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After 1953: Destalinisation
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Central and Eastern European States -
After 1953: De-Stalinization


The death of Stalin in 1953 marked a significant turning point in the history of post-war Europe. The process of de-Stalinization and liberalisation which began with Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956 was limited by the reaction of the Soviet Union to challenges to its power in Poland and Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. In this section we will examine the causes of these challenges and also reasons for their failure. 

It would be wrong to focus only on the moments of political instability, searching for the precursors of the events of 1989. Because the regimes ultimately fell apart, it doesn't mean that mature communist regimes were not also remarkably stable. The failure of reform movements in this period is not merely to be explained by the internal fear of the secret police and external threat of Soviet troops. It is also to be explained by the willingness of citizens to go along with the regime voluntarily. We need to consider how political regimes may be accepted by their citizens, even though those citizens are not allowed a free vote every five years to choose their leaders.  

The death of Stalin led to the policy of the New Course in the Soviet Union and a break with the immediate Stalinist past. The international context was also changing. The USSR returned to the conference table, recognised a capitalist Austria and withdrew her troops; even Tito was rehabilitated as Khrushchev recognised the possibility of 'different roads to socialism'. 

CNN Cold War Episode 7: After Stalin (1953-1956)

By the time Polish communists leaked the content of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' in February 1956, Poland had already begun a process of de-Stalinization that would ultimately characterize the regime until it began to collapse in the 1980s. (See Polish October) The defection of a senior secret police officer led to lurid revelations of Stalinist abuses that were broadcast to the nation. In less than a year, 200 political discussion groups sprang up all over Poland. 

In February 1954, the Cominform acknowledged the 'groundless' liquidation of the pre-war Communist party. The death of hard-line party leader Boleslaw Bierut in March 1956 offered further hope of reform. In June 1956, however, from the point of view of the party leadership, things went too far. Workers in Poznan rioted in response to a cut in wages and changed working conditions. After two days of fighting with police 53 were dead and in excess of 300 were injured. Premier Cyrankiewicz warned the demonstrators that he '…who will dare raise his hand against the people's rule may be sure that… the authorities will chop off his hand'. (Berend 109

Despite the threats it was the party itself that looked more likely to collapse. In July 1956, at the 7th plenum of the Central Committee the party divided into a pro-Soviet faction opposing change and a reformist wing advocating greater liberalisation and economic reform. In August, a decision was taken to restore Wladyslaw Gomulka's party membership. He had been purged in 1949 and as a martyr of Stalinism he quickly became the focus of pro-reform opinion. Elevated into the Polish Politburo without the approval of Moscow, Gomulka now became a symbol of defiance from Polish reformism. The Soviet army in Poland was made ready to move on Warsaw and a 50,000 strong army of the Polish secret police protected Gomulka and the central committee.

Time magazine December 1956

On the 19th of October Khrushchev made an unscheduled visit to Warsaw. At the same time, Soviet army units left Wroclaw heading for the capital and the Soviet fleet appeared off Gdansk. The control tower at Warsaw airport initially refused landing permission and the Soviet delegation was put into a holding pattern. At the same moment the Polish Politburo proposed the re-election of Gomulka as secretary general, suspended their meeting and rushed to the airport. When finally allowed on to Polish soil, Khrushchev railed against the Poles: 'We shed our blood for this country and now you want to sell out to the Americans…' 

The tense debate which followed produced the compromise which resulted in a Polish road to socialism, in return for Polish loyalty in the recently formed Warsaw Pact. In the words of Norman Davies, 'The Polish People's Republic ceased to be a puppet state, and became instead a client state'  But Khrushchev would not back down again. Within a few days, a demonstration in support of the Poles in Budapest would trigger the Hungarian uprising. (See 1956 - A key date in European History)

Polish website of the year 2006


What made Poland the client state different to the other puppet states of Central and Eastern Europe? 

Firstly, collectivisation was cancelled and peasants were allowed to own their own land. This created a significant independent private sector in a communist economy. Secondly, the compromise agreement with the Catholic Church signed in December 1956, created the only fully independent church in the Eastern bloc. And thirdly, there was a much higher degree of personal freedom, freedom of speech and the arts, than was tolerated anywhere else in the states central and Eastern Europe. 

Although the year '1956' would later be embroidered of the banners of the Solidarity movement in memory of the martyrs who had opposed the regime, Poznan and its consequences would have far more in common with events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 than Poland in 1981.  In 1956, Polish discontent was channelled through and resolved by the party. The events of 1956 have been described by historians as a revolution that half-succeeded. It is better characterised by the Hungarian historian Berend as, 'less a revolution of half-successes than a successful half-revolution'.

It succeeded within the context of the Polish Communist Party and its relationship to Moscow, but it did not challenge the Communist Party per se. By the 1970s circumstances had changed and a full revolution was on the agenda. An alternative non-party opposition was organising in the industrial heartlands and quite independently of the party, the name of the organisation would become Solidarity. 

Why did the Czechoslovak regime resist De-Stalinization? 

Gottwald loyally attended Stalin's funeral in Moscow but, having become ill at the funeral, developed pneumonia and, following his master to the end, died nine days later. Stalin's death allowed a tentative loosening of the strict Soviet style structures and practices elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, but not in Czechoslovakia. 

As reforms were discussed in Poland and Hungary, and Khrushchev prepared his denunciation of Stalin, Gottwald's successor, Antonin Novotny demonstrated his regime's continued pursuit of the old cult of personality by commissioning the World's largest statue of Stalin, a 50 metre high colossus overlooking Prague. Czechoslovakia's relative wealth meant that, popular discontent on the back of social deprivation was largely absent as a factor driving the leadership into concessions.

The earlier violent purges of the Slansky trial were now presented as the first acts of de-Stalinisation and there was no need for further reform. The violence against leading Communists during the Hungarian Uprising further strengthened the position of those arguing against opening the door to any pluralism of ideas.

By 1960, the regime felt confident enough to present a new constitution declaring that 'actually existing socialism' had been achieved and the country was on course to reach a genuine communist utopia. Novotny also took the opportunity to downgrade Slovak federal institutions and centralise power in Prague.

Stalin Monument, Prague

Coercion, persuasion and consent - why did the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe survive so long? 

All states maintain control over their citizens through coercion, persuasion and by generating consent. Most accounts, including the one above, correctly draw attention to the way in which violence was used by Eastern Bloc regimes to uphold the rule of the communist party, notably in 1956, 1968 and 1981. In addition, with Eastern Bloc regimes we can distinguish between internal and external coercion. Jaruzelski's imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981 was a prime example of internal coercion. But the limitations of the governments of Eastern Bloc states were also externally defined; as Polish dissident Bronislaw Geremek put it 'Limitation is the movement of Soviet tanks'. (Barend: 257) Persuasion, through state censorship and propaganda was also important. The state maintained various levels of censorship and propaganda, through the control of education, leisure, the arts and the media, initially though newspapers and radio and later television. (see Barend: 85 for good examples) But it is equally important to recognize that the Eastern Bloc regimes could not have survived for as long as they did, unless the states were able to maintain the consent of a significant proportion of the populace and the apolitical indifference of significantly more. 

Consent was generated through the system of nomenklatura - a command economy operating without the 'invisible hand' of the market requires the very visible hands of millions of these state officials. These were party members recruited from the working class and therefore the beneficiaries of significant social mobility. They had a significant stake in the maintenance of the communist system. But perhaps more significantly, beyond the nomenklatura class obedience was generated by the simple fact that the state controlled all means of social advancement and access to scarce resources. In what the political scientist Neil Harding described as the Organic Labour State: 'We need not invoke either too lofty of too base a view of human nature to explain the durability and stability of the state formations of Communist regimes. We need only accept the commonplace, that in most times men are guided by a prudent concern for their own welfare and for that of those who are close to them. It is, therefore, unremarkable that where all the prospects for advancing that welfare are in the hands of the state, and where it is clear that the condition for advancement is support for its policies, then few will rebel.' (The State in Socialist Society 229) Consent began to breakdown in the Eastern Bloc partly as a result of the political trauma of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - after which it became increasingly implausible that the communist system might reform itself internally - but also as a result of the economic failure of the command economy model which became evident after the 1973 oil crisis. 

The Organic Labour State was increasingly unable to provide the material basis of its own legitimacy. The Soviet style, state socialist model had proved adept at rapidly modernising backward, agricultural economies and providing unprecedented levels of social welfare provision. Indeed, both the economies of East and Western Europe were rebuilt after WWII in remarkably similar ways: nationalisation of heavy industry and essential services, coupled with universal welfare provision were as much a feature of Britain and France as they were of Poland and Czechoslovakia. If anything the economies of Eastern Bloc did relatively better in the post-war years. 


  Western  Europe   

  Eastern Europe   

  Eastern Europe   




As % of the West 


















































Per capita GNP (in 1960 US dollars) 

Per capita GNP as a percentage of the European average  

As the tables above suggest, the period from 1945 to 1973 was something of a golden age for the command economy. For the first time in their history, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe were closing the gap in economic performance with the west. There were not only real improvements in the standard of living, there was also the memory of pre-war depression, the common sacrifice of wartime and the shining model of Stalin's Russia whose economic achievement had been to defeat the might of Fascist Europe almost single-handedly. There was a pride in the 'socialist achievement' that was continually polished by state propaganda. For many there was genuine belief in what was being achieved in the name of socialism: whether the comprehensive housing and heath care programmes, full and secure employment, the Russian space programme or the success of East German women athletes in Olympic Games, all were sources of pride and steps on the road to a socialist utopia. So, as long as the party provided the material goods and the social opportunities, there was little opposition. But when capitalism in the west began to shift to a more consumer driven, post-industrial economy that depended on technological innovation associated with microchips and the telecommunications revolution, the inflexible, command economy could not compete. A command economy cannot plan innovation anymore than an actor can improvise the words of Shakespeare. The Eastern Bloc did not and, more importantly, could not produce a Silicon Valley or an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. In addition, the post war regimes would become victims of their relative economic and social success. A young family struggling to survive didn't have time to revolt. By the end of the period, they had become accustomed to economic growth, health and welfare provision that when threatened produced serious political grievances. The communist regimes could only dig themselves out of trouble by short term economic measures which hastened them into long-term structural crisis. This was the vicious circle which characterised the periodic economic crisis and political reform in Poland. The regimes also produced not only higher expectations from its citizenship, the high quality, universal education system, provided the citizenship with the means of articulating it. Communism, to borrow a phrase from Marx, had created its own grave diggers. ‘… there was a remarkably high level of popular political awareness. Again, this was partly a result of the system. Everyone had a least a basic education… because of the politicisation of education and the ubiquity of ideology, no one could be any doubt that words and ideas mattered, having real consequences for everyday life.’ (TGA Magic Latern: 147)

'There can be little doubt that the system of government and political regulation became subject to greater strain with the passage of time as the popular mood changed and dissatisfaction with the communist order grew. Memories of the traumas and deprivations suffered during the hostilities and the immediate post-war period faded and the mood of fatalism surrounding the Soviet-imposed system weakened. .. At the same time, material improvement was patchy and irregular, providing ample grounds for discontent and political dissatisfaction. .. It was a development that coincided with growing awareness of the new forms of inequality that had emerged under communist rule…' Paul G Lewis 150.

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