In early 1945 most Nazi forces in Europe were in retreat, pursued by the Americans and British from the West and Soviet forces from the east. Large areas of Europe which had been under Nazi control since 1940 or 1941 now found themselves liberated. In the case of the nations of eastern Europe – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – the Soviets replaced the Nazis as occupiers. Russian forces remained longer than expected and certainly longer than necessary. But they had work to do, as agents of the USSR worked behind the scenes to ‘sovietise’ these countries – in other words, to give each of them a puppet government that would serve as an extension of the Kremlin. These governments had the appearance of democratic representatives but in reality they were neither. Local communists were gathered into a coalition party then handed power, usually after coups or rigged elections. Soviet agents were appointed as ‘advisors’ but were in fact monitors, informers and enforcers. Other parties were dissolved and resisters were eliminated. Much of eastern Europe was cloaked behind what soon became known as the Iron Curtain.
By the start of 1946, the process of ‘sovietisation’ was well underway in these countries, which collectively became known as the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Bloc. Access to the Eastern Bloc was tightly restricted (there were no foreign journalists permitted and diplomatic access was minimal) – however the West did have some information about what was transpiring there. The tensions between the USSR and the West began to acquire a public voice. In a February 1946 speech Stalin stressed the superiority of communism over capitalism, warning Russians to stay on their guard against the West. Meanwhile Winston Churchill, no longer British prime minister after an election defeat in July 1945, accused Stalin of breaking promises made at Yalta. In March 1946 Churchill visited the US and spoke at Fulton, Missouri about his concerns:
A shadow has fallen upon the scenes [recently] lighted by the Allied victory. Nobody knows what Soviet Russia …intends to do in the immediate future, or what are the limits, if any, to their expansive tendencies. It is my duty to place before you certain facts about the present situation in Europe. From Stettin in the Baltic, to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe – Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia. All these famous cities are subject to a very high and increasing measure of control from Moscow… This is certainly not the liberated Europe we fought to build up.
License to plunder
Meanwhile, behind this ‘Iron Curtain’, the Soviets were helping themselves to the raw materials and industrial resources of occupied nations. Grain, food, machinery, steel, coal and other items were seized and transported east to the Soviet Union. Romania and Hungary, which had allied themselves with Nazi Germany during the war, suffered worst. As defeated enemy states, both were required to sign humiliating armistice documents with the Soviet leadership, agreeing to pay reparations to the Russian people. These documents were little more than a license to plunder, as reported by Kertesz:
The armistice agreement compelled Hungary to furnish goods, facilities and services for the occupying army. The Soviet Union took the old principle of “la guerre doit nourrir la guerre” [‘the war must feed the war’] seriously, and the Red Army lived off the land. Besides carrying the legal burden of the armistice obligations, Hungary suffered through illegal seizure and large scale looting. The notion of “war booty” was interpreted most extensively. Valuable machines, and in numerous instances whole plants, were dismantled and removed to the Soviet Union. Grains and other victuals were seized in huge quantities. Almost one-half of the livestock was taken out of the country. Safe deposit boxes were forced open and their contents removed. Whether the property was private or public did not make any difference. Private homes, public warehouses, stores, government agencies and banks all received the same treatment. [The properties] of neutral powers, such as Switzerland, Sweden or Turkey were not spared.
The announcement of the Marshall Plan by the Americans in mid-1947 revealed the extent that these nations were under Stalin’s control. All six members of the Eastern Bloc refused invitations to the Paris negotiation conference, despite Poland and Czechoslovakia having earlier expressed some interest in accepting US aid. Moscow’s control of Eastern Bloc governments became less covert after this. In September 1947 the USSR established Cominform (the Communist Information Bureau) which linked the communist governments of eastern Europe and ensured they adopted policies approved by Moscow. Several Czechoslovak, Romanian, Hungarian and Bulgarian communists who failed to toe the line were reported by Cominform, arrested, given Stalinist ‘show trials’ then executed. Each Eastern Bloc government formed its own secret police based on the Soviet NKVD, including the Stasi (East Germany) Securitate (Romania) the StB (Czechoslovakia) the Sigurnost (Bulgaria) and the AVH (Hungary). Any pretense that these countries were independent or discrete from the USSR had faded away by the early 1950s.
Tightened border controls
Fraser J. Harbutt, historian
For those living in Soviet bloc nations it became gradually more difficult to relocate or travel to other countries. Borders once relatively open became guarded and tightly controlled. Europe’s border controls, once relatively relaxed, became the strictest in its peacetime history. This division was keenly felt in Germany, which was split asunder by Soviet and Allied occupation zones. The twin towns of Sonnerberg and Neustadt found themselves in the Soviet and Allied zones respectively and separated by the Iron Curtain. In July 1949 the two towns participated in a soccer game, played on a pitch with a boundary-line formed by the east-west border (allowing those on both sides to watch the match without passes). More than 25,000 spectators attended, some holding up placards demanding the two towns – and indeed the entire German nation – be reunified. After the match, Soviet officials opened the border for the afternoon, allowing thousands of Sonnerberg residents to visit family and friends and shop at Neustadt’s well-stocked businesses.
Optimistic events like east-west football matches and border openings provided some hope that the borders would one day be relaxed or dissolved. But as pro-Moscow governments settled into power in the east, they began to strengthen border controls – to lock out anti-communist infiltrators and demonstrators, as well as preventing an exodus of their own people to the West. In 1951 East Germany began a building program to fortify vulnerable parts of its border, erecting barbed wire, towers, gates and guard posts. Some heavily populated areas fringing the border were cleared of people. Roads, railways and tunnels crossing borders were destroyed, dug up or diverted. Ground near the border was cleared and, in some cases, packed with landmines. In 1949, it had been possible to cross the border into Allied-occupied Germany, if one was determined enough. Within four years, the border was sealed, government-authorised crossings were strictly controlled and unauthorised crossings were dangerous. The Iron Curtain was not only a political and philosophical concept; it was a real and tangible one.
1. The Iron Curtain was a name, coined by Winston Churchill in 1946, for the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe.
2. From 1947 to 1951, billions of dollars of US loans were advanced to European nations for post-war rebuilding.
3. These loans came with strict conditions, such as the adoption of liberal, democratic and capitalist policies.
4. This aid enabled the reconstruction of Europe, while advancing American commercial and foreign policy interests.
5. In the context of the Cold War, the Marshall Plan helped weak and war-ravaged governments and economies to recover, without falling prey to communist infiltration and thus being swallowed by the Soviet bloc.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Iron Curtain”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/iron-curtain/.