After World War II, the Soviet Union kept a firm grip over Eastern Europe, despite occasional uprisings. The boundary between Soviet-controlled and free European nations became known as the Iron Curtain.
The communist countries behind the Iron Curtain were known as satellite states. This name reflected their close location to and dependence on the Soviet Union. Although they were separate nations, the Soviet military and government maintained firm control.
Life in the Soviet satellite states was difficult. World War II had weakened their economies. Yet their economic system, the command economy, was not suited to rebuild them. In a command economy, the state government had the power to determine the production and pricing of goods. These governments didn't always make good decisions. As a result, the improper use of resources and a shortage of goods were common. For example, goods manufactured in Eastern Europe were inferior to those produced in Western Europe.
One of the best examples of this inferiority was East Germany's only car, the Trabant. The car was highly inefficient because of the low quality of materials used to manufacture it. Not only was the car fragile, but it also polluted the air. This unreliable car was priced high despite its obvious drawbacks. In contrast, West Germany was manufacturing the Volkswagen Beetle. The Beetle is one of the most popular cars in history.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union put down many resistance movements that arose in Eastern Europe. In 1948, the satellite state of Yugoslavia parted ways with the Soviet Union. The Yugoslav leader, Marshal Tito (born Josip Broz), was frustrated with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who didn't support Tito's efforts to take the city of Trieste from Italy.
In 1956, an uprising in communist Poland took the Soviets by surprise. Even though Poland remained loyal to communism, workers won better conditions and higher wages.
That same year, Hungary staged a similar revolution against the Soviet Union. Hungarians, like other Eastern Europeans, longed to establish a democratic government. However, the power of the Soviet troops and tanks was supreme. The Hungarian Revolution ended in just 12 days.
During the Cold War, Eastern Europeans sought to escape oppressive communist rule. They created escape routes into Western Europe. The reasons to flee Eastern Europe ranged from political oppression by the government to the poor quality of daily life.
The Soviet Union wanted to prevent people from leaving communist countries. In 1961, it decided to build a huge wall in Berlin, the capital of Germany. After the Berlin Wall went up, West Berlin was completely cut off by land from East Germany and East Berlin. The wall tightened the Soviet hold on Eastern Europe by preventing the escape of people into West Berlin.
The United States and its allies were not entirely opposed to the construction of the Berlin Wall. It helped protect West Berlin from any attempts by the Soviet Union to occupy it.
During the 1980s, life continued to be a struggle for people in the communist states of Eastern Europe, known as the Communist Bloc. This era was marked by radical political changes that weakened Soviet control over the region.
A number of factors combined to weaken the Soviet Union. Food shortages caused by crop failures and a corrupt economy were demoralizing to the Soviet people. The food shortages extended to the satellite states, which caused them to question their faith in the Soviet Union. Another problem was the Soviet Union's decision to spend a lot of money on a failed invasion of Afghanistan. The satellite states began to rise up against the Soviet government, and the Soviets found it increasingly difficult to control them. By the 1980s, the downfall of the Communist Bloc was looming.
By 1980, Poland's struggling communist government had increased food prices drastically. Farmers and workers throughout the country went on strikes to express their unhappiness. Lech Walesa, a former electrician, headed a popular organization called Solidarity. This group consisted of a number of small labor unions. Walesa was a strong leader, and the organization became known worldwide.
Eventually, the Polish government came to see Solidarity as a direct threat to its power. In response, it declared martial law in Poland in 1981. The government's military forces banned Solidarity from meeting and arrested Walesa. The government also ordered its army to suppress the activities by all other labor unions. However, constant public protests forced the government to release Walesa a year later.
Following Walesa's release, Solidarity had to meet in secret. However, public protests against martial law and the ban on Solidarity continued.
In June 1983, Pope John Paul II visited Walesa and offered him advice on behalf of the Catholic Church. John Paul II convinced the Solidarity leader to work with the Polish government to end martial law. Under the Pope's guidance, Walesa asked his followers to end the street demonstrations and protests in Poland. In return, the Polish government lifted martial law a month later.
In 1983, Walesa won a great international honor, the Nobel Peace Prize. He received it for cooperating with the Polish government and reestablishing peace in his country. The following short video shows the support that people across the globe expressed for Walesa's Solidarity movement.
In 1988, Poland's economy worsened. As a result, Solidarity organized strikes for labor unions across the country. Eventually, Solidarity's success and lasting impact forced the communist Polish government to loosen its grip over the nation's economy. In 1989, the government lifted the ban on Solidarity and made its meetings legal again.
In addition to cutting back centralized control, Poland's communist government empowered citizens to choose their leaders. Furthermore, a few Solidarity members were given the right to run for office.
In 1990, Walesa won the first free presidential elections in Poland, thanks to overwhelming support from Polish citizens. With this victory, a change for the better was under way. Poland started transforming from a communist nation to a free-market nation.
In 1989, the people of Romania rose up against the communist government of corrupt dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Ceausescu had increased agricultural exports, which led to food shortages in the country. His plans to destroy settlements in the countryside to develop industries there also enraged Romanian citizens.
In December 1989, large protests broke out in Romania. Ceausescu gave orders to the army to attack the protesters. However, the army shocked Ceausescu by siding with the demonstrators. Even so, Ceausescu refused to step down. Eventually, the armed forces arrested, tried, and executed Ceausescu and his wife.
These events contributed to the fall of the Communist Bloc. The Soviet Union lost control over its satellite states. The agreement it had with these former allies, known as the Warsaw Pact, was dissolved in 1991.
While the Soviet Union faced uprisings in its satellite states, Germany was on its way to reunification. Recall that Germany was divided at the end of World War II into two parts: East and West.
The United States and its allies supported West Germany by giving it the resources needed to strengthen its economy. They wanted West Germany to be an active member of the European community of nations. Instead of fearing a strong Germany, the Allies wanted to help rebuild it. As a result, West Germany prospered in the years after the war.
East Germany came under the rule of the Soviet Union after World War II. Compared to West Germany, East Germany's economy was underdeveloped. The Soviets wanted to keep the economy weak because they feared that a strengthened East Germany would be a threat to them. Their construction of the Berlin wall in 1961 further isolated East Germany.
By the mid-1980s, worldwide pressure was mounting for the Soviets to remove the Berlin Wall and reunify Germany. Most Soviet leaders were against the reunification of Germany. Even Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev, a liberal Soviet leader, did not favor Germany's reunification. In 1987, US president Ronald Reagan delivered a famous speech on the issue. In it, he challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, reunite Germany, and bring peace.
In 1989, the newly formed Republic of Hungary removed its defenses at its border with Austria. Thousands of East Germans were able to cross the border and flee to West Germany. This event encouraged East Germans to start a movement to bring down the Berlin Wall. People who wanted to leave East Germany held massive street demonstrations.
Finally, on November 9, 1989, East German leaders took matters into their own hands. They gave orders to open the gates of the Berlin Wall. This news spread quickly throughout East Germany. East Berliners gathered at the wall's six checkpoints. The eager and aggressive crowd overwhelmed the guards, demanding that they open the gates. The guards made frantic phone calls to officials to see if the order to open the gates had been a mistake. The guards soon unlocked the gates. While passing through, some people used hammers to take chunks out of the wall as souvenirs.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was a clear sign that the Soviet Union's influence in Eastern Europe had weakened.
After the Berlin Wall came down, officials from the United States, Soviet Union, and Germany started discussing the possibility of reuniting the country. Finally, on October 3, 1990, representatives of East and West Germany signed the Reunification Treaty. This agreement reunited Germany as a democratic nation.
Elections followed a few months later. The people elected West German leader Helmut Kohl to be the reunited country's first chancellor. This event reinforced that the Cold War was finally coming to an end. The newly reunited Germany eventually went on to become one of the five largest economies in the world.
After the fall of the Soviet satellite states, the Soviet Union also collapsed. The fall of the Soviet Union was a long and painful process.
Since the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union had been facing an economic crisis. There were two reasons for its crumbling economy. First, military spending took priority over investment in the Soviet economy. The military got better managers, workers, and materials than the factories that produced goods for the people. As a result, the Soviet Union produced some of the world's most advanced military machines and weapons. However, goods produced in the Soviet Union were poorly made, and shortages were common.
The second reason for the Soviet economic crisis was that the command economy system never provided a reliable food source. When its wheat crops failed in the early 1970s, the Soviet Union was forced to import grain from other countries. As defense costs and food prices soared, the Soviet Union was buried under debt.
In 1979, the Soviet Union added to its woes by warring with neighboring Afghanistan. Soviet aircraft and troops invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. The attack led to an expensive war between the nations, lasting for more than nine years. For the Soviet Union, this invasion proved to be disastrous. Apart from its high military costs, the war further strained international relations.
The war in Afghanistan also hurt the Soviet army's reputation. Known as the Red Army, it had been considered unbeatable since World War II. But as the war in Afghanistan continued, this perception changed. Around 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives, while thousands were injured. By the time the Soviet Union started withdrawing its troops in 1987, the Red Army had weakened considerably. The Soviet-Afghan war was termed the "Vietnam of the USSR" because the challenges of the Soviet Union were similar to the ones that the United States had faced in Vietnam a decade earlier.
The consequences of Gorbachev's reforms were not as he had expected. With their newfound social freedom, citizens started carrying out strikes and other forms of protests. Because of this increasing unrest, the Soviet economy worsened. As a result, food shortages also worsened, and prices continued to rise.
Because of the growing political instability in the Soviet Union, some federated states started demanding independence. Most of the 15 Soviet states had been against Russia, the most dominant state. As the Soviet economy started to crumble, each state began losing faith in the union.
By 1991, the Soviet Union's downfall seemed inevitable. Hardline communist leaders blamed Gorbachev for the approaching collapse of the Soviet Union. In August, the leaders attempted to take over the government. They ordered the Soviet military to arrest Gorbachev. They also ordered it to use force against any citizens protesting their actions. However, their attempted takeover failed miserably. The military forces chose not to harm citizens. At the same time, new leaders, such as former Moscow mayor Boris Yeltsin, rose to challenge Gorbachev.
On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union finally collapsed. Each of the 15 states gained their independence. On the same day, Gorbachev accepted defeat and resigned. Eventually, Boris Yeltsin went on to become the president of Russia.
The fall of the Soviet Union officially ended the Cold War.