Tag Archives: USSR

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.

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

Blood in the Water match

‘Blood in the Water’ – the Cold War water polo match

On the 6th December 1956, the “Blood in the Water” water polo match took place between the USSR and Hungary. A semi-final in the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympic Games, the game is famous as a result of the violence that marked the game. It gained its nickname, and ended, after a Hungarian player was punched by one of the Russian opponents so hard that it drew blood.

The match was played just weeks after the USSR’s crackdown of the Hungarian Revolution. At the time the Hungarian team – who were reigning champions – were training outside Budapest but were able to hear gunshots and see smoke as the fighting intensified in the city after Soviet tanks moved in on the 1st November.

Having been moved to communist Czechoslovakia to complete their training and avoid getting caught up in events at home, the scale of the USSR’s response to the uprising only became clear to the Hungarians after they arrived in Australia. Facing the Soviet Union in the semi-final, they quickly realised that this provided an opportunity to regain some national pride against their oppressors.

The game was violent from the start with verbal abuse, kicks and punches being thrown by both sides. The Hungarians outplayed the USSR throughout the match and were leading 4-0 when Russian Valentin Prokopov punched Hungarian Ervin Zádor in the final quarter. As he climbed out of the pool with blood streaming down his face, the pro-Hungarian crowd went wild.

Hungary went on to win gold against Yugoslavia but many of the Hungarian team didn’t return home afterwards, instead seeking asylum in the West.

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.