Hungary’s Cold War

In Hungary’s Cold War: International Relations from the End of World War II to the Fall of the Soviet Union, Csaba Békés provides the first multi-archive based synthesis concerning the international relations of the Soviet Bloc, covering the entire Cold War period. Based on Békés’s extensive research over the past three decades, he aims at proving that the East-Central European states have played a much more important role in shaping both the Soviet bloc’s overall policy and the East–West relationship itself than previously assumed. Similarly, the relationship between Moscow and its allies, as well as among the bloc countries, was a much more complex formula than it appeared for most observers in the East and the West alike.

The book uses a three level analysis: the development of East–West relations; the formulation of Soviet Bloc policy; and, the reactions and initiatives of Hungarian foreign policy.

Hungary’s Cold War presents more than twenty theoretical innovations, new categories, and novel interpretations concerning the Cold War and international relations, as well as the same number of discoveries, a significant part of which have already been established in Hungary, and partly also in international literature based on the author’s previous works.

Following is an excerpt taken from chapter one of Hungary’s Cold War.

The Sovietization of East Central Europe

While the debate has been going on regarding this issue since the late 1940s, we can argue that the Sovietization of East Central Europe was neither a cause nor a consequence of the emerging Cold War. The Western Allies, as outlined in the previous section, had tacitly accepted the Soviet conquest of East Central Europe from the outset, although they were certainly hoping that Stalin would not necessarily try to Sovietize the region “overnight,” as he had the Baltic states, but content himself with the security guarantees of a kind of regional Finlandization. But they could do little but hope, as they had no effective means of influencing events in East Central Europe if they did not want to wage war on the Soviet Union, which was not in the least in their interest. Stalin’s team was treating the region as one of prime strategic importance, and we now know that it was prepared to go to war to retain it.

As we still know basically nothing about Stalin’s specific plans for the future of the region, experts try to reconstruct them from the Maisky and Litvinov plans, usually concluding that no short-term Sovietization designs can be seen in these materials. But this is an erroneous premise because these are expert materials, and there is no evidence that they would even partially reflect Stalin’s point of view. Litvinov’s plan contains a strikingly unrealistic desire to classify neutral Sweden as part of the Soviet zone in January 1945, while Maisky’s proposal is surprisingly modest in that it presupposes only a Finlandized type of supervision of the area by Moscow in January 1944 in the short run, when it had been clear after the Tehran conference in November–December 1943 that the area would be liberated by the Red Army. Maybe they did not know it, but we now know what Stalin said to Milovan Djilas in April 1945: “This war is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army has power to do so. It cannot be otherwise.” And for the Soviet Union, that war started in 1941. (Incidentally, this prophesy was true also for the United States: the former fascist/Nazi states of Italy and West Germany adopted a Western-type democratic model; the former abolished the monarchy and became a republic, while the latter, formally a federation but in fact a strongly centralized state since 1871, directly followed a federal structure, akin to that of the United States.) Consequently, the Maisky and Litvinov plans cannot be taken as evidence that Moscow lacked intentions of Sovietizing the region in the period up to 1947, and therefore there was also no realistic chance behind the postwar Western desire for a “Finlandized” East Central Europe.

The Sovietization of East Central Europe did not affect the development of East–West relations directly and, even if many still claim the opposite, it was not a cause of the Cold War. There is further backing for this argument in the Western reactions to the gradual Communist takeover in the areas liberated and occupied by the Soviet Union. It was not seen as a real casus belli; otherwise, the Truman Doctrine, announced in March 1947 to prevent further Communist expansion, would have had to come into force in 1945 or 1946 at the latest. Cutting-edge research shows that irrespective of formal constitutional conditions or the political setup—in most cases a multiparty system and a coalition government—the local Communist parties of all the countries of the region were already in a commanding position as early as 1945–46 in the whole region. Therefore, I use the novel categorizations quasi-Sovietized countries (Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia) and pre-Sovietized states (Hungary and Czechoslovakia) rather than the terms democratic interlude or limited parliamentary democracy, as suggested elsewhere.

Yet, in a transposed, indirect sense, the trend in Western policy toward the Soviet Union was influenced to some degree by East Central Europe’s deteriorating situation. Western politicians could not admit to their public their tacit acknowledgment that East Central Europe now belonged wholly to the Soviet sphere of influence and that they simply had no effective means to arrest the ongoing Sovietization of the region. Therefore, to satisfy the moral expectations of their societies, they periodically had to utter tough public condemnation of some of the drastic, aggressive steps of the local Communists or the Soviet authorities. The ensuing harsh replies from Moscow then reinforced existing Western suspicions that the Soviet leadership was unreliable, aggressive, and concerned only with its own security—not a force with which it was worth working or cooperating.

Csaba Békés is research professor for the Centre of Social Sciences, founding director of the Cold War History Research Center, and professor of history at Corvinus University of Budapest.