Thursday, February 3, 2022

Stalin and the Soviet Control of East Germany

The outcome of the Second World War can be analyzed in two ways: first, Stalin was the great victor of the war, because his army was the first to invade Berlin, a military achievement which proved the might of communism and ensured that Eastern Europe, including the eastern half of Germany, became a part of the Soviet Union; second, Stalin was inflicted by terrible hubris when he became convinced that all of Eastern Europe, a region that was home to a very warlike and rebellious population, could be ruled by the Soviet Union, an entity which came into being just 28 years ago, in the 1917 revolution, and was yet to achieve economic and political stability, was yet to develop military and civilian bureaucracy necessary for subduing the conquered regions, was yet to build diplomatic connections with other powers, and was yet to formulate a viable strategy for getting the American military to leave Europe.  

I take the second view. I believe that by deciding to impose the “iron curtain” across all of Eastern Europe, Stalin doomed the Soviet Union. He overestimated the economic and military power of the Soviet state. He failed to see that by his military occupation of East Germany, he would give the Americans an excuse for maintaining a military presence in West Germany and other areas, and that would push the Soviet Union into an unending arms race. The Soviet Union could not afford the arms race but the Americans could, since their country was older, having became independent in 1776 (but was founded before that in 1620 when the colonization of North America began), and after fighting several wars, including the bloody civil war of the 1860s, America had entered the twentieth century as the world’s most prosperous and powerful state. It was disastrous for the Soviet Union to get into a protracted Cold War with America. 

After the Second World War, Beria, Molotov, and other magnates in Stalin’s government were of the view that the Soviet forces should withdraw from Germany and Western Poland, after ensuring the withdrawal of the American forces from Europe. They thought that the Soviet Union had the capacity to hold territory till Eastern Poland. But Stalin was adamant about holding East Germany. Stalin’s foolish geopolitical ambitions made the Soviet Union economically unviable and ensured its fall in 1991. If the Soviet Union had withdrawn to Eastern Poland, then Germany would have remained united. A united Germany would not have surrendered its foreign policy to America. The Germans would have asserted their independence from America (and the British), and it was possible that they might have voluntarily joined the Soviet bloc. A “voluntary” pact between Germany and the Soviet Union could have radically transformed the world. 

After 1945, there were several occasions when Stalin came close to purging Beria and Molotov, because he took their opposition to the Soviet control of East Germany as a sign of their treachery. In 1948, Molotov’s wife was accused of treachery and arrested but she survived. When Stalin died in 1953, Beria was elated. While Stalin’s dead body still lay in his house, Beria announced that he would liberalize the Soviet Union and order the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from East Germany. Molotov was circumspect in expressing his opinions. By revealing his agenda, Beria gave his opponents the opportunity to destroy him. Khrushchev convinced the Soviet politburo that Beria would destroy Stalin’s legacy and weaken the Soviet Union by giving East Germany to the Americans. When the politburo tilted towards Khrushchev, Molotov ditched Beria and voted for Khrushchev. Beria was stripped of his powers and executed.

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