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The Death of Stalin and the Cold War Previous Next
Digital History ID 3407


In March 1953, Joseph Stalin, who had ruled the Soviet Union since 1928, died at the age of 73. His feared minister of internal affairs, Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, was subsequently shot for treason. Nikita Khrushchev then became first secretary of the Communist Party.

Stalin's death led to a temporary thaw in Cold War tensions. In 1955, Austria regained its sovereignty and became an independent, neutral nation after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country. The next year, Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his policies at the 20th Communist Party conference. After a summit between President Eisenhower and the new Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Geneva, the Soviets announced plans to reduce its armed forces by more than 600,000 troops. In early 1956, Khrushchev called for "peaceful coexistence" between the East and West.

Relaxation of economic and political controls encouraged Eastern Europeans to demand greater freedom. In 1953, after Communist authorities in East Germany attempted to increase working hours without raising wages, strikes and riots broke out in East Berlin and other cities. Some three million East Germans fled to the West. To halt this mass exodus, in August 1961, East German authorities erected a wall separating East and West Berlin.

In 1956, Polish workers rioted to protest economic conditions under the Communist regime. Poles also demanded removal of Soviet officers from the Polish army. More than a hundred demonstrators were killed as authorities moved to suppress the riots. Communist authorities did, however, release Polish prelate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszinski, from custody to help end efforts to collectivize Polish agriculture.

In Hungary, university students expressed solidarity with the Polish rebels. More than 100,000 workers and students demanded a democratic government, the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and the release of Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty, who had been held in solitary confinement since the end of 1948. Sixteen Soviet divisions and 2,000 tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution after Hungary's Premier Imre Nagy promised Hungarians free elections and an end to one-party rule and denounced the Warsaw Pact. Soviet authorities feared that their intermediate ballistic missiles could only reach targets in Southern Europe if launched from bases in Hungary. Some 200,000 Hungarians fled the country after the suppression of the uprising.

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