The Creation of the Cordon Sanitaire in Eastern Europe

The unraveling of Western policy: Explore the creation and collapse of the cordon sanitaire in Eastern Europe, appeasement of fascism, and the fateful decisions that shaped the course of history. A cautionary tale of alliances, fears, and the consequences of appeasement.

The Creation of the Cordon Sanitaire in Eastern Europe
The signing of the Munich Pact, September 1938: The pact dismantled Czechoslovakia and marked a turning point in Western policy towards fascism. Credit: RFE/RL

By the end of 1920, a significant shift in Eastern Europe's political landscape had occurred. While the Bolsheviks emerged victorious in their struggle against counterrevolutionary forces, the aftermath of the Paris Peace Conference resulted in the creation of several independent countries in the region. Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Czechoslovakia now stood as sovereign entities, providing state structures to nations that had long been subject to the rule of the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

Ostensibly, the establishment of these states aimed to grant autonomy and sovereignty to previously oppressed nations. However, there existed a clear secondary motive behind their formation: the creation of a cordon sanitaire comprised of non-communist states. This buffer zone was strategically designed to isolate Soviet Russia from the Western powers and foster economic and military dependence on Great Britain and France.

During the 1920s, Soviet Russia found itself preoccupied with internal challenges and, thus, posed no significant immediate threat to Western countries. Nevertheless, the West grew apprehensive of the influence that Soviet examples and propaganda might have on their working class. While Soviet Russia remained relatively weak in reality, its slow economic recovery from World War I and the fragile political and economic conditions in the newly formed states heightened concerns among Western powers.

In 1923, the Western powers cautiously welcomed Mussolini's regime in Italy. Mussolini explicitly declared that he had saved Italy from the perils of communism. As the decade progressed, democratic systems in the new Eastern European states began to falter under the weight of economic hardships, parliamentary instability, and the challenges posed by national minorities. It was during this period that the Western powers, supporting the interests of anticommunism, threw their weight behind right-wing military or presidential dictatorships in Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland.

By 1933, as the Great Depression neared its end, the Western powers reluctantly accepted the establishment of a dictatorship in Germany. This regime openly announced its aim to forcefully eradicate communism and democratic capitalist countries. These policies of declared hostility were seemingly unyielding, with two key events in the 1930s raising hopes for a potential shift: the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 and the Czechoslovak crisis in the spring and summer of 1938.

The fascist powers of Germany under Hitler's rule and Italy under Mussolini's influence remained steadfast in their determination to topple pro-Western democratic governments throughout these crises. Public opinion in the West was overwhelmingly sympathetic towards Republican Spain and Czechoslovakia. In 1935, the Communist International recognized that fascism, not communism, posed a real threat to the USSR as the anticipated catalyst for a global revolution.

Consequently, the USSR sought a defensive alliance with the democratic capitalist powers. The idea was to establish popular fronts in each country, uniting progressive forces against fascism and advocating for collective security on an international scale. This approach entailed a defensive military alliance to safeguard the USSR and Western democratic nations from the aggression of Germany and Italy.

However, the governments of Great Britain and France, passively supported by other democratic states and the United States, chose appeasement over confrontation with the fascist powers. In Spain, the fear of communism and the desire to appease hindered Western intervention to aid the Republic. In Czechoslovakia, the Western powers hesitated to engage Hitler militarily, hoping that sacrificing this well-equipped nation would divert Hitler's ambitions towards the East, specifically the conquest of the USSR.

Signing the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, August 1939: A strategic alliance that divided Eastern Europe.
Signing the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, August 1939: A strategic alliance that divided Eastern Europe and set the stage for World War II. Credit: ENRS

The signing of the Munich Pact in September 1938 proved disastrous for Czechoslovakia, dismantling the state and extinguishing any hope of a potential shift in Western policy towards the Spanish Republic. The Munich Pact served as a stark lesson for the Soviets, exposing the futility of pursuing a policy of popular fronts and collective security. In light of these developments, Stalin made a strategic decision.

In August 1939, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, effectively allying with the two dictators. Secretly, they also agreed to divide the territories of Poland and the Baltic States between themselves, relieving Hitler of the burden of a two-front war and redirecting his war machine towards the West.

The abandonment of the policies of popular fronts and collective security marked a significant turning point in international relations. The Western powers' appeasement of fascist regimes, driven by fears of communism and the desire to maintain stability, ultimately backfired. Instead of deterring aggression, their actions inadvertently emboldened Hitler and Mussolini, allowing them to pursue their expansionist ambitions with greater confidence.

The consequences of this abandonment would soon become apparent. The world would witness the devastating effects of World War II as Germany and Italy unleashed their military might upon Europe, leaving destruction and loss in their wake. The hopes of a united front against fascism were shattered, and the Soviet Union found itself confronting a formidable enemy without the support it had once sought from the Western democracies.

The tale of the cordon sanitaire's creation and subsequent unraveling serves as a cautionary tale in the annals of history. It highlights the complex interplay of political interests, ideologies, and the consequences of appeasement. The failure to recognize the true threat that fascism posed and the incorrect assessment of the Soviet Union's intentions left a void in international relations that would influence the course of history for years to come.

As historians reflect on this period, it becomes clear that the pursuit of short-term stability and the fear of communism blinded the Western powers to the true nature of the fascist threat. The cordon sanitaire, initially conceived as a safeguard against Soviet Russia, inadvertently facilitated the rise of a greater danger, leading to a catastrophic global conflict that would reshape the world order.

In the end, the unraveling of Western policy exposed the fragility of alliances and the consequences of appeasement in the face of authoritarian aggression. It serves as a stark reminder that, in matters of international relations, the pursuit of peace at any cost can sometimes lead to the very destruction it seeks to prevent.