The Collapse of the Communist BLOC and the Warsaw Pact

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  • 0:03 Collapse of Communist Bloc
  • 0:35 Warsaw Pact
  • 2:35 End of Soviet Union
  • 4:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the fall and breakup of the Warsaw Pact and Eastern Bloc of communist countries allied with, and client states of, the Soviet Union from after World War II until the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Collapse of Communist Bloc

Most of us can remember the 2008 economic collapse affecting us at least a little bit. Even if you were still an adolescent, you likely knew someone's parent who lost their job or had their hours cut. It was proof that even the biggest things in the world (in this case, a global economic powerhouse) could falter and possibly fail. The same is true for the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Arguably the largest superpower of the second half of the 20th century, the Warsaw Pact broke apart a mere half century after its inception.

Cold War and Warsaw Pact

When World War II (WWII) ended, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union largely decided what post-war Europe would look like. At numerous conferences, the most important of which was the Yalta Conference, the three countries hammered out an agreement that essentially ceded control and influence over most of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union. Not only did all parties agree to recognize the pre-war and wartime Soviet annexations of states like Lithuania and Latvia, but the Soviet Union was further given influence over a series of Eastern European states, like Czechoslovakia and Poland, creating a series of buffer states which the Soviet Union claimed it required as protection against Western aggression.

In reality, many of these countries quickly became client states of the Soviet Union, with their internal politics and economies directly controlled by the Soviet government in Moscow. When any of these states attempted to scale back communist measures, such as Czechoslovakia did in 1968, the Soviet Union violently suppressed the agents of change to preserve the Eastern Bloc, which is a term often used in the West to refer to this group of communist, Eastern European countries.

Only ten years after the end of WWII, the Soviet Union further solidified its bond with these countries with the creation of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact was a 1955 agreement between the Soviet Union and the leaders of several Eastern Bloc states, including Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Albania (though Albania was kicked out in 1962) for mutual military protection.

With Soviet influence already pervasive throughout the region, the treaty substantively changed little; it merely made public a situation that already existed. The reason for the pomp and circumstance of signing the treaty was a display of power in response to the United States, the UK, and several other Western countries' creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

End of Soviet Union

Throughout the following decades, the Soviet Union continued to maintain a firm grip on the government and economy of Warsaw Pact countries. However, in the 1980s the failing Soviet economy neared its breaking point and the Soviet government was too stilted and hierarchical to properly react. When Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he attempted to save the Union through reforms such as perestroika and glasnost.

Perestroika implemented a series of economic reforms meant to introduce a modicum of free trade and scale back the harshest measures of the state-controlled Soviet economy. Similarly, glasnost sought to establish some political and civic freedoms where there had previously been none. Warsaw Pact states were now allowed to have political parties other than the Communist Party, and some freedom of the press was introduced.

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