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Europe and the Cold War (1947-1991)

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of Europe and nations since 1945.

At the end of the war, the Red Army was deployed throughout Central Europe. Having established a position of strength, Stalin was able to carry out his plans for expansion by helping communist parties to take power in Eastern and Central Europe.  Yugoslavia was the first in 1945, followed by Bulgaria and Albania in 1946, Poland and Romania in 1947, Czechoslovakia in 1948, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic in 1949.

However, in Greece, the communists rebelled against the monarchy and sparked a civil war, which was won by the royalist factions.

To counter the threat from the USSR, the American President Harry Truman decided to create a bulwark against communism and, in June 1947, offered financial aid to accelerate economic reconstruction and political stability in Europe. The Marshall Plan was accepted by 16 countries, but the USSR forced its satellite countries to refuse.

Hopes for a democratic and peaceful world were quickly dashed.  With Europe caught in a stranglehold during the Cold War, antagonism soon emerged between the two blocs led by the USSR and the United States. Western European countries, proponents of democracy and capitalism, joined forces with the Atlantic camp by agreeing to establish a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Eastern Europe, under totalitarian and socialist regimes, was increasingly subservient to the Soviet power through military arrangements known as the Warsaw Pact.

Thus, an “Iron Curtain” was drawn across the continent from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean. At the same time, Europe’s colonial empires, which had been seriously undermined by the war and by the colonies’ desire for independence, were gradually being dismantled. During the period of the Cold War, a series of crises in socialist republics eager to throw off Soviet control shook the Eastern Bloc.  

Western Europe democracies were determined to avoid further war amongst themselves and to counter the Communist threat. In 1951, six countries (West Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) agreed to create the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and six years later signed the Treaty of Rome, which established a common market known as the European Economic Community (EEC).

In 1973, the Economic Community opened its doors to new members for the first time, with the inclusion of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark.

In Greece, the Colonels’ Regime fell in 1974; the Carnation Revolution in Portugal took place later the same year, followed by the death of Franco in Spain in 1975. As a result, extreme right-wing dictatorships finally disappeared from the continent and Southern Europe was moving towards democracy. Gradually, the EEC incorporated these new southern democracies within its boundaries: Greece became a member in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986.

After a new period of tension between the two superpowers in 1975, the Soviet camp was increasingly weakened by its own economic problems. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader in the USSR and tried to reform the communist system, but this only accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and encouraged Eastern Europeans to push for greater freedom. In the space of two years, 1989 and 1990, all the communist regimes fell, usually by peaceful means: first, in Poland and East Germany where the Berlin Wall was breached on 9 November 1989, then in Hungary, Czechoslovakia.  In Romania and Bulgaria, the upheavals were more ambiguous: the previous communist regimes were overthrown but replaced by parties run by ex-communists.

In November 1990, the two German republics celebrated their reunification.

Finally, in December 1991, it was the turn of the communist regime in the USSR, and its collapse lead to an end not only to the Cold War, but also to a divided Europe.