On May 14, 1955, eight countries including the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, signed the Warsaw Treaty, bringing into existence NATO’s primary adversary throughout the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact.
By the end of the Second World War, as much of Europe lay in ruin, new lines of division were already being drawn, pitting East against West. Already in 1946 Winston Churchill made the iconic observation that an “Iron Curtain” was descending over Europe, dashing dreams of a lasting peace on the continent.
From occupation to alliance
Only three years later, in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed, uniting Western powers in an alliance of mutual and collective security. However, NATO quickly came to represent more than the interests and security of individual nation-states. As the ideological lines were drawn, the North Atlantic Alliance became the bloc representing those powers opposed to communism, and the influence of the Soviet Union.
Initially, the Eastern/communist bloc led by the Soviet Union offered little in response to this broad organization of collective security. During and after the period of Soviet consolidation in the East, security was provided by lingering Soviet occupational forces, and a series of bilateral treaties between the USSR and other Eastern bloc countries.
From the Soviet perspective, a number of factors worked against the creation of a multinational alliance. Under Stalin, the primacy of the USSR was paramount and non-negotiable, and accordingly, security in the East was to be provided directly by the USSR and not by an alliance of equal partners. For example, it was Stalin’s insistence on Soviet hegemony which sparked the rift between the USSR and Yugoslavia led by Josip Broz Tito.
Even after the death of Stalin in 1953, and the gradual process of “de-Stalinization,” the USSR remained the de facto leader of the Eastern bloc by sheer weight of force if not by aspiration of dominance. The creation of an alliance of equals or a counterpart to NATO, in this case, would have been a fictitious redundancy where all members were already “clients” of the USSR, a reality which was not lost on the Soviet leadership.
Despite the question of whether an Eastern bloc alliance was necessary or even practical, the model of NATO, and the need to appear on par, pushed the USSR and its dependencies towards a formal alliance. The final motivation came with the accession of Western Germany in late 1954 to NATO, and the perceived threat of a “remilitarized” Germany. On May 14, 1955, the USSR and seven other Eastern bloc countries – Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Albania, Romania and Bulgaria – signed the Treaty of Warsaw, effectively beginning the Warsaw Pact.
The legacy of the “cardboard castle”
At first the role of the Warsaw Pact remained somewhat unclear, would it be an open organization of security or cooperation, or a new and slightly more appealing veneer on an already existing Soviet sphere of influence. On paper the Warsaw Pact mirrored in many ways the candor of NATO as a fundamentally defensive alliance of mutual aid, and though it was not stated to be an ideological bloc its membership indicated otherwise.
From the perspective of the Western powers, the Warsaw Pact was at least in the beginning, a diplomatic play. The Soviet-led alliance was dubbed a “cardboard castle,” bearing an illusion that power came through cooperation of members when in reality the USSR already controlled and directed the defensive capacities of member nations regardless of the formal alliance.
In the following years the Warsaw Pact became instrumental in the perpetuation of Soviet power, whose interference abroad could now be construed as mutual defense rather than as subjugation. The Warsaw Pact was implicated in a number of such cases. In 1956, the Soviet invasion of Hungary was a test to the new alliance, coordinating the suppression of a revolt that threatened to break Hungary out of the Soviet sphere.
Later, in 1968 the Prague Spring also threatened the Soviet position of dominance which led the largest joint invasion ever undertaken by the Warsaw Pact. These invasions were later justified under what became called the “Brezhnev Doctrine” where a threat to socialist rule in any Eastern bloc countries was a threat to them all – a Soviet echo to NATO’s own mutual defence mechanism enshrined in the treaty’s Article 5, where an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all.
Though it was officially disbanded in 1991, with the collapse of the USSR and communist Eastern bloc, the memory of the Warsaw Pact still looms large. Its memory functions as both the area of former Soviet and now Russian dominance, but also serves as a precedent for opposition to NATO and Western ascendance. The Warsaw Pact’s lasting impact has recently been confirmed by Putin’s slipped comment referring to its allies as Warsaw Pact members, and by Russia’s war to reintegrate former territories.
By Nathan Alan-Lee
Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.