The Warsaw Pact's forgotten legacy (2024)

Curiously, the Soviet Union's counterpart to NATO, though long dead, has contributed to the effort to aid Ukraine.

In May 1955, leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellite states gathered in Warsaw to sign a major treaty. The Warsaw Pact has turned 69. While its rival, NATO, is celebrating its 75th anniversary with renewed purpose, a new member in its fold and celebrations all year, its socialist rival is so dead that barely anyone will remember its birthday. It remains, however, a reminder of the dangers we survived.

‘In the event of an armed attack in Europe on one or several states that are signatories of the treaty by any state or group of states, each state that is a party to this treaty shall, in the exercise of the right to individual or collective self-defence in accordance with Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations Organisation, render the state or states so attacked immediate assistance, individually and in agreement with other states that are parties to this treaty, by all the means it may consider necessary, including the use of armed force. The states that are parties to this treaty shall immediately take council among themselves concerning the necessary joint measures to be adopted for the purpose of restoring and upholding international peace and security.’ Thus reads Article Four of the Warsaw Pact Treaty, signed on 14 May 1955 at the Warsaw Presidential Palace.

There was nothing unusual about this article, nor about any of the treaty’s ten other articles. Indeed, the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and East Germany had been widely expected to sign some sort of mutual defence treaty, given that Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the United States had signed the North Atlantic Treaty six years earlier. Indeed, on 9 May 1955 they had admitted West Germany as a member of their alliance. The Soviet Union felt compelled to show it could marshal a similar organisation on its side of the intra-German border.

Since those who signed the treaty were committed communists – friends of the Soviet Union, even – they didn’t have to be forced or blackmailed into signing it, but it was hardly the kind of affair among willing equals that NATO was. To be sure, like NATO, the Warsaw Treaty concerned itself with collective defence, with members pledging to defend one another if one or more of them were attacked. The signatories also pledged not to interfere in other signatories’ internal affairs and committed themselves to collective decision-making. The members of the newly formed alliance dutifully celebrated their achievement; East Germany’s official ruling party newspaper Neues Deutschland, for example, dedicated almost its entire 15 May front page to the founding.

Even to East Germany’s Otto Grotewohl, and all the other socialist leaders who signed the treaty, it was clear that the Soviet Union would be calling the shots. Those giving Moscow the benefit of the doubt didn’t have to wait long to reach clarity on the matter. The following year, when Hungary’s liberal-minded leader, Imre Nagy, declared that he wanted his country to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets dispatched an armada of 6,000 tanks to crush such a move. After the Soviets were done, around 30,000 Hungarians were dead. The other countries now knew what awaited them if they tried to defy the Soviets. Indeed, that’s what happened when, 12 years later, the Warsaw Pact crushed the Prague Spring. This time the Soviet forces arrived accompanied by troops from other Warsaw Pact states. It was somehow fitting that when the Warsaw Pact met its formal end in the spring of 1991, it was in Prague.

There appear to be no commemorations of the Pact’s founding. Such is the fate of an organisation founded and operated on the basis that all its members are equal, but some are more equal than others. Yet the Warsaw Pact achieved astonishing military power during its brief life. It’s an irony of history that some of the weapons Ukraine is now using to defend itself stem from Warsaw Pact times – as a result, other former Warsaw Pact countries that still happen to have the same equipment are best positioned to supply the Ukrainians with spare parts.

NATO’s 75th anniversary was commemorated throughout the spring. Indeed, the festivities will peak this summer, at the alliance’s summit in Washington. With threats against the alliance’s members once again growing, this is no time for gloating. It is, however, a good time to remember how close NATO was to a show-down with the mighty Warsaw Pact, and how fortunate we are to have survived 36 years of such close encounters.

The Warsaw Pact's forgotten legacy (2024)


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