Monday, June 22, 2009

The Cold War

During the post-war years of 1945-1949, the USSR adopted a policy of “sovietization” and set about its expansion into Eastern Europe, by creating Moscow-friendly satellite states. The USSR saw this as a purely defensive action, while the West saw this as evidence of Russia’s expansionist nature. Hence, Soviet Union’s move into Eastern Europe was much cause of the conflict between the West and Russia. One of the motivating forces behind Stalin’s expansionist policy into Europe was that of overseas economic expansion. By this, we mean that one of Stalin’s main reasons for creating satellite states in Eastern Europe was to ensure that he could have enough markets to trade with, and to ensure USSR’s influence over the economies of the other countries. However, there are other more important factors dictating its policy towards Europe, like USSR’s search for security.

Towards the end of World War Two, the Soviet Red Army swept through Eastern Europe as they liberated them from the Nazis. However, the Red Army never left Eastern Europe. The need to restore law and order into these countries provided Stalin with the perfect excuse to station his troops there. This allowed Stalin to tighten his grip over the region later on, making it easier for him to exert the Soviet sphere of influence as the presence of the Red Army gave local communist parties a lot of support. These communist parties then went on to win rigged elections in their own countries. Also, after the war, there was a political vacuum in many countries in Eastern Europe. Their economies were shattered, so, to rebuild them, their governments followed the economic policies of the Soviet Union. The USSR took over all industry, and workers and farmers were told what to produce. As stated earlier on, one of the main factors that dictated this expansionist policy towards Europe was the need to expand into Eastern Europe’s economies. This often meant that the USSR ended up controlling their economies and what they produced and in what quantities etc.

A clear evidence of overseas economic expansion and control on the part of USSR was when the Comecon was set up in 1949. Short for the Council for Economic Assistance, its aim was to help the economies of Eastern Europe develop into Soviet-style economies. It was to co-ordinate the industries and trade of the eastern European countries, making sure that members of Comecon traded mostly with one another rather than trading with the West. In practice, Comecon benefited the USSR more than the other countries. It provided the USSR with a market to sell its goods, and also guaranteed it a cheap supply of raw materials. For example, Poland was forced to sell its coal to the USSR at one-tenth of the price that it could have got selling it on the open market. It then received old Soviet machinery in return.

Stalin disassembled the factories of Poland and East Germany and rebuilt them on Russian soil. Part of his collectivization plan moved peasants and factories to the cities. The factory relocation created city slums in Russia and turned the buffer states of Poland and East Germany into agricultural states as he felt that an agricultural state would not be a military threat. Hence, he created a very effective buffer zone out of Eastern Europe. Stalin treated his satellite states like one big factory, imposing upon them what to produce so that this would benefit the USSR, not the countries themselves. They were also forbidden to apply for Marshall Aid. Wages fell, and they faced with massive shortages of coal, milk and meat. Consumer goods like radios, electric kettles and televisions were unavailable. This shows to the large extent how ruthlessly Stalin treated his satellite states. East Germany was no exception. Stalin drained it of its resources. At Potsdam, it was agreed that the USSR would be given 25% of Germany’s industrial goods as reparations. They were also allowed to strip the factories in its zone and send the machines to the USSR. However, by 1946, the USSR was going beyond this agreement. It took large quantities of manufactured goods, which was not allowed, and immense amounts of machinery and industrial plant.

Stalin had many reasons for his economic expansion in Eastern Europe. One of them being the post-war devastation that caused the Soviet economy to be crippled. The war had destroyed many industries, agriculture, and lives. Further more, the US ended its lend-lease aid to the USSR in May 1945. This was a huge blow to Stalin as the USSR was in need of aid to help recover its economy. Therefore, Stalin needed to secure markets for Soviet Union’s goods. This could be done by overseas economic expansion into Europe and controlling their market and economies, as Stalin did to his satellite states. This, in turn benefited the USSR’s economy as they could get raw materials at a very cheap price.

However, there were other reasons for USSR’s policy towards Europe, not just overseas economic expansion. Stalin’s policy of expansion and hegemony towards Europe was largely dictated by political and strategic reasons. After the war, one of the main aims of Stalin was to prevent the Soviet Union from another invasion. This was understandable on Stalin’s part as the USSR had been invaded twice in the last thirty years. Naturally, he would want to prevent any possible attempt to invade the USSR again. Stalin set about doing so, by creating Soviet-friendly satellite states, which would act as a buffer zone protecting USSR from the west.

Stalin was also very suspicious of the West. For example, he was told very little about the creation of the atomic bomb at Potsdam, and when its destructive power was demonstrated by the bombing of Japan, Stalin became increasingly worried that the US might use this weapon to destroy the Soviet Union one day. During World War Two, the allies did not open a second front in World War Two until mid 1944, even though Stalin had requested for the second front to be opened since Germany had invaded the USSR, three years earlier. This led Stalin to believe that the other allies deliberately delayed the opening of the second front because they had hoped that Germany and USSR would destroy each other. All these events prompted Stalin to regard the West with paranoia and suspicion.

Thus, this increasing fear of the West, and Stalin’s mistrust and paranoia of the US spurred him on to the search for USSR’s security. The Soviet Union had been invaded three times in recent history- World War One, the Russian Civil War, and in World War Two. Over 20 million people died during World War Two. Huge areas of agricultural land and industrial plants were destroyed. Stalin was therefore convinced that in order to secure USSR from any future aggression, he had to extend Soviet influence over its neighbours in Eastern Europe.

Although one of the main reasons for the USSR’s policy towards Europe was overseas economic expansion, there were other reasons which were more important in influencing the Soviet policy. The main desire of Stalin to exert control and influence over the Eastern European states can be seen as a result of his search for security for the USSR. This led him to go about turning Eastern European states into USSR satellite states and he believed this buffer zone would protect the USSR from future attacks. Hence, it could be said that the motivating force behind USSR’s policy towards Europe is its search for security, and that overseas economic expansion was just a result of Stalin’s absolutist conception of security, which entailed total hegemony over all of Eastern Europe.

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The Black Plague

The Black Plague, which decimated medieval Europe, is by far the worst epidemic in recorded history, and quite possibly ever. One in every four or five people in Europe died, not to mention those in Asia, wiping out quite swiftly a huge portion of the world’s population. That fact alone would obviously have a huge impact on customs in any town, and the communicable nature of the disease added to the effect of changing customs. Being too scared to come in contact with anyone that might be carrying the disease, and with obvious good reason to be, people abandoned relatives that may be sick and disposed of bodies and handled the dead in a most disrespectful and unsanitary manner.

Piling bodies up in front of houses, and making mass graves are just a couple of examples of this unsanitary and disrespectful behavior, but honestly, who could blame them? The alarming rate at which the bodies would pile up would be overwhelming to a society that lacked the technology, and not to mention the man power seeing as how the population was so decimated, to dispose of the dead properly. If that were to happen in our society who knows what might need to be done to take care of the problem, with one out of every four or five people dead, I don’t think it would be too absurd to assume that we might just, as gross and horrible as it sounds, send garbage trucks around to collect bodies. Besides the uncustomary methods of dealing with the sick and the dead many other aspects of life changed. Boccaccio points out that many people lived life with reckless abandon, thinking, quite correctly sometimes, that each day might be one of their last. People therefore regarded themselves and their belongings with little or no respect, thinking that in a short time they wouldn’t be able to enjoy them anyway so they might as well let everyone else enjoy. Indeed it seems as though town life was in a state of anarchy. Others however behaved opposite to that, secluding themselves and moderating everything.

These changes in customs and society probably lasted no longer then the plague itself did and things most likely gradually returned to normal with the decline in deaths and recession of the plague. However it is not possible for such a disaster, especially one which wipes out such a large portion of the population, to just fade away without any long term effects being visited upon the survivors and the generation which were fortunate enough to live in post-plague times. For instance, as Boccaccio points out, many noble families were left without proper heirs. What then would be done with their fortunes and estates? Certainly not every member of every family was wiped out, so in those cases I’m sure they went through a series of lineages and the eventually came to a “rightful” heir. In this case it seems that those who survived may have found themselves in a very favorable and actionable position to better their own family names and their careers. Another question that remains is who, considering the fact that most eligible people were dead, would be the ones to fill positions in government, or in other areas that were usually reserved for those outside of the peasantry? Of course there were fewer people to govern and therefore fewer affairs to be seen to, but it seems to me that the answer to this question is that there was probably a slight shift in social classes. It seems as though the precariousness of the situation would lead nobles and officials not choice but to accept the help of peasants in areas where peasants were normally forbidden to occupy. I said earlier that it is most likely that not every member of every family died, but I’d be willing to bet that every member of some families did die, in which case someone else, probably another noble family, distantly related or maybe with not other claim than enough sway of his own to make a claim would then take over the deserted estate. If this were the case it seems to me that this would mean a consolidation of power for certain families and could possibly be a step towards unifying certain areas, considering the chief reason for unification of a geographical area at the time was fealty to a lord.

I’m sure that no major event in history, ancient or modern, had such an adverse effect on things such as population, customs, and social classes. But some major events probably had similar effects. The first one that comes to mind would be the atomic bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings wiped out in a matter of minutes, a huge part of the population of both of these places, the like of which hasn’t been seen prior to or since then, prompting immediate, although short lived in the grand scheme of things, changes in lifestyles for everyone affected. As far as that goes however, war in general has much the same effect; both world wars decimated the population and the cities themselves in much of Europe. And on the heels of one war America too saw much of its population wiped out by a terrible epidemic, that being the flu, which followed World War I.

Although it was not the first nor the last time the world saw a significant portion of its population wiped out, The Black Plague was probably the most severe and detrimental of all that caused so many deaths. Not through lifestyle changes, medicine or piousness could the plague be avoided. Only luck or an exceptionally strong immune system would save those surrounded by the horrors of the plague. Whether for better of for worse, the plague caused many changes both short lived and long standing to society in Europe. We should all hope to never see such dark times as those.

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