Csaba Békés's new book, which will soon appear in English translation, is a sweeping reappraisal of the Cold War based on wide-ranging international archival research. Békés presents comprehensive theories on East-Central Europe in general and Hungary in particular.
The most striking thesis in the book is a powerful reinterpretation of the connection between the Cold War and détente. Békés argues that the “first Cold War” lasted until 1953, the beginning of the thermonuclear era. After this, he maintains, a new, qualitatively different historical period emerged, which he sees as a “second Cold War” coinciding with the era of détente (1953–1991). This new model of superpower coexistence and cooperation persisted even at times of intense competition. Using the “second Cold War” framework, Békés seeks to understand and reinterpret every historical event in this context.
Hungarian history from 1945 to 1989 is the guiding thread in the book and is the chief basis for Békés's proposed new paradigm. He maintains that the Hungarian revolt in 1956 was not an East-West crisis or conflict. In his view, the dominant feature of the superpowers’ relationship after 1953 was respect for the European status quo, notwithstanding their propaganda to the contrary. He argues that when clashes of interest emerged, Soviet and U.S. leaders were forced to reconcile with each other at almost any price. To illuminate the basic difference between the two types of conflict, Békés distinguishes between “genuine Cold War crises” and “pseudo-crises” (occurring within the blocs), arguing that the latter did not mean real conflictual situations pitting the two superpowers against each other.
The second half of the book (chapters 5 to 10) deals with the process of what Békés labels “emancipation.” He argues that Soviet foreign policy underwent major changes from the mid-1950s on, resulting in the gradual emancipation of the East-Central European members of the Warsaw Pact from Soviet hegemony. A crucial vehicle facilitating this outcome was the “doctrine of active foreign policy,” offering these states greater leeway. The maneuvering room of Soviet-bloc countries, Békés avers, was shaped in three ways: through Soviet power, through their need for modern Western technology and loans, and through their interactions with other Warsaw Pact countries.
Békés points to the specificity and typology of János Kádár's foreign policy, and he discusses international events that spurred change in East-Central Europe, looking at Hungary and the German question, the “floatation of the Brezhnev Doctrine,” and Mikhail Gorbachev's radically new approach to the Soviet bloc.
Some would argue that “independent policy” is too strong a phrase, but Békés is not the only author who has claimed that the East European countries had independent foreign policies. Békés insists that new evidence about the political struggle between the Soviet Union and its East European allies indicates that the “fraternal” countries at times deviated from the hegemon. Romania, in particular, gradually shifted to an autonomous course after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, taking wayward stances on the Sino-Soviet split, the German question, relations with Israel, and the August 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Even though some of the disputes within the bloc did not flare into public view, Békés highlights the growing fissures within the Warsaw Pact.
Békés, the founding director of the Cold War History Research Center in Budapest, succeeds in offering a new perspective on the Cold War in several ways. He introduces more than a dozen new or newly conceptualized terms or theoretical innovations for consideration (“quasi-Sovietized” and “pre-Sovietized” East-Central European states, “stealthy revolution,” “the Mikoyan doctrine,” “the Brest-Litovsk syndrome,” etc.). He has also dramatically revised the traditional chronology of the Cold War, splitting it into two major periods. In so doing, Békés fundamentally alters our previous understanding of the Cold War. His careful reappraisal and new concepts replace the traditional “linear” depiction of the Cold War with a multilayered and more complex account.