Central Europe: "Return to Europe" or Descent to Chaos?

By Simon, Jeffrey | McNair Papers, August 1993 | Go to article overview
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Central Europe: "Return to Europe" or Descent to Chaos?


Simon, Jeffrey, McNair Papers


For over three decades, Central European stability was maintained by a coercive military alliance. But since 1988, the Central European environment has been marked by increasing disorder and ethnic tensions. For instance, nationalism is eradicating the synthetic states that previously brought order to the region. The Central European security environment during the latter half of the 1990s is more likely to resemble the increasing disorder of the past five years than the order of the Warsaw Pact era. Whether Central Europe will "return to Europe" or descend into chaos will be determined by not only the people of Central Europe but also by the continued vitality of regional institutions and the active engagement of the United States in Europe.

Central Europe, the region between the former Federal Republic of Germany and the former Soviet Union, has been treated harshly by history and has experienced profound transformation since the revolutions of 1989-1991. The region comprises the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), Poland, former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Its 80 million people aspire to "return to Europe." (1) The challenge facing Central Europe is whether the return to Europe will be successfully negotiated or if external challenges will cause the region to descend into chaos.

Central Europe in the Warsaw Pact Period

Although the Warsaw Pact era (1955-1988) was characterized by a high level of military threat, it was also, ironically, highly stable. While Central Europe was involuntarily embedded in the Warsaw Pact, that alliance did enforce a sort of regional order.

The Soviet First and Second Strategic Echelon forces which were deployed offensively against the NATO alliance during this period played an important concurrent role in maintaining political order in Central Europe. On the one hand, Soviet forces propped up unpopular Communist regimes in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1956, 1970, 1976 and 1980-1981. On the other hand, the USSR--as Warsaw Pact "ally"--provided integrated air defense coverage, "occupied" divided (East) Germany, and "secured" Central Europe's eastern frontier.

Only a few years ago (1988), Poland had a secure eastern frontier and 406,000 troops (15 divisions) facing west. It also had two Soviet divisions comprising 58,000 troops on its soil. Between Poland's western Oder-Neisse boundary and the Inter-German Border was an East German "buffer" occupied by 11 (6 active and 5 mobilization) GDR divisions and 19 Soviet divisions comprising 172,000 and 380,000 troops respectively. Although Czechoslovakia had a secure eastern frontier, it had no such western buffer as did Poland. Czechoslovakia did have 10 divisions comprising 200,000 troops and 5 Soviet divisions comprising 75,000 troops "defending" its western frontier with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). At that time the Bundeswehr had 488,700 troops as part of NATO, and the FRG hosted over 400,000 allied troops: 245,800 American, 67,000 British, 50,000 French, 26,600 Belgian, 7,100 Canadian and 5,500 Dutch. (2)

Hungary constitutes Central Europe's south. In 1988, Hungary maintained 15 brigades comprising 120,000 troops and hosted four Soviet divisions comprising 64,000 troops on its soil facing in the direction of Italy in the South-Western Theater of Military Operations.

Physically separated from the FRG by neutral Austria in the west, Hungary enjoyed "secure" frontiers to the east with Warsaw Pact "allies" the USSR and Romania, and to the north with Czechoslovakia, a synthetic multinational state created by the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. To the south lay Yugoslavia: another stable, but non-aligned multinational state also created by the Treaty of Versailles.

Central Europe in Transition

On December 7, 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the unilateral withdrawal of Soviet forces from Central Europe.

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