, Poland had fought a bitter war with the Soviet Union on its eastern border. In 1940 thousands of Polish officers were murdered on Stalin's orders at Katyn and in 1944 200,000 died as the Polish underground Home Army (AK) in Warsaw was crushed in an uprising, while the Red Army appeared to hold back on the opposite bank of the Vistula River. As the Red Army progressed westwards, Soviet reparation squads dismantled Polish industrial complexes and removed them to the USSR, whilst at the same time the leaders of Poland's wartime resistance were arrested and put on trial for treason. The experience of the war meant that when Stalin came to impose his will on the Polish people there was no means left to resist. 

And then there was Yalta, the decisive meeting of Allied leaders in February 1945 at which the post-war settlement was agreed. Poland was abandoned by Roosevelt and Churchill to the Soviet sphere of influence. This 'betrayal of Yalta' would take on mythical proportions in the minds of Poles. For the USA, a Russian-dominated Poland was the price to pay for a compromise that insured Soviet involvement in the United Nations and Red Army reinforcements in the war with Japan. For the UK, the issue was Soviet support for continued British influence in Greece and the Mediterranean. When there was so much else to be decided and other more 'realistic' Allied aims still to be achieved, Poland was not considered enough of a priority to be saved. In fact, the future of Poland and her borders had already been sacrificed at the meeting of the big three at Teheran in November 1943. 

In the absence of a promised Allied second front in Western Europe, the Soviets were appeased with an acceptance of the new 'Curzon Line' borders of Poland; a geographical restructuring that Churchill was able to demonstrate to Stalin with use of matchsticks. She would lose 70,000 square miles to Russia in the east and she would be compensated with 40,000 square miles from Germany. (see map) The Poles were not consulted. A Polish Committee of National Liberation was established under Soviet guidance in Lublin in July 1944. It was this organisation that the Allies recognized at Yalta as Poland's provisional government, not the London government that had been in exile throughout the war. As Roosevelt himself admitted, 'somewhat more emphasis is placed on the Lublin Poles than on the other… groups from whom the new government is to be drawn.' (Kemp-Welch: 7 

Of all the communist takeovers of Central and Eastern Europe after the war, Poland's was the least home-grown. Stalin remarked that, 'imposing communism on Poland is like putting a saddle on a cow'. For Poles, it may have been more like 'putting a yoke on a stallion', (Garton-Ash: 6) but on the unlikelihood of it happening, Stalin was certainly correct. Poland's pre-war Communist Party (KPP) had been dissolved on Stalin's orders in 1938 and approximately 5000 of its activists murdered. With the resurrection of the Polish communist party during the War, the name Polish Workers Party (PPR) was chosen because as even Stalin recognised, the word communist 'frightens off' many who might otherwise support the programme. (Kemp-Welch: 18) As the war came to an end there were 'hardly enough native Polish communists to run a factory, let alone a country of some thirty million people'. (Davies: 2) Now that diplomatic dealings had put the PPR in power at the head of a five party coalition, what would happen about the promised 'free and unfettered elections'? Hugh Seton-Watson identified three stages of a communist seizure of power: coalition, bogus coalition and dictatorship. (Seton-Watson 1961) In contrast to the democratic successes of communist parties in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Poland went straight from 'bogus' coalition to 'dictatorship' without any genuine electoral success. In June 1946, a referendum was held on issues that included land reform, nationalisation and acceptance of Poland's new borders with the Soviet Union. These issues would be essential features of any future communist programme. They were supported by significant majorities, on an impressive 85% turnout of voters. However, in 1990, after the opening up of the party archives, it was revealed that 73% of votes had been cast against the communist regime. (Paul G. Lewis: 48-9) The referendum results had quite simply been falsified. The power to control elections required in place a second feature of the stage of 'bogus coalition', the most significant security and policing functions must be controlled by the Party. In Poland, they controlled the Ministry of Public Security and a militia of more than 100,000. When the first post-war election was held in January 1947, the Communists were able to rig the vote and arrest 142 candidates and thousands of opposition supporters. The Peasant Party leader Mikolajczk was said to have later fled for his life in the boot of the US ambassador's car. The PPR therefore won the 'election' and immediately introduced a soviet style constitution. Poland became a Stalinist democracy. The people's party was to have dictatorship over the people, statues of Stalin appeared everywhere and Katowice was renamed 'Stalinogrod'. The newly nationalised industries focused on heavy industry and the peasants were evicted and handed over to the collective 'Polish Agricultural Enterprises'. Even the Church was attacked through deportations and property expropriation. However, compared to other states in Central Europe undergoing the Stalinist transformation, Poland 'dragged its feet'. (Davies: 8) There were no great famines, no mass purges or show trials and the Church managed to remain the focus of Poland's spiritual and social life.

'One may despise the Soviet's manipulative techniques; but one is forced to admire their ingenuity. Layer after layer after layer of interlocking political control mechanisms enabled Moscow to hold its dependents in check at every turn. And if one check snapped there were plenty of others in reserve. Moscow's allies were not merely held by a collar around the neck; they were held by a leash on the collar, a chain on the leash, a handler on the chain, a collar and lead on the handler, a handler's handler, and, for safety's sake, a muzzle on the mouth, blinkers on the eyes, and a set trip-wires fastened to the paws and tail. In the parlance of Soviet dog-handling they called it 'fraternal assistance'. (Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: 84)

How was Soviet control established? - Czechoslovakia
“Truth Prevails” Czechoslovak State Motto

Czechoslovakia emerged from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was an artificial creation comprising mainly of Czechs and Slovaks, plus large German and Hungarian minorities. The new state satisfied the Allies’ demands for a re-organisation of Central Europe, Czech nationalists’ demands for autonomy and represented an improvement in status for the Slovaks. Thus Czechoslovakia was founded on opposition to imperial control.

As neighbouring countries succumbed to dictatorship in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia developed as a relatively prosperous democracy. Czechs and Slovaks shared this new state as well as mutually comprehensible languages, ethnic ties and a common interest in supporting each other against powerful neighbours and non-Slavic minorities. In 1938, abandoned by the Western powers at the Munich Conference, Czechoslovakia lost the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany.


How far do you agree that “Geography is destiny”?

“We must always bear in mind that we are a small nation in an unfavourable geographical position.” T.G.Masaryk, first President of Czechoslovakia

“If you were to look for Czechoslovakia on a map, it would suffice to place your finger precisely in the middle of Europe; it’s right there. To be anchored in the very heart of Europe is not merely geographical location; it means the very fate of the land and of the nation that inhabits it.” (Karel Capek, At the Crossroads of Europe, 1938: 2)


In March 1939, Germany invaded the remainder of the Czech lands and established a puppet regime in Slovakia. In the face of the overwhelming superiority of the German troops, President Hacha ordered the Czechoslovak Army not to resist, accepting that it was necessary to sacrifice the state in order to save the nation. “For Czechs and Slovaks..., ‘Munich’ became a shorthand designation for betrayal, and‘ o nás bez nás’ –‘ about us without us’ - was still heard at the end of the century and beyond as a reproach for anyone who dared decide their fate without consulting them first”. 

During the War, in London, ex-President Benes worked hard at promoting Czechoslovakia’s diplomatic interests. He established a government in exile and by 1943 had gained recognition from Stalin even though Czechoslovak Communist leaders such as Klement Gottwald had gathered in Moscow. Benes, aware of his country’s vulnerability to hostile neighbours, even entered negotiations with his Polish counterparts regarding a possible post-war Czecho-Slovak-Polish Federation. 

The most concerted attempt at self-liberation, the Slovak National Uprising of 1944, just as similar efforts in Poland, ended in tragic failure. With the Soviet forces poised on the border, both Stalin and the western allies failed to deliver promised assistance in time.

However, it was the Red Army, eventually, which liberated most of Czechoslovakia. The Americans halted their advance at Pilsen in the West and then, in accordance with the political deals brokered by the Allied leaders at the Yalta Conference, withdrew. Some continuity with the pre-war regime was achieved when Benes returned as President; Gottwald’s Moscow Communists, under Stalin’s orders, agreed to co-operate in a ‘National Front’ coalition government. This generosity masked the fact that within the new coalition, the Communists secured control of several key ministries, including control of the police and the military. Czechoslovakia had suffered proportionately fewer war casualties than neighbouring countries and less damage to its economic infrastructure. The destruction of the Jewish population, the annexation of Ruthenia by the Soviet Union, and the violent ethnic cleansing of the German and Hungarian minorities immediately after the war left a more ethnically homogenous country dominated by Czechs and Slovaks. In the first post-war elections, held in 1946, the Communists emerged as the largest party gaining 38 percent of the vote, one of the best ever performances by any communist party in a free election. The Communists had achieved a popular mandate, Gottwald became Prime Minister within a new coalition, and, pressed by Stalin, took steps to increase his party’s control. Memories of ‘Munich’ remained a factor as Czechoslovakia re-orientated towards the East. At the end of a decade in which the capitalist system had struggled from crisis to crisis, the western democracies had sacrificed Czechoslovakia in an act of notorious betrayal. Neither the Czechoslovak Communist Party nor the Soviet Union had ever accepted the Munich Agreement. Communist propagandists, air-brushing their own inconsistencies regarding the Nazi-Soviet Pact, relentlessly contrasted their record of heroic liberation with the pusillanimity of the liberal democracies. In addition, as the Czechs sought revenge against Nazi sympathizers, Communists took a leading role in the deportation of the Sudeten German minority. The Communist-run Ministries of the Interior and of Agriculture distributed the Germans’ confiscated land among Czech workers, shoring up further sources of support.

Pre-War Czechoslovakia had been economically the most developed country in the region, an advantage that had increased in relative terms as neighbouring states suffered greater war damage. As Gottwald’s regime fomented a class war against the rich, there was plenty of wealth to be redistributed.

What motivated individuals to join the Party? • Whether out of ideological commitment, careerism, self-preservation, or in hope of a share of the spoils of class war, Party membership grew rapidly in Czechoslovakia, where the Communists could truly claim to be a mass movement.

Growth of Communist Party Membership 1945-49 (millions)















Gottwald uncharacteristically flirted with pursuing a foreign policy independent of the Soviet Union when he declared an interest in accepting Marshall Aid. Stalin forced the reversal of this policy, exposing the limits of Czechoslovak independence and underlining the Soviet intention to dominate the satellite nations within its sphere. Returning from a meeting on the matter with Stalin, Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk remarked, “I left for Moscow as Minister of a sovereign state. I am returning as Stalin’s stooge.” Within Czechoslovakia the intimidation of non-Communist politicians increased prompting several resignations. In March 1948, Jan Masaryk, the Foreign Minister died having fallen from a window, with the obvious suspicion of foul play. President Benes, increasingly isolated and struggling against ill health, resigned in June and died soon after. New elections were held, this time uncontested. Gottwald became President, Antonin Zapotocky took over as Prime Minister and the Communist coup was completed. Through Gottwald’s puppet government, a style of government subservient to the policies of the Soviet Union and bearing many features of Stalinism was imposed. The Party established monopoly rule based on their single, dominating ideology. The private sector was replaced by a nationalised, centrally commanded economy. Civil society, in the form of clubs, churches, unions or charities, was brought within party control or destroyed. State security forces were used to intimidate, imprison and kill opponents.

 Czechoslovakia 1945-49 from Cold War episode 3  


The strange death of Jan Masaryk

Official investigations at the time concluded that Masaryk had committed suicide by jumping from a third floor window. However, one does not have to be an excessively credulous collector of conspiracy theories to have doubts about the findings of the Communist investigators. 

Although the passage of time makes it unlikely we will ever have a definitive answer, we can find evidence supporting each theory and in doing so reveal something of the nature of the Communist seizure of power. For example, the highest-ranking Soviet Bloc intelligence defector, Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, described his conversation with Nicolae Ceauscescu, who told him about "ten international leaders the Kremlin killed or tried to kill". Jan Masaryk was one of them.'The Kremlin’s Killing Ways - Ion Mihai Pacepa

Membership of the Party was no guarantee of security though, and as the show trials of the early 1950s demonstrate, it was often events outside Czechoslovakia, as well as internal personal rivalry, that determined who would fall victim. Yugoslavia’s desertion of the Soviet bloc, to pursue their own path to socialism, was a particular source of paranoia. Expressions of independent thought risked the accusation of ‘Titoism’. As a result, an ability to recognise, and not deviate from, Soviet orthodoxy became valued over initiative.

In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history - a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitous Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald's head.


The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him from history and, obviously, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald's head.'

Milan Kundera The Book of Laughter and Forgetting


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