An Alternative Reading of the Cold War

All these changes before 1989 can be woven together into an alternative reading of the Cold War. Mainstream American Cold War historiography explains the end of the East-West conflict in confrontational terms. The doyen of this school of thought, John Lewis Gaddis, basically argues that Ronald Reagan’s arms race brought the Soviet Union to its knees in the eighties.8 The realization that the USSR could not keep pace with military rearmament supposedly convinced Gorbachev to introduce the reforms that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. But there are a number of arguments to challenge this view. On a global level, for one, the ongoing confrontation with the West has served to consolidate the communist regimes in North Korea and Cuba until today, and reaffirmed their disapproval of reforms.

The policy of détente, by contrast, contributed significantly to ending the Cold War. This is especially evident when the East-West conflict is seen from a “Eurocentric” perspective.9 As outlined above, the rapprochement on the old continent gave rise to crucial confidence-building measures, dependencies, and entanglements. The problem with this narrative is that it is not based on a clear juxtaposition of good and evil and does not produce any heroes. On the contrary, it shows that the West German government under social-democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt neglected to support the Solidarność movement in Poland. With the benefit of hindsight, one might ask why the West supplied the GDR and other Eastern Bloc countries with loans of billions for many years. This alternative reading of the end of the Cold War, then, explores a political and moral gray zone of interaction and compromise between East and West and between the regimes and their respective oppositions.

Whatever significance changing perceptions, dependencies, and entanglements had for ending the Cold War, these factors certainly shaped the manner in which regime changes were effected in the years 1989–91. The use of military or physical force had declined since the end of Stalinism. True, the Red Army had marched into Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. But the Soviet Union had subsequently paid a high political and financial price. Partly for this reason, it tried to avoid repeating the occurrence in Poland in 1980–81. Another, equally important factor was the communists’ relaxation of violence against their own citizens. The thaw in 1956 marked the end both of mass terror in the USSR and the Gulag system, which had never become fully established on the fringes of the Soviet empire anyway. By the 1970s and ’80s, although demonstrations were still violently suppressed and dissidents tortured, political mass murder had been stopped. Paradoxically, this is illustrated by the case of a Polish priest, Jerzy Popiełuszko, who was abducted and murdered by security forces in 1984. The incident provoked such an outcry that the henchmen were subsequently indicted by their own regime. Despite the nominal sentences they received, their indictment signalized to police agents and spies to exercise greater restraint. Overall, the police and security forces in the Eastern Bloc stopped inspiring the intense fear they had in the 1950s and ’60s. The open discussions about the political and economic situation my family engaged in during our summer vacation in Poland in 1977, and conversations I had in the streets, bars, and restaurants in the eighties, testified to this.

Of course, the situation differed from country to country. In Poland, people spoke openly and freely; Czechs looked over their shoulders in cafés and restaurants, checking for unwanted listeners; East German citizens avoided talking about “real existing socialism” or communist party leader Erich Honecker in public. But in general terms, the citizens of Eastern Bloc countries were not as “atomized” as totalitarianism theory—previously a major influence on Cold War studies—has claimed.

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