The Communist Parties and the National Issue in Central and Eastern Europe (1945-1947)
After the end of the Second World War in Europe one of the the main strategical aims of the Soviet Union was to consiladete its authority over the liberated and conquerred territories of East-Central-Europe. However, this had to be done in a careful way since in 1945-46 Stalin was well aware of the military capacity of the West and especially of the United States (including the Atom bomb), so at that time the Soviet Union was in no way interested in getting into open conflict with its Western allies. Although there was a tacit agreement between the allies that both sides must have a decisive role in those issues which concern territories occupied by one of the parties, the Western powers never proclaimed formally their total disinterestedness in the fate of Eastern Europe. Therefore Soviet policy was aimed at establishing the most favourable political conditions for a future Communist takeover, but in a way which still would not entirely antagonize the Western Powers. That is why the Soviet Union agreed to maintaning the coalition governments in Eastern Europe, showing that Moscow is willing to accept and cooperate with all democratic forces in the region, while at the same time they did their best to strengthten the position of the local Communist Parties and pro-communist forces.
This Soviet aim was considerably supported by the confused ethnic conditions which prevailed in the region, where, unlike in Western Europe, there were no genuin national states, since the peace settlement following the First World War created relatively small countries still having large numbers of people belonging to ethnic minorities. Since during the course of the negotiations of the allies on the forthcoming peace settlement it soon became obvious that the Soviet Union had a major word in making decisions on disputes between countries in Eastern Europe, the multiethnical character of the region, together with the general claim and hope for redrawing the boundaries created an excellent chance for the Soviets to use these countries' national aspirations for fostering their own political goals. At the same time the only chance of the Western Powers to retain some influence in the region was to conclude a rapid peace treaty, hoping that the following withdrawal of the Soviet troops would facilitate consolidating the position of the pro-Western non-Communist forces.
This way the Soviets gave not only effective support to the local Communist Parties by financial, economic etc. means, by the presence of the Red Army or the regular political intervention of the Soviet-led Allied Control Commissions but in most cases they also supported the national and often nationalistic claims of these countries. Therefore they helped the Communist Parties, which formerly had been considered mere puppets of the Soviet Union, to appear in the role of truly national political forces, the advocates of the national interest of the country. The Communist Parties, aware of the Soviet approval and support, not only agreed even to the most extreme nationalistic claims and measures (such as establishing national states by expelling entire ethnic minorities) which became generally accapted by all political parties, as well as the societies in some of these countries but they became the champions of these issues. Thus they were able to gain much greater popularity than by applying the principles of internationalism, what actually had been suspended even as a principle during these years.
In some cases (Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania) this Soviet attitude was strongly motivated also by an intention for compensating the country for territorial losses to the Soviet Union itself, what usually happened at the expence of a third state. Thanks to the special geographical/economic conditions, the lost territories were less valuable than the lands gained by Soviet support in the more developed Western regions, and this facilitated to tolerate the negative psychological effect of the loss.
In some cases the policy of the Communists caused direct conflict between the parties concerned (as in the case of the Hungarian and the Czechoslovak parties). However, even this could be a part of the game as such conflicts only contributed to the local public opinion's regarding their own Communist Party the real advocate of the national interests. It was assumed at the same time that after the takeover all problems between neighbouring countries would cease as bourgois nationalism is a product of the capitalist society so in the Communist state the national problems would be automatically solved.
In Poland the two main issues were the annexation of the former German territories on the West as a compensation for Western Ukraina and Western Bjelorussia on the one hand and the expulsion of some 3,3 million Germans from Poland proper and most importantly from the newly acquired Western provinces. Although both of these steps had been eventually approved also by the Western allies, the initiative and the decisive role of the Soviet Union in these issues was obvious from the outset and accordingly was skillfully exploited by the Polish Communists.
In Czechoslovakia President Benes had been working for a national state of the Czechs and Slovaks from 1942-43, and was able to gain the support of both the Soviets and the Western allies for the expulsion of the countrie's 3 million Germans living in the Sudeta region. The Czechoslovak Communists not only strongly backed this claim but were also able to weaken the pro-Western symphaties by stressing that the Soviet Union is determined to help the Prague government achieve this aim while the Western allies were reluctant to fulfill their promises. The issue of the Hungarian minority in the country was even more advantageous for the Soviets and the Communists since they easily agreed on the necessity of the transfer of the Hungarians while the American and British politicians, influenced by their public opinion, could not accept this plan and never agreed to it. In fact it was them who at the Paris Peace Conference blocked the Czechoslovak request, supported by the Soviets, for the unilateral transfer of 200.000 Hungarians. All this must have had a considerable role in the Communists becoming the strongest party at the relatively free elections in 1946.
The well known case of Romania is perhaps the best example of how the Soviets used the national issue in a direct way to force the establishment of a pro-Communist government by giving back authority over Northern Transylvania to the Romanian government once the right person had been nominated Prime Minister by the king. As this very question has been and will be discussed widely at this conference, I just would like to draw attantion to the paradoxical situation in which the more flexible attitude of the Western allies in the Romanian-Hungarian dispute, that is their efforts to establish a more just ethnic border between the two states, eventually favoured, in that case too, the Soviets and the Communists of Romania by weakening the popularity of the Western orientation in the country.
In Bulgaria and Yugoslavia the national issue was not so much exploited by the Soviets for strengthtening the position of the Communists as it was strong enough in these countries from the outset, rather it was used to help create a strong bastion of Communist power in the Balkans. That is, before Yugoslavia was expelled from the Soviet Block the Soviets supported all of Tito's national aspirations: concerning Triest, the unificaton of Macedonia and the planned annexation of Albania.
Hungary was a special case in this sequence. Since the Hungarian government was preparing for the peace treaty in the worst position in Eastern Europe and since the country`s national aspirations were in fact entirely neglected during the peace settlement, it might appear that the Hungarian Communists, unlike their comrades in the other East-European countries, could not and so did not even want to play on the national issue. In fact, recently declassified party documents reveal that in some sense the Hungarian Communists turned out to be the most skillful and succesful ones in exploiting the national aspirations in their country. They could not achieve anything, since Moscow supported Hungary's neighbours in all important questions, still, during the Spring of 1946 Rakosi and his associates were able, by using Hungarian territorial claims against Romania, to strike the first and fatal blow on the Communists' most important opponents the Smallholders Party.
After the elections in November, 1945 which resulted in a 57% absolute majority victory for the Smallholders, while the Communists got 17% of the votes, the principal political aim of the Communist leaders was to correct, as they said, the results of the election, that is to use every possible means to gain a much greater share from the political power than they had been able to obtain in a legitimate way. Analysing the causes of the electoral failure they found that one of the greatest mistakes in the party's campaign was to underestimate the importance of the national question, that is why they were not able to emphasise sufficiently the national character of the Communist Party.
Consequently, in late November Rákosi, the leader of the Communist Party proclaimed a new line of policy, which was aimed at strengthening the national character of the party by concentrating on issues considered important by Hungarian public opinion. Such topics included: to take a strong line against the persecution of the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia, to urge on the release of Hungarian prisoners of war, and the return of the national asset taken abroad at the end of the war.
However, raising the issue of the borders was not included in the party's tactics at that point. The Hungarian Communist leaders were well aware of the realities and they knew that Hungary had no chance against Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, belonging to the victorious allied powers. Concerning Rumania, an ex-satellite of Germany herself, in a peculiar way, the political stability of the pro-Soviet Groza government was considered more important by the Hungarian Communists in this period than to try to regain Hungarian inhabited territories. Accordingly, the party took a very rigid standpoint in the debate which developed in the press over the potential Hungarian peace aims in December 1945, January 1946. declaring that by taking part in the war on the side of Germany Hungary lost not only her last chance, but also the right to reclaim any territory from the neighbouring states. However, the declaration of this standpoint did not help raising the Communists' popularity in the country, to say the least, so they soon had to find a solution to the gradually worsening situation.
Consequently, in January 1946, the Communists launched a general attack against the Smallholders Party, their principal opponents in order to weaken its strong positions gained at the elections, and at the same time to expand Communist influence in the country.
To strengthen their position they also changed their opinion in the border issue: now they found that instead of further denouncing such demands it was rather in their interest to find out whether there was any hope for gaining Soviet support for such claims and if so, the Communist Party itself should make capital out of the issue. Consequently, Rákosi initiated exploratory talks with Moscow which eventually resulted in the following bargain: the Hungarian Communists were authorised to use a potential Soviet promise concerning the peace treaty as a means in their fight against the Smallholders Party in the ongoing political crisis. According to this promise in case the Smallholders accepted the political and economic demands of the left (first of all excluding 21 parliamentary representatives from the party, declared reactionaries) the Soviet leaders would be willing to receive a delegation of the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy in Moscow to discuss the issue of peace preparations and other economic matters. It was also indicated that in such a case the Soviet Union would consider favourably Hungary's claim for a minor strip of territory of some 4-1O thousand km2s along the Hungarian-Romanian border.
On the basis of recently declassified sources it is very likely that this offer was followed by an agreement between Rákosi and Ferenc Nagy along the above lines during the political crises in early March, 1946, which significantly contributed, together with other considerations, to the retreat and first self-mutilation of the Smallholders Party. That is, cutting the first slice of the salami, what later proved to have been a fatal step, eventually leading to the disintegration of the party and thus considerably facilitated the sovietization of the country.
As for the Soviets' and the Hungarian Communists' part in the bargain: at the end of March Rakosi went to Moscow on a secret mission to prepare the way for the government delegation with Stalin himself. However, at the discussions of the Hungarian delegation in Moscow in April, 1946 the Soviet leaders did not make any commitment for supporting Hungary's territorial claims against Romania, instead they simply admitted that Hungary had the right to present its claims at the peace conference.
Even this modest Soviet attitude raised great expectations in Hungary and the Communists themselves believed that the Soviets would keep their word. However, it turned out soon, after the May 7 decision of the Council of Foreign Ministers on reestablishing the 1939 boundaries between Hungary and Romania that the Hungarian Communists themselves acted as mere puppets in a game where the only aim of the Soviets was to use both their allies and their enemies to create more favourable conditions for a future takeover.
Paper presented at the international conference 6th of March 1945: The Groza Government and Romanias Communisation Bucharest, 3-4 March, 1995