Did the East European governments during the Cold War depend on violence to create legitimacy?

The legacy of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc is often trivialised by a black and white narrative; usually consisting of its legitimacy becoming exhausted by its failure to adopt peaceful democratic methods of government akin to the majority of Western Europe, which fulfilled the ‘end of history’. But the legacy of communism in Eastern Europe is far more intricate than it is often portrayed. This is largely due to the lumping of the communist states as one, cohesive system, led by its Russian metropole. While restricted by the evident authoritarian presence of the Soviet Union, its influence through violence, or by the varying degree of violence conducted by the Bloc’s member states individually, is still nevertheless contestable – whether it is through gaining legitimacy by alternative means, or through having no legitimacy at all in the first place.

The occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviets that had driven out Nazi Germany from the Bloc had raised questions towards the legitimacy of Soviet influence being there. These concerns were initially quelled by the “disproportionate burden” the Soviet forces had carried, giving the USSR a “moral claim to substantial, perhaps even preponderant, influence in shaping the postwar settlement”.[1] But even when the Soviets had abused their title as Eastern Europe’s ‘liberators’ by seizing property and extracting reparations on “an indiscriminate scale”, their legitimacy was based on the welcoming of their presence no matter how heinous their acts may have been.[2] The possible rape of up to two million German women by the Red Army, complemented by the rape of approximately fifty thousand women in Budapest alone, did not prevent raped women themselves from stopping “their liberators” being “marked out as rapists”.[3] Nor was the appeal of communism exclusive to the East, with the French Communists achieving 28.8% of the vote in the 1946 French elections. Similar results were found in Italy and Finland with the Communist parties gaining 19% and 23.5% of the vote respectively.[4] Its legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the French, was proliferated by the abundant anti-Americanism found across Western Europe, where communism was “supplemented by an equally visceral hatred of Americans”.[5] This was strengthened further by distorted accusations by French Communists that the US-led NATO was preparing Western Europe to “resume ‘Hitler’s war’ against a peace-loving Soviet Union”.[6] Political zealotry, or circumstantial consent, thus originally gave communism a reason to exist in Eastern Europe as the lesser evil against fascism or against America’s growing cultural hegemony across the world, therefore not necessarily needing to conduct violence to prove its legitimacy in the East. What violence it did practice merely tested its zealots’ desire for “a dog’s death for the dogs” that opposed the new Soviet authority.[7]

This therefore brings the question of what is meant by ‘legitimacy’. As Pittaway rightfully points out, political scientists measure an authority’s legitimacy by how it accords itself to the “set of social norms and expectations” that are set, which are “essentially ahistorical”.[8] Because of the Eastern Bloc suffering from the worst excesses of war, fascist occupation and regime change, its nations not having any “truly ‘legitimate’ regime at any point during the twentieth century” allowed any form of legitimacy to start from a clean slate without a previous power being used as a eligible comparison.[9]

What comparison could be made, specifically that with Western Europe’s capitalist nations, is one that had little gap between them economically and politically in the Cold War’s advent. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union and its satellites enjoyed increasing world production outputs and world trade, its GNP growing at a rate of 5.7% per annum.[10] By 1953, the entire Eastern Bloc’s hydroelectric capacity had more than doubled. Whilst this had a “tremendous social sacrifice”, it nevertheless proved that the industrialisation programs in Eastern Europe, clearly inspired by Stalin’s Five-Year Plans, had produced the development required to recover from the war, the consequences of which the West suffered less from.[11] What early developments were being made, especially with three hundred thousand Czechoslovakian workers being promoted to state administration between 1948 and 1953, gave little reason for many Eastern Europeans to protest against the communist authorities, who in turn would rely less on violence to legitimise their power.[12]

However, this is indiscriminately regarding the East European states as requiring the same methods for the same solutions. All can be separated from each other through the different obstacles each of the bloc’s regimes faced uniquely. East Germany was a prime example of this, due to its proximity with Western Europe and its separation from West Germany, impacting the personal experiences of its respective citizens. Because of this, the GDR had to use more oppressive and covert measures to maintain its legitimacy. As Ulbricht noted upon his return to Berlin in 1945, the communist East German state had to “look democratic, but we must have everything under our control”.[13] The eventual founding of the Stasi was therefore “a highly symbolic act” to signal the establishment of the GDR as “a ‘people’s democracy’ of the Stalinist type”.[14] This, along with the GDR’s approval of Schießbefehl (‘order to fire’) against defectors, shows that the East German authorities in particular held no qualms about using violence to maintain influence; the building of the Berlin Wall further proving this.

However, the apparent legitimacy of Communist Bloc states such as the GDR did not exist through their own methods alone but through the interests of Western Europe’s statesmen also. According to Gaddis, Adenauer’s preference for Germany was for it to remain divided rather than unified, as its reunification could not occur without “detaching West Germany from NATO and hence from its guarantee of American protection”.[15] Brandt continued Adenauer’s necessity for the GDR to exist through his policy of Ostpolitik, stating that the two Germanies “must try to progress first by way of orderly coexistence to togetherness”.[16]

But as Gaddis also notes, the GDR under Ulbricht legitimised its own need for security under Soviet guarantee. This was not through the terror of its own strength but rather through its insecurities. East Germany’s apparent weaknesses against both the 1953 riots and its depopulation through its defectors to the West had been so “sufficiently frightening in Moscow” that the Soviets “had no choice but do whatever was necessary to prop Ulbricht up”, paradoxically giving him legitimacy through weakness.[17] Such legitimacy, whilst furthering the excuse to use force, was mainly granted through the Soviet Union as its guardian and made the monopoly of violence by the state ever more excusable; but not necessarily the only method available for the sake of legitimacy.

But this appeared somewhat exclusive to the GDR. Whilst the uprisings in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia in 1956 and 1968 were both supressed by Soviet intervention, they were both instigated by the leaders of their communist governments. As Hobsbawm states, “reform come from above, i.e. from within the party”.[18] Dubček desired ‘socialism with a human face’, whereas Nagy more bluntly declared that the 1956 Uprising was “the fight for freedom by the Hungarian people against the Russian intervention”.[19] Even those who remained loyal to the Warsaw Pact, such as Ceauşescu, claimed “that the existence of military blocs is a source of perpetuating tensions” and thought to “consider it necessary to move toward decreasing the military character of these blocs”.[20] Certain East European states, such as those led by the mentioned leaders, saw that the threat of violence was losing its value as a bargaining chip. Accounts such as those like Victor Klemperer’s testify to this, where the security services in East Germany were becoming “more hated than the Russians, who maintain discipline and don’t shoot to kill”.[21] This therefore shows that the degrees of violence in each respective communist nation varied in accordance to the moment.

Violence was thus used when necessary and was in some areas more necessary than in others. The paradox of violence consisted of certain Bloc leaders’ dependency on the USSR’s threats of force, namely Ulbricht and Rákosi, against leaders such as Nagy’s and Ceauşescu’s calls for less Soviet interference. This is further complicated by each leader’s reasons for less interference, whether it was to reduce the violent nature of the communist state through Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’ or for leaders such as Ceauşescu to pursue their own radical and more interventionist policies such as Decree 770.

But what this also entails is the inherent contradiction between legitimacy through consensus against legitimacy through violence. Whilst the East European governments undeniably “employed considerable repression in the pursuit of its policies”, the high number of participants in black market dealings “meant that the state lacked authority over them”.[22] The Eastern Bloc, especially with the GDR’s Stasi, “were good at crushing political opposition”, but “their resistance to the West’s consumer society was altogether weaker”.[23] Its governments therefore had to revise its own methods in order to maintain legitimacy.

The Eastern Bloc states, particularly the GDR, therefore sought to become “more than just a terror state”, with an emphasis on material culture, domestic interiors, visual culture, style, and design.[24] The revolts in Berlin in 1953 had “underlined the political necessity of constructing popular consent” through “the raising of both the standard of living and consumerism”.[25] But by the time the Cold War was nearing its denouement was the entire Eastern Bloc experiencing a political contradiction. Its “goals of total liberation”, which gave Soviet communism its original legitimacy as an anti-fascist movement, was becoming a paradox through the “means of total control” that led to Yurchak’s theory of Soviet life’s ‘hypernormalization’.[26] Increasing the welfare of the citizens of the Eastern Bloc did not extend to the point where it could allow Western products to enter the Communist sphere of influence. A notable example is the term “jean crimes” being used by security services such as the Stasi, who banned jeans due to them being “the embodiment of the Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism”. But despite this enforcement, it contributed to a “rise to a black market in Western goods”.[27] The Eastern Bloc governments were therefore in a quagmire that conflicted with both its ideological project to reject capitalism and its goal to satisfy the demands of their citizens. Whether to respond to this problem with violence only confused officials further, leaving the use of threats to become somewhat half-effective in preserving legitimacy.

Through this contradiction, along with Hosking’s claim that the Soviet Union was “in the normal sense a Russian empire” albeit “a communist one”, had the Eastern bloc failed to maintain legitimacy through “the anomalies and contradictions of this unprecedented multi-national union”.[28] These were in tandem with the Soviet Union and its satellites’ decline in economic growth. Their GNP fell to 5.2% growth per annum in the 1960s, 2.6% by the end of the 1970s, and 2% by the early 1980s.[29] The situation was hardly ameliorated by state management, with Romania’s pro-natalist Decree 770 creating a 52% excess birth rate against the Eastern European average.[30] The lack of modernisation of both the USSR and the Eastern Bloc had thus made the authoritative nature of the two an anachronism. It was representing a movement that had long ago won its war against fascism. Because of this, the international communist movement and Stalinism had “ceased to be a model for their politics, except insofar as the Russians could sustain it by force.”[31] Legitimacy through violence for the Eastern Bloc governments, therefore, became ever more depended upon. This was only exacerbated by the constant comparisons being made between their economies and the West, which caused the “peoples of the Marxist economies” to look towards their western counterparts “with some envy”.[32] Where economic prosperity failed to provide legitimacy, violence had to be its substitute through fear.

Because de-Stalinisation had left the Bloc “without a clear sense of authority or direction”, the threat of violence itself became an exhausted method of maintaining legitimacy.[33] The leadership of the communist parties had appeared “to have lost any real belief in what they were doing” in their last twenty years of power, especially once Gorbachev was proposing his policies of glasnost and perestroika.[34] The relationship between the East European governments of the Warsaw Pact and its Soviet master was largely symbiotic. Whilst there is no doubt that each government was allowed to practice its own measures, as long as it adhered to the Zhdanov and Brezhnev Doctrines of communist sovereignty and its “fraternal institutions”, the legitimacy of the communist governments could only continue as long as the Soviet Union did.[35] In the words of Rubnik, whilst the control of each nation’s society was conducted by their communist governments, it only meant that the “total Soviet control of the Communist Parties themselves” was being fully utilised.[36]

The legitimacy of the East European governments only went as far as the Soviets would allow it, meaning the governments had no real independent legitimacy. This was proven by their concomitant fall with the Soviet Union, including even Yugoslavia, Romania, and Albania, who had by 1991 distanced themselves from the USSR. Violence, regardless of it being used or not, was not enough to maintain legitimacy for the East European governments’ own power structure. Instead, it was to only remind its citizens the influence the Soviets had, the Communist parties of Eastern Europe being merely its conduits. The legitimacy of the East European governments being dependent on the use of violence is therefore not enough to help explain how the Eastern Bloc survived for as long as it did. The emergence of the Communist governments, whilst largely unelected, had a consensus of possessing legitimacy through being a bulwark against fascism. Yet despite this, it still nevertheless conducted violence on a scale that would be deemed illegitimate to most. This suggests that violence was not necessarily pursued to achieve political aims, but rather it was conducted because one had the capacity to practice it. It was only by the start of the 1960s that the legitimacy of the Eastern Bloc became fragile due to an amalgamation of declining growth rates, exhausted anti-fascist political language and Stalinist policies, and a general disconnection with consumer demands. When the Bloc’s governments failed to meet the demands of the latter and correct the errors of the former had violence become the last alternative to maintaining legitimacy. Certain leaders recognised the limitations of their governments’ methods, as shown by Nagy’s and Dubček’s actions, but others, such as Ulbricht and Rákosi, remained obstinate to change. When looking at the degree of violence used by the East European governments, they must be analysed on an individual basis which requires a larger investigation that is beyond this analysis’s scope. But one thing they all share is that no matter what degree of violence each state used, the sinews of their existence were held together only by the Soviet Union’s own existence, whether they supported it or not. Its collapse in 1991 proved to be an existential crisis for all communist states in Europe. Thus, they also subsequently dissolved.

Featured image credit: “CCCP (Soviet) poster, 1963” by Jorge Lascar is licensed under CC BY 2.0


[1] John Lewis Gaddis, The Cold War (London: Penguin Books, 2007), 10.

[2] Ibid., 24.

[3] Norman Naimark, The Russians in Germany: A History of the Soviet Zone of Occupation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 133. And James Mark, “Remembering Rape: Divided Social Memory and the Red Army in Hungary 1944-1945,” Past & Present 188 (2005): 133-161, 133 and 160.

[4] Keith Lowe, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (London: Penguin Books, 2013), 278.

[5] Richard J. Goslan, “From French Anti-Americanism and Americanization to the “American Enemy”?”, in The Americanization of Europe, ed. Alexander Stephan (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008): 44-68, 52.

[6] Richard F. Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 40.

[7] Jacques Rubnik, The Other Europe (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1989), 109.

[8] Mark Pittaway, “The Politics of Legitimacy and Hungary’s Postwar Transition,” Contemporary European History 13, no. 4 (2004): 452-475, 454.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (London: William Collins, 2017), 556. And Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London: Abacus, 1995), 400.

[11] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Economic Achievements by 1953,” in The Development of the Communist Bloc, ed. Roger Pethybridge (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1967): 99-101, 99.

[12] Rubnik, The Other Europe, 111.

[13] Christopher Andrew, The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 680.

[14] Jens Gieseke and David Burnett, The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014), 14.

[15] Gaddis, The Cold War, 135.

[16] “Policy Statement by Willy Brandt, October 28, 1969,” German History in Documents and Images, accessed March 4, 2020, http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/pdf/eng/Chapter8Doc5Intro.pdf

[17] Gaddis, The Cold War, 136.

[18] Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 399.

[19] “Modern History Sourcebook: Hungary 1956,” Fordham University: Internet History Sourcebooks Project, accessed 4 March, 2020, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1956hungary.asp

[20] Vojtech Mastny and Malcolm Byrne, eds., Cardboard Castle?: An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1955-1991 (Herndon: Central European University Press, 2005), 435.

[21] Victor Klemperer, The Lesser Evil. The Diaries of Victor Klemperer, 1945–1959 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), 420.

[22] Mark Pittaway, “The Reproduction of Hierarchy: Skill, Working‐Class Culture, and the State in Early Socialist Hungary,” Journal of Modern History 74, no. 4 (2002): 737–769, 739.

[23] Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (London: Penguin Books, 2012), 250.

[24] Dan Stone, “Responding to ‘Order Without Life’? Living Under Communism” in Oxford Handbook of Postwar European History, ed. Dan Stone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012): 163-181, 175.

[25] Marcello Anselmo, “’Der werkätige Verbraucher’: Defining the Socialist Consumer. Market Research in the GDR, 1960s/’70s” in The Sovietization of Eastern Europe: New Perspectives on the Postwar Period, ed. Balázs Apor (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2008): 77-92, 77.

[26] Alexei Yurchak, Everything was Forever, Until It Was No More (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 284.

[27] Ferguson, Civilization, 244.

[28] Geoffrey Hosking, The Awakening of the Soviet Union (London: Heinemann, 1990), 77.

[29] Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 400.

[30] B. Berelson, “Romania’s 1966 Anti-Abortion Decree: The Demographic Experience of the First Decade,” Population Studies 33, no. 2 (1979): 209-222, 212.

[31] Robert V. Daniels, Is Russia Reformable?: Change and Resistance from Stalin to Gorbachev (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 3.

[32] Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers, 556.

[33] Daniels, Is Russia Reformable?, 3.

[34] Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 399.

[35] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (London: Vintage, 2010), 5.

[36] Rubnik, The Other Europe, 109.


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