East of Europe Before the Second World War: Problems and Contradictions

Oleg Vishlev / No Comments Share:
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… In a short time, the Danube countries were economically dependent on Germany. Eloquent evidence of this is the German ultimatum to Romania on economic issues in the spring of 1939. The large-scale German economic expansion into Romania and Yugoslavia, in turn, contributed to undermining the system of political alliances in Eastern Europe, which facilitated the transformation of the region into an object of not only economic, but also military expansion.

One more circumstance should be noted. None of the states in the region (with the exception of Czechoslovakia) could complete industrialization and, consequently, create an effective defense industry. In the context of the impending war, they were dependent on the supply of arms of their industrialized countries, and many of them, primarily the Danube countries, on German military exports. This directly affected their defenses and the fate of the East European region as a whole.

Military-political factors

The state sovereignty and territorial integrity of the countries of Eastern and Southeast Europe were called upon to guarantee political alliances that arose in the region after the First World War and focused on cooperation with the Western powers, primarily France. However, these unions were not able to provide independent countries in the region. By the beginning of World War II, one of them had virtually ceased to exist (the Little Entente, the Balkan Entente), while the others “did not work” in a crisis situation (Polish-Romanian Union, Baltic Entente).

Due to the above national, territorial and economic contradictions, a defensive alliance of the countries of the region did not form, the alliance of political groups existing in the region did not form, and these groups themselves did not grow into military-political associations. The same factors, combined with socio-political contradictions, determined and conducted the USSR attempts to unite the countries of the region under the agreement on guaranteeing borders in Eastern Europe (Eastern Pact).

The functions of the political groups of states that existed in the region did not include counteraction to the expansionist aspirations of Germany, as subsequent events showed – the main source of danger for the countries of Eastern Europe. So, the Little Entente, uniting Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, aimed to oppose the “revisionist” policies of Hungary, the Balkan Entente (Romania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece) – to repulse the territorial claims of Bulgaria, the Polish-Romanian Union and the Baltic Entente – to counteract the possible “revisionist “aspirations of the USSR.

A characteristic feature of political unions in Eastern Europe was the fact that they did not provide coordination of the policies of the participating countries on a wide range of international issues. Expressing their readiness to coordinate their actions in relation to the state against which this union was directed, the partners in all other respects maintained complete autonomy. This seriously weakened the groups, made them fragile. The reason for this situation was also the fears of members of political groups that, with closer coordination of foreign and defense policies, their sovereignty (in some cases just acquired) may be infringed, and they may be involved in a conflict with third countries due to contradictions between partners on the block. The latter is most clearly illustrated by the history of the creation and activities of the Baltic Entente. Latvia and Estonia were very afraid, for example, to ruin relations with Poland and Germany due to Lithuania’s contradictions with them on the territorial affiliation of the Vilnius and Memel regions.

The complete inefficiency in ensuring the security of Eastern Europe was also demonstrated by the military-political agreements of the countries of the region with major powers. Polish-French, and then Anglo-Franco-Polish, Franco-Czechoslovak, Soviet-Czechoslovak, Franco-Soviet-Czechoslovak, Franco-Romanian, Franco-Yugoslav and other political unions failed, primarily due to the extremely inconsistent and controversial policies of Germany and Italy and ignoring the proposals of the USSR to organize an effective rebuff to the aggressors on a collective basis. The negative prejudice of the East European states against the establishment of military-political cooperation with the Soviet Union, caused by their fears of trying to play the role of a regional great power, also had negative consequences.

At the same time, towards the end of the 1930s, especially after the signing of the Müchen Agreement of 1938, the states of the region were increasingly convinced that it was hardly possible to count on effective protection of their interests by Britain and France, and began to try to solve the problem of ensuring their security, sovereignty and territorial integrity on the ways of concluding bilateral non-aggression treaties with Germany and developing political cooperation with it and Italy. “Bilateralization” of relations between Eastern European countries and major powers had, however, fatal consequences: the former turned out to be completely fragmented, and the latter got the opportunity, sequentially isolating them, to implement a program of territorial and political reconstruction of the region that was in their interests.

When we talk about the tragic fate of the countries of Eastern Europe on the eve and during the Second World War, we must clearly understand that their loss of sovereignty in this period is not only the result of external influence on them, but also a consequence of their own internal weakness, fragmentation, and inability effectively fight for their independence. This weakness and fragmentation was the result, on the one hand, of shortcomings in the design of the Versailles system itself, and, on the other hand, of political miscalculations and mistakes made by the Eastern European states.

The experience of the past deserves the closest attention, especially since this applies to the region, which over the past century and a half has established itself as the most exposed part of Europe to social and political transformations. Three knots of contradictions in this region (among major powers, among major powers and countries of the region, among countries of the region), which were the catalyst and detonator of two world wars, and in many ways the Cold War in its “first edition”, are still not completely unleashed although in many cases weakened or altered.

Oleg Vishlev is a Candidate (PhD) of Historical Sciences, the Russian Federation

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