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De-Stalinization and National Communism

In his 1956 secret speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, General Secretary Khrushchev denounced the arbitrariness, excesses, and terror of the Joseph Stalin era. Khrushchev sought to achieve greater legitimacy for communist party rule on the basis of the party's ability to meet the material needs of the Soviet population. His de-Stalinization campaign quickly influenced developments in Eastern Europe. Khrushchev accepted the replacement of Stalinist Polish and Hungarian leaders with newly rehabilitated communist party figures, who were able to generate genuine popular support for their regimes by molding the socialist system to the specific historical, political, and economic conditions in their countries. Pursuing his more sophisticated approach in international affairs, Khrushchev sought to turn Soviet-controlled East European satellites into at least semisovereign countries and to make Soviet domination of the Warsaw Pact less obvious. The Warsaw Pact's formal structure served Khrushchev's purpose well, providing a facade of genuine consultation and of joint defense and foreign-policy decision making by the Soviet Union and the East European countries.

De-Stalinization in the Soviet Union made a superficial renationalization of the East European military establishments possible. The Soviet Union allowed the East European armies to restore their distinctive national practices and to re-emphasize professional military opinions over political considerations in most areas. Military training supplanted political indoctrination as the primary task of the East European military establishments. Most important, the Soviet Ministry of Defense recalled many Soviet Army officers and advisers from their positions within the East European armies. Although the Soviet Union still remained in control of its alliance system, these changes in the Warsaw Pact and the NSWP armies removed some of the most objectionable features of Sovietization.

In October 1956, the Polish and Hungarian communist parties lost control of the de-Stalinization process in their countries. The ensuing crises threatened the integrity of the entire Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe. Although Khrushchev reacted quickly to rein in the East European allies and thwart this challenge to Soviet interests, his response in these two cases led to a significant change in the role of the Warsaw Pact as an element of Soviet security.

The "Polish October"

The October 1956, workers' riots in Poland defined the boundaries of national communism acceptable to the Soviet Union. The Polish United Workers Party found that the grievances that inspired the riots could be ameliorated without presenting a challenge to its monopoly on political power or its strict adherence to Soviet foreign policy and security interests. At first, when the Polish Army and police forces refused to suppress rioting workers, the Soviet Union prepared its forces in East Germany and Poland for an intervention to restore order in the country. However, Poland's new communist party leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka, and the Polish Army's top commanders indicated to Khrushchev and the other Soviet leaders that any Soviet intervention in the internal affairs of Poland would meet united, massive resistance. While insisting on Poland's right to exercise greater autonomy in domestic matters, Gomulka also pointed out that the Polish United Workers Party remained in firm control of the country and expressed his intention to continue to accept Soviet direction in external affairs. Gomulka even denounced the simultaneous revolution in Hungary and Hungary's attempt to leave the Warsaw Pact, which nearly ruptured the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe. Gomulka's position protected the Soviet Union's most vital interests and enabled Poland to reach a compromise with the Soviet leadership to defuse the crisis. Faced with Polish resistance to a possible invasion, the Soviet Union established its minimum requirements for the East European allies: upholding the leading role of the communist party in society and remaining a member of the Warsaw Pact. These two conditions ensured that Eastern Europe would remain a buffer zone for the Soviet Union.

The Hungarian Revolution

By contrast, the full-scale revolution in Hungary, which began in late October with public demonstrations in support of the rioting Polish workers, openly flouted these Soviet stipulations. An initial domestic liberalization acceptable to the Soviet Union quickly focused on nonnegotiable issues like the communist party's exclusive hold on political power and genuine national independence. With overwhelming support from the Hungarian public, the new communist party leader, Imre Nagy, instituted multiparty elections. More important, Nagy withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and ended Hungary's alliance with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Army invaded with 200,000 troops, crushed the Hungarian Revolution, and brought Hungary back within limits tolerable to the Soviet Union. The five days of pitched battles left 25,000 Hungarians dead.

After 1956 the Soviet Union practically disbanded the Hungarian Army and reinstituted a program of political indoctrination in the units that remained. In May 1957, unable to rely on Hungarian forces to maintain order, the Soviet Union increased its troop level in Hungary from two to four divisions and forced Hungary to sign a status-of-forces agreement, placing the Soviet military presence on a solid and permanent legal basis. The Soviet Army forces stationed in Hungary officially became the Southern Group of Forces (SGF).

The events of 1956 in Poland and Hungary forced a Soviet re-evaluation of the reliability and roles of the NSWP countries in its alliance system. Before 1956 the Soviet leadership believed that the Stalinist policy of heavy political indoctrination and enforced Sovietization had transformed the national armies into reliable instruments of the Soviet Union. However, the East European armies were still likely to remain loyal to national causes. Only one Hungarian Army unit fought beside the Soviet troops that put down the 1956 revolution. In both the Polish and the Hungarian military establishments, a basic loyalty to the national communist party regime was mixed with a strong desire for greater national sovereignty. With East Germany still a recent enemy and Poland and Hungary now suspect allies, the Soviet Union turned to Czechoslovakia as its most reliable junior partner in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Czechoslovakia became the Soviet Union's first proxy in the Third World when its military pilots trained Egyptian personnel to fly Soviet-built MiG fighter aircraft. The Soviet Union thereby established a pattern of shifting the weight of its reliance from one East European country to another in response to various crises.

The Post 1956 Period

After the very foundation of the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe was shaken in 1956, Khrushchev sought to shore up the Soviet Union's position. Several developments made the task even more difficult. Between 1956 and 1962, the growing Soviet-Chinese dispute threatened to break up the Warsaw Pact. In 1962 Albania severed relations with the Soviet Union and terminated Soviet rights to the use of a valuable Mediterranean naval base on its Adriatic Sea coast. That same year, Albania ended its active participation in the Warsaw Pact and sided with the Chinese against the Soviets. Following the example of Yugoslavia in the late 1940s, Albania was able to resist Soviet pressures. Lacking a common border with Albania and having neither occupation troops nor overwhelming influence in that country, the Soviet Union was unable to use either persuasion or force to bring Albania back into the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev used Warsaw Pact meetings to mobilize the political support of the Soviet Union's East European allies against China and Albania, as well as to reinforce its control of Eastern Europe and its claim to leadership of the communist world. More important, however, after Albania joined Yugoslavia and Hungary on the list of defections and near-defections from the Soviet alliance system in Eastern Europe, the Soviets began to turn the Warsaw Pact into a tool for militarily preventing defections in the future.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:44:59 ZULU