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

Oleg Vishlev / Share:
A general map of Europe after highlighting the eastern parts. wikimedia/Joy

After the First World War, a new political map of Central and Eastern Europe was formed. In the years of 1918-1919, as a result of the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire, which dominated the region, as well as a significant weakening of Germany, eight new states emerged there: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. For the five states of Southeastern Europe that achieved independence in the 19th century (Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and Serbia) as a result of the collapse of another great power, the Ottoman Empire, which lost a number of territories and turned into the Turkish Republic, the conditions of existence changed significantly. Serbia became the core of the new state – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

In 1918-1919, the principle of state sovereignty of the largest nations of this region triumphed over the entire strip of European territory – from the Aegean to the Barents Sea, which undoubtedly was a positive historical event. However, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both the newly formed and the “old” states in Eastern Europe turned out to be very fragile.

20 years passed, and some of them for some time again disappeared from the map, while the borders of others were redrawn, and they themselves were put in economic and political dependence on neighboring powers. The region became one of the main theaters of operations during the Second World War. With full justification, one can speak about the historical community of the destinies of the peoples of Central, Eastern and Southeast Europe with reference to the subsequent period.

The issue of gaining, maintaining or losing state sovereignty by the peoples of this region over the past three centuries has been inseparable from “big European politics.” Without diminishing the role of the region’s internal forces in the emancipation process, it should be noted that each of its new rounds, progressive or regressive, was somehow connected with the confrontation among great powers and their realization of geopolitical interests and goals.

The external causes of the loss of sovereignty by the countries of the region on the eve and during the Second World War are well known. But what were the internal factors that made them unable to resist the expansion of neighboring powers? The traditional explanation: the states of the region, each in their own economically, demographically and militarily, were much weaker than their larger neighbors and, moreover, turned out to be fragmented – it can be accepted, albeit with significant reservations. But what determined their “weakness” and “disunity”? This issue often remains outside the field of vision of scientists and politicians. Nevertheless, it is worth paying close attention – and not only for the sake of knowing the past.

The factors that caused the problem state of the East European region on the eve of World War II, or, as they sometimes say, the “internal crisis of Eastern Europe,” can be divided into three groups: national-territorial, economic, and military-political.

National territorial factors

The reasons for the political “friability” of Eastern Europe and the internal instability of a number of its states were due to a complex of interethnic contradictions and contradictions on territorial issues that had been laid down by the Versailles, Saint-Germain peace treaties of 1919 and a number of subsequent international agreements.

The states of the region, who were among the defeated in the First World War (Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria), felt “nationally humiliated”, because their interests were seriously infringed. These states have lost significant territories, with a population living on them having been departed to those nations that the victorious powers (Great Britain and France) considered as their allies (Poles, Czechs, Romanians, Serbs, etc.). This has led to the emergence of the interstate relations problems of “severed ancestral territories”, “disputed territories”, stimulated the development of “revisionist” tendencies among the defeated, gave their relations with the winners and their allies a tense character, which steadily destabilized the situation not only in Eastern Europe, but throughout the European continent as a whole.

This factor was the basis of the contradictions of Germany with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Lithuania, Hungary with Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, Bulgaria with Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece. The same problems arose in relations among the newly-formed states – between Lithuania and Poland, which seized and annexed the Vilnius region, and between Poland and Czechoslovakia due to Tesinska Silesia. In both of these cases it came to military clashes.

Much similar contradictions were noted between the USSR and Poland. Following the results of the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1920, a number of regions of Soviet Russia moved east of the “Curzon Line”, which had previously been determined by the Entente Council as the eastern Polish border. And Romania, which annexed Bessarabia in 1918, as well as with the Baltic states, in which the emerging Soviet republics were crushed with the active support of volunteer units, which ultimately put a barrier to the return of these territories part of the Russian statehood, the carrier of which at that time was the RSFSR.

Concerning national-territorial issues, it should be noted that a significant contribution to the complication of the situation in the region was made by the prohibition of the victorious powers on the desire expressed in 1918-1919 by the Austrians and Germans to create a single state. The slogan “Anschluss” from the beginning of the 1920s became a programmatic one for many parties in both countries, but any step in this direction came up against fierce opposition from Great Britain, France and Italy.

The territorial claims in the Balkans of Italy, one of the victorious powers, which considered itself to be unjustly deprived by the allies of the Entente in determining the state borders in southeastern Europe, also had a destabilizing effect.

The situation in the region was seriously affected by the fact that the “titular nations” ignored the newly formed states, many of which turned out to be multinational, of the interests and rights of minority groups. National minorities made up 35% of the population in Poland, 33% in Czechoslovakia, 25% in Romania, 20% in Lithuania, 18% in Latvia, and 14% in Yugoslavia. The “titular nations” sought to implement the principle of “one state – one nation – one language – one culture”, which pushed minorities on the path of resistance and separatism, stimulated their desire to reunite with those states where this national minority was a “titular nation” or possessed strong socio-political positions.

This was most characteristic of the German national movement in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Yugoslavia, the Ukrainian national movement in Poland, the Hungarian national movement in Romania. This, in turn, destabilized the internal situation in multinational states, led to an aggravation of their relations with those countries where minorities that embarked on the path of separatism were “titular nations”, and gave supporters of the revision of the territorial status quo in this region and in Europe as a whole additional arguments in favor of redrawing existing borders. It should be noted that in a number of cases the “titular nations” did not stop applying repressive measures against “their” national minorities (this was most clearly manifested in Poland), and this further aggravated the situation.

Ambiguous consequences for the fate of the region were the creation of states with several “titular nations” – Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Relations between peoples united in these states were marked by religious, political and other contradictions, which had deep historical roots. “Small titular nations” in the Czechoslovakia, Slovaks, which accounted for only 16% of the population, Croats (30%) and Slovenes (9%) in Yugoslavia – believed that within the framework of a unified statehood there was a danger of leveling their culture and infringing on their interests. Like national minorities, they showed strong separatist aspirations, while betting on cooperation with the “revisionist” countries, primarily with Germany. These processes undermined these states from within and introduced an additional element of instability in the development of the situation in the region. It is no accident that in the future, after the Germans captured the Czech Republic in 1939 and the defeat of Yugoslavia in 1941, the Slovak Republic and the Independent State of Croatia, which arose under their patronage, acted as faithful allies of Germany.

Interethnic contradictions and contradictions on territorial issues became the objective basis that deprived the region’s states of the opportunity to consolidate in the face of external danger, facilitated their transformation into an object of expansion of major powers, acting under the banner of “restoration of historical justice”, “protection of national minorities”, “reunification of half-blood peoples ”, etc. The Versailles system, which consolidated the state sovereignty of the largest nations in the region (and this is its positive significance), on the other hand, did not ensure a genuine “peaceful order” in Eastern Europe and thereby predetermined its further crisis development.

Economic factors

The initial economic situation for the countries of the region after the First World War was very difficult. All of them (with the exception of Czechoslovakia) were agrarian states with relatively low labor productivity, weak domestic markets, lacked capital investments and were heavily dependent on trade with industrialized countries. The triune task that each of the states had to solve (attracting capital, industrialization, consolidation in the world market) was supplemented by specific problems: the formation of a single national economic mechanism from the potential of territories that previously belonged to different states (Poland), the integration of newly acquired territories (Romania, Yugoslavia), adaptation to existence without previous integration ties (Baltic states, Hungary, Czechoslovakia). Young states also faced such complex problems as establishing their own money circulation, equipment and ensuring border protection, etc.

The sharp contradictions on national and territorial issues, the absolutization of the principle of state sovereignty made it difficult for the countries of the region to cooperate in solving economic problems. “Economic nationalism” prevailed, the questions of modernizing the national economy and ensuring its competitiveness, the leadership of most countries in the region tried to solve on the path of protectionism. Naturally, this did not contribute to the economic integration of the region. To the political contradictions that divided the countries of this part of Europe, the contradictions of the economic order were also added.

The development of the region was negatively affected by the absence of an “economic peaceful order” in Europe in the international period. The victorious powers pursued a policy of consolidating their influence in the region, aiming to exclude Germany and the USSR from the competition, to prevent the reanimation of German plans for the creation of “central Europe”, to form a military counterbalance of Germany from Eastern and southeastern Europe and at the same time to the “sanitary cordon” against Soviet Russia.

These objectives in the 1920s were served (among other things) by the active credit and investment policies of Great Britain and France in the region, with simultaneous reparative pressure on Germany and the boycott of the USSR. As a result of such a policy, the foreign economic activity of the Eastern European states turned out to be oriented to a large extent on cooperation with the victorious powers. The historical cooperation of the countries of the region with their immediate neighbors, Germany and the USSR, caused a serious blow during this period.

The global economic and financial crisis of the late 1920s – early 1930s led to the final economic split of Eastern Europe. Before its beginning, the Eastern European states found themselves in a certain financial dependence on the Western powers, since the cash receipts from foreign economic activity did not allow them to cover their own government spending. The crisis has put the countries of the region in an extremely difficult proposition. It led not only to the termination of their lending by the UK and France, but also to the massive outflow of foreign capital from Eastern Europe. The situation was aggravated by a sharp drop in prices for raw materials and agricultural products, as well as the introduction by the industrial powers of protectionist measures to protect domestic producers, including in the raw materials and agricultural sectors.

The countries of the region tried to mitigate the consequences of the crisis along the paths of development of clearance trade among themselves and with industrialized states. The transition to clearance, however, had far-reaching consequences. If Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Baltic Republics with its help managed to maintain a relatively stable level of communication with the UK and France, for the Danube countries (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia), Germany became the main partner in clearance trade, offering relatively favorable conditions for the import of their raw materials and agricultural products in exchange for their industrial supplies.

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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