“What factors have contributed to the collapse of successive regimes in Central and Eastern Europe”?
From 1900 to 1992, Central and Eastern Europe has seen the rise and fall of empires, suffered under dictatorships and lived under the influence of Soviet Russia in the Eastern Bloc. Within this time countries have been formed and broken up, mainly due to the world wars and civil wars. I will look at the changes and the factors that caused them over this time period.
In 1900 some of the main powers in Europe lay within the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires. Both were made up of a vast amount of different countries, which is one of the factors that contributed to later collapse of these empires. Due to the vast ethnic diversity, there were often conflicts between races over land and their different religions. There were also language barriers making it difficult for only one ruler to control the empire.
The autocracy of these countries may have also caused problems with riots such as what was happening around that time within Russia.
As time went on another problem started emerge. In both empires the rulers often were in power for years, running in the family. This was especially notable in the Austro-Hungarian Empire with their leader Franz Josef who became emperor of Austria at the age of 18 in 1848, ruled up until 1916, at the age of 86. With leaders becoming older their grip and power over the empire became weaker and less forceful. They were unable to control and unite the different countries and with religious conflicts, language barriers and different needs added on to this, the leaders were just unable to cope.
With the outbreak of World War One the fate of these empires seemed to be set. The expense of the war in terms of resources, time and men made these countries weaker than before with cracks in both empires beginning to show. When the end came in 1918, Austro-Hungary’s leader Franz Josef had been dead for 2 years and it was difficult for the new emperor to revive the country as it had little industry and that was becoming stagnant.
The Treaty Of Versailles was the deciding factor in the break up of the empires even though the Ottoman Empire had seemed to have already crumbled and broken up by itself. The treaty and World War One can be seen as the first major factors which contributed to the collapse of a regime.
With the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires dissolved and divided, new countries were formed from the remainders of the empire. New countries such as Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland and Hungary were all given the chance to form their own governments and start afresh. Yet they suffered many of the problems that the empire had suffered. Many of the countries still had vast ethnic diversity because of the division, which had the same implications as when this happened within the empires.
Having lived under an autocracy for most of their lives, the governments had problems politically. Most of the newly formed countries still had an autocratic leader although some tried to start democracy, the most notable country being Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia was the probably the most successful of the new countries and this was because of its industry. The other countries were suffering with economic problems as industry was either stagnant, mainly farm-based which wasn’t in demand as much due to the rapidly growing countries around them which had had the industrial revolution and due to a lack of resources. Czechoslovakia was lucky in this respect as it most of the natural resources and a healthy coal industry. This enabled it to gain more money, giving it more opportunity to have success as a separate country.
Yet this would be affected by the rise to power of Hitler. In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany which again would affect how Europe looked and the futures of the newly formed countries.
Hitler slowly invaded and took over Central and Eastern Europe, including the Sudentenland, the most industrial part of Czechoslovakia which happened to have the most amount of Germans living in it as well.
With Hitler controlling Central and Eastern Europe, the people living in these countries were subjected to the hash dictatorship of the Nazis and they didn’t realise that they wouldn’t gain independence to govern themselves again until the late 1980’s.
During World War Two, industry would have suffered again because although Germany would have provided most of the industrial output, the invaded countries would have supplied armaments as well. This meant that the industry would have been focused on weapons manufacture, leaving the countries in a dire position at the end of the war, needing basic raw materials, food and other domestic goods.
The end of the war saw another regime fall out of power. With Nazi Germany losing the war, all its power was taken from them, with the USSR liberating most of the countries in East Europe apart from Yugoslavia which, through an uprising, saw it liberate itself. Stalin was quoted by saying “we have what we hold”. Stalin believed the USSR was entitled to remain in the countries they had liberated as they wanted to create a buffer zone as protection from Germany. He was able to do this with the help of the Red Army, which was already situated in these countries, and by placing Stalinists in the existing Communist Parties. He was then able to dictate how these countries were ruled, transforming them into satellite states of the Soviet Union.
Throughout Stalin’s reign, the harsh way of controlling these countries was kept. By using C.O.M.E.C.O.N., C.O.M.I.N.F.O.R.M and the Warsaw Pact he completely dominated them. C.O.M.E.C.O.N. set prices of goods that the USSR needed to rebuild and repair after the war, effectively stealing/pilaging what they needed from the Eastern Bloc. Many of these countries were placed into depression which started to build tension. With Stalin’s death and Kruschev as the new leader of Russia, these people felt there was time for change. Kruschev had openly discussed plans for ‘separate roads to socialism’ and people thought this was an opportunity for them to decide how they were governed.
In 1956 there was the Hungarian Uprising. For a few short days the rebels held the country, having driven out Soviet tanks, yet that did not stay the same for long as more Soviet tanks and troops seized the capital, crushing the revolt and killing many civilians. Once again the people of the Eastern Bloc were oppressed, yet they did not give up trying to rise against Communism as proved by the Prague Spring (1968) in Czechoslovakia.
When Breshnev came into power, Russia was beginning to stagnate economically and industrially. The Cold War had started to take its toll on the USSR. By concentrating all their resources and money on the arms race, all the other industries were beginning to suffer, having to be heavily subsidised by the government as they were not making any money. With Russia involved in a war in Afghanistan in the late 1970’s even more money had to be used to support the war effort. The army was beginning to show signs of being too stretched and it was a crucial time for the USSR to resolve these problems and remain a world power. This all had consequences on the rest of Central and Eastern Europe with more resources from these countries being taken to help save ‘the mother country’.
Signs of unrest began to show again, the most notable being in Poland, 1981, when Solidarity was formed. Solidarity was a trade union created by ship workers, the leader being Lech Walesa. Over the next few years Solidarity gained 10 million members, with the West turning Walesa into a hero. Russia could not get rid of Walesa as the Western media would have made him into a martyr, so he was placed under house arrest and Solidarity was banned.
By stopping this Breshnev did not really achieve anything and was unable to resolve the economic difficulties within Russia. When Gorbachev came into power there was a wave of optimism throughout the Eastern Bloc. He had to make the choice of cutting lose the Eastern Bloc and save Russia or decline slowly, losing pride. His policies of ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’ effectively allowed these countries to decide their own way of being governed without any consequences from the Warsaw Pact or the USSR, leaving Communism to collapse and Russia able to try and rebuild and reconstruct its industry. One by one these countries overturned the Communist governments and replaced them with their own. This occurred all over the Eastern Bloc over a period of a few months in late 1989. This enabled countries to decide their own fate with the most notable change coming in 1992 from Czechoslovakia when it divided into two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Through revolts, stagnant economies and the end of the Cold War, Central and Eastern European countries were able to gain their freedom and democracy.
The main factors which have contributed in collapsing successive regimes seem to be the two world wars, suffering industries and economies and ageing/stagnant policies and leaders. With ethnic diversity throughout, regimes have failed to maintain power over the collective countries.
Now countries which were once deemed by the West to be backwards and involved with the USSR, such as the Czech Republic and Poland, are now hoping to join the E.U in 2004, with other countries like them in Central and Eastern Europe hoping to join at a later date.
* Website:- http://www.worldwar1.com/biohfrj.htm
* Class notes