European Studies Essays – Inter-War Period

What conditions existed in the countries of central and Eastern Europe in the inter-war period that allowed the Communists to take power there after 1945?

Various factors contributed to the emergence of communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe after 1945, some arguably in the Inter-war period. These factors differed in effect and contribution from country to country. The factors will be discussed in greater detail below. Individual countries within the central and Eastern European region had communist parties with various levels of support and capabilities. Above all the situation in the Inter-war period presented internal and external factors that allowed for the implementation of communist regimes aligned to the Soviet Union, the debate being whether these factors contributed to the communist takeovers after 1945. Some of the countries in the region, most notably Poland had suffered under Nazi occupation whilst other countries such as Romania and Hungary had been allied to Germany. Politically much of the region could have been described as backward at the start of the Inter-war period (excepting the Czechoslovaks and Hungarians) and not as advanced as their western neighbours. Political backwardness was not a stumbling block to the communists obtaining power as Lenin and Trotsky had proved in Russia in October 1917. Aside from a short-lived Soviet Republic in Hungary during 1919 the communists had failed to gain power in the region prior to 1945.  Socialists rather than communists dominated the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Indeed the removal of the Soviet Republic led to the counter revolutionary if not fascist regime of Horthy who violently repressed the radical socialists and communists. The communists were ousted but they were not destroyed and were able to survive their persecution.  Lenin’s hopes of a revolution in Germany that would spread to her neighbours to the west and east were also dashed with the defeat of the Sparticus Putsch in 1919.  Communists throughout the region expected revolutions to occur quite rapidly, believing that the tide of history would move in their favour.

In the 1920s especially after Stalin gained power the Soviet Union concentrated on building ‘Socialism in one country ‘ instead of actively promoting revolution in the rest of Europe. The Soviet regime had too much to concentrate on internally without promoting revolution.  However the Soviet leaders were always looking for opportunities to cause revolutionary agitation abroad and funded communist parties in Germany, France, the United States and China as well as central and eastern Europe.  The Kremlin’s money certainly maintained the position of the various communist parties even if they were unable to gain power during the Inter-war period.   Communism was not particularly popular in parts of Central and Eastern Europe. Czechoslovak forces had actively fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War whilst the Poles had taken advantage of the collapse of the Tsarist empire (combined with German and Austrian defeat) to gain independence.  While Poland was in theory a democracy for most of the inter-war years it was virtually a dictatorship under Pilsudski and his successors most of it’s population being anti-German, anti-Russian and anti-Communist. Poland’s victory in the war of 1919-21 with the Soviet Union ended the threat of the Soviets providing military aid to communist revolutionaries or coups throughout the region during the 1920s and much of the 1930s. For the majority of the 1930s Stalin was more interested in collectivization, industrialization and carrying out the purges then actively seeking to promote revolution in central and Eastern Europe.  It was only after it became clear Hitler was a serious threat did Stalin seek allies in central and eastern Europe and giving their communist parties more instructions.  Poland’s communists had remained weak as they seen as too close to Moscow and had not been enthusiastic in campaigning for independence.  Across the region most of the communist parties would be banned at some stage during the Inter-war period and had to learn to survive as underground movements.  Experience of surviving underground proved beneficial during the war when communists became involved in resistance and partisan movements.   Future success would follow from gaining support amongst the peasantry. For much of the period communist parties were hampered by their image as been internationalist rather than nationalist in outlook, but conversely the communists also nurtured Yugoslav and Czechoslovak identities instead of rival ethnic nationalities.  It is worth noting how both states disintegrated rapidly after the end of communist rule. 

The emergence of communism in Central and Eastern Europe was aided by the apparent failure of liberalism during the inter-war period. The states that appeared in the region in 1918 were to varying degrees economically backward. Only Czechoslovakia had a semblance of large-scale heavy industry and was also the closest to democracy. Poland and Hungary had industrial bases as well but also had large agricultural sectors. In the immediate aftermath of the First World War the region like the rest of Europe suffered from increasing unemployment and inflation that in turn produced social, political and industrial unrest. These conditions certainly gave the communists the opportunity to gain influence if not power. They largely missed this opportunity but not by the fascists and the far right when the situation deteriorated in the 1930s. The apparent economic recovery of the mid 1920s offered more stability. There was little or no economic co-operation between these countries and all suffered after the Great slump of 1929. The economic dislocation was not as great as that of Germany that assisted the Nazi rise to power but it was bad enough to disrupt the capitalist system. In the 1930s the region laid between the two powers that offered a viable alternative to liberal democracy, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Communists also made some ground in the region by emphasizing collective security and popular fronts with other parties as a counter for fascism, Nazism, and the ruling right wing authoritarian regimes. The concept of collective security was undermined by appeasement. Communists also had difficulty in explaining the Nazi – Soviet pact. Stalin had been prepared to defend Czechoslovakia but then eagerly partitioned Poland. The communists were however able to redeem themselves in the role they played resisting the Germans.  The use of popular fronts was a useful way of gaining popular support and obtaining power without people realising they voting for a communist regime. That strategy would prove most successful in Bulgaria.  The adoption of popular fronts came too late to prevent Hitler gaining power in Germany, without that the communists could have made further ground in the region during the Inter war years.

The communists of central and eastern Europe like many of their counterparts in Comintern did not see fascism as a serious threat rather more as a portent of capitalism’s demise. If they had have done perhaps the region’s convergence to communism would have happened earlier. The same conditions that helped undermine liberal democracy favoured the fascists and the right wing authoritarian parties as much if not more than they favoured the communists.  Fascists might gain power but (the communists hoped) inadvertently accelerate the victory of Marxist – Leninism in the process. In a roundabout way that is what happened in much of the region eventually.  Social and economic developments during the Inter-war years meant there was a radicalisation of the working and peasant classes across the region sometimes mixed with ethnic and nationalist tensions in countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.  Yugoslavia suffered not only German occupation but a civil war based on ethnic divisions.

In reality for large parts of the region the communists seized power after 1945 due to the close proximity of the Soviet army rather than the success or otherwise of the national communist parties during the Inter-war period.  Defeating the Germans gave Stalin the opportunity to establish communist regions friendly or submissive towards the Soviet Union. Communists gained power with help from Moscow and with the understanding that the Soviet army would ultimately back them up. The only exception was Yugoslavia were Marshall Tito and his partisans seized power themselves after defeating the Germans and winning the civil war. Those opposed to the new communist regimes also realised that the Soviet Union was given a free hand in central and Eastern Europe in return for Britain and the United States having the main influence in the west were ironically the communists enjoyed mass support in France, Italy and Greece.  Stalin was not bothered by how enthusiastic the peoples of the central and Eastern Europe were towards having communist regimes, what mattered to him was the Soviet Union’s security.  Stalin clearly understood that without Soviet military intervention only Yugoslavia and Albania would have turned communist on their own, and they would prove unwilling to be told what to do from the Kremlin.  The Hungarian communists had not done particularly well since the crushing of the Soviet Republic but they did start to recover during the war. The Czechoslovak communists were only outlawed after absorption into the German Reich but their patriotism was important in gaining support. The Poles and Hungarians proved most reluctant to accept communism and only hard bargaining and the threat of Soviet intervention would keep their regimes in power. Although communist regimes were also forced on Romania and Bulgaria they were eventually more enthusiastic.

Therefore the communist parties within central and Eastern Europe were able to lay some if not all the foundations for their gaining of power during the Inter war period. The strength and success of the communists differed from country to country.  The communists laid the strongest foundations in Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia despite facing right wing regimes, being allied to or occupied by the Germans.  In some ways the communists best success in the Inter-war period was presenting themselves as patriots in a time of impending war and as a force of resistance once it had started. The communists realised too late the possibility of popular fronts in preventing Hitler seizing power but their adoption in central and Eastern Europe proved useful at the end of the Inter-war period.  It was the prominent role that the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav communists played in resisting the Germans during the war that contributed most to their gaining of power.  They were successful in portraying themselves as patriots and freedom fighters. In Bulgaria the popular front tactic in favour at the end of the Inter-war period was revived to gain power by stealth after 1945.  In other countries such as Poland, Hungary and Romania the communists had never been that popular and their main achievement was to survive the Inter –war period and the war in enough numbers to be installed in power in the wake of the Soviet army’s liberation of their various homelands.  Communists throughout the region would argue that they did not need to have mass support just the ability to seize control of their states, then the superiority of communism would win the public over any way.  Communists could also claim in the Inter-war years that liberal democracy could not survive the depression and fascism would not survive the forthcoming war to the death with communism.
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