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Did Communism Have Any Legitimacy in Eastern Europe?

For half a century, debate has raged around the degree of legitimacy enjoyed by Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Most contemporary analyses discuss legitimacy in the context of the collapse of Communist regimes. However, save where one argues that the ends justify the means, an illegitimate starting point presupposes an illegitimate conclusion. As a result I would like to examine Communist legitimacy by examining the Communist take-overs in Eastern Europe in the 1940’s.

I will focus on Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovarkia, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania. East Germany’s historical experience was very much as part of the West until 1945, and it was a heavily industrialised region with a long history of leftist politics. The experience of National Socialism and total defeat and surrender, in particular, mean that Communist claims to legitimacy are qualitatively different than in the rest of the former Eastern bloc, and it is best excepted.

Although, it is dangerous to see Central and Eastern Europe as a totally homogenous mass, as each country has specific historical and cultural associations, the region has shared a number of characteristics for centuries. These historic characteristics were contributory factors in the Communist take-over. It has traditionally lagged behind Western Europe in technological and cultural innovation. Apart from Hungary, the Reformation largely left it untouched. Topographical features have meant it has often been isolated from the ‘spine’ of Europe, looking instead towards Russia or Turkey. The region was dominated by the four great regional empires until World War One, and in the inter-war period it became, as Milan Kundera stated "an uncertain zone of small nations between Russia and Germany" - a position which was to cost it dearly during WW2.

During the inter-war years, the region suffered continual political instability. Bar Albania, which had other problems, every Eastern European state was multi-national. Ethnic divisions and territorial claims marred relations within and between Eastern European states throughout the period. Moreover, some commentators point out that Eastern European states were weakly integrated. Lacking a civil society to mediate between the élites and the masses, differing ethnic and social groups lacked a common identity with one another and often lacked an identity with the state. Apart from Czechoslovakia, as a result, politics was characterised by fragmented party systems and unstable governments throughout the twenties, and from the Great Depression onwards, by dictatorship and repression.

And what of the Communists in this unstable situation? Left radicalism, let alone communism, was restricted to the few areas (e.g. Bohemia, Upper Silesia) which had significant industrial development and therefore a large industrial working-class; in these peasant dominated societies, Marxism was limited in appeal. Moreover, communism damaged its own credibility among the peasantry: the Communists failed to support Stamboliiski’s Agrarian government in Bulgaria in 1923, while the brutalities of collectivisation in the USSR in the 1930’s convinced most peasants that Communists were opposed to their interests.

Prohibition of the Communists, as occurred in most of Eastern Europe, destroyed the Communist organisational base and hindered intra-party communications, leaving the Parties more prone to splits. At the same time the parties’ official thinking became increasingly controlled by the Comintern. This was political suicide in traditionally anti-Russian countries such as Poland and Hungary; even in Russophile Czechoslovakia, Comintern interference caused the near collapse of the legal and politically successful CPCS in 1929. After the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, communism was outlawed across Eastern Europe, its leadership in exile in Moscow had been massacred by Stalin in the purges, and what little grassroots membership it had was persecuted by the Nazis and their allies who controlled Eastern Europe. Yet within a decade every country in the region was to have become controlled by the state socialist system.

World War Two was the cataclysm which opened the way for Communist take-over. While the exact process of take-over was different in every country, there were commonalities. War gave the Communists an opportunity to take part in a broad coalition as part of the resistance - the realisation of the ‘united front from below’ policy which they had been trying to implement for a decade. It also gave the USSR a chance, at least in countries where the Red Army retained a significant presence, to support Soviet trained Communists in their bids for power.

War provided the backdrop to the Western Powers signing the Percentage Agreements, which conceded much of Eastern Europe being legitimately in the Soviet sphere of influence.

Perhaps most importantly, as George Schöpflin notes, war destroyed the old élites of Eastern Europe. After the war they were either discredited through collaboration in the Nazis - as in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, exiled from the country, as in Albania, or dead, as in Poland and Yugoslavia. The survival of its élite was also, in Schöpflin’s view, the key reason why Finland remained outside the Soviet sphere of influence.

Most Western analyses of Eastern Europe during the post-war period saw the Communist take-over of Eastern Europe as the consequence of irredentism from the Soviets and neglect by the Western powers. Thus the Communist take-over was seen to be the result of foreign aggression and therefore to be illegal. Contemporary analyses have tended to give greater prominence to the rôle of domestic factors within the Eastern European nations. While this is important, external factors still played a vital rôle in the take-overs.

Much has been made of the fact that the West, it is claimed, essentially handed control of much of Eastern Europe to the USSR on a plate at the wartime conferences at Teheran and Potsdam, and with Churchill’s ‘percentage agreements’ with Stalin. However, it must be noted that even in Yugoslavian and Hungary, where Stalin agreed to a fifty-fifty split of influence, Communists were able to take power. Moreover, the Declaration on Liberated Europe from the Yalta Report guaranteed free elections. The West felt it had discharged its duty to the peoples of Eastern Europe. What it did not bear in mind is that the term ‘free elections’ has a very different in meaning in a Marxist-Leninist context than it does in a Liberal Democratic context, wishful thinking which was perhaps encouraged by the desire to secure Soviet participation in the invasion of Japan.

Nor was the Western powers handling of the peace time situation in Eastern Europe beyond blemish. British rigging of the Greek elections, which many believe the Communists would have won had the elections been unfettered, sent a message to Stalin that such tactics were acceptable in the struggle for Eastern Europe.

Stalin’s may have been partly provoked by the West in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which he at first seemed to accept would be part of the buffer zone between the nascent Atlantic Alliance and the Soviet sphere, similar to Austria or Finland. However the push for the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany from the three Western occupation zones, coupled with Marshall Aid, conceived initially to bolster the Turkish and Greek governments against communism, may well have provoked Stalin to create a larger ring of loyal states between the USSR and the West. In Czechoslovakia, Marshall Aid seems to have been the key factor which caused Moscow to order Czechoslovak Communists to seize power.

The primary foreign wielder of power in Eastern Europe, however, was not the Western powers but the USSR. Much academic debate focuses on the degree to which Stalin planned to take over Eastern Europe. Elizabeth Kridl Valkeiner claims that "Stalinism was a process not a plan" and Crampton feels that Stalin may not have wanted to immediately install Communist governments across Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Service notes that "having conquered an outer empire, he [Stalin] intended to reinforce his sway over it". On balance, the most persuasive argument in favour of Stalin having a pre-conceived plan to take over Eastern Europe is his 1942 comment to Milovan Djilas: "This was is not as in the past; whoever occupies a territory imposes his own social system on it. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach." While there is debate around whether or not Stalin intended to take over Eastern Europe at the end of the war, particularly given his desire to reign in Tito’s more impulsive tendencies in 1945, there is no doubt that by 1947, Stalin, possibly provoked by the decision to grant Marshall Aid, had decided to launch a full scale bid for control.

Stalin’s primary tool for control was the Red Army. In countries subject to an Allied Control Commission, the Red Army was the de facto government. Consequently it had substantial power to manipulate the shape of society. Help was given by supplying many of the everyday items needed for running a political movement, but in short supply in post-war conditions - for example, the occupying forces could supply offices and vehicles, provide favourable access to rationed goods such as paper, and preferential installation of telephone lines. As a result Communists were the best organised political force in the Eastern European nations. While this undoubtedly helped Communists take power in much of Eastern Europe, it cannot explain every case. As stated earlier, Finland remained in the Western camp despite occupation and a peace treaty with the USSR which was favourable to the latter party. Further, Yugoslavia and Albania had never had a significant Red Army presence. In Czechoslovakia, the Red Army withdrew soon after the war’s conclusion, yet Communists were able to take power more than two years later, after a period of acquiescence to parliamentary democracy. While the presence of the Red Army was of great benefit to Communist take-over bids, it was not itself the key factor in allowing Communists to take power.

Ultimately, domestic factors in Eastern European nations were the most important in determining the region’s fate. Far from the industrialised societies in which Marx envisaged a Communist take-over, those in Eastern Europe still, to a large extent, had a pre-industrial social structure. "From its very inception the Marxist experience in eastern Europe belied the thinking of its founding father." The urban classes were particularly badly hit by dislocation and death in the war. Far from having a developed and politcally active bourgeoisie, Eastern Europe had very shallow democratic roots, having been the domain of the Great Empires. George Schöpflin claims that even without Soviet intervention, post-war democracy in Eastern Europe would have been more étatist than Western European democracy.

Both the internal and external factors listed above present the people of Eastern Europe as essentially passive actors, with their fate either in the hands of the Great Powers, or to Asimovian great social forces and sweeps of history. However, the actions and beliefs of Eastern Europeans were the primary factor in allowing the Communist take over.

Some of the Communist policies were popular with ordinary Eastern Europeans. Land reform was an obviously popular Communist policy. In the immediate post-war years the Communists astutely did not clamour for collectivisation. While in some countries (eg Bulgaria), land reform had long since taken place, in others, such as Hungary with its notoriously uneven distribution of land, this was a major Communist selling point. Although this was not a uniquely Communist policy, being a major plank of Agrarians and Social Democrats, and even on occasions of the democratic right, Communists made sure they were put in charge of overseeing redistribution, giving them the chance to claim sole credit for it. Another factor which allowed Communists to gain support by brokering patronage was the expulsion of Volksdeutsche from most of Eastern Europe. The expulsions were often carried out by the Red Army, who naturally put Communists in charge of the redistribution of such land. Those obtaining redistributed land would be expected to be loyal to the Communist Party. By these means, Communists were able to establish whole zones, in Pomerania and Silesia, in the Sudetenland, in parts of Transylvania, Bosnia and Vojvodinova, which were virtually free of political activity by any other party, and in which the population were loyal through patronage, to the Communist Party. However, given the depth of hatred left in many countries in the wake of Nazi occupation, anti-German policies were popular in themselves with large sections of the population.

More subtly, Capitalism in the late 1940’s was tainted with the memories of its associations with fascism and the Great Depression. Communism, by contrast, seemed progressive and peace loving; it seemed to be the ideology of the future.

The Communist, and USSR, war records also boosted their standing with the local populace. Tito’s popularity in Yugoslavia can be traced to his willingness to take on the German occupation forces, whatever the consequences, in contrast to the timidity of the Cetniks. Hoxha’s similarly uncompromising attitude in Albania helped him take power there. Even in countries were the resistance was weak, the Red Army were seen by many as liberators, either from foreign occupation or from an exploitative client relationship with Nazi Germany.

Despite this, there was no country in Eastern Europe in which Communists managed to secure a majority of the vote in a fair election, their best result being 38% in Czechoslovakia. One must therefore question the performance of non-communist parties in the take-over period. According to Hugh Seaton-Watson’s famous analysis, Communist take-overs in Eastern Europe consisted of three stages: coalition; bogus coalition; and take-over. The non-Communists either failed to perceive, or failed to put aside their differences in order to act, during the period of bogus coalition. In this sense the position of the Agrarian Radicals is similar to the position of the Socialist Revolutionaries in 1917 Russia. Hungary is perhaps the classic case study, being the place which spawned Rakosi’s famous comment on ‘Salami tactics’. Despite the being the dominant political party in the country, particularly among the numerically superior peasantry, the Smallholders’ Party was riddled with Communist entryists and bitterly divided over what were, with hindsight, minor issues. Salami tactics often worked perfectly; left-wing opposition parties would keep silent while the democratic right was sliced off the body politic; at which point the Communists turned on the democratic left. Even when the opposition had a popular and astute leader, such as Mikolajczyk in Poland, it was destroyed by "violence, coercion, falsification and other illegal and semi-legal means". Disunity, naiveté, and failure of courage by non-Communists allowed the take-overs to happen. Benes’ acquiescence while Communists took over despite massive Czechoslovak public outrage symbolises this.

In conclusion, I would in general agree with George Schöpflin’s assertion that "Overall, the successful communist take over should be seen as having been based on the interplay of international and domestic and factors." However, as there is clearly no absolute connection between the presence of the Soviet Union and the success of communism, one can only support the view that domestic factors were of primary importance. It is always tempting to believe in historical inevitability - however, the actions of Eastern Europeans in the years 1944-1948 were decisive in communism’s triumph. Most analyses in the West have seen the Red Army primary agent for Communist take-over in Eastern Europe. While both this and Western ineptitude played their part in the collapse of democracy in Eastern Europe, the Communist take-overs could not have happened without the action, or inaction, of Eastern Europeans assisting them. There is no doubt that communism was popular among many Eastern Europeans in the aftermath of decades of chaos and violence. There is no doubt that there was a mood for radical change among large sectors of Eastern European society. In many sense communism was merely a recapitulation of previous themes in the governance of Eastern Europe. There is no doubt, therefore, communism had some degree of legitimacy.

However, communism at no point secured won a free election in Eastern Europe. The methods by which they dealt with their opponents were often illegal and immoral, including murder and corruption. Communists often campaigned for support through a censored press and telecommunications media which allowed no dissenting voices to be heard, and with the backing of the police and army. Therefore its legitimacy was severely limited.

Moreover communism, once secure in power, often made U turns on key policies. Collectivisation, freedom of expression and travel and non-militarism were soon ejected once their take-over was confirmed. Such legitimacy as they had was often squandered rapidly. In the final analysis, the Communists may have been to a small degree justified, given the still unstable state of these societies. What was illegitimate and unjustifiable was the system maintained in Eastern Europe for the succeeding four decades.


Crampton, Richard, Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century and After (2nd ed.), Routledge, London, 1997.
Crampton, Richard and Crampton, Ben, An Atlas of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century, Routledge, London, 1996.
Longworth, Philip, The Making of Eastern Europe from Prehistory to Postcommunism (2nd ed.), Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1997.
Service, Robert, A History of Twentieth Century Russia, Penguin, London, 1997.
Schöpflin, George, Politics in Eastern Europe, Blackwell, Oxford, 1993.
Stokes, Gale, From Stalinism to Pluralism - A Documentary History of Eastern Europe since 1945, OUP, Oxford, 1991.

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