The Cold War in Europe

The Definitive Struggle Between Capitalism and Communism

A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickaxe on the night of November 9th, 1989
A man attacks the Berlin Wall with a pickaxe on the night of November 9th, 1989. Corbis via Getty Images/Getty Images

The Cold War was a twentieth-century conflict between the United States of America (U.S.), the Soviet Union (USSR), and their respective allies over political, economic, and military issues, often described as a struggle between capitalism and communism—but the issues were actually far grayer than that. In Europe, this meant the U.S.-led West and NATO on one side and Soviet-led East and the Warsaw Pact on the other. The Cold War lasted from 1945 to the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

Why 'Cold' War?

The war was "cold" because there was never a direct military engagement between the two leaders, the U.S. and the USSR, although shots were exchanged in the air during the Korean War. There were plenty of proxy wars around the world as states supported by either side fought, but in terms of the two leaders, and in terms of Europe, the two never fought a regular war.

Origins of the Cold War in Europe

The aftermath of World War II left the United States and Russia as the dominant military powers in the world, but they had very different forms of government and economy—the former a capitalist democracy, the latter a communist dictatorship. The two nations were rivals that feared each other, each ideologically opposed. The war also left Russia in control of large areas of Eastern Europe, and the U.S.-led Allies in control of the West. While the Allies restored democracy in their regions, Russia began making Soviet satellites out of its "liberated" lands; the split between the two was dubbed the Iron Curtain. In reality, there had been no liberation, just a new conquest by the USSR.

The West feared a communist invasion, physical and ideological, that would turn them into communist states with a Stalin-style leader—the worst possible option—and for many, it caused fear over the likelihood of mainstream socialism, too. The U.S. countered with the Truman Doctrine, with its policy of containment to stop communism spreading—it also turned the world into a giant map of allies and enemies, with the U.S. pledging to prevent the communists from extending their power, a process that led to the West supporting some terrible regimes. The U.S. also offered the Marshall Plan, massive aid package aimed at supporting collapsing economies that were letting communist sympathizers gain power. Military alliances were formed as the West grouped together as NATO, and the East banded together as the Warsaw Pact. By 1951, Europe was divided into two power blocs, American-led and Soviet-led, each with atomic weapons. A cold war followed, spreading globally and leading to a nuclear standoff.

The Berlin Blockade

The first time the former allies acted as certain enemies was the Berlin Blockade. Postwar Germany was divided into four parts and occupied by the former Allies; Berlin, situated in the Soviet zone, was also divided. In June 1948, Stalin enforced a blockade of Berlin aimed at bluffing the Allies into renegotiating the division of Germany in his favor rather than invading. Supplies could not get through to a city, which relied on them, and the winter was a serious problem. The Allies responded with neither of the options Stalin thought he was giving them, but started the Berlin Airlift: for 11 months, supplies were flown into Berlin via Allied aircraft, bluffing that Stalin wouldn’t shoot them down and cause a "hot" war. He didn’t. The blockade was ended in May 1949 when Stalin gave up.

Budapest Rising

Stalin died in 1953, and hopes of a thaw were raised when new leader Nikita Khrushchev began a process of de-Stalinization. In May 1955, as well as forming the Warsaw Pact, Khrushchev signed an agreement with the Allies to leave Austria and make it neutral. The thaw only lasted until the Budapest Rising in 1956: the communist government of Hungary, faced with internal calls for reform, collapsed and an uprising forced troops to leave Budapest. The Russian response was to have the Red Army occupy the city and put a new government in charge. The West was highly critical but, partly distracted by the Suez Crisis, did nothing to help except get frostier toward the Soviets.

The Berlin Crisis and the U-2 Incident

Fearing a reborn West Germany allied with the U.S., Khrushchev offered concessions in return for a united, neutral Germany in 1958. A Paris summit for talks was derailed when Russia shot down a U.S. U-2 spy plane flying over its territory. Khrushchev pulled out of the summit and disarmament talks. The incident was a useful out for Khrushchev, who was under pressure from hardliners within Russia for giving away too much. Under pressure from the East German leader to stop refugees fleeing to the West, and with no progress on making Germany neutral, the Berlin Wall was built, a concrete barrier between East and West Berlin. It became the physical representation of the Cold War.

Cold War in Europe in the '60s and '70s

Despite the tensions and fear of nuclear war, the Cold War division between East and West proved surprisingly stable after 1961, despite French anti-Americanism and Russia crushing the Prague Spring. There was instead conflict on the global stage, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. For much of the '60s and '70s, a program of détente was followed: a long series of talks that made some success in stabilizing the war and equalizing arms numbers. Germany negotiated with the East under a policy of Ostpolitik. The fear of mutually assured destruction helped prevent direct conflict—the belief that if you launched your missiles, you would be destroyed by your enemies, and therefore it was better not to fire at all than to destroy everything.

The '80s and the New Cold War

By the 1980s, Russia appeared to be winning, with a more productive economy, better missiles, and a growing navy, even though the system was corrupt and built on propaganda. America, once again fearing Russian domination, moved to rearm and build up forces, including placing many new missiles in Europe (not without local opposition). U.S. President Ronald Reagan increased defense spending vastly, starting the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to defend against nuclear attacks, an end to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). At the same time, Russian forces entered Afghanistan, a war they would ultimately lose.

End of the Cold War in Europe

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in 1982, and his successor Yuri Andropov, realizing change was needed in a crumbling Russia and its strained satellites, which he felt was losing a renewed arms race, promoted several reformers. One, Mikhail Gorbachev, rose to power in 1985 with policies of Glasnost and Perestroika and decided to end the cold war and "give away" the satellite empire to save Russia itself. After agreeing with the U.S. to reduce nuclear weapons, in 1988 Gorbachev addressed the U.N., explaining the end of the Cold War by renouncing the Brezhnev Doctrine, allowing political choice in the previously dictated-to satellite states of Eastern Europe, and pulling Russia out of the arms race.

The speed of Gorbachev’s actions unsettled the West, and there were fears of violence, especially in East Germany where the leaders talked of their own Tiananmen Square-type uprising. However, Poland negotiated free elections, Hungary opened its borders, and East German leader Erich Honecker resigned when it became apparent the Soviets would not support him. The East German leadership withered away and the Berlin Wall fell ten days later. Romania overthrew its dictator and the Soviet satellites emerged from behind the Iron Curtain.

The Soviet Union itself was the next to fall. In 1991, communist hardliners attempted a coup against Gorbachev; they were defeated, and Boris Yeltsin became leader. He dissolved the USSR, instead creating the Russian Federation. The communist era, begun in 1917, was now over, and so was the Cold War.


Some books, although stressing the nuclear confrontation that came perilously close to destroying vast areas of the world, point out that this nuclear threat was most closely triggered in areas outside Europe, and that the continent, in fact, enjoyed 50 years of peace and stability, which were sorely lacking in the first half of the twentieth century. This view is probably best balanced by the fact that much of Eastern Europe was, in effect, subjugated for the whole period by Soviet Russia.

The D-Day landings, while often overstated in their importance to the downhill of Nazi Germany, were in many ways the key battle of the Cold War in Europe, enabling Allied forces to liberate much of Western Europe before Soviet forces got there instead. The conflict has often been described as a substitute for a final post–Second World War peace settlement that never came, and the Cold War deeply permeated life in the East and West, affecting culture and society as well as politics and the military. The Cold War has also often been described as a contest between democracy and communism while, in reality, the situation was more complicated, with the 'democratic' side, led by the U.S., supporting some distinctly nondemocratic, brutally authoritarian regimes in order to keep countries from coming under the Soviet sphere of influence.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Applebaum, Anne. "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956." New York: Anchor Books, 2012.
  • Fursenko, Aleksandr, and Timothy Naftali. "Khrushchev's Cold War: The Inside Story of an American Adversary." New York: W. W. Norton, 2006.
  • Gaddis, John Lewis. "We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History." New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. the Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made." New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
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Wilde, Robert. "The Cold War in Europe." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Cold War in Europe. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Cold War in Europe." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).