In the mid-1980s, the Eastern Bloc faced increased pressure on the issue of human rights from western governments, ngos, and indigenous dissident. Although the Socialist Bloc had claimed to represent the ideals of human rights throughout the Cold War, by 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev called on the leaders of the Eastern Bloc to work together on a coordinated response to this threat and in response East Germany proposed the creation of an international declaration based on the principles of socialist—rather than bourgeois—human rights. Within a few years, however, the project collapsed in ignominious failure as it provided a vehicle for reformers to challenge the status quo in the name of human rights by demanding greater democratization. Although the project was originally devised to refute the human rights claims of the West, it instead acted to spur on the intellectual collapse of the Eastern Bloc’s ideological unity at its time of greatest crisis.
In recent years, the study of human rights history has expanded beyond Western-centered narratives, though the role of Eastern European state socialism and socialists in the evolution of human rights concepts and politics has not received sufficient attention. This introductory essay synthesizes recent research of the role of Eastern Bloc socialist states in shaping the emergence of the post-war human rights system and the implications of this new research for the history of the Cold War, dissent as well as the collapse of state socialism in 1989/91. Ultimately, state socialist actors were not merely human rights antagonists, but contributed to shaping the international arena and human rights politics, motivated both strategically as well as ideologically. And the Eastern Bloc was not merely a region that passively absorbed the idea of human rights from the West, but a site where human rights ideas where articulated, internationalized and also contested.