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Cold War in Europe

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Cold War in Europe

After the end of the Second World War, a new conflict emerged in Europe. This conflict was known as the Cold War since it never came to direct fighting between the two sides, composed of the capitalist United States and its allies and the communist Soviet Union and its allies. Europe was divided between them, and the Cold War had a profound impact on the continent until its end in the early 1990s. Learn about the causes of the Cold War in Europe and the major events of the period in this Cold War in Europe summary.

Cold War in Europe Summary

The Cold War in Europe began with the end of World War II in 1945. It arose out of deep ideological divides between the capitalist countries of Western Europe and the United States and communist Russia, known as the Soviet Union.

They had radically different visions of postwar Europe. The US hoped to build a network of allies and trade partners based on capitalism. The USSR sought to expand communism and ensure a strategic and defensive buffer to protect themselves from future invasion.

These differing goals resulted in the division of Europe into two competing blocs. While the two sides never went to war with each other, there were several flash points of conflict in Europe, and in Eastern Europe, the USSR intervened to repress anti-government protests.

The Cold War ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Learn more details of this brief Cold War in Europe summary by consulting the Cold War in Europe timeline and the major causes and events of the Cold War below.

Cold War in Europe Timeline

See some of the major events of the Cold War in Europe in the Cold War in Europe timeline below.

Cold War in Europe Timeline StudySmarterCold War in Europe Timeline. Made by the author Adam McConnaughhay, StudySmarter Originals.

Causes of the Cold War in Europe

The main cause of the Cold War in Europe was the continent being caught in the middle of the ideological divide between the US and USSR, however there were other causes of the Cold War in Europe.

Long Term Causes of the Cold War in Europe

  • Communism vs Capitalism: Since the rise of communism in the Russian Revolution in 1917, the United States, Britain, France, and other countries in Western Europe feared its expansion.
  • The World Wars: Germany had invaded Russia twice in less than 30 years. Russian goals were guided by a desire for security.

Short Term Causes of the Cold War in Europe

  • Super Power Status of the US and USSR: The Second World War left much of Europe devastated. The US and USSR emerged as the two global superpowers. They now engaged in a struggle for influence during the Cold War in Europe and around the world.
  • Spread of Communism in Eastern Europe: The Soviet Union occupied the states of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War. Hoping to both spread their ideology and create a defensive buffer, they imposed communist governments in these states.
  • Future of Germany: The Allies jointly occupied Germany. The US, Britain, and France wanted to rebuild it into a strong and stable counter to Soviet power, while the Soviets hoped to keep it weak.

A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory." -Winston Churchill1

Exam Tip

Exam questions will ask you to construct historical arguments using evidence to support them. Consider which of the causes of the Cold War mentioned above you consider to be most important and construct an argument to support that position.

Causes of the Cold War in Europe Yalta Conference StudySmarterWinston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin meet in Yalta in 1945, disagreements over postwar Europe would cause the Cold War. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

From Allies to Enemies: Beginnings of the Cold War in Europe

As the Soviet Union occupied the countries of Eastern Europe, the Western Allies US looked on with fear. The 1945 Yalta Agreement had established that the region would be a Soviet sphere of influence but also that free and fair elections would be held.

It quickly became clear that the two sides interpreted this agreement differently. The Soviets established political and economic domination over the region and helped communist governments aligned to them come to power.

Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that an "iron curtain" had descended across Europe. Meanwhile, the US program for economic aid to Europe known as the Marshall Plan, instituted in part to prevent the further spread of communism, was criticized by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin as imperialist "dollar diplomacy."

US President Harry Truman called for the US to adopt a policy of containment, or stopping the spread of communism to new countries. This idea, known as the Truman Doctrine, influenced US policy throughout the Cold War. It was first used to support governments fighting communist rebels in Greece and Turkey with economic and military aid.

Stalin saw the policy of containment as a threat and became even more entrenched in his belief that the Soviet Union must maintain the defensive buffer of Eastern Europe under their control.

Germany became a major flashpoint in the early Cold War in Europe. The country was divided into 4 zones of occupation between the French, British, US, and USSR. They disagreed on the postwar direction for the country. Berlin became a further source of tension. It was located inside the Soviet occupation zone but had also been divided into 4 zones of occupation.

Cold War in Europe Map of Occupied Germany StudySmarterMap showing the division of Germany and Berlin after the war. Source: WikiNight2, GNU Free Documentation License, Wikimedia Commons

In 1948, the Soviet Union set up the Berlin Blockade, cutting off supplies into the western half of the city in a hope to push the Western Allies out entirely. Support for West Berlin via an airlift of supplies made it a major symbol of the Cold War, and eventually the Soviets lifted the blockade.

The 3 western zones unified into the Federal Republic of Germany (commonly called West Germany) and the Soviet zone became the German Democratic Republic (commonly called East Germany). This division of Germany confirmed that the tensions between the two sides were irreconcilable and its division served as a reminder of the larger division into East and West that characterized the Cold War in Europe.

Consequences of the Cold War in Europe

The main consequence of the Cold War in Europe was its semi-permanent division into two rival blocs, or camps of countries.

Defining Western and Eastern Europe in the Cold War

The countries of Western Europe became economically and diplomatically aligned with the US, receiving Marshall Aid and joining the defensive alliance of NATO.

NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded in 1949 to serve as a defensive alliance against possible Soviet aggression in Europe.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union strengthened its control over Eastern Europe. These countries were often referred to as Soviet satellites since they all had limited independence under the strong influence of Moscow. They created their own military alliance with the Warsaw Pact and economic union with COMECON.

Warsaw Pact

After West Germany joined NATO in 1955, the communist countries responded by creating the Warsaw Pact, their own defensive alliance.

COMECON

The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or COMECON was created in 1949 as to promote economic cooperation between the communist countries.

Cold War in Europe Summary Map of Alliances in Western and Eastern Europe in the Cold War StudySmarterMap of Europe showing the division into Cold War economic and military alliances. Source: San Jose, CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated, Wikimedia Commons

Important Events of the Cold War in Europe

There were a number of significant events of the Cold War in Europe after the Berlin Blockade.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

New Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had instituted a policy of de-Stalinization, renouncing Stalin's brand of hardline repression in the Secret Speech of 1956. Some limited reforms were made in Poland the same year.

Hungarians hoped for the reforms in their country too. On October 23, 1956, 20,000 protestors took to the streets, demanding reforms and full Hungarian independence. They destroyed a statue of Stalin, and violence broke out between protestors and police.

Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and diplomatic neutrality. This was a step too far for the USSR. Warsaw Pact forces invaded and reestablished firm communist control.

More than 26,000 Hungarians were arrested and many more fled into exile. Nagy was executed. The US and Western Allies condemned the invasion but were distracted by the Suez Crisis in Egypt and did not intervene.

Cold War in Europe Hungarian Revolution StudySmarterDestroyed statue of Stalin in Budapest, Source: Gabor B. Racz, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

1961 Berlin Crisis

With its status as a divided city, Berlin was a powerful symbol of the Cold War in Europe for both sides. The US saw it as a beacon of freedom inside communist East Germany. The Soviet Union saw it as a cancer of capitalist perversion.

More problematic for the Soviets was the presence of US military personnel in Berlin and the escape of defectors via West Berlin. As much as 20% of the East German population is thought to have fled by 1961, many of them by crossing into West Berlin.

At midnight on the night of August 12, 1961, the communists closed the border. East German authorities quickly erected barriers around the borders of West Berlin and along the line that divided the eastern and western halves of the city.

On October 27, 1961 Soviet and American tanks loaded with live ammunition were in a stare down just 100 yards apart at the border crossing known as Checkpoint Charlie. The two nuclear armed superpowers were on the brink of war.

Cold War in Europe Summary Checkpoint Charlie StudySmarterUS troops look across the border at Checkpoint Charlie at Soviet tanks. Source: Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

After a 24 hour standoff, the Soviet tanks withdrew, followed by the American tanks, averting war. This crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year were the closest the two superpowers ever came to direct war.

The communists expanded the barriers into a massive wall that divided Berlin. The Berlin Wall became a powerful symbol of the Cold War division of not only Berlin and Germany but also Europe and the world.

1968 Prague Spring

Despite the earlier failure of reform in Hungary, Czechoslovakia attempted its own set of reforms in 1968. Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Czechoslovakian communist party, stated his goal was to create "communism with a human face."

He allowed more freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and made economic reforms. They were widely popular within Czechoslovakia and this period became known as the Prague Spring.

However, hardline leaders within the Soviet Union and the other Warsaw Pact countries feared they would inspire calls for reform in their own countries. So, like in Hungary before, force was used to crush this challenge.

Over 600,000 Warsaw Pact troops occupied Czechoslovakia. Protestors responded with mostly peaceful protests, preventing the large scale violence that had occurred in Hungary. Dubcek was forced to resign and his reforms were canceled.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev justified the invasion by arguing that any threat to communist rule in one country was a threat to all of them and should be stopped by collective action. This idea became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. It was also used to justify the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Cold War in Europe Summary Eastern Europe in the Cold War Prague Spring StudySmarterWarsaw Pact tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968. Source: ALDOR46, CC-BY-SA-3.0, Wikimedia Commons

End of the Cold War in Europe

By the 1980s, it was clear the cracks in the system of Cold War Eastern Europe were becoming more severe. Despite attempts at reform, the communist governments ultimately came crashing down, paving the way for the end of the Cold War in Europe.

Towards Reform?

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Struggling with the costly war in Afghanistan, keeping up with US arms spending, and the stagnation of the communist bloc's economies, he announced several reforms.

Glasnost, Russian for opening, allowed more freedom of expression and democratization. Perestroika, Russian for restructuring, decentralized economic planning.

While these reforms did lead to some improvements, many people remained frustrated with the slow pace of change. The allowance of greater dissent promoted more criticism of the government, amplifying calls for change. The reforms ultimately opened a space for the fall of the communist governments.

Poland is the First Domino to Fall

In Poland, the workers union known as Solidarity began protests in the 1980s. Gorbachev rejected the Braznhev Doctrine and said he would not intervene to save the Polish communist government.

This led to a rapid and mostly peaceful transition away from communism first in Poland and then the rest of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991.

In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall was destroyed by protestors while guards looked on peacefully. Much as the wall had become a powerful symbol of Cold War Europe, its destruction was a powerful symbol of the end of the Cold War in Europe.

Cold War in Europe - Key takeaways

  • The causes of the Cold War in Europe included the ideological divide of communism vs capitalism, the postwar superpower competition between the US and USSR, and conflict over the future of Europe and Germany.
  • Europe was divided into a capitalist and US aligned Western bloc and a communist and Soviet aligned Eastern bloc, with both sides integrating economically and creating defensive military alliances.
  • Major events of the Cold War in Europe included the Berlin Blockade, the 1961 Berlin Crisis, and the Soviet use of force to stop reform in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
  • Beginning in 1989, the communist governments underwent a rapid wave of collapse beginning with Poland, with the Soviet Union rejecting intervention to save them. This prompted the end of the Cold War in Europe and the world more broadly.

References

  1. Winston Churchill, Sinews of Peace Speech at Fulton University, 1946

Frequently Asked Questions about Cold War in Europe

US troops occupied the Western part of Germany and the city of Berlin during the Cold War.

The alliances of NATO and Warsaw Pact shaped Europe into a divided East and West with the west allied with the US and East allied with the Soviet Union.

Containment led to US support for the Greek government in the early Cold War and helped harden the lines between East and West Europe.

Germany contributed to the Cold War in Europe by being a flashpoint for tensions. It was divided into a East and West as was its capital Berlin which was strategically important to both sides and was a symbol of the Cold War division of Europe.

The Cold War affected countries in Europe in a variety of ways. Western Europe received aid from the US, while Eastern Europe had communism imposed on it and was under the strong influence of the Soviet Union.

Final Cold War in Europe Quiz

Question

Which two superpowers led the two sides of the Cold War?

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Answer

The US and USSR

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Question

What happened to Eastern Europe during the early Cold War?

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Answer

The USSR imposed communist governments.

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Question

To what European country did the US provide aid under the policy of containment?

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Answer

Greece (and Turkey)

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What was the Marshall Plan?

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Answer

An economic aid package from the US to the countries of Europe

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What was NATO?

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Answer

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created as a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union

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What was the Warsaw Pact?

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Answer

A defensive alliance between the communist countries of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union

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What was the status of Germany after World War II?

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Answer

It was divided into 4 zones of occupation between the British, French, US, and USSR as as the city of Berlin.

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Why did Stalin institute the Berlin Blockade?

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Answer

To push the Western Allies out of West Berlin.

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To what country did the USSR and Warsaw Pact sent troops to stop a revolution in 1956?

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Hungary

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Why did the 1961 Berlin crisis start?

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Because the USSR closed the borders and built the Berlin Wall.

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What country did Warsaw Pact troops occupy to stop reforms in 1968?

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Answer

Czechoslovakia

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What Soviet leader instituted reforms that helped lead to the downfall of communism?

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Answer

Mikhail Gorbachev

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In what country did communism fall first?

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Poland

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What was the Brezhnev Doctrine?

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The idea that all the communist states must act collectively to stop communism falling in another country, used to justify intervention in the Prague Spring.

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What philosopher and economist developed the ideas of modern communism?

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Answer

Karl Marx

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In which country did the first communist government emerge?

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Russia or the Soviet Union

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What best describes the goal of communism?

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To create a classless society with based on communal ownership rather than private property.

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What characterized the communist states' economies in practice?

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Socialism, or state control of the economy with the government owning and managing industries, resources, and farms.

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What were the tactics that saw the communist parties in Eastern Europe eliminate their opposition one by one known as?

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Salami Tactics

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True or False: Communist parties in Western Europe had significant support in the years following World War II.

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True

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What was the name of the package of aid sent to Western Europe to help stop communism from spreading there?

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Marshall Plan

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Why did the US believe the Marshall Plan would stop the spread of communism to Western Europe?

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They believed that the economic instability caused by the war would make people support communist parties, so rebuilding the economy would prevent calls for revolution.

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What was the military alliance between the communist governments in Eastern Europe?

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Answer

The Warsaw Pact

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What was the economic union between the communist governments in Eastern Europe?


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COMECON

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In which countries was there evidence that the Eastern European communist countries were not truly independent to make reforms?

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Answer

In Hungary and Czechoslovakia the USSR intervened to stop protest and reform, showing the communist countries of Eastern Europe had limited independence.

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What was Solidarity?

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Solidarity was a trade union that organized large protests against communist rule in Poland in the 1980s.

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What was the outcome of the Round Table Talks in Poland?

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Elections were held, which ended communist rule.

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Why was Gorbachev significant to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe?

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Answer

Gorbachev refused to intervene in Poland or elsewhere to stop protest and reform.

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