Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 changed the political structure of Eurasia. The Soviet Union was officially established in 1922 and eventually included Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. At the Yalta Conference at the end of World War II (1945), President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin divided Europe into the Western and Eastern (Soviet) Blocs, and Soviet influence expanded into Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.

Germany was partitioned into East and West Germany, and the Berlin Wall was built in 1961 to divide east from west Berlin. This evolution would draw the Soviet Union into a protracted competition with the United States following World War II, known as the Cold War.

Read this lecture on the formation of the Soviet Union. Focus on how the Soviet Union came to control Eastern European politics and economies.

While the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the authoritarian nature of its governance structure is still in place today. We consider many countries communist, but few could argue they still follow the principles Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels outlined in 1848 in the Communist Manifesto. Nevertheless, the Russian Revolution radically changed the social and political structure of Russia and Eastern Europe. These founding principles would become attractive to many nations, including Cuba, China, and Vietnam, which were successful in removing the shackles of imperialism.


Ethnic Cleansing and Population Exchange in Eastern Europe and the end of and after World War II

1. Poles and Germans

Western leaders agreed before war's end that the German population should be moved out of the former German territories that would be awarded to Poland. This was supported publicly by Churchill although later, during the Cold War, he condemned the deportations. As noted in Lecture Notes 16b, at the Big Three meeting in Tehran, (end November-early December 1943), he had proposed moving Poland west, like moving soldiers "three steps left close," compensating the Poles with German territory for losing their former eastern territories to the USSR.

The new Polish-Soviet border was agreed on in a secret treaty between the Polish Committee of National Liberation and the Soviet government on 26 July 1944, and agreed by the Big Three at Yalta in February 1945. Thus, the ethnic cleansing of Germans from Poland was the result of decisions taken by the three Great Powers: the US, the USSR and Britain, as well as mass flight ahead of the Red Army.

The number of Germans living in former East Prussia and the former east German territories given to Poland, bounded by the Oder-Neisse Line, is estimated at 7,500,000 - 8,250,000. Many fled ahead of the advancing Red Army whose soldiers were given a free hand - always for the first 3 days after battle – to rob and kill German civilians and rape their women.

The new Polish-German border was fixed at the Big Three Conference, Potsdam, end July - early August 1945, when the three Great Powers also mandated the deportation of Germans from the territories awarded to Poland, to the British and Soviet occupation zones in Germany.

The worst deportations from former eastern Germany, now western Poland, took place in summer 1945, before the Potsdam Conference, when the Polish government acted to prevent Germans, who had fled before the Red Army, from returning to their homes, and deported those who had returned. At this time, many deportees died from disease or cold, or were murdered in the chaos and lawlessness that prevailed everywhere.

However, in some cases the cruelty that many Germans suffered from Poles right after war's end was revenge for almost six years of a brutal German occupation, which included the loss of most of the 3,500,000 Polish Jews who lived in Poland in 1939; the loss of about 2,500,000 ethnic Polish lives at German hands (the war total, including deaths on western fronts and in the USSR, was about three million out of an estimated prewar Polish total of 24,000,000); the forced deportation of several hundred thousand Poles from former western Poland, annexed to Germany to occupied central Poland in 1939-40; and the deportation of about 1,000,000 Poles to forced labor in Germany during the war.

Also, at least 400,000 Poles were deported from former eastern Poland to the USSR in 1939-41; together with conscripted Poles and others who were in forced labor camps or "special settlements," or were imprisoned in the Soviet Union, the total may have been about 1,000,000.

More orderly conditions obtained in 1946, when British officials came to oversee the deportations. Most of the German deportees wanted to avoid the Soviet zone and go to the British zone of occupation in Germany, but the British tried to limit the numbers because of the burden this imposed on them, which again made the situation of the Germans more difficult.

At this time, the Soviet authorities, who sent German industrial and agricultural machinery to the USSR, held on to the Germans they needed to run the farms which fed the Red Army, and as servants for Soviet officers. The Polish authorities held on to highly qualified German engineers and experienced miners.

We must also bear in mind that in 1944-46 about 1,000,000 Poles left their homes in former eastern Poland, now part of the USSR. Later they were joined by those who survived deportation to the Soviet interior in 1940-41 and 1944-45, and were "repatriated" in 1946-47.

All these people also suffered hunger, cold, robbery and sometimes murder as they travelled, mostly in open railway cattle cars, to the new Polish western territories. On arrival, they found farms without their agricultural machinery - sent to the USSR by the Soviet occupation troops - and houses looted either by Red Army soldiers, or Polish looters out to grab what they could.

We should note the proposal launched in 2002 by Erica Steinbach - a member of the German parliament who also represents the descendants of German refugees - for building a center in Berlin in memory of the 12-13 million German refugees expelled or deported from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II and shortly after it.

This proposal aroused much criticism in Poland, where historians and journalists pointed out that the Germans were far from being the only victims of the war. The Poles proposed a center in memory of all East European refugees/deportees, possibly in Wroclaw (former German Breslau). An exhibit on the German expellees was opened, however, in Berlin in August 2006. There is now a permanent exhibit titled "Flight into Divided Germany," at Marienfelde, Berlin.

2. Germans Leave Czechoslovakia

Germans were also forced out of Czechoslovakia, mainly from the predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland (Hitler's pretext for reducing Czechoslovakia, 1938). The total number of Germans expelled from the country is estimated at about 2,900,000. Here too, there was a "wild" period right at the end of the war, when many Germans were murdered and most were robbed of their possessions. Unlike Poland, the departure of the Germans was not mandated by the Allied Powers, but by the "Benes decrees" of 1945.

These decrees deprived all Germans and Hungarians living in prewar and wartime Czechoslovakia of their property and Czechoslovak citizenship – unless they could prove they had been loyal to the Czechoslovak cause during the war, which was obviously very difficult to do. The descendants of these Germans, now living in western Germany, have been trying to reclaim their property or at least receive compensation for their losses, but no agreement on this question has been reached so far and seems unlikely in the future.

3. Germans Leave Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia.

Germans were also deported from Hungary and Romania, but some stayed in the latter country. In the period 1968-89, they were allowed to leave by the Romanian communist dictator Nikolai Ceausescu – each for a hefty price paid by the German Federal Republic. The brutal German occupation of Yugoslavia also led to the exodus of Germans from that country at the end of the war.

4. Poles and Ukrainians

(a) Wartime

A brutal ethnic cleansing took place in parts of former eastern Poland (Volhynia and East Galicia) in 1943-44. The Ukrainians were a majority in the countryside, while Poles and Jews formed majorities in the towns. The Ukrainian leader Stepan Bandera had formulated the program of driving the Poles out of Volhynia, so it would form part of a future independent Ukraine along with East Galicia (both now in western Ukraine).

Although Bandera himself was imprisoned by the Germans, his followers in what was called the Bandera section of UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), knew that the Polish government in London aimed at the restoration of prewar Poland, including territories with Ukrainian majorities, and that the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) was to rise up against the retreating Germans in former eastern Poland. Some unofficial talks between A.K. and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) leaders failed to bring about agreement and Bandera units set out to carry out his program, murdering an estimated 60,000-100,000 Polish people in Volhynia in 1943-44.

The Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) 27th Volhynian division, tried to protect the Polish population and its soldiers committed some revenge atrocities against Ukrainians. Fighting between the two forces also took place in former Eastern Galicia, again with atrocities on both sides, even though Polish military orders forbade the killing of women and children. The total number of Ukrainians killed by Poles is estimated at 20,000.

(b) Historical Interpretations

Ukrainians generally see the UPA as fighters for Ukrainian independence - which they were - and not as murderers of Poles, which some of them – Bandera followers – also were. Polish and Ukrainian historians have been trying to reach a consensus on UPA's wartime actions, but the problem remains unresolved.* Furthermore, in independent Ukraine, UPA veterans are demanding pensions on a par with those paid to veterans of the Red Army. Here it should be noted that Soviet authorities conscripted tens of thousands of young Ukrainians into the Red Army, sending them to the front with hardly any training, so that these conscripts suffered very heavy losses. Some Ukrainians see this as planned genocide, but the author of these notes is not aware of any documentary evidence to support this view.)

See Timothy Snyder, "Memory of sovereignty and sovereignty over memory: Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine , 1939-1999," in: Jan Werner Muller, ed., Memory and Power in Postwar Europe (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. 2002), pp. 39-46; also "The Causes of Ukrainian-Polish Ethnic Cleansing, 1943," Past and Present, v. 179, pp. 197-234. For an introduction to the Polish-Ukrainian conflict, and the emergence of the new nations, see Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations. Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999, New Haven and London, 2003.]

(c) Postwar Exchanges and Deportations

A population exchange agreement was signed by the communist "Polish Committee of National Liberation" and the Soviet government in September 1944, whereby Ukrainians were to move from Poland to Soviet Ukraine and Poles from the USSR to Poland. The transfers were to be voluntary, although Ukrainians were often moved to the USSR by force. As for local Poles, they had a "choice" to stay and undergo another forced collectivization and possibly renewed Stalinist terror – or move to Poland. The vast majority "chose" the latter.These transfers took place in 1946-47. As mentioned above, most settled in the new western territories, previously part of Germany.

A more radical measure against Ukrainians was carried out by Polish security police and army units in 1947, called Action Vistula. This was the forced relocation of about 140,000-150,000 Ukrainians from postwar southeast Poland to the Polish western Baltic coast. The justification for this action, accompanied by atrocities, was the Ukrainian population's material support for the UPA, which fought both Soviets and Poles. It is likely that the action was carried out on the orders of Moscow, and if not, it must have had Soviet assent while the Poles agreed to implement it. In this way, the Ukrainian question in Poland was "solved".


The end results of all these population movements were ethnically homogeneous states, that is, without the minority problems which had burdened most of the countries of interwar Eastern Europe - but at the cost of great human suffering. The one exception was Yugoslavia, which – after horrendous Serb-Croat fighting and murders – was restored as a multi-national state. It was kept together by Josip Broz Tito, but broke apart in the early 1990s.

This took place to the accompaniment of atrocities between Serbs and Croats, then Serbs and moslem Bosniaks, and finally between the Serbs and the Kosovars, that is the Albanians of Kosovo. There is still a significant Hungarian population in southern Slovakia. the Serbian Voivodina, and some in Transylvania, now in Romania.

Map of Ethnic Cleansing of Europe 1944-1948

Map from Philip Ther and Ana Siljak, eds., Redrawing Nations. Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948, Bowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford, 2001. This book has excellent chapters by specialists on Poland, Czechoslovakia, and on German refugees in the two new German states.

Source: Anna M. Cienciala, https://acienciala.ku.edu/hist557/lect17.htm
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