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Subject Essays

Editorial Board members have written essays that contextualize the primary source material and highlight key themes, topics, and events discussed within and across the files. To view these essays in full, please sign up to a free trial.

Essays: 1953–1960

After Stalin: the Soviet Union, Europe, and the wider world, 1953–56
Professor Matthew Jones, London School of Economics and Political Science

As well as heralding a series of momentous changes within Soviet domestic politics and society, the death of Stalin on March 5, 1953 also brought forward important shifts of tone and substance in foreign policy that seemed to indicate a relaxation of tensions in the Cold War might be possible. At Stalin’s funeral, the new premier, Georgy Malenkov, pronounced that the Soviet Union accepted a policy that acknowledged “prolonged coexistence and peaceful competition of two different systems, capitalist and socialist.” Henceforth international cooperation, with the aim of reducing the possibility of war with the United States and fostering world peace would, he said, be the basis of Soviet policy.

The Hungarian Question in the U.N. Security Council: the secret negotiations of the Western Great Powers during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution
Professor Csaba Békés, Research Chair, Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences; Founding Director, Cold War History Research Center, Budapest; Professor of History, Corvinus University of Budapest

The leaders of the Western great powers, the United States, Great Britain, and France – unlike their public opinion which expressed vivid solidarity with the Hungarian Revolution from the beginning – were acutely aware of their extremely limited room to manoeuvre within the existing European status quo and reacted with great caution to the uprising in Hungary from its very beginning. Consequently, in most instances, they went so far as to give explicit public endorsement of the principle of non-intervention. Behind the Western response to the Hungarian Revolution was the realization that under the prevailing international political circumstances, any sort of Western military intervention in Hungary contained the implicit threat of a third world war with the Soviet Union, to be waged with thermonuclear weapons, which would likely first lead to the obliteration of the very Eastern European peoples which intervention was designed to liberate, and then of the rest of the world.

Cultural exchange and the Cold War
Dr. Kristin Roth-Ey, University College London

The “cultural Cold War” – the nexus of culture and superpower politics – has been prime territory for historians for well over two decades, and this for good reason. “Between 1945 and 1989-1991, cultural productions became the most powerful tools for the promotion of ideological goals and strategies…” writes J.C.E. Gienow-Hecht. “Never before or afterward did governments, hegemonic powers, NGOs, or private individuals invest as much money, energy, and thought in the promotion of the arts, academic exchange, or cultural self-presentation.” To date American and, to a lesser extent, Soviet stories have dominated Cold War historiography. Yet this was, of course, a contest that played out not only bilaterally, but multilaterally, on a global scale, and in an era of dizzying social and technological change. Much to the frustration of the two superpower rivals, waging cold war involved actors and dynamics often well beyond their control. Culture was no exception.

Essays: 1961-1966

Thaw how far? Eastern Europe 1961-66
Dr. Peter Bugge, Department of Global Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark

“The socialist system has won in our country,” Antonín Novotný, the leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia triumphantly declared at a national party conference on July 5, 1960, and six days later the Czechoslovak parliament passed a new Constitution that defined the country as a socialist republic.  Cecil Parrott, the British ambassador to Prague, had to admit that for the Communist leaders of Czechoslovakia “1960 must be regarded a year of achievement,” and that with the adoption of the Constitution “the seal was thus set on the total transformation which the communists have achieved here in the twelve years that they have been in power.” 

Through a Glass, Darkly: The Foreign Office and the Soviet-Albanian Split, 1961-1962
Balázs Szalontai, Assistant Professor, Korea University (Sejong Campus), Department of Korean Unification, Diplomacy and Security

In 1960-1961, the outbreak of an increasingly acrimonious dispute between Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and Enver Hoxha’s Albania caught most foreign observers by surprise, all the more so because the nuclear superpower proved utterly unable to bring its smallest and poorest East European satellite to heel. From the global perspective of the Sino-Soviet rift, the Soviet-Albanian quarrel seemed only a somewhat ridiculous sideshow, inspiring countless jokes in the other “people’s democracies.” (Hungarian citizens, recalling how Stalinist propaganda had branded Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito a “chained dog of imperialism,” quipped that the Albanians earned the title of “chained mice.”)  However, Albania’s neighbours (Italy, Greece, and Yugoslavia) quickly realised the strategic implications of Tirana’s break with Moscow. The Kremlin’s decision to withdraw its submarines from the Pashaliman base put an end to the Soviet naval presence in the Mediterranean, and created a power vacuum that faraway China could only partially fill. Sooner or later, each of the three neighbouring states started making efforts to exploit the Soviet-Albanian rift and seek a modus vivendi with Hoxha, not the least because they were eager to outcompete each other.

Essays: 1967-1975

1968 and Its Aftermath in Eastern Europe
Professor Melissa Feinburg, History Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.

1968 was a momentous year. In the West, it is primarily remembered as a moment of global youth revolt. Events in Eastern Europe took place within the context of this global wave of protest, but they had their own particular dynamic. The center of Eastern Europe’s 1968 was the reform movement in Czechoslovakia. This movement, which originated within the Czechoslovak Communist party, promised to create a newly democratic and humane form of socialism. The Czechoslovak reform program generated enormous excitement at home, but growing consternation abroad. Czechoslovakia’s socialist allies became increasingly worried that pressure to enact similar reforms would spread to their own countries. On the night of August 20–21, 1968, a coalition of Warsaw Pact troops invaded the country and ended the Czechoslovak reform experiment.

Ostpolitik and the Question of Poland’s Borders
Dr. Kathryn Weathersby, Asian Studies Program, American University, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

The Cold War in Europe was intertwined with the Second World War in a rather circular fashion. The East/West conflict arose from the circumstances of the end of the world war and also prevented the full resolution of that conflict. Germany’s wartime occupation of most of Europe had rearranged the geopolitical map of the continent and had therefore left many territorial and political questions in its wake. At the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences of February and July/August 1945, the British, Soviet, and American allies reached temporary agreements on the most pressing of the territorial issues, but they left their final resolution to a general peace treaty. The emergence of the Cold War, however, prevented the erstwhile allies from concluding such a treaty. Twenty-five years later, Western German Chancellor Willy Brandt attempted to reach agreements directly with the Soviet Union and Poland on the difficult issue of their borders. The remarkable treaties of 1970 that resulted from this effort then made it possible for all European states to convene the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (C.S.C.E.). The C.S.C.E. Final Act of 1975 relieved Cold War tensions and set in motion processes that contributed to the conflict’s peaceful end.

Essays: 1976-1982

East Germany, Berlin, and Escapes from Communism in the late Cold War
Dr. Hope M. Harrison, Professor of History and International Affairs, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

Soon after the Allies defeated Germany in World War II, the country became the central battleground of the Cold War between the communist East and democratic, capitalist West. To prevent a new, aggressive Germany from reemerging, the Four Powers – the U.S., U.K., France, and the Soviet Union – each set up their own occupation zones in Germany and the city of Berlin. When they could not agree on common policies in each zone, Germany was split in two in 1949, with the three Western Powers backing the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany (F.R.G.), or West Germany, and the Soviet Union backing the – misnamed – German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.), or East Germany. The differences between these two parts of Germany and between East and West Berlin grew over time and led many in the East to try to flee to the West or at least to find ways to protest against the G.D.R. regime. This all ultimately led to the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the communist regime in 1989 and the unification of Germany on Western terms in 1990.

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