The postwar era – 
from Cold War to 
peaceful revolution

Spotlights on the history of Europe in the twentieth century

picture-alliance/akg-images - Berlin 1989

Cold War in a divided world

1949

The Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb on 29 August 1949 and thus caught up to the USA as a nuclear power. It was the beginning of an arms race that would give a new dimension to the Cold War between the East and West. With the outbreak of the Korean War in the summer of 1950, the Cold War threatened to become hot for the first time. The Western powers consequently decided on the rearmament of West 
Germany, which took place within the parameters of NATO 
beginning in 1955. The GDR joined the Warsaw Pact in 1956. Germany had become a focal point of the Cold War. Using the catchphrase “peaceful coexistence” between capitalism and 
socialism, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, signalled a willingness to recognise the status quo. But he also tried to 
oust the Western powers from divided Berlin. As the wave of refugees via West Berlin threatened to bleed the GDR to death, Moscow – at the insistence of the East German Socialist Unity Party (SED) – decided to close off the last escape hatch to the free West.

The construction of the Berlin Wall on 13 August 1961 saved 
the SED dictatorship and cemented German division. Just as one centre of conflict in the Cold War had been pacified – at 
the cost of the East Germans – the stationing of Soviet inter­mediate-range missiles in Cuba brought the world to the brink of atomic war in October 1962. The realisation subsequently dawned in both camps that only the mutual recognition of the status quo could, if accompanied by a process of détente, prevent a nuclear inferno.

Uprisings in the Eastern bloc

1953

Khrushchev brought Stalin’s crimes to light at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956. This temporarily aroused hope for a transformation of the Communist system. In Poland, mass demonstrations brought Władysław Gomułka to power 
in autumn 1956. He put a stop to forced collectivisation, gave the Catholic Church greater freedom and curbed the state 
security apparatus. While the leading role of the party remained inviolate in Poland, a bourgeois-democratic revol­ution took place at the same time in Hungary, during which the Communist reformer Imre Nagy announced – as the head of a multiparty governing coalition – Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. Moscow’s response was military intervention. In the GDR, where Soviet tanks had already smashed a mass uprising on 17 June 1953, Communist party chief Walter Ulbricht took advantage of the situation to settle scores with his critics at home. He also stood by the Kremlin in 1968 when Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. An increasingly powerful opposition movement began to form in Poland during the mid-1970s: it secured approval in 1980 for Solidarity, an independent trade union that soon had 10 million members. Under pressure from Moscow, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the prime minister, declared martial law and banned the trade union in late 1981. Even if destalinisation had put a stop to open forms of violence and thus reduced the atmosphere of fear, real or alleged members of the opposition were still persecuted, degraded and arrested under the Communist dictatorships to the very end.

Economic rivalry between East and West

1957

“You’ve never had it so good!” What British Prime Minister Harold 
Macmillan told his compatriots in 1957 applied equally well to many parts of Western Europe. Starting in the 1950s, the “economic miracle” meant increasing welfare, full employment and rising wages. However, consumer society and the welfare state were not only sources of stability for the Western democracies alone. Both political camps sought popular approval by promising better standards of living. But in the Eastern bloc, supply crises remained ubiquitous. The promise of a bright future – “the way you work today 
is how you’ll live tomorrow” – went un­fulfilled. Nevertheless, despite all its shortcomings, for a long time the Soviet economic system gave reason for both hope and concern. When the USSR launched the first satellite into space in 1957, the West, faced with Moscow’s new technological and military potential, suffered a shock. Still, the West’s highly developed social welfare system provided for social stability when the oil crisis of the 1970s ended years of seemingly un­limited economic growth and unemployment figures began to rise.

A fateful change of course had taken 
place in the Eastern bloc on the eve of the global recession: more and more resources were directed toward the construction of housing and consumption. The social goodies used to court popular approval were financed with Western credit. Growing over-indebtedness and the increasingly ramshackle economy exacerbated the economic situation, which led the Communist regimes to 
the abyss in the 1980s.

Liberalisation in Western Europe

1968

Wide-ranging social and cultural transformation accompanied increasing prosperity in the West. Calls for indivi­dual freedom and self-fulfilment became louder. Postwar youth challenged old authority figures with rock ’n’ roll, long hair and jeans. The youth movement became politicised over the course of the 1960s. Students in many places took to the streets in 
1968 – accompanied for a while by industrial workers in France and Italy. The protest was directed against the US war in 
Vietnam as well as against stodgy political, economic and social structures.

Many protesters dreamed of a great revolt. In the Federal 
Republic, people began to ask about the Nazi past more intensively than ever before. The “establishment” responded to the demonstrations with shock and, initially, with police violence. A radical leftist minority believed a new form of Fascism was rearing its ugly head. In the 1970s, small groups in Italy and West Germany went underground to defeat “the system” by 
terrorist means. But in the end, Western political systems were able to integrate the youthful protesters. The cultural changes in the West did not come to a halt at the Iron Curtain. Besides, with the Prague Spring, young Central and Eastern Europeans had had their own “1968”. The political regimes in the East never­theless lacked the strength to integrate increasingly
individualistic and self-confident young people into the existing system. Consequently, a chasm steadily deepened there 
between the rulers and ruled.

The policy of détente

1972

The USA and the USSR focused on détente following the Cuban Missile Crisis. The conviction grew in the Federal Republic as well that the “German question” could only be solved within a European framework. The de facto recognition of the Oder-Neisse border – acknow­ledged in treaties with the USSR and Poland that renounced the use of force – laid the groundwork for the Basic Treaty of 1972, with which the two German states set forth the terms of their coexistence after more than two decades of silence.

In return for de facto recognition, East Berlin made both travel between the two states and family reunions easier. Bonn focused on a policy of “change through rapprochement”, which East Berlin considered a form of “soft-shoe aggression”. As a result, it distanced itself from the goal of German unity that it had embraced up to this point. The policy of détente reached its high point in Europe 
in 1975 with the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords. The signatories committed themselves to confidence-building 
measures in the military realm, to respect for human rights and basic civil liberties as well as to closer cooperation. Courageous people in the Eastern bloc took the accords literally and demanded the freedoms promised therein. The 
human rights organisation Charter 77 made a first unmistakable signal two years later in Czechoslovakia.

Its initiators, above all Václav Havel, would go on to spearhead the Velvet Revolution against the Communist 
regime in 1989. In this way the Helsinki 
Accords, which the Communist regimes had hoped would solidify the status 
quo, led instead to their demise.

Peaceful revolutions

1989

The 1970s and 1980s were marked by a democratic trend that first affected authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece – but that then appeared to come to a stop 
at the Iron Curtain. In the early 1980s, the Soviet invasion of 
Afghanistan and a new arms race led to a hardening of relations between the two blocs as well as within the Communist sphere of influence itself. Beginning in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, tried to prevent systemic collapse by introducing two major reforms: glasnost and perestroika, which were rejected by the East German and Czechoslovakian leadership. They led to the reapproval of Solidarity in Poland, however – and then to the victory of the opposition in the first halfway free elections, which were held in August 1989. Impelled by the opposition, Communist reformers also prepared the path to democracy in Hungary.

The opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border in September signalled the fall of the Iron Curtain and exacerbated the final crisis gripping the GDR, where mass flight and increasingly powerful demonstrations would bring the SED leadership to its knees that autumn. The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 became the symbol of the peaceful revolutions that took place against the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe – despite being overshadowed by violence in Romania and the Baltic states. The dissolution of Yugoslavia took a tragic turn, leading to a bloody civil war. Communist putschists tried to turn back the clock in Moscow in August 1991. They failed because of resistance by the masses, who then celebrated the demise of the USSR in December.

Upheaval, awakening and a new beginning

1990

The peaceful revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe smoothed the way for overcoming the division of Europe as a whole. With the understanding of its neighbours, German unity was restored on 3 October 1990. Steps toward European integration soon followed. An agreement to create a single econ­omic and monetary union was followed by the Maastricht Treaty, on the basis of which the European states would work toward forming a common European Union (EU) through joint foreign and security policies as well as through cooperation in the areas of justice and interior policy. As a symbol of this consolidation, the euro was introduced in 2002 as a single means of exchange in initially twelve European countries. The post-Communist states pushed for rapid EU entry during the 1990s. This demand enjoyed broad support in those countries. The people there hoped this would allow them to share in the 
European culture of liberty and democracy as well as in Western material prosperity. In addition, the conditions for EU membership seemed to many to be an essential incentive for reform that would ensure that the democratic transformation 
of their countries would not grind to a halt.

Membership in the EU and NATO was ultimately seen as a guarantee of recently regained national sovereignty. Eight 
former Communist-ruled states acceded to the EU on 1 May 2004. Europe had never before been as united, as democratic and as optimistic about the future as it was at that time.

Europe as challenge

2004

On a continent devastated by war, the vision of a united Europe gained attractiveness as something that would guarantee its citizens peace, stability and prosperity. From the 1950s, the experience of two world wars and the new threat posed by the Communist bloc gave erstwhile mortal enemies the strength to 
create a common market, at first in Western Europe alone. An essential precondition for this was Franco-German reconciliation, which demonstrated that enemy stereotypes could be overcome. The peaceful revolutions against the Communist dictatorships gave the idea of Europe new strength, and it reached another high point with the EU’s eastward enlargement in 2004. A European conscious­ness nonetheless lagged behind the rapid political and economic process of integration. It was only with great effort that the European Union would become a force for peace, after it had failed in the 1990s to end the civil war and put a stop to the “ethnic cleansings” in former Yugoslavia. And it still continues the search for ways to 
counter the growing Euroscepticism fuelled by the current financial crisis – and that fosters new forms of nationalism and protectionism.

The last hundred years of European history spotlighted in this exhibition make 
it clear not only that there is no alternative to a unified and socially responsible Europe, but also that all the current problems – when measured against the low points of twentieth-century Euro­pean history – can and must be solved.

© „Diktatur und Demokratie im ­Zeitalter der Extreme“, Bundesstiftung zur Aufarbeitung der SED-Diktatur www.bundesstiftung-aufarbeitung.de/ausstellung2014