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Communism in Europe

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Communism in Europe

The Cold War had a profound impact on post-World War II Europe. The period was dominated by the global power struggle between the US and the USSR and their competing ideologies of capitalism and communism, splitting Europe. How did nearly half of Europe become communist? Why did communism not spread to Western Europe? Learn about the origins of communism in Europe, how the spread of communism in Europe was limited, and the ultimate fall of communism in Eastern Europe here.

Origins of Communism in Europe

The origins of communism in Europe date to the emergence of communism and socialism as an ideology and political movement in 19th century Europe.

Defining Communism

Communism is best defined as a social, economic, and political philosophy that aims to create a classless society based on the communal ownership of property and the means of production. It seeks to abolish private property and many communist thinkers propose the eventual elimination of money, social classes, and even the state.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"1

Karl Marx

The most important thinker associated with communism was Karl Marx, a German economist and political philosopher who proposed a revolutionary theory based on what he considered the contradictions of industrial capitalism. Much of his writing occurred during the period of the mid-1800s, when workers movements were emerging in much of Europe, including the creation of communes in a number of cities during the Revolutions of 1848.

Marx and Friedrich Engels developed a theory that industrial capitalism creates an inherent class conflict between the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class who own factories, land, and wealth, and the proletariat, or the working class. He considered that the capitalist class were exploiting the workers by making the majority of the money from the sale of finished products, only paying the workers a small wage.

Therefore, he proposed that they would eventually rise up and take control of the factories, what he called the means of production, for themselves.

Communism in Europe Karl Marx StudySmarterKarl Marx. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!"2

The Russian Revolution and Marxism-Leninism

While Marx held that communism would only emerge once industrial capitalism developed, the first communist revolution was actually in largely rural (and occupied by farmers), unindustrialized Russia. In 1917, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik communist party seized control in Russia.

Lenin argued that a smaller group of workers, what he called the vanguard, would lead the revolution, pushing the rest of the proletariat towards revolution through a "dictatorship of the proletariat." This ideology placed the communist party as the highest political power.

In practice, communist ideology is implemented through socialism, or state planning of the economy, with nationalization and state ownership of industry and raw materials and collectivization of agrarian production in large state owned farms. This was seen as a means to move society towards eventual communism. Often, these policies were carried out through authoritarian means via a strong state that claimed to be working for the good of the population at large.

The Spread of Communism in Europe

A number of political parties around Europe proposed reforms in favor of workers, although often in a less radical form than Marx proposed. In many countries these Social Democratic parties achieved considerable support in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

While communist and socialist parties gained some support in Western Europe before and after the Second World War, the spread of communism in Europe was limited to the countries of Eastern Europe occupied by the Soviet Union after the end of World War II.

Spread of Communism in Eastern Europe

As World War II came to an end, the armies of the Soviet Union occupied the countries of Eastern Europe that had been occupied by or allied with Nazi Germany.

While there was some organic support for the communist parties in those countries, communism in Eastern Europe was established under a degree of imposition from the USSR. The tactics used to take power are often called "salami tactics" as the communist parties with the support of the Soviet Union worked to eliminate rivals and opposition parties one by one, culminating in one party communist rule in each.

Salami Tactics

A divide and conquer approach to taking power in which opposition groups are divided and isolated, eliminated one by one, like slicing a salami. The phrase was coined by Hungarian communist Matyos Rakosi and is most often associated with Joseph Stalin.

See how communism in Eastern Europe was established in each of those countries in the table below.

Spread of Communism in Eastern Europe
CountryYearMethods Used
Albania1945Communist rebels led resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II and took control of the country afterwards.
Yugoslavia1945Communists led resistance to Nazi occupation and took control after the war. Yugoslavia later broke with the USSR and engaged in friendly relations with the West but maintained a communist government.
Bulgaria1946Communists won a majority in elections held in 1946 and moved to ban other parties, abolish the monarchy, and consolidate one party rule.
East Germany1945-1949The USSR installed a nondemocratic, communist led government in its zone of occupation of Germany. After the declaration of the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany in the US, French, and British occupied areas of Germany, the Soviet zone followed suit with the declaration of the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, in October 1949.
Romania1945A coalition government was created after the war. The communists were the largest party but did not have a majority. They gradually banned other parties and established one party control.
Poland1947Stalin, leader of the USSR, had leading non-communist politicians murdered in 1945. In 1947, communists won elections while intimidating other remaining opposition politicians.
Czechoslovakia1948Communists had a large representation in a post war coalition government but not a majority. In February 1948, the communist led military seized power in a coup and set up a one-party communist government.
Hungary1949Non-communists had won a majority in elections in 1945. The communists, supported by the USSR worked to achieve power, becoming the largest party in elections in 1947 but without a majority. They pushed out non-communists and in elections held in 1949, only communist candidates were allowed on the ballot.

Keep in mind that the modern-day independent countries of Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia were formally part of the Soviet Union in this period as were a number of modern-day republics in Asia. This group of countries that practiced communism in Eastern Europe were often referred to as the Eastern Bloc or the Soviet Bloc.

Communism in Europe Communism in Eastern Europe in Cold War Map StudySmarterMap showing communism in Eastern Europe. Source: Mosedschurte, CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated, Wikimedia Commons

Characteristics of Communism in Eastern Europe

While each country had different domestic politics and dynamics, there were a number of characteristics of communism in Eastern Europe they held in common with the Soviet Union.

All had centrally planned economies, with their governments usually imitating the Soviet Union with 5-year plans and political power vested solely in the communist party. They all joined the military alliance known as the Warsaw Pact and the economic union known as COMECON.

Soviet Control

While each of the Eastern Bloc countries were theoretically independent, they all were under the strong influence of Moscow. Soviet and Warsaw Pact intervention to prevent reform and democratic challenges to communist rule in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 were important moments of the Cold War in Europe and made it clear that in practice they had limited independence.

Communism in Western Europe

Especially in France and Italy, communist parties received large numbers of votes in elections following the war. Communist parties also held significant numbers of seats in legislatures in Belgium and the Netherlands. In Greece, communist rebels threatened to take over the government.

Stopping Communism in Western Europe: Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan

In response to the spread of communism in Eastern Europe and fears of the further spread of communism in Europe, the US attempted to stop the spread of communism in Western Europe.

In 1947, US President Harry Truman called for the US Congress to approve military aid to Greece and Turkey to help prevent communist takeovers there. This philosophy of supporting governments fighting against communism became known as the Truman Doctrine.

The Marshall Plan, named after the US general who proposed it, was a massive economic aid package to Europe to help rebuild after World War II. The plan was partly based on the idea that economic crisis and instability would lead to more support for communism in Western Europe. Therefore, a key goal of this plan was not just to rebuild Europe but also to stop communism in Western Europe.

Renewed economic prosperity and the political tensions of the Cold War led to communist parties losing significant support by the mid-1950s, meaning the Marshall Plan was largely successful in stopping communism in Western Europe.

Communism in Europe Stopping Communism in Western Europe Marshall Plan Aid StudySmarterMap showing countries that received Marshall Plan Aid. Source: Miraceti, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe

The communist governments in Eastern Europe retained firm control throughout the Cold War period. In the few cases where resistance or calls to reform happened, such as those in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the USSR intervened to ensure the continuation of communism in Eastern Europe.

However, by the late 1980s, cracks in the system were beginning to grow. The communist countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union faced economic stagnation and constant shortages of consumer goods. Discontent was constantly kept just below the surface. When it finally bubbled over, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe came swiftly.

Gorbachev and the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe

In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted a number of reforms in the Soviet Union. Notably, his policy of Glasnost, or opening in Russian, allowed more freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and dissent.

More importantly for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, he signaled clearly to the other communist governments in the Warsaw Pact that the USSR would not intervene militarily to prevent protest and revolution as they had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia earlier.

Solidarity in Poland

The most significant challenge to the rule of communism in Eastern Europe emerged in Poland. The group known as Solidarity was originally a trade union founded in 1980, however it grew to be a broad coalition of groups advocating for democratic reform.

At first the Polish government attempted to repress it with martial law. However, mass protests occurred in 1988. Once Gorbachev signaled the USSR would not intervene to stop further protest, the government began a series of negotiations with the leaders of Solidarity known as the Round Table Talks.

The Round Table Talks resulted in elections for parliament in mid-1989, the first since 1947. Solidarity won in a landslide and headed a coalition government. Further fully free elections were held in 1990 for president and 1991 for parliament, resulting in the end of communist government in Poland.

Communism in Europe Fall of communism in Eastern Europe Solidarity StudySmarterSolidarity protests in Poland in 1989, Source: Zenon Mirota, CC-BY-SA-3.0-PL, Wikimedia Commons

Solidarity's victory had shaken the Eastern Bloc to its core, and the fall of communism in Eastern Europe more broadly quickly followed. See how it fell in each country in the table below.

Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe
CountryYearEvents
Hungary1989On October 23, 1989, Hungary adopted a new constitution that allowed for multiparty democracy.
East Germany1989In November 1989, the East German government opened the border. Protestors destroying the Berlin Wall were televised around the world. Negotiations began for the reunification for Germany, which was completed in 1990.
Czechoslovakia1989Protests in October were initially repressed but continued. A noncommunist government came to power in December, followed by the election of dissident playwright Vaclav Havel as president.
Bulgaria1989-1990Protests began. A communist reformist prime minister came to power and announced free elections for 1990. Reformist communists won a majority but led a democratic coalition government with center and right-wing parties.
Romania1989Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu refused to allow protests, with police and the army firing on protestors. Widespread resistance emerged, and Ceausescu fled before being captured and executed. Reformist communists won a majority in later elections but led a coalition government with center and right-wing parties.
Albania1989-1998The communist leader began reforms in 1989. Free elections were held in 1991. Communists retained a majority, but resistance continued, and 1992 elections led to their loss of power and instability. A new constitution in 1998 allowed for democracy.
Yugoslavia1990-2000After communist leader Tito's death in 1980, ethnic and national division between the different republics that made up the union of Yugoslavia had emerged. In multi-party elections in 1990s, communists only won in Serbia and Montenegro. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzogovina, and Macedonia, all declared independence in 1991 and 1992, leading to conflict. The communist leader of Serbia and Montenegro Slobodan Milosevic was removed from power in 2000, and Montenegro became independent. The region of Kosovo also declared independence.

Communism in Europe Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe Berlin Wall StudySmarterEast and West Berliners meet atop the Berlin Wall which had previously closed the border between them in November 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall was a powerful symbol of the end of communism in Europe. Source: Lear 21, CC-BY-SA-3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0, Wikimedia Commons

In just a matter of months, nearly all the countries that had adopted communism in Eastern Europe had fallen. The Soviet Republics in Europe, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia all declared themselves independent by 1991.

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe marked the end of the Cold War and led to attempts to integrate these countries into a larger European system. Many have faced continued challenges to establish strong democratic institutions and stable economies in the wake of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Communism in Europe - Key takeaways

  • Communism in Europe developed out of political ideologies proposed by a number of thinkers, the most important of which was Karl Marx.
  • The first communist government was in the Soviet Union, established after the Russian Revolution of 1917.
  • After World War II, the USSR spread communism to Eastern Europe.
  • There was some support for communism in Western Europe, but the rebuilding efforts of the Marshall Plan was successful in stopping communism in Western Europe from gaining widespread support.
  • Communism in Eastern Europe was characterized by state run economies, heavy influence and control from the USSR, and nondemocratic government.
  • The fall of communism in Eastern Europe began with the movement known as Solidarity in Poland and quickly spread in the years of 1989-1991 when all of the communist governments in Europe collapsed.

References

  1. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875
  2. Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.

Frequently Asked Questions about Communism in Europe

The US tried stopping communism in Western Europe with the Marshall Plan in which they sent economic aid to try to rebuild and stabilize the economies and prevent communism from gaining support.

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe was caused by the long term decline and economic stagnation of the Soviet Union and communist governments. Protests began in many countries and elections were held first in Poland and then quickly spread to other countries.

The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolized the end of communism in Europe.

Communism spread to a number of countries in Eastern Europe including Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.

The first communist country in Europe and the world was Russia, which declared itself the Soviet Union in 1917.

Final Communism in Europe Quiz

Question

What philosopher and economist developed the ideas of modern communism?

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Answer

Karl Marx

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In which country did the first communist government emerge?

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Answer

Russia or the Soviet Union

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What best describes the goal of communism?

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To create a classless society with based on communal ownership rather than private property.

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What characterized the communist states' economies in practice?

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Socialism, or state control of the economy with the government owning and managing industries, resources, and farms.

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What were the tactics that saw the communist parties in Eastern Europe eliminate their opposition one by one known as?

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Answer

Salami Tactics

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True or False: Communist parties in Western Europe had significant support in the years following World War II.

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Answer

True

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What was the name of the package of aid sent to Western Europe to help stop communism from spreading there?

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Answer

Marshall Plan

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Why did the US believe the Marshall Plan would stop the spread of communism to Western Europe?

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Answer

They believed that the economic instability caused by the war would make people support communist parties, so rebuilding the economy would prevent calls for revolution.

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What was the military alliance between the communist governments in Eastern Europe?

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The Warsaw Pact

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What was the economic union between the communist governments in Eastern Europe?


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Answer

COMECON

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In which countries was there evidence that the Eastern European communist countries were not truly independent to make reforms?

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Answer

In Hungary and Czechoslovakia the USSR intervened to stop protest and reform, showing the communist countries of Eastern Europe had limited independence.

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What was Solidarity?

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Solidarity was a trade union that organized large protests against communist rule in Poland in the 1980s.

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What was the outcome of the Round Table Talks in Poland?

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Elections were held, which ended communist rule.

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Why was Gorbachev significant to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe?

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Answer

Gorbachev refused to intervene in Poland or elsewhere to stop protest and reform.

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