Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 21: Forging the Iron Curtain in the Balkans, 1944-1956

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 21: Forging the Iron Curtain in the Balkans, 1944-1956


Winston Churchill was talking about the Cold War in Eastern Europe when he referred to the “Iron Curtain” in a well-known speech of 1946. The end of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War are intertwined. Stereotypical views of the origin of the Cold War either blame it on Stalinist aggression or take the “revisionist” view and blame it on aggressive American actions that led to Soviet responses. These views share two failings:

  • They reduce the roles of the Balkan states, their leaders and their populations to that of pawns; and
  • They gloss over the significant differences in local events in the various Balkan states.

An approach to the early Cold War based on Balkan histories would look at the important decisions made by Balkan figures, and distinguish between events in the Balkan states, including those that did not become Soviet satellites. Questions like these help frame such an analysis:

  • First, when does the Cold War begin?
  • Second, are the events that make up the Cold War best viewed as aspects of global politics, or a collection of local and particular events?
  • Third, to what extent could Balkan leaders retain their freedom of action and influence the outcome?
  • Fourth, can we assign blame for the Cold War to one side alone?

Looking at four episodes will help answer these questions:

  • The Allied intervention in Greece (1944 to 1949);
  • The imposition of Communism in Hungary (1944 to 1948);
  • The Tito-Stalin split of 1948; and
  • The Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Events like these established the limits within which the Balkan peoples would live during decades of Soviet-American confrontation.

When does the Cold War begin?

Hidden behind our first question is another: should we research the history of the Cold War from the top down, or the bottom up? Some historians say the Cold War began in 1917: in other words, that the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia made global conflict with the West inevitable. If so, events in the Balkans merely reflect decisions made in Moscow and Washington. Such a view removes all responsibility from the Balkan peoples themselves. This approach is useless for Balkan studies, because it ignores important Balkan events and important local causes for events.

In a similar vein, when Cold War analysts lump together the Communist Balkan states as “satellites” they ignore striking local differences in domestic and foreign policies. This helps answer the second question: knowledge of local Balkan decisions fleshes out a definition of what the Cold War was, in a way that top-down generalizations cannot. For example, Tito’s success in defying Stalin sheds light on the failure of other leaders to escape Russian control. Another example: the events that kept Greece out of the Communist Bloc shed light on the reasons why other states were pulled in.

With this in mind, let’s look at some characteristic events in the early history of the Cold War.

Events in Greece, 1944-1949

Beginning in 1942, the Allied Big Three (Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) met to shape a secure post-war world. Their plans centered on Germany and made few references to the Balkans. As a result, later decisions about the Balkans were made on the basis of immediate operational situations instead of long-term strategic plans, and this ad hoc approach led to misunderstandings.

During 1943, the Big Three made plans for a coordinated post-war security system and agreed that an important element was installing “democratic” governments in the defeated states. The Western powers had in mind Western-style parliamentary states protected by the United Nations. Stalin on the other hand interpreted “democratic” to mean “anti-fascist” and believed that Soviet security required Russian approval of any post-war governments in Eastern Europe. This basic disagreement was never resolved.

Lecture 20 has described the rival forces at work in Greece. With the end of the war in sight, disputes between left and right soon revolved around three issues: control of the post-war military, the role of the king, and EAM/ELAS’ access to cabinet appointments in any post-occupation government .

The clash over armed forces came to a head first. In 1943, the British tried to impose royalist control over the ELAS guerillas as a condition of further arms shipments. EAM (ELAS’s Communist-dominated political arm) refused and demanded that King George stay in exile, pending a plebiscite on the monarchy: in turn, the British refused. After this exchange, Churchill and EAM prepared for a showdown.

ELAS conducted attacks on non-Communist EDES guerilla units and stirred up mutinies among Greek forces in Egypt in April 1944. Churchill backed Greece’s King George: British army units put down the mutinies by a show of force and organized right-wing officers into a royalist “Mountain Brigade.”

Churchill also sought a diplomatic free hand. When Russian armies entered Eastern Europe in 1944, the lack of Big Three planning for the Balkans became urgent and apparent. To prevent accidental clashes between British and Russian forces, Churchill and Stalin agreed to divide the Balkans into “wartime” spheres of responsibility, first by telegram in May and June 1944, and fact-to-face in October 1944 in the famous “percentages” agreement. On the basis of informal but written notes, Greece and Yugoslavia would fall in a predominantly British sphere, Romania and Bulgaria in one of mainly Russian influence.

Churchill meant for these decisions to expire with the end of the war, but once stated the division of responsibility proved hard to set aside. Stalin’s behavior indicates that he made important post-war decisions on the basis of the deal’s terms. Stalin forced EAM into a Greek national unity cabinet with a pro-British premier, George Papandreou. EAM/ELAS originally planned to fight returning royalist troops and the British when the Germans evacuated the country; instructions from Moscow vetoed such plans, so that the Greek Left confined itself to occupying major towns and executing collaborators.

The climax of the British-ELAS clash took place in December 1944 against this background: only two months earlier, Stalin had conceded primary responsibility for affairs in Greece to Churchill. It is otherwise hard to explain why the Russians were silent when the British used force against the pro-Communist ELAS.

The German evacuation of Greece in September 1944 set the stage for confrontation. ELAS forces, the British army and the royalist Mountain Brigade all entered Athens. The British-backed Papandreou government proposed to disarm all guerilla units. EAM rejected this plan which would have left the Mountain Brigade with a monopoly on Greek armed force. EAM proposed instead to create a new army made up of equal numbers of royalists and ELAS veterans. On November 28, 1944, Papandreou proposed instead shares for ELAS, the Mountain Brigade and the anti-Communist EDES, and the British set a December 10 deadline for compliance. Unwilling to settle for a one-third share, the Communists and Socialists resigned from Papandreou’s cabinet in protest.

A street demonstration the next day led to shooting between royalist police and Communists. EAM declared itself to be the government of Greece; Churchill on the other hand used the British army to back the royalists. The Soviet Union stood by and did nothing. Before an armistice was negotiated in February 1945, 11,000 people had been killed as the British defeated the weaker guerillas. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, Stalin raised no objections to Churchill’s deeds.

After the shooting stopped in Greece, compromise proposals and Yalta pledges were forgotten as familiar Balkan political techniques came into play. A promised plebiscite on the monarchy was postponed; by the time it took place in 1946, royalist forces were firmly in control and the King predictably secured almost 70 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Greek Right took control of the police, shot 500 suspected Leftists, and jailed 20,000 more. The Left parties boycotted the 1946 elections to protest official intimidation. Between 1947 and 1949, ELAS veterans even returned to a guerilla war in the hills of northern Greece, only to be defeated once more, this time with American aid replacing that of Britain.

Cold War scenarios commonly describe a pattern of Russian military occupation, installation of Communists in the police, unfair elections and official intimidation of opponents. What is striking about events in Greece is the similar behavior of the British and their royalist allies. It is also hard to ignore Stalin’s apparent adherence to the wartime division of the region between East and West, and its implications for explaining Russian behavior later in Bulgaria and Romania.

The Big Three never did address a Balkan settlement. At the Yalta meeting, a “Declaration on Liberated Europe” called for participation by all “democratic” parties in interim governments in all liberated states, followed by free elections. Terms like “democratic” again were not defined. At Potsdam in August 1945, decisions were deferred to a eventual Balkan peace conference. Such a conference never took place, a casualty of Cold War tensions.

Unlike the other Balkan states, postwar Greece became part of the Free World. Explanations for this exceptional result are incomplete and unconvincing, unless they include substantial analysis of local events and decisions.

The Soviet seizure of power: Hungary

The story of the Communist seizure of power in Hungary closely matches traditional views of the origin of the Cold War. However, a closer look also shows why it is a mistake to view Communism as monolithic. The events of 1944-48 indicate deep divisions within the local Communist party, radical shifts in policy and the significant role played by individual decision-makers who were operating without the benefit of foresight or hindsight. The same factors were at work during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956: while the uprising failed, it showed the tentative state of Communist control even at that late date.

By looking at events across Eastern Europe, scholars have analyzed eight stages in the Communist seizure of power and we can see all of them illustrated by Hungarian developments:

  • In Stage One, wartime regimes were discredited by Nazi collaboration and military defeat. In Hungary, this meant the fall from power of the Horthy Regency.
  • Occupation by the Red Army initiated Stage Two. The Russians rarely had to use force themselves, but the presence of overwhelming Russian power protected local Communists from prosecution and harassment of the pre-war kind, and intimidated other elements.
  • Stage Three involved coalition between the Communist Party and other leftist parties. Cooperation appealed to both sides. Non-Communists hoped for Russian favors; the small Communist Parties gained a governing role even if they did poorly in elections.
  • In Stage Four, the Communists demanded key cabinet posts in coalition cabinets. Ministerial control of the police, for example, let Communists harass potential rivals.
  • In Stage Five, moderate elements in the coalition were isolated and neutralized by so-called “salami tactics.” Rightist parties had already been barred from political activity on the grounds of collaboration with the Nazis: “salami tactics” singled out factions or leaders on the right wing of the coalition, accused them of fascist sympathies and sliced them off. Eventually, most groups to the right of the Communists lost access to power, leaving the Communists in control of a severely shortened political spectrum.
  • Once their rivals were weakened, the Communists eliminated them in Stage Six. Most other parties were banned outright or forced to merge with the Communist Party.
  • In Stage Seven, the Communists neutralized non-political alternative organizations like labor unions and the Catholic Church. Key leaders were arrested or murdered, and independent activity by many groups became illegal.
  • In Stage Eight, a few Party leaders achieved dictatorial control by purging the Communist Party itself of rivals, critics and advocates of alternative positions.

To carry out such a program, it was not necessary for the Communists to invent new means of political intimidation or control. Authoritarianism was not a novelty in the Balkan states. Mayors, teachers and policemen were typically appointed from the top and kept their jobs by obeying orders. Thanks to Russian influence, traditional tools of the state that had for so long been used against Communists could now work for them. Electoral fraud was also habitual: without secret ballots, voters could be intimidated, results manufactured and potential rivals blacklisted. As in the past, opposition newspapers were censored or shut down. The familiarity of such acts of political repression lessened resistance among a population with low expectations.

It is possible to see all eight stages as we look at Hungary, but keep in mind that this eight-stage process is a construction of later analysts. Processes of this kind were going on simultaneously all over the Balkans: similar conditions led to similar results. They are not necessarily signs that Hungarian Communists followed a blueprint, or knew what they would do next: in fact, closer examination of each stage shows much tentative action and frequent mistakes.

Stages One and Two took place in 1944, when Hungary was overrun by the Red Army. There was no immediate move toward a Communist monopoly in domestic politics. Civil servants remained in office and parties that had not collaborated with the Nazis remained active. The Communists joined a broad front coalition (Stage Three). Overestimating their appeal, the Communists ran in the Fall 1945 elections on a platform of free elections, free enterprise and free speech. In free, fair elections voters gave 57 percent of the vote to the Smallholders Party, and only 17 percent to the Communists. The Communists secured some cabinet seats only because they belonged to the multi-party National Independence Front.

After this rebuff the party pursued a more aggressive course. The Russians demanded that the new coalition government give the Communists control of the Interior Ministry with its crucial control of the police (Stage Four). This step allowed arrests of moderate politicians to begin (Stage Five). Hungary meanwhile declined an invitation to join the Marshall Plan, in favor of a Soviet-style Three Year Plan. There was another round of elections in 1947: the Communists again received an embarassingly low 22 percent of the vote despite official harassment of other parties. Under Communist pressure, the parliament then suspended itself for a year while granting full executive freedom to the state apparatus. The Social Democratic Party was dissolved into the Communist Party (Stage Six). When more elections too place in 1949, 96 percent of the voters dutifully voted for the Communists. The regime then moved to a full command economy with collectivization of farms and central planning for all economic decisions, and the state displaced the Catholic Church in running the schools (Stage Seven).

Once in power, the Hungarian Communist Party experienced a round of purges in the late 1940s, mimicking similar purges in the USSR and other Eastern European countries. In Hungary, the victorious faction (led by Matyas Rakosi) consisted of Communists with ties to Moscow who had spent the war years in exile. The losers, on the other hand, typically had spent the war years underground in Hungary. 150,000 people went to jail and 2,000 were executed. The victors were taking their cues from Stalin; the losers were paying more attention to local conditions, even if they applied hard-line Communist principles to solutions. The latter group was more concerned with the economic and social costs of rapid collectivization, for example, and more likely as a result to argue for local decision-making.

The purges themselves show that authoritarian control was far advanced, but a closer look at the situation also illuminates the significant divisions to be found within the Communist ranks.  While Stalin’s hand determined the outcome, the specific details of Hungarian history in the late 1940s reflected local conditions and actions by local leaders.

The Tito-Stalin split of 1948

In the clash between orthodox Stalinists and heterodox “deviationists,” the archetypal “deviationist” was the Yugoslav leader Tito. His path to power was rooted in local loyalties, his use of federalism reflected sensitivity to past problems and he believed himself more qualified than anyone in Moscow to direct the destiny of Communist Yugoslavia. It is not surprising that Tito was soon targeted for elimination by Stalin; it is surprising to learn that he survived. In examining Yugoslavia, it is harder to pick out the eight stages in the traditional model: Tito’s route to power followed a different course.

Post-war conditions in Yugoslavia (and also in Albania) departed from the East European norm in some crucial ways. The Yugoslav Partisans took power on the basis of their own wartime strength: they had no need for direct Soviet assistance. By 1945 the Partisans had 300,000 men and women under arms and enjoyed significant popular support. They had united much of the population against fascism, addressed issues of national self-determination by espousing an ideology of federalism, and demonstrated their effectiveness through a network of local committees all over the country.

By administering areas under their control, the Partisans had gone a long way toward building a Communist state even before the end of the war. In November 1943 the Partisan central committee declared itself to be the new government of Yugoslavia. The royal family was far away. The anti-Communist Chetnik forces were discredited by collaboration, defeated in the field and disarmed in 1945; many were imprisoned or killed, others went into exile.

In the first years of the post-war era, Yugoslavia followed a hard line against the Western democracies. Force was required to push Yugoslav troops out of the Italian city of Trieste, Yugoslav forces shot down several American airplanes and Tito supplied arms to the Greek insurgents in the late 1940s. The Cominform, a revived version of the old Comintern, established its headquarters in Belgrade: this decision by Stalin was both a sign of honor and a device to place Russian agents inside Yugoslavia.

Yugoslav-Russian mistrust was present from the beginning. Russia was unable to give material aid to the Partisans until the last days of the war when Russian units briefly entered Serbia to drive the Germans out of Belgrade. Tito came to power on his own with no debt to Stalin or and no Russian troops on hand. The brief passage of the Red Army through the country created tension because of numerous thefts and rapes. When Russian political and economic experts arrrived to set up joint enterprises (a device by which Russian participation in local industries usually led to Russian control of the product) Yugoslavs criticized the results as economic exploitation and political meddling. Tito also had an ego to match Stalin’s.

Stalin had no wish to treat Tito as his equal or allow him to become the leader of a Communist Balkan federation, a plan advanced by Tito. In February 1948, Stalin proposed his own plan for a federation joining Bulgaria and Yugoslavia: he insisted that both states submit future foreign policy initiatives for Russian approval. When Tito responded with complaints about Russian activity, Stalin recalled all Russian advisors in March 1948. Critical comments by Stalin were a clear invitation to opportunists in the Yugoslav Communist Party to overthrow Tito, but nothing of the sort happened. The strength of “deviationists” like Tito was their knowledge of local conditions and how to reap the benefits. Tito had a sure grip on his own party and Stalin’s critique fell on deaf ears.

Yugoslavia presented unique obstacles for any Russian intervention. Thanks to Yugoslavia’s geographic remoteness, Moscow never planned an invasion. The adjacent Western world could contribute aid in ways that were not possible for states like Romania or even Hungary, which shared no borders with Free World nations (Austria being neutral and under partial Russian occupation at this time). By combining ongoing criticism of Stalin with an effective search for Western economic and political support, Tito found enough Western loans and contracts to escape Russian control.

Yugoslavia thus emerged from the crisis of 1948 in a favorable position, balanced between East and West and wooed by both. Tito’s regime was clearly a Communist one but it was also clearly not a Soviet satellite in the simplistic sense. The Yugoslav case presents some of the strongest evidence about what was required for Balkan states to escape Russian control, and in doing so, sheds light on which factors were most important in states that did become satellites.

The Hungarian Revolution, 1956

By 1948, the main outlines of Balkan Cold War geography were in place. Greece was solidly in the Western camp and joined NATO in 1952 (as did Turkey, a war-time neutral). Yugoslavia was Communist but resisting Russian control. So was Albania thanks to its geographic remoteness (by 1961 the Albanians formally split with the USSR and allied with Communist China). Local Communists ran Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, backed up by Russian troops.

Outside the Balkan region, the USSR and the US were building opposing economic and political structures. In 1947, the Western Europe states, Greece, and Turkey accepted American economic aid under the Marshall Plan. The United States established the NATO alliance in 1949: Greece and Turkey became members in 1952. The Soviet Union in turn created the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (known as CEMA or Comecon) in 1949, and the military Warsaw Pact or Warsaw Treaty Organization in 1955. All of the Balkan states were members, except for Greece and Turkey, and outcast Yugoslavia (while Albania gradually ceased to be an active member).

Despite the hardening division into Cold War camps, the example of Yugoslavia implied that some possibility for disengagement or neutrality might remain. The death of Stalin in 1953 brought Nikita Khrushchev to power in Russia, and with him a policy of de-Stalinization. In February 1956, Khrushchev denounced Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, and then made overtures to Tito. In the interest of domestic stability and improved economic performance, the Russians promoted a climate of experimentation, reform and change.  However, there were in fact limits beyond which no East European Communist state would be allowed to go: those limits were made clear by the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

After 1948, Matyas Rakosi held the top posts in both the Hungarian Communist Party and the state. An orthodox Stalinist, Rakosi imposed collectivized agriculture and a program of heavy industry: his dictatorship combined personal repression with economic misery. Following Khrushchev’s lead, Rakosi gave up his political office as premier in 1953: he was replaced by Imre Nagy, a moderate who had been purged but not executed in the late ’40s for opposing the rapid pace of collectivization.

Nagy’s “New Course” aimed to reverse some collectivization, increase the flow of consumer goods, reduce centralization in the economy and permit a few personal liberties, including religious toleration and amnesty for survivors of past purges. Rakosi was able to block most of the reforms; by 1955, Nagy was forced from office and thrown out of the Communist Party.

Rakosi’s reimposition of orthodox Stalinism was heavily criticized by intellectuals. In the belief that Rakosi and not his policies was the cause of discontent, the Soviets forced Rakosi to retire as party chief in July 1956 and replaced him with another Stalinist, Ernst Gero. The change backfired: instead of quieting complaints by Hungarians, it encouraged them to even more criticism. By October 1956, workers were joining students in demonstrations for the return of Nagy, economic reforms, freedom of the press, the right to strike, multi-party elections and the departure of Russian occupation forces. When the Hungarian army refused to back the police against the demonstrators, the Party leadership tried to retain control by bringing back Nagy as premier and replacing Gero as party chief with Janos Kadar.

There was no immediate Soviet condemnation of these reformist steps, and this fact fooled many into believing that Hungary could go farther and break its ties with the Warsaw Pact. Kadar and Nagy soon were caught between popular demands and Russian security concerns. Nagy finally opted for revolution, in search of a multi-party state and neutrality (more or less the situation recently achieved by Austria). Kadar on the other hand asked for Russian intervention. In early November Russian tanks reimposed Communist rule with brutal force. Nagy was executed in 1958 and many Hungarians fled to the West.

After 1956, there were no major changes in the Cold War division of the region or in the political options available to the Balkan peoples for more than 30 years. Events in Hungary showed that Communism was not always monolithic, that wide differences were possible in domestic policy. On the other hand, 1956 also established two clear limits on reform: no challenge to monopoly Communist Party control at home, and no challenge to Soviet military security on the world stage. Tito’s escape proved to be an exception based on Yugoslavia’s unique history and geography.


Can we answer our four questions on the basis of these episodes?

  1. When does the Cold War begin?
  2. Are the events of the Cold War best viewed from a global or a local perspective?
  3. Did Balkan leaders retain any significant freedom of action?
  4. Can we assign blame for the Cold War to one side or the other, East or West?

First, evidence from the Balkans shows that the Cold War “began” over an extended period, as local and global governments came to terms with evolving conditions. There was no blueprint drawn up in 1917 or even in 1945, and Cold War clashes took place at different times in different states.

Second, Balkan events support analyses of the Cold War that start with specific, unique, local events that took place across the Balkan region (or for that matter, across the world in other Cold War arenas). Too much is overlooked by the traditional, simplified view that begins at the top by examining events in Moscow and Washington, then selectively samples historic events and emphasize those that agree with sweeping generalizations. Such an approach is apt to ignore awkward discrepancies such as British activity in Greece or Tito’s successful deviation, because those developments undercut the conclusions.

Third, were the Balkan states doomed to fall under Russian control? Once we know something about the actual events, the question itself has to be substantially revised, because only three of six Balkan states became Russian “satellites” in the traditional sense. A closer examination of Cold War-era politics in most of the Balkan states makes it even harder to accept such generalizations, as Lectures 22 and 23 will show. Nothing in history is fore-ordained. On the other hand, the same forces that put the Balkan states under the influence of larger powers in the nineteenth century were at work in the middle of the twentieth, so that Russian control was hardly surprising.

Fourth, can we assign “blame” for the Cold War? Anyone studying Communist tactics in the period 1944-48 will find plenty of blameworthy behavior. On the other hand, there is scope to criticize the actions of Great Britain (and later the United States) as well: as is usually the case with Great Powers, the Cold War rivals pursued their own interests first and foremost while local states paid the price. In any case, assigning blame is more of a parlor game than a historical exercise: the historian is better off trying to explain the factors responsible for decisions on both sides.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism).  

This page created on 27 November 1996; last modified 17 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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