In view of the early internal communist documents such as the minutes of meetings leading up to the formation of Cominform, and especially the rhetoric of Zhdanov, it is not surprising that the internal balance, or, rather, imbalance of power in the Warsaw Pact took shape as one can observe from today’s perspective of the partly declassified documents and from the memoirs of their participants.
A good overview of the topic is also provided by Vojtech Mastny and Malcolm Byrne (eds.) in A Cardboard Castle? An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1955–1991. Already at the Szklarska Poręba meetings in 1947 it was abundantly clear that the Eastern Block members were mere marionettes expected not only to follow, but also anticipate the orders of Moscow. The structure of another organization created by the Soviet leadership, the Warsaw Pact, necessarily had to reflect this attitude. However, by 1955 Europe was well on its way to recovery, Moscow’s satellite countries had grown more confident in the stability of peace, and they were no longer looking quite as desperately to Moscow for protection from potential German or Western aggression. They were even less looking for economic help that Soviet Union clearly was in no position to provide in the way the U.S. had bankrolled the reconstruction effort in Western Europe through the Marshall Plan. Understandably, then, Moscow’s unapologetically dictatorial behavior that refused even to share information, not to mention to consult its “allies” on military planning and strategy, must have stirred up serious discontent. Especially so once it became clear how much Moscow needed a functioning Warsaw Pact as a negotiation chip vis-à-vis the Western powers that by then had largely congregated under the umbrella of NATO, the Eastern Bloc leaders felt encouraged to hold Moscow ransom and extract other political advantages as a price for not obstructing the functionality of its Warsaw Pact. That seemed to have been a clear sign of the Soviet Union beginning to lose its grip on satellite nations, even after conducting military interventions and installing puppet governments in those states that had dared to stray too far from Moscow’s fiat.
And yet it remains puzzling to understand why Khrushchev would be led to believe that his “cardboard castle,” the Warsaw Pact, ab initio quite irrelevant both militarily and politically, would work as a bait to effectively demilitarize Western Europe and, weaning it from its dependence on the US for military support under the guise of NATO, surrender it to a purported Soviet supremacy. First of all, Europe, or at least its Western part, did not need protection from “the imperialist U.S.,” which was, in fact, its most important and reliable ally. Rather, Western European leaders were much more concerned with the aggressive rumblings of the Soviet Union and with the sovietization under way in all dependencies of the Eastern Bloc. Throughout Western Europe, the Soviet Union was regarded as a potential threat, certainly not as a benevolent protector of peace. Furthermore, it was wishful thinking to conclude that Western military intelligence would not have understood that there was really nothing behind the ostensible counterpart to NATO – formed hastily, with vague documents, and obviously irrelevant in view of existing bilateral treaties that the Soviet Union was in the habit of extracting from its satellites, by means military and economic. Despite all that, Khruschev’s insistence on the potential of success is quite amazing – unless, of course, he did fall victim to his own ideologues’ propaganda that ceaselessly proclaimed the superiority of all things communist to all manifestations of capitalism.
This ideological rhetoric found an absurd reflection in the workings of the Warsaw Pact, right at the time when its military significance had just started to emerge. It is laughable to read Zhdanov’s outrageous class warfare propaganda and economic prevarications. It is flabbergasting to read about the same rhetoric translated into military plans, in some instances even quite literally. It helps to know that all policies set in Eastern Europe were inevitably beholden to an extreme measure of political correctness under Marxist-Leninist ideology and dialectic - everything was therefore expected to be presented in a way that sounded ideologically correct, even if it was entirely unrealistic on its face. But it is sad and at the same time absurd to expect that the very same propaganda ideology would lead to anything but to disaster in the event of actual military implementation. Examples of cheerful plans of conducting conventional military operations amidst a raging nuclear conflict, when top military commanders themselves well knew about the plain absurdity of any such plans, shows how much the political and military decisions of the time were shaped by politically correct dilettantes appointed to positions of importance not because of objectively demonstrated competency but solely because of their ideological reliability. This glimpse into the functioning of the inner workings of an authoritarian communist system begs the question how the Soviet Union could possibly survive at all, since arbitrary ideological directives also controlled virtually all economic decisions of its famous “planned economy.” It does appear that both Stalin and his successors were extremely lucky that the Russian people were physically resilient enough to survive various nonsensical and, in fact, extremely harmful social experimentations without leaving their “enlightened leaders” with a great fatherland to rule – but devoid of living subjects. Millions of victims of the man-made famine Holodomor following forced collectivization of the Ukraine provided a glimpse at the possibilities communism held in this regard.
This reckless disregard for human lives is also striking in the pronouncements of another notorious leader, Mao Zedong, who never considered the expendability of half the population of Europe and the effect a nuclear winter would have on Chinese territories an arguably excessive price to pay for the introduction of socialism to a thus “secured” territory best characterized under the circumstances as a virtual desert. But a newly emerged dictator like Mao was not the only one to hold forth opinions that in the pursuit of the noble goal, the introduction of communism, human sacrifice was utterly irrelevant – the structure of the Warsaw Pact itself showed that the Eastern Bloc countries were thought of merely as cannon fodder and as a first human shield to protect the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, public realization of this concept was a cause for major discomfort in those nations that had begun to think of themselves as sovereign entities, albeit under Soviet “guidance,” which did eventually lead to some concessions on the part of the Soviet Union and to a restructuring of the Warsaw Pact during the 1970’s.