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Book Review

How the East was Won
Ian Mitchell

The Power of Freedom:
Central and Eastern Europe after 1945
Mart Laar
Centre for European Studies
Euro 35

eaders who have been following the series in PASSPORT tracing recent Russian history will be fascinated by this book which describes the effect of Soviet domination on eastern Europe after 1945, how that domination was resisted and what the liberated countries have done with their freedom. It carries unusual authority because the author is not only one of the leading historians in Estonia, but was also Prime Minister of that country for five years.

Mr Laar starts with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed in August 1939, by which Stalin gave Hitler the green light to attack Poland and its allies, the British Empire and France. If it was Stalin who helped Hitler make many of his conquests, it was President Roosevelt who helped Stalin make many of his later ones by disregarding Winston Churchill’s warnings about the real nature of the regime in Moscow, most damagingly at the Yalta Summit in February 1945 when the fate of post-war Europe was largely settled.

The American approach carried over into peacetime, even when the nature of the Soviet regime was wellunderstood. Laar stresses that it was the pusillanimity of the Eisenhower administration, pre-occupied with a Presidential election, which permitted the Soviet Union to crush the Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising in the autumn of 1956. Desperate to cooperate with the West for economic reasons, Khrushchev ordered Soviet forces out of Bucharest on 29 October, the day before the US Ambassador in Moscow, Charles Bohlen, handed the Soviets a memorandum saying that the US would not intervene in any way in the Hungarian crisis.

The following day, Khrushchev ordered massive intervention by 150,000 men and 2,500 tanks which left 2,600 Hungarians dead, put another 22,000 in jail and caused 200,000 to flee to the West. The Soviets also lynched 229 freedom fighters and hanged 330 rebels after “trials”. The fighting stopped on 7 November, the day that Eisenhower and his Vice-President, Richard Nixon, were re-elected on a peace and prosperity ticket.

Laar stresses how volatile the situation in eastern Europe was at that time, with unrest not only in Poland and East Germany but in the Soviet Union itself. It was reeling from Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, and facing up to the fact that the Stalinist economic system was not working. Laar comments, “Had the West put pressure on the Soviets in 1956, the way that Ronald Reagan and other Western leaders did in the 1980s, it is more than possible that the Soviet empire might have collapsed… [and] the world been spared thirty further years of the Cold War and its consequences.”

Laar further points out that in 1968, at the time of the Prague Spring, the Soviet Union once again received comforting assurances from the US. Pre-occupied with the war in Vietnam, President Johnson declared he would “respect the Soviet sphere of influence in Czechoslovakia and Rumania.” The result of that was that on 21 August 500,000 troops, supported by 5,000 armoured vehicles and 800 warplanes, marched into Czechoslovakia, arrested the government and killed anyone who offered resistance.

It was not until after the crushing of the Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 that the United States gathered its courage and decided it would go on the offensive against communism. The main credit for this must go to President Reagan and his advisors, principally Professor Richard Pipes, but Laar emphasises that support from Britain and Germany helped. Mrs Thatcher’s role is well-known; less widely appreciated is the robust approach which Chancellor Helmut Kohl took to the Kremlin.

Kohl’s predecessor, Helmut Schmidt, had famously called the Soviet Union “Upper Volta with missiles”, but had done very little about it. Kohl was a more right-wing politician, and when he went, in July 1983, to the Kremlin, Yuri Andropov more or less threatened war if Germany accepted deployment of American Pershing II missiles. These were especially controversial as they were designed, not to target the Soviet Union’s population or military or industrial facilities, but the leadership itself in its secret bunkers.

Had Kohl backed down, it is possible NATO would have split. But he outfaced Andropov. Laar comments: “The Soviets’ desperate bid to detach Germany from NATO failed. This proved to be one of the turning points in the Cold War.”

The story of the Soviet collapse is also well-told, and especially interesting coming from an Estonian angle. Laar’s book does not stop there. The background from 1945 to 1991 illuminates the main issue after liberation, which for Estonia was getting into both the EU and NATO. Though both were achieved in 2004, Laar demonstrates that neither was a foregone conclusion, especially the latter. There were many in the West who took a more Eisenhower-ish line about inviting the Baltic countries into NATO, worried that they in doing so they might offend the Kremlin.

In 1997, Yeltsin tried to get a secret agreement from President Clinton to the effect that he would never allow this, but Clinton refused to give it, which those who had been subject to decades of Soviet violence, deceit and brutishness were deeply grateful for.

Happily the wounds might now be healing. In 2002, the Head of the Kremlin Information Department, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, got to the nub of the matter when he said to a meeting of Baltic leaders, “As I understand, NATO membership is for you a question of psychological security.”

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