Tag Archives: Cold War

Berlin Blockade

Berlin and the Cold War 1945-1949

Contrasting Pro-Soviet and Pro-American films from the post-WW2 period related to the increasing tensions between the two countries.

Berlin Blockade

The Berlin Blockade and Airlift

Berlin Blockade

The end of the Berlin Blockade

This short podcast presents an overview of how and why Stalin chose to end the Berlin Blockade.

On May 12th 1949, the Soviet Union ended its blockade of West Berlin.  Instigated on the 24th June the previous year, the blockade prevented all rail, road, and water transport between Berlin and the West of the Germany.

Germany had been divided into four parts at the end of World War 2 with Britain, France, the USA and the USSR each administering one area.  Buried deep in the Soviet zone, the Berlin was also divided into four sectors.  It was to the area controlled by the Western powers that the USSR blocked access.

Faced with the possibility of all-out war if they forced their way through the blockade, the Americans opted to make use of the three air corridors that provided unrestricted aerial access to Berlin.  The USSR knew it risked war if it shot down any aircraft, and was therefore powerless to stop them.  Launched four days after the blockade, the Berlin Airlift went on to see over 200,000 individual flights transport up to 8,500 tons of supplies each day.

The pilots and ground crews soon settled into an efficient rhythm.  An unusually short winter also helped to keep the airlift running.  By the spring of 1949 it was clear that the Western powers had achieved the impossible by supplying West Berlin by air alone.  On the 15th April the USSR expressed a willingness to end the blockade and, after a period of negotiation, it was lifted at one minute past midnight on 12 May 1949.  The blockade was over, but the Cold War had just begun.

Flag of East Germany DDR

The foundation of the German Democratic Republic (DDR)

On the 7th October 1949 the German Democratic Republic, otherwise known as East Germany, was founded in the Soviet occupied zone of Germany.

The constitution that was adopted bore striking similarities to the Weimar Constitution of 1919, and was based largely on a draft written in 1946 that was intended for a united Germany. Consequently a new constitution was adopted in 1968 that more accurately reflected the socialist government of the country.

The establishment of the GDR made permanent the division of Germany that had been implemented in 1945. West Germany had already gained independence from the occupying powers earlier in 1949, and the creation of East Germany meant the same for the formerly Soviet-zone although the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany maintained close ties with the USSR and was therefore seen as a satellite state.

The position of head of state was originally taken by Wilhelm Pieck who was President until his death in 1960. However, in reality authority lay with the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party who – in 1950 – was Walter Ulbricht. On the President’s death his position was dissolved and the office of President was replaced by the State Council. As the chairman position was commonly held by the General Secretary, this gave Ulbricht and his successors ultimate power in the GDR.

Following the Peaceful Revolution in 1989 and the fall of Berlin Wall, East Germany experienced the first truly democratic elections that dramatically reduced the power of the Socialist Unity Party and led to the reunification of Germany that took place on 3rd October 1990.

USSR nuclear test

The USSR’s first atomic test

On the 29th August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first nuclear weapon codenamed RDS-1 and nicknamed First Lightning. The explosion had the power of 22 kilotons of TNT, and was 50% more destructive than its designers had expected.

The USSR started its nuclear program in 1943 after discovering the USA, Britain and Canada had begun bomb development. Assisted by intelligence from sources inside the USA’s Manhattan Project, the Soviet Union’s program developed quickly as the Soviets were able to replicate American successes while avoiding some of their costlier mistakes. Consequently, although the majority of Cold War academics accept that the USSR’s success had a lot to do with domestic expertise they recognise that intelligence helped to reduce the time it took for them to develop the bomb.

Work was accelerated after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in secret, purpose-built cities dedicated to the nuclear program known as Atomgrads. By 1949 the Soviets had developed two types of bomb, but opted to detonate the simpler of the two designs first since it was similar in design to the successful Fat Man bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.

The RDS-1 test was conducted in secret in an attempt to avoid the USA increasing its own nuclear program, but the US Air Force began to detect radioactive fallout from the explosion a few days later and tracked the trail. Soviet success had occurred up to 4 years ahead of Western estimates, and the knowledge that the USSR now had ‘the bomb’ dramatically increased tensions in the early years of the Cold War.

Radio Free Europe

Overview of Radio Free Europe’s first broadcast on 4th July 1950

On the 4th July 1950, Radio Free Europe – founded the previous year to transmit uncensored information to audiences behind the Iron Curtain – completed its first broadcast.

Although the station was uncensored in the sense that it shared information that was suppressed within the Communist Bloc, it’s important to remember that it was still a propaganda tool founded and principally funded by the United States government.

The task facing the journalists who worked for RFE was daunting. Since they broadcast to states that suppressed a range of information and news, the gathering of intelligence to provide broadcast material was an enormous challenge. They often relied on risky contact with émigrés and people who had traveled behind the Iron Curtain for eye-witness accounts, and closely monitored print and electronic media from the communist governments. It’s even been suggested that the quality and quantity of information was so comprehensive that the communist governments themselves used Radio Free Europe to gain information about what was happening within their own countries.

However, RFE was still fundamentally a broadcaster that promoted anti-communist ideas and was therefore a significant threat in the countries it targeted. The USSR tasked the KGB with establishing expensive radio jamming facilities to try to block broadcasts, while in 1981 a terrorist group funded by the Romanian regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu detonated a bomb at RFE’s Munich headquarters.

Despite these challenges Radio Free Europe and its partner station Radio Liberty continued broadcasting, and even after the end of the Cold War has continued to broadcast to countries where a free press is not established.

Stalin_Statue_Pulled_Down_Hungary

Hungarian Revolt 1956

Imre Nagy

The execution of Hungarian Communist leader Imre Nagy

On June 16th 1958, Hungarian Communist politician Imre Nagy was executed. Arrested after Soviet forces brought the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to an end, Nagy was found guilty of treason in a secret trial and executed by hanging.

Nagy had been sacked from his position as Chairman of the Council of Ministers in April 1955 due to his independent attitude that favoured a “New Course” in Socialism. Although his moderate reforms were met with hostility from the USSR, they garnered significant support within Hungary where opposition to the hard-line government of Mátyás Rákosi had grown since the death of Stalin in 1953. Nagy’s popular support led to him being appointed Prime Minister on October 24th 1956, the day after the Revolution began.

After a week of violence, Nagy recognised the crowd’s desire for political change. Despite being an ardent Marxist he began moves towards introducing a multiparty political system and, on November 1st, announced Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and its status as a neutral country. This proved too much for Khrushchev in the USSR, who moved his troops into Budapest and seized control of most of the city by the 8th November. Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslavian embassy, but was arrested when he was given false promises of safe passage to leave Hungary on the 22nd November.  He, and other leading members of the deposed government, were imprisoned in Romania until 1958 when they were returned to Hungary for trial.

News of Nagy’s trial and execution were only made public after the sentence had been carried out.

Prague Spring

The origin and start of the Prague Spring

On the 5th January 1968, the Prague Spring began when Alexander Dubček became the new First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring lasted for just over seven months before the Soviet Union, along with other members of the Warsaw Pact, invaded Czechoslovakia to bring the reforms to a halt.

Dubček was a committed Communist, and had been First Secretary of the regional Communist Party of Slovakia since 1963. However he struggled to work with Antonín Novotný, the President of Czechoslovakia, under whose control the country experienced a slow and uneasy move towards destalinization while suffering a huge economic downturn. Frustrated by Novotný’s failure to effectively restructure the country, Dubček and other reformists challenged him at a meeting of the Central Committee in October 1967. In response Novotný secretly invited the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to visit Czechoslovakia to secure his support. However, this plan backfired when Brezhnev learned just how unpopular Novotný was and instead lent his support to remove him from power.

Consequently Dubček replaced Novotný as First Secretary on the 5th January 1968, and quickly began to introduce a series of political reforms. Known as “socialism with a human face” this political programme was intended to maintain Communist control of the government while allowing mild democratisation and political liberalisation. However, as the reforms took hold the government was faced with public demands to go even further. At the same time, the USSR and other Warsaw Pact countries began pressuring Dubček to bring the Prague Spring under control. On the 20th August they took matters in to their own hands and invaded Czechoslovakia.

Prague Spring Dubcek

Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring 1968