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Centering Eastern Europe’s Cold War through the Wilson Center Digital Archive

Reflections from students at Columbia University highlight the value of the Wilson Center Digital Archive in a classroom setting.

China-Albania friendship delegation on a visit to an Albanian factory, 1967
China-Albania friendship delegation on a visit to an Albanian factory, 1967

The Wilson Center Digital Archive has long been recognized as an invaluable scholarly reference point, but it is also a very useful teaching resource.

In December 2022, the Wilson Center published a set of 20 documents from the archives of the Party of Labor of Albania, which include transcripts of meetings with high-level Chinese Communist Party officials. The topics ranged widely, from the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s to foreign policy dilemmas during the Cultural Revolution and the future of communist politics around the globe. 

The following reflections are from six students at Columbia University who used the Digital Archive in their own work as part of an advanced seminar (“Eastern Europe’s Cold War”) taught by Elidor Mëhilli, the curator of the document dossier. 

Designed to capture Eastern Europe’s Cold War through a novel range of perspectives—the Balkans, African students in the Eastern bloc, environmental history, queer perspectives, pathogens, cultural diplomats, scientists—the seminar also invites students to think about how China’s and Eastern Europe’s Communist experiences intersected and diverged.

- Elidor Mëhilli

A Glimpse into China’s Balancing Act

by Kay Zou

We are friends of the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries,” Mao Zedong declared during a May 1959 conversation with an Albanian delegation. A year later, however, he appeared resigned, lamenting the fact that “[t]here is nothing we can do” to incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic. What happened between those two meetings? Sources on this period give us a glimpse into Mao’s efforts to balance both internal and external challenges. 

The Chinese leader had to walk on a tightrope for a while, voicing support for the Soviet Union but criticizing leaders like Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was said to be “wavering” and even beginning “to fight against the Soviet Union, against communism, against us.” Mao understood that the economically weaker and internationally more isolated China still needed Moscow’s assistance.

As Sino-Soviet tensions erupted over a series of ideological disputes in 1960, Mao found an unexpected friend in the Party of Labor of Albania, seeing some common ground in the small country’s militant, revolutionary past. “You waged your war,” he told the visitors, “and therefore only you have the right to lead the state.” Still, the Sino-Soviet split presented domestic challenges (like the withdrawal of Soviet experts), and Mao tempered the idea of a military confrontation with the West. As Danhui Li and Yafeng Xia observe, China’s “view on the inevitability of war had also softened” and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told the American writer Edgar Snow that “we would try to prevent the war if we could.”[1]

Mao attributed China’s success against enemies to the “unity and closeness within the country.” Not only was China bogged down by internal issues (the Great Leap Forward), but Mao also saw solidarity across the communist bloc threatened by the Soviet turn to “revisionism.” Thus, Mao sought to consolidate his authority within China first and foremost. The Chinese leader that comes across from these conversations, then, is a leader constrained by Realpolitik concerns, aware not only of the international challenges posed by the Soviet Union and the United States but first and foremost of developments closer at home.

Collapse or Temporary Détente?

by Donna Qi

According to conventional narratives of the Sino-Soviet split, the two countries were on a collision course by 1960. A CWIHP working paper by Dong Wang, however, pushed against this conventional wisdom. Using declassified Chinese archival documents, Wang argued that “Chinese leaders, Mao included, were far more reluctant to break with Moscow than usually assumed.”

Indeed, in a conversation with his Albanian counterparts in June 1960, Mao tells the guests that the communist camp “is led by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has experience of more than 40 years… We all learn from the Soviet Union. They help all socialist countries.” Despite ongoing ideological disagreements, both Moscow and Beijing had shown restraint in their criticism of one other up to that point, and by extension, hope for reconciliation. While ideological polemics had been underway for a while, as Danhui Li and Yafeng Xia have argued, this was still “a debate without directly revealing the other by name.”[2] As such, we cannot view Mao’s statement to the Albanian delegation as merely lip service.

This interpretation is supported by the progression of the relationship between China and the Soviet Union later that month. Though the Soviet Union criticized China’s position, Chinese officials continued to maintain that the differences constituted “one finger out of ten,” and that the purpose of criticism against Khrushchev “is still unity.”[3] 

What to make of these efforts to preserve Sino-Soviet unity? In his conversation with the Albanians, Mao emphasizes that “because of the influence of the US, they do not recognize us [in the UN],” that China is also capable of becoming as rich of a country as the US, and that “[t]here are disagreements between the USA and England, the US and France… In this regard, then, our situation is favorable.” Some scholars have argued that China’s exclusion from the UN, which Mao emphasizes here, meant that Beijing frequently showed deference to the Soviet Union.[4]  Others have pointed out that China’s partnership with the Soviet Union was crucial because it was a way to “lessen the threat from the United States.”[5] Similarly, the Soviet Union regarded partnership with China as important in gaining leverage in negotiations with the US. In short, Sino-Soviet unity was a continued goal in 1960, and the reasons on both sides were strategic.

“The tree cannot be felled in one strike”

by María Julia Hernández Sáez

In an April 1961 meeting between Chinese and Albanian officials, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping discuss the perspectives of smaller communist states, positioning China as a natural representative of the decolonizing world, and seeking to build and strengthen alliances there. 

The concept of the “Third World” was deployed in 1952 by the French intellectual Alfred Sauvy, in an attempt to look for a “new political option for France beyond the prevailing Cold War discourse.”[6] Franz Fanon reinvented Tiers Monde as a counter-concept in thinking about “overthrowing the system of colonialism at large” as essential to overcoming the Cold War.[7] A wave of former colonies became members of the United Nations in 1960 (“Year of Africa”) and the following year saw the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement.

This is the broader background of the Sino-Albanian conversation, giving us a glimpse of how China sought to establish itself internationally as independent from the Soviet-led socialist camp. By that point, Chinese officials still emphasize unity: “from Albania to Vietnam and from Germany to Korea there should be complete unity and whoever destroys this unity shall be committing a historic crime.” At the same time, new opportunities are becoming evident around the Third World. “We can influence the situation not only in Cuba, but also in Laos,” Zhou Enlai is reported to have said. The Albanian interlocutor agrees: “Cuba, Laos, Congo, etc. show that justice is on our side.”

These two socialist countries, in other words, conceptualize their projects as belonging to a broader context than merely the socialist camp. The Albanian regime, which had once split from neighboring Yugoslavia and now felt isolated after the conflict with the Soviet Union, saw an alliance with Beijing as a regenerative opportunity. “China was also a massive window into the Third World,” as Elidor Mëhilli writes, “and the same mechanisms that the Soviets and East Europeans had developed in the 1950s could now be used to establish contacts with countries such as North Korea, Cuba, or former colonies in Africa and Asia.”[8] Similarly, other countries—like Algeria and Indonesia—were “vanguards of anticolonial revolutions globally and that refused to be defined by Cold War strategic dichotomies.”[9] In sum, such sources highlight the challenge of conceptualizing a changing world.

Division Among the Divided

by Bjorn Carlson

Albanian leaders were caught in a balancing act by the late 1950s. Relations with the Soviet Union had deteriorated—on account of de-Stalinization but also the problem of Yugoslavia, where a substantial Albanian population lived. Albanian party leader Enver Hoxha stood steadfast in his condemnation of Yugoslavia, a state that had long pandered, he complained, to “western imperialists.”

The Albanian pivot came in the summer of 1960, during and after preparations for the Romanian Workers Party Congress, as Khrushchev mounted an attack on the Chinese side. Hysni Kapo, head of the Albanian delegation, resisted the Soviet diplomatic front, and as the Soviets eventually withdrew economic support from Albania, the Chinese stepped in to offer support. 

As a loyal top-tier cadre to Enver Hoxha—and having performed well in Romania—it is no surprise that Kapo would be a trusted liaison to the Chinese government. In a 1963 conversation with the Chinese ambassador, the oft-repeated keyword was “revisionism.” Evident throughout is Kapo’s sense of paranoia regarding revisionist plots across Europe undergirded by an eagerness to change the tide towards orthodox Marxist-Leninism. While identifying enemies abroad as supported by Moscow, Kapo also seeks to highlight that there are other fraternal movements that might constitute an alternative Marxist-Leninist internationalism.

Kapo’s is also a balancing act. Though he expresses concerns to the Chinese ambassador, he also maintains a sense of optimism about communist solidarity, making the case for political, ideological, as well as financial support. “We should first and foremost take an interest in getting to know the various communist groups that engage in struggles within these parties,” he suggests, “we should help these groups by giving them the experience of our parties so that they can organize and fight more successfully; we should recognize their difficulties and needs, and help them as much as we can.” Kapo names some options: islands of Marxism-Leninism within Brazil, Poland, England, France, Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria. 

The Polish case is interesting. While Khrushchev tried to manage relations with the West and the problems with China, Gomulka insisted that the two Communist powers work towards repairing relations. The same month of the Sino-Albanian meeting in 1963, Khrushchev proposed to Warsaw that Mongolia gain membership in the Warsaw Pact. The Polish side opposed the idea, concerned that this would be perceived as a hostile act towards China. At the end of July, faced with this kind of opposition, Khrushchev withdrew the issue at a Warsaw Pact summit. In short, the Sino-Albanian conversation takes place roughly at the same time as the Polish decision. Had the Albanians picked up on signals that pro-Chinese sympathies existed around the Eastern bloc? And would they be able to capitalize on them? 

Risen Consciousness?

by Sam Angell

Conversations like the one between Mao Zedong and Albanian party official Abdyl Këllëzi in 1970 point to a sense of moral duty felt by communist states, which believed that it was their responsibility to support the revolutionary efforts of countries that had not yet been “liberated.”[10] 

They also illuminate how China and Albania’s respective pasts constantly come up as topics to be elaborated. This is an essential function of this document, as a suggestion that the history of these two countries might shape how they conduct themselves internationally. For example, at one point, when discussing the Italian occupation of Albania in 1939, Mao responds by saying: “Often, enemies help us. For example, Mussolini helped you.” This can be read as an instance when Mao’s reference to the 1930s might serve a present need, referring to how imperialist aggression can have unintended consequences.

“The consciousness of people around the world is rising,” Mao declares. The Albanian response is even more militant: “What is important is that these groups engage in combat, even with weapons, so that they become stronger in the revolutionary struggle, and through this struggle, they are purged and united.”

At the same time, 1970 marked the end of a militant and revolutionary decade (in addition to the height of the Cultural Revolution in China). As Lorenz Lüthi has written, “China’s concurrent decision to abandon its revolutionary support of national liberation movements throughout the world – though with a few exceptions, such as Vietnam – also helped the country to regain international respect and credibility.”[11]

The first year of the new decade would prove to be the beginning of a hinge moment in the history of the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing was about to undergo a diplomatic shift that would lead to eventual rapprochement with the United States over the next two years.

Beijing Meets Divided Berlin, 1973

by Ryan Singsank

Primary sources from the Wilson Center Digital Archive help us understand the global ramifications of Beijing’s changing foreign policy in the 1970s. This fact was especially evident in Chinese efforts to develop stronger ties with Western Europe, which however came at the cost of creating new challenges in dealing with the Eastern Bloc.

Consider Beijing’s approach to a divided Germany. While China traditionally maintained cordial relations with East Germany, the Sino-Soviet split raised new concerns in East Berlin that Beijing would move toward bettering relations with Bonn.[12] The success of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik allowed for the initial foundations for an FRG-PRC relationship to emerge by 1972.[13] However, China needed to strike a delicate balance between maintaining relations with both German states.

Beijing was interested in establishing a trading office in West Berlin, and to address this problem, a Chinese embassy first secretary met an East German foreign ministry official on 2 August 1973.  

Concerns from Moscow of a Chinese threat had already pressured East Berlin to make concessions in its 1972 Basic Treaty negotiations with Bonn.[14] While détente helped improve East Germany’s global standing, Bonn was experiencing similar results much to East Berlin’s disdain. On the other hand, coming off successes normalizing relations with the United States and other Western European nations, China increasingly sought to use these new diplomatic foundations as grounds to establish deeper economic ties with the West.[15]

Influencing both the Chinese and East German positions on the matter at hand was the 1971 Quadripartite Agreement, which sought to reduce tensions surrounding one of the Cold War’s most prominent hotspots.[16] However, the East Germans remained unwavering in their position regarding the status of Berlin. They were not fully supportive of new Chinese trading links with West Berlin, as they sought to reinforce that “West Berlin is not an element of the FRG and may not be governed by it.” China, however, was “not bound” by the accord. Beijing was afforded flexibility that the East Germans did not possess. 

These dynamics influenced the East German official’s rebuttal based on “the facts” to the points made his Chinese counterpart. East Germany was “not opposed” to the PRC establishing contacts with West Berlin, the official stated, as long as they “did not touch the status of West Berlin.” Still, the East Germans provided a parting warning, stressing to their Chinese counterparts that their activities would effectively allow Bonn to continually undertake “activities aimed against the GDR.”

While the East Germans acknowledged that the meeting had a “calm” atmosphere, they also noted it was “tense” on the side of the Chinese. With both sides entrenched in their respective positions on the matter, little understanding was found on the subject when the two sides reconvened in December 1973. 

The efforts to establish ties to West Berlin were ultimately one step in Beijing’s goal to develop a “peaceful coexistence” with the West. As this exchange encapsulates, to fully take advantage of this opportunity for détente, China was willing to suffer some setbacks in its relations with other Eastern Bloc nations.

Kay Zou is an undergraduate student studying History and Political Science at Columbia University.

Donna Qi is an undergraduate student in Economics and History at Columbia University.

María Julia Hernández is a graduate student of History at Columbia University.

Bjorn Carlson is a M.A. candidate in East European studies at Columbia University with a research focus on the Balkans.

Sam Angell is a first-year MA student in East Asian Regional Studies at Columbia University, specializing in China.

Ryan Singsank is a student in the Columbia/LSE dual-degree master’s program in international and world history.

[1] Danhui Li and Yafeng Xia, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Split, 1959-1973: A New History (Lexington Books, 2018), 26.

[2] Li and Xia, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Split, p. 10.

[3] Wang, “The Quarrelling Brothers,” 39. 

[4]Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World (University of North Carolina Press, 20080, p. 27.

[5] Li and Xia, Mao and the Sino-Soviet Split, p. 26. 

[6] Erik Tängerstad, “Between Metaphor and Geopolitics: The History of the Concept the Third World,” in Helge Jordheim and Erling Sandmo (eds.), Conceptualizing the World: An Exploration across Disciplines (Berghahn, 2018), p. 79.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Elidor Mëhilli, From Stalin to Mao: Albania and the Socialist World (Cornell University Press, 2017), pp. 190-191.

[9] Odd Arne Westad, “The Third World Revolutions,” in David Motadel (ed.), Revolutionary World: Global Upheaval in the Modern Age (Cambridge University Press, 2021), p. 177.

[10] Julia Lovell, Maoism: A Global History (Knopf, 2019).

[11] Lorenz Lüthi, Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2020), p. 133.

[12] An overview of Sino-East German relations in the 1950s and 1960s can be found in Axel Berkofsky, “Comrades-in-Arms and Partners in Crime: The German Democratic Republic (GDR) and China in the 1950s and 1960s,” Asia-Pacific Review 29, no. 1 (2022): 44-69.

[13] Jussi M. Hanhimäki, “Détente in Europe, 1962-1975,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume II: Crises and Détente, edited by Melvyn P. Leffler and Odd Arne Westad (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 209-12.

[14] M.E. Sarotte, Dealing with the Devil: East Germany, Détente, and Ostpolitik, 1969-1973 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), pp. 177-78.

[15] Beijing’s concurrent efforts to transition diplomatic advances into economic partnerships with the US, and elsewhere are covered in Shu Guang Zhang, “China’s Economic Statecraft in the 1970s,” in China, Hong Kong, and the Long 1970s: Global Perspectives, edited by Priscilla Roberts and Odd Arne Westad (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), pp. 159-80.

[16] Lorenz M. Lüthi, Cold Wars: Asia, The Middle East, Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), pp. 433-34. 

About the Authors

Elidor Mëhilli

Elidor Mëhilli

Hunter College, City University of New York

Kay Zou

Columbia University

Donna Qi

Columbia University

María Julia Hernández

Columbia University

Bjorn Carlson

Columbia University

Sam Angell

Columbia University

Ryan Singsank

Columbia University

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