Tag Archives: Communism

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

The killing of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg

On the 15th January 1919, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by members of the Freikorps. The two German socialists were joint-founders of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany, and were captured following the Spartacist uprising that began on the 4th January.

Luxemburg and Liebknecht were members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany when Germany declared war in 1914. Frustrated by the wider SPD’s support for Germany’s declaration of war, they and other leftists created a separate organisation known as the Spartakusbund or Spartacus League. Named after the leader of the Roman Republic’s largest slave rebellion, the Spartacus League actively opposed the ongoing war. In 1916, both Luxemburg and Liebknecht were found guilty of high treason and imprisoned after they organised an anti-war demonstration.

They were released in 1918, and in December renamed the Spartacist League the Communist Party of Germany. By this point, following the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany was experiencing a post-war revolution. Friedrich Ebert, a centrist member of the SPD, had assumed the position of Chancellor but struggled to maintain control of the country. His government had begun to side with conservatives, while the left sought the establishment of a government based on workers’ councils.

On the 5th January thousands of people swarmed into the Berlin streets and began to occupy government and press officers. Two days later around half a million people began a general strike. By this point, however, Ebert had hired Freikorps to crush the revolt. They did so quickly, and violently. On the 15th January Luxemburg and Liebknecht were arrested, tortured, interrogated and executed.

Yalta Conference

Brief introduction to the Yalta Conference

On the 4th February 1945 the Yalta Conference began. Attended by the “Big Three” Allied leaders, the conference saw United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin meet to discuss the government of post-war Europe.

The three leaders had previously met at the Tehran Conference in 1943 where they set out a unified military strategy, but at Yalta the focus was exclusively on the end of the war and its aftermath. It was clear that the war in Europe was in its final stages, so they agreed to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender after which the country – and Berlin – would be split into four zones of occupation. Germany was to undergo a process of demilitarization and denazification, and Nazi war criminals were to be hunted down and brought to justice.

Furthermore, the three allies considered the fate of Eastern European countries that had been under Nazi occupation. Poland was the focus of much of the discussion, but the agreement reached was intended to apply to every country. The Protocol of Proceedings stated that the allies would assist the liberated countries to form “interim governmental authorities broadly representative of all democratic elements in the population…and the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people.”

The terms of the agreement, when they were made public, were met with harsh criticism in Britain and the United States. Some of these criticisms came to be justified when, at the end of the war, the Soviet Union installed communist governments throughout Eastern Europe.

Iron Curtain speech

Churchill and the ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

On the 5th March 1946, Winston Churchill described the post-war division of Europe as an “iron curtain” in his “Sinews of Peace” address at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Often interpreted as a key event in the origin of the Cold War, Churchill’s speech played a significant role in changing Western perceptions of their former Soviet ally.

Churchill, as the British Prime Minister, had led Britain to victory in the Second World War but in the General Election of July 1945 suffered a landslide defeat to Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. Despite now being in opposition, he continued to be highly respected abroad and visited the United States in 1946. During this trip he was invited by Westminster College in the 7,000-person town of Fulton to deliver a speech to an audience of 40,000 people.

Churchill was introduced at Fulton by President Harry Truman, and opened his speech by complimenting the United States as standing “at the pinnacle of world power.” As the speech progressed, he became increasingly critical of the Soviet Union’s policies in Eastern Europe. Churchill was not the first to use the term “iron curtain” as a metaphor for a strong divide since versions of its had been in use for many centuries, and nor was the “Sinews of Peace” speech the first time that he himself had used the term. However, his use of the term in a speech with such a large audience thrust it into wider circulation and associated it directly with the post-war situation.

Stalin accused Churchill of warmongering, and defended the USSR’s relationship with eastern Europe as a necessary barrier to future attacks.

Containment policy

The origin of the ‘Containment’ policy

On the 24th September 1946, Clark Clifford and George Elsey presented a report to President Truman in which they recommended “restraining and confining” Soviet influence. The report helped to shape Truman’s decision to follow a policy of containment, having a direct impact on the introduction of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan, and on the formation of NATO.

The report was a detailed appraisal of relations between the USA and the Soviet Union, elaborating on the points raised in the so-called “Long Telegram” by George F. Kennan at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. Kennan’s telegram highlighted the USSR’s ‘perpetual war’ with capitalism, stating that the communist and capitalist worlds could never peacefully coexist.

These warnings were picked up by Clifford and Elsey, who also noted Kennan’s comments regarding the likelihood that the Soviets would back down from any direct conflict in their attempts to expand communism. Consequently they recommended “restraining and confining” Soviet influence in an attempt to maintain some form of coexistence. Elsey noted that the USSR needed to be persuaded that the USA was “too strong to be beaten and too determined to be frightened”. The term ‘containment’ was first used to describe this approach in an expanded essay in the Foreign Affairs journal.

Ten copies of the report were printed, the first of which was presented to the President. Truman’s daughter, Margaret, wrote that – having stayed up most of the night to read it – he ordered all copies to be brought to him and locked away since the content was a serious threat to US-Soviet relations.

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.

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.

Rosenbergs

Why were the Rosenbergs sentenced to death? Overview podcast

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg met when they were members of the Young Communist League in New York. It was only after his previous membership of the organisation was discovered that Julius was dismissed from his position at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. He had worked as an engineer-inspector for nearly 5 years during the Second World War, and it was during this time that he was recruited to spy for Russia.

Rosenberg went on to recruit a number of other people who were able to supply secret information, including Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who worked on the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. He was arrested following a tip-off in May 1950, and named Julius Rosenberg as his contact.

During both a secret grand jury testimony and their subsequent trial the Rosenbergs refused to divulge information about their connections to the Communist Party. Despite this, they were found guilty of espionage and sentenced to death for their role in passing information about the US nuclear programme to the Soviet Union.

Although there have been subsequent attempts to clear their names, the publication of decrypted messages from the United States’ VERONA project in 1995 clearly showed that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of espionage and that Ethel was fully aware of her husband’s activities and actively assisted him. The general consensus among historians, therefore, is that the couple were guilty of the charge. However, debate still rages over whether or not their crime justified their executions.

Khrushchev's Secret Speech

Khruschev’s criticism of Stalin in his ‘secret speech’

Shortly after midnight on the 25th February 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev delivered his ‘secret speech’, officially called “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences”, in a four hour “closed session” at the end of the 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Laying the foundation for his wide-reaching de-Stalinisation campaign, the speech was a vehement denunciation of Stalin’s abuses of power and his creation of a personality cult.

Khrushchev’s speech signalled a dramatic reversal of Soviet policy, which he said had come about due to Stalin’s misinterpretation or misrepresentation of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. The ‘secret speech’ allowed Khrushchev to distance himself from the worst crimes of the Stalin’s rule, even though he himself had been responsible for thousands of deaths during his rule.  Additionally, and of great significance for the West, Khrushchev also advocated a policy of “peaceful coexistence” rather than continue Stalin’s policy of preparing for an inevitable war.

Although the full details of the speech were only supposed to reach the public gradually, rumours of its contents spread quickly. Israeli intelligence officers finally obtained a full copy of the speech, and passed it to the United States government, who leaked it to the press at the start of June. Although Khrushchev had, by this point, begun to implement de-Stalinisation the printing of the speech in the New York Times on the 5th June dictated demands for a faster pace of change in Eastern Europe. Large-scale change was, however, still slow. Poland’s government granted some concessions in October, but the situation in Hungary ended very differently.

Stalin_Statue_Pulled_Down_Hungary

Hungarian Revolt 1956