By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Vladimir Lenin founded a radical system of government called the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin continued to build it into an empire that was going to create a new stage of human history. The system, based on the ideas of Karl Marx, was supposed to bring about a final modernization. But did that happen?
The ideal world that Marx imagined was one without inequalities, private property, and all classes eliminated by a final revolution. The socialism created by Marx was one that understood the direction of history, which created certainty and confidence in Lenin and Stalin and other revolutionaries. They used this confidence to justify many crimes and offer final solutions to modern problems. Stalin used modernization as a cover to justify his abominations that led to the death of millions of people.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Spread of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe
Stalin’s notion of modernization involved the dominance of the flawless leader over everything through a scientific plan. It manifested in the form of collectivization, mass purges, arrests, and executions to create a planned society.
The victory of the Allied forces in WWII gave Stalin a chance to spread his dominion. The Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic States, parts of Poland, and set up allied regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. These countries had to take on the imposed Stalinist political systems, and their societies went under the state control to ultimately abolish civil society.
Civil society is the space between the individual and the state. It is in this zone that all voluntary interactions like organizations, churches, clubs, and friendships take place. The Red Army took over central and Eastern Europe, which was more like the colonialism of Europe.
Learn more about the French Revolution.
The Birth of East and West Germany
The United States and the Soviet Union, which used to be allies, started the Cold war, and turned Germany into the center of this war. The defeated land of Germany split up into zones, each controlled by different military forces. The capital, Berlin, was inside the Soviet zone, but like the whole country, it was also divided into zones.
Eventually, Berlin turned into west and east zones with America controlling the west and the Soviet Union taking over the east. The western zone was called the Federal Republic of Germany, and the eastern part was called the German Democratic Republic, each claiming to be the only legitimate Germany.
Stalin and his successor, Khrushchev, could not bear to see West Berlin inside their zone. That’s why a series of crises emerged in Berlin, in which the Cold War could have turned into the Third World War.
Stalin tried blockading West Berlin in 1948, but the Americans and the British used a dramatic airlift to supply the civilian population for 11 months, and Stalin was forced to call off his attempt to throttle West Berlin.
After Stalin died in 1953, East Berlin was the scene of the Arbeiteraufstand, the Workers’ Uprising, when striking workers had begun calling for free elections. Soviet tanks crushed the workers, but as a result, they left in tatters the ideological claim of the East German communists to represent the working classes at large.
Learn more about the Russo-Japanese War.
The Construction of the Berlin Wall
Another development that the East German leaders did not like was the brain drain. The most talented young Germans went from East to West Germany, where they had automatic citizenship. They had the permission to move because Berlin was under shared control by the victors of World War II.
About two and a half million people went to West Germany from 1949 to 1961. As they were the most skilled and educated people, the communist leaders saw it as a threat. So, they decided to put a stop to it.
The solution was putting up the Berlin Wall with the approval of Khrushchev and the Soviet Union on August 13, 1961. It was a surprise move done without any warnings. To show off their superior position on Earth and in space, the Soviets flew one of their cosmonauts precisely at the same time as the erection of the Berlin Wall.
Although the East German propaganda had always denied the intention of building a wall, things now changed. The new propaganda called the wall the new Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier. Now, if any East German citizen tried to escape the republic, they would be convicted of a crime.
This threat was revealed as deadly earnest when the first victim was shot by border guards at the wall, a week and a half after it had been set up. This was a young worker trying to get to the West, a 24-year-old tailor named Günter Litfin.
Common Questions about the Events Leading to the Construction of the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961.
The Soviet leaders of East Germany were alarmed by the large number of people going from East to West Berlin. So, they decided to stop it by erecting a wall.
After the end of World War II, the occupied land of Germany was divided between the US and the Soviet Union. The western zone, controlled by the US, was called the Federal Republic of Germany, and the eastern part, under the control of the Soviet Union, was named the German Democratic Republic, each claiming to be the only legitimate Germany.
The Soviet Union absorbed the Baltic States, parts of Poland, and set up allied regimes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.