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Socialist Armies in Eastern Europe, 1945-55

At the end of World War II, the Red Army occupied Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Poland, and eastern Germany, and Soviet front commanders headed the Allied Control Commission in each of these occupied countries. The Soviet Union gave its most important occupation forces a garrison status when it established the Northern Group of Forces (NGF) in 1947 and the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG) in 1949. By 1949 the Soviet Union had concluded twenty-year bilateral treaties of friendship, cooperation, and mutual assistance with Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. These treaties prohibited the East European regimes from entering into relations with states hostile to the Soviet Union, officially made these countries Soviet allies, and granted the Soviet Union rights to a continued military presence on their territory. The continued presence of Red Army forces guaranteed Soviet control of these countries. By contrast, the Soviet Union did not occupy either Albania or Yugoslavia during or after the war, and both countries remained outside direct Soviet control.

The circumstances of Soviet occupation facilitated the installation of communist-dominated governments called "people's democracies" in Eastern Europe. The indoctrinated East European troops that had fought with the Red Army to liberate their countries from Nazi occupation became politically useful to the Soviet Union as it established socialist states in Eastern Europe. The East European satellite regimes depended entirely on Soviet military power--and the continued deployment of 1 million Red Army soldiers--to stay in power. In return, the new East European political and military elites were obliged to respect Soviet political and security interests in the region.

While transforming the East European governments, the Soviet Union also continued the process of strengthening its political control over the East European armed forces and reshaping them along Soviet military lines after World War II. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union instituted a system of local communist party controls over the military based on the Soviet model. The East European communist parties thoroughly penetrated the East European military establishments to ensure their loyalty to the newly established political order. At the same time, the Soviet Union built these armies up to support local security and police forces against domestic disorder or other threats to communist party rule. Reliable East European military establishments could be counted on to support communist rule and, consequently, ensure continued Soviet control of Eastern Europe. In fact, in the late 1940s and the 1950s the Soviet Union was more concerned about cultivating and monitoring political loyalty in its East European military allies than increasing their utility as combat forces.

The postwar military establishments in Eastern Europe consisted of rival communist and noncommunist wartime antifascist resistance movements, national units established on Soviet territory during the war, prewar national military commands, and various other armed forces elements that spent the war years in exile or fighting in the West. Using the weight of the Red Army and its occupation authority, the Soviet Union purged or co-opted the noncommunist nationalists in the East European armies and thereby eliminated a group likely to oppose their restructuring along Soviet lines. In the case of communist forces, the Soviet Union trusted and promoted personnel who had served in the national units formed on its territory over native communists who had fought in the East European underground organizations independent of Soviet control.

After 1948 the East European armies adopted regular political education programs. This Soviet-style indoctrination was aimed primarily at raising communist party membership within the officer corps and building a military leadership cadre loyal to the socialist system and the national communist regime. Unquestionable political loyalty was more important than professional competence for advancement in the military hierarchy. Appropriate class origin became the principal criterion for admission to the East European officer corps and military schools. The Soviet Union and national communist party regimes transformed the East European military establishments into a vehicle of upward mobility for the working class and peasantry, who were unaccustomed to this kind of opportunity. Many of the officers in the new East European armed forces supported the new regimes because their newly acquired professional and social status hinged on the continuance of communist party rule.

The Soviet Union assigned trusted national communist party leaders to the most important East European military command positions despite their lack of military qualifications. The East European ministries of defense established political departments on the model of the Main Political Administration of the Soviet Army and Navy. Throughout the 1950s, prewar East European communists served as political officers, sharing command prerogatives with professional officers and evaluating their loyalty to the communist regime and compliance with its directives. Heavily armed paramilitary forces under the control of the East European internal security networks became powerful rivals for the national armies and checked their potentially great influence within the political system. The Soviet foreign intelligence apparatus also closely monitored the allied national military establishments.

Despite the great diversity of the new Soviet allies in terms of military history and traditions, the Sovietization of the East European national armies, which occurred between 1945 and the early 1950s, followed a consistent pattern in every case. The Soviet Union forced its East European allies to emulate Soviet Army ranks and uniforms and abandon all distinctive national military customs and practices; these allied armies used all Soviet-made weapons and equipment. The Soviet Union also insisted on the adoption of Soviet Army organization and tactics within the East European armies. Following the precedent established during World War II, the Soviet Union assigned Soviet officers to duty at all levels of the East European national command structures, from the general (main) staffs down to the regimental level, as its primary means of military control. Although officially termed advisers, these Soviet Army officers generally made the most important decisions within the East European armies. Direct Soviet control over the national military establishments was most complete in strategically important Poland. Soviet officers held approximately half the command positions in the postwar Polish Army despite the fact that few spoke Polish. Soviet officers and instructors staffed the national military academies, and the study of Russian became mandatory for East European army officers. The Soviet Union also accepted many of the most promising and eager East European officers into Soviet mid-career military institutions and academies for the advanced study essential to their promotion within the national armed forces command structures.

Despite Soviet efforts to develop political and military instruments of control and the continued presence of Soviet Army occupation forces, the Soviet Union still faced resistance to its domination of Eastern Europe. The Soviet troops in the GSFG acted unilaterally when the East German Garrisoned People's Police refused to crush the June 1953 workers' uprising in East Berlin. This action set a precedent for the Soviet use of force to retain control of its buffer zone in Eastern Europe.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:44:58 ZULU