Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Between 1943 and 1948, the Soviet Union established a satellite zone in Eastern Europe within which it dramatically altered political boundaries and established Soviet-dominated, totalitarian political systems.

Summary of Event

The Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe was the product of a protracted series of events extending from 1943 to 1948. Soviet actions were grounded in Moscow’s definition of its regional interests, as interpreted by the nation’s leaders during and immediately after World War II. The Soviets hoped to ensure that Eastern Europe would never again be used as a base for hostile action against them. To this end, they sought to control the region, incorporating it as a defensive buffer against any future invasion. Such control would also allow the Soviet Union to exploit the economic resources of Eastern Europe, thus promoting the nation’s postwar economic recovery. Active control over Eastern Europe would also provide the Soviets with a base for possible future expansion into other parts of Europe. [kw]Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe (1943-1948) [kw]Eastern Europe, Soviets Take Control of (1943-1948) Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Cold War;advent Iron Curtain Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Cold War;advent Iron Curtain [g]Europe;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Poland;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Hungary;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Czechoslovakia;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Soviet Union;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Bulgaria;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Romania;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [g]Yugoslavia;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [c]Colonialism and occupation;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] [c]Cold War;1943-1948: Soviets Take Control of Eastern Europe[00730] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;Iron Curtain Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy] Churchill, Winston [p]Churchill, Winston;World War II diplomacy[World War 02 diplomacy]

As their first objective, the Soviets insisted upon de facto and, if possible, de jure international acceptance of their annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, portions of Finland, the eastern portion of pre-1939 Poland, Bessarabia, and Northern Bukovina. These annexations had occurred during the Nazi-Soviet Pact Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact] period (August 23, 1939-June 22, 1941). Second, they hoped to establish a postwar Poland Poland;postwar borders within reconfigured boundaries, governed by a regime acceptable to—and optimally subservient to—the Soviet Union. Third, the Soviet leaders sought to establish acceptable and again, if possible, subservient regimes in Romania and Bulgaria. Fourth, Moscow wanted to incorporate the easternmost portion of prewar Czechoslovakia, the Carpatho-Ukraine, into the Soviet Union.

Beyond these areas, all of which were immediately contiguous with the pre-1939 Soviet Union, Moscow sought to establish buffer states in postwar Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Albania. Moscow intended that these buffer states would be governed by friendly regimes but would also be influenced to some degree by the Western powers. Ideally, the Soviets hoped that these states could be transformed into satellites that would operate similarly to Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.

With respect to the defeated Germany, the Soviets sought to divide East Prussia between the Soviet Union and postwar Poland, further compensate Poland for the loss of its prewar eastern territories with prewar German Silesia and Pomerania (up to the Oder and Neisse Rivers), and establish a Soviet occupation zone in a portion of the remaining German territory. Finally, of peripheral importance in the hierarchy of Moscow’s European objectives, the Soviets were alert to any opportunities that might develop in Europe that could enhance their position on the continent.

The Soviets formulated a multifaceted policy in their effort to attain these objectives. Their actions were, in turn, reinforced by the Red Army as it gradually advanced into eastern and central Europe. By the conclusion of the European war, the Soviets were in physical possession of those territories which they sought to dominate in the postwar era.

The first component of Soviet policy was Moscow’s persistent effort to obtain British and American approval of, or at least acquiescence to, its self-proclaimed dominant role in determining the postwar character of Eastern Europe. Toward that end, one of the first steps was taken at the Tehran Conference Tehran Conference (1943) World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Allied planning meetings in November, 1943. There, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin agreed to define Poland’s eastern boundary along the lines insisted upon by the Soviet Union and to redefine Poland’s other boundaries at Germany’s expense, establishing Poland’s new western boundary along the Oder and Neisse Rivers.

Following the Tehran Conference, the Western powers came progressively to accept the Soviet position that Poland’s postwar government should not be objectionable to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, as the Red Army advanced into Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union reinforced its claim to postwar regional dominance via the armistice terms concluded with Romania in August, 1944, Bulgaria in September, 1944, and Hungary in January, 1945. These terms gave the Soviets military predominance in politico-military affairs in the affected states.

This sign, posted in Romania in July, 1944, tells the local populace that the Germans, not the Russians, are their enemies.

(National Archives)

In an effort to delimit the proportion of Soviet versus Western influence in southeastern Europe, Churchill visited Moscow on October 9, 1944, and concluded the so-called percentages agreement with Stalin. Under the terms of the agreement, the Soviet Union was to have 90 percent predominance in Romania versus the West’s 10 percent. In Greece, the percentages were to be reversed. In Bulgaria, the Soviets were to have 75 percent predominance, with the West having 25 percent. Finally, in Yugoslavia and Hungary, the Soviet Union and the West would share equally in influence. While Churchill apparently interpreted this arrangement as a mechanism for determining the orientation only of the foreign and defense policies of the relevant states, Stalin viewed the delimitation to mean that the Soviet Union would determine all aspects of domestic and foreign affairs within its future satellites.

The Yalta Conference Yalta Conference (1945) further formalized the establishment of Soviet control over Eastern Europe. On one hand, the three Great Powers agreed to assist the liberated Europeans in establishing democratic, broadly based provisional governments and in holding free elections as early as possible. In practice, on the other hand, it was the Soviet Union that determined when the proposed elections would be held and which elements of society were eligible to participate. Indeed, with respect to Poland, the Soviets obtained Western agreement that the core of Poland’s postwar government would be composed of individuals selected by Moscow. Moreover, throughout Eastern Europe, the proposed elections would be held in the shadow of the Red Army.

As to the location of Poland’s western boundary, the British and Americans favored the eastern Neisse River, whereas the Soviets preferred the western Neisse. By establishing the western Neisse as its boundary, Poland would be given territory that had long been ethnically German and, as a result, some six to seven million Germans would be displaced. From Moscow’s perspective, however, the western Neisse was preferable because of geostrategic considerations: It would provide the opportunity for the Soviets to resettle Poles—who they saw as more closely akin to themselves than were the Germans—in new lands, and the Polish acquisition of these territories would further cement ties between postwar Poland and the Soviet Union. Such ties represented a potential defense against any future resurgent German regime seeking to recover its lost territories.

The boundary question was left vague at Yalta, but the Soviets, British, and Americans agreed to the western Neisse line at the Potsdam Conference in July, 1945, pending a final solution at a general peace conference. The three powers also agreed at Potsdam that Danzig (Polish Gdańsk) and the southern portion of East Prussia would be placed under Polish administration, with the Soviet Union acquiring the northern portion of East Prussia. In short, through a series of agreements among the wartime allies, the Soviet Union obtained the acquiescence, if not enthusiastic endorsement, of the British and Americans to the establishment of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

The second element of the Soviet effort to establish control over Eastern Europe, implemented simultaneously with the first, was the wartime isolation and elimination of those elements in Eastern Europe that presented a possible challenge to postwar Soviet domination. For example, with respect to Poland, as early as the spring of 1940, the Soviets killed some fifteen thousand captured Polish army officers and buried them in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. War crimes;World War II This atrocity deprived Poland of many who might have contributed to the nation’s postwar restoration as an independent state.

Similarly, during the war, the Soviet Union isolated the Polish government-in-exile, located in London. In their place, the Soviets sponsored their own Committee of National Liberation Committee of National Liberation, Polish Poland;postwar government . As Soviet forces moved onto Polish soil, Soviet officials transferred local administration to this body, rather than to representatives of the London Poles. Such representatives were increasingly encouraged to break with the government-in-exile and join the Soviet-sponsored provisional government. Finally, the Soviets further reduced the prospect of postwar indigenous Polish resistance to the Soviet satellization of Poland by refusing to assist the Polish underground uprising that took place in Warsaw between August 1 and early October, 1944. Soviet forces remained inert, as the Germans crushed the resistance and destroyed the city of Warsaw.

Following the war, the Soviets completed their takeover of Eastern Europe by placing their candidates in positions of dominance within all the postwar Eastern European governments. Although the specific pattern of takeover varied with each country, depending upon the individual political climate, in general the Soviets followed a similar approach in the seizure of power: First, the indigenous communist Communist parties, Eastern European elements joined forces with the noncommunist parties to form a “patriotic” or “national” front. Next, the left-wing elements would often merge with the Communist Party to form a new, broader, leftist party.

The right-wing and centrist parties in each country would then become increasingly isolated, often with some of their leaders being brought to trial and others being forced abroad. As the governmental structures, particularly security operations, became increasingly dominated by Communists, elections were held with a single list of candidates. Following these elections, new Communist governments were formed and individuals not acceptable to Moscow were purged. The remaining monarchies of Eastern Europe were abolished, and the postwar governments either ratified Moscow’s pre-1941 territorial acquisitions or formally ceded new territory to the Soviet Union, as was the case with Czechoslovakia’s cession of the Carpatho-Ukraine.

The timing of these takeovers and the sequence of events varied among the Eastern European countries. In Yugoslavia and Albania, Communists dominated from the time of liberation as a result of their partisan struggle against German occupation. In Bulgaria and Romania, the non-Communists were ousted from the coalition government during the spring and summer of 1945 and, by 1947, the takeover was complete. The Polish Communists dominated the postwar government from the liberation onward but did not complete its takeover until early 1947. Finally, in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the process was completed in 1948.

Significance

The Communist takeovers throughout Eastern Europe led to the establishment of socioeconomic Economic systems;communism Communism;Eastern Europe and political systems patterned after the Stalinist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. The characteristics of that system were a monopoly over all political power by the Communist Party, which, in all cases, represented only a very small minority of the population; an all-pervasive, coercive secret police that, along with the military, monopolized all combat weapons; large-scale use of the mass media as an instrument for popular socialization along lines desired by the ruling party; and abolition of a market economy based upon free enterprise and private ownership in favor of a centrally planned economy, state ownership of industry, and collectivized agriculture. The boundaries between the public and private spheres were effectively erased, with all aspects of life becoming matters of state concern.

The human impact of such a transformation was enormous, even for people already reeling from nearly a decade of war. For example, in the countryside, millions of farmers, many of whom had only recently benefited from the breakup of large estates and the land redistribution and resettlement policies initially sponsored by the Communists during the takeover process, were now forced into state-controlled collective farms. Those who resisted were sent to forced-labor camps or killed. In industry, trade unions, often only recently introduced, were transformed into instruments through which the regime could enforce worker discipline. Workers were severely punished for tardiness, slackness, or disruptiveness.

With respect to professionals, such as engineers, doctors, and teachers, the regime used a mixture of incentives and threats to secure their cooperation. The educational process was of particular interest to the new regimes. As in virtually all societies—capitalist and communist alike—political messages were regularly but often subtly blended with other elements of the curriculum. Such messages were reinforced after school hours by the activities of officially sponsored youth organizations. Predictably, intellectual freedom was severely curtailed, with draconian penalties enforced against those expressing “reactionary” or “counterrevolutionary” ideas. Finally, to one degree or another, the Communist regimes in all the Eastern European countries persecuted churches, recognizing that religion represented a powerful challenge to the official ideology and that, institutionally, the churches presented a dangerous challenge to monopolistic rule by the Communist Party. Leading church officials in many countries were arrested and tried for conspiracy against the state.

In the Atlantic Charter Atlantic Charter (1941) of 1941, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had stated their opposition to territorial changes without the consent of the peoples affected, as well as their support for the principle of democratically elected governments. Contrary to this position, vast areas of Eastern Europe were permanently transferred to the Soviet Union or divided among the Soviet satellite states without the consent of their inhabitants. Millions of people were displaced. Similarly, rather than embrace democracy, Eastern Europe fell victim to Soviet-dominated totalitarian dictatorships that trampled on human rights. The spirit of resistance, however, continued to flicker in the hearts of the Eastern Europeans and, over the next forty years, it would periodically burst forth, only to be ruthlessly crushed by the Communist authorities up until the end of the Cold War. Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] Eastern Europe, domination by Soviet Union of Cold War;advent Iron Curtain

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berglund, Sten, and Frank Aarebrot. The Political History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century: The Struggle Between Democracy and Dictatorship. Lyme, N.H.: E. Elgar, 1997. Detailed examination of the oscillation between freedom and totalitarian regimes in pre- and postwar Eastern Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, C. E., and E. C. Helmreich. Twentieth Century Europe: A History. 4th ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972. An excellent general overview of the development of Europe from 1900 to 1972, with six chapters dedicated exclusively to the twentieth century history of the Soviet Union and the states of Eastern Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brzezinski, Zbigniew K. The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. An examination of the establishment and evolution of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe. Written by a future national security adviser in President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dahrendorf, Ralf. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 2005. Study of the breakup of the Soviet bloc at the end of the Cold War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feis, Herbert. Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin: The War They Waged and the Peace They Sought. Reprint. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967. A detailed examination of the wartime diplomacy of the Soviet Union, the United States, and Great Britain from the outset of the Grand Coalition in 1941 to the conclusion of the war in Europe in the spring of 1945.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Between War and Peace: The Potsdam Conference. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. A continuation of Feis’s definitive study, Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin (see above), covering Grand Coalition diplomacy from the spring through the summer of 1945.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hammond, Thomas T., ed. The Anatomy of Communist Takeovers. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1975. An anthology of histories of communist takeovers, with nine excellent chapters dedicated to the post-World War II takeovers in Eastern Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Korbel, Josef. The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia: 1938-1948. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959. A history of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, tracing the process from the prewar period to the final takeover in 1948.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Seton-Watson, Hugh. The East European Revolution. Reprint. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985. Covers the postwar period of the Communist takeovers and their aftermath, through the death of Stalin in 1953.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ulam, Adam B. Expansion and Coexistence: Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1973. 2d ed. New York: Praeger, 1974. One of the basic histories of Soviet foreign policy from the Revolution of 1917 to the mid-1970’s, with two chapters dedicated to the Soviet Union’s wartime diplomacy.

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Yalta Conference

Potsdam Conference

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