At the end of the first world war it had been possible to contemplate going back to business as usual. However, 1945 was different, so different that it has been called Year Zero. The capacity for destruction had been so much greater than in the earlier war that much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. And this time civilians had been the target as much as the military. The figures are hard to grasp: as many as 60 million dead, 25 million of them Soviet. A new word, genocide, entered the language to deal with the murder of 6 million of Europe's Jews by the Nazis.
During the war, millions more had fled their homes or been forcibly moved to work in Germany or Japan or, in the case of the Soviet Union, because Stalin feared that they might be traitors. Now, in 1945, another new word appeared, the DP, or "displaced person". There were millions of them, some voluntary refugees moving westward in the face of the advancing Red Army, others deported as undesirable minorities. The newly independent Czech state expelled nearly 3 million ethnic Germans in the years after 1945, and Poland a further 1.3 million. Everywhere there were lost or orphaned children, 300,000 alone in Yugoslavia. Thousands of unwanted babies added to the misery. It is impossible to know how many women in Europe were raped by the Red Army soldiers, who saw them as part of the spoils of war, but in Germany alone some 2 million women had abortions every year between 1945 and 1948.
The allies did what they could to feed and house the refugees and to reunite families that had been forcibly torn apart, but the scale of the task and the obstacles were enormous. The majority of ports in Europe and many in Asia had been destroyed or badly damaged; bridges had been blown up; railway locomotives and rolling stock had vanished. Great cities such as Warsaw, Kiev, Tokyo and Berlin were piles of rubble and ash.
In Germany, it has been estimated, 70% of housing had gone and, in the Soviet Union, 1,700 towns and 70,000 villages. Factories and workshops were in ruins, fields, forests and vineyards ripped to pieces. Millions of acres in north China were flooded after the Japanese destroyed the dykes. Many Europeans were surviving on less than 1,000 calories per day; in the Netherlands they were eating tulip bulbs. Apart from the United States and allies such as Canada and Australia, who were largely unscathed by the war's destruction, the European powers such as Britain and France had precious little to spare. Britain had largely bankrupted itself fighting the war and France had been stripped bare by the Germans. They were struggling to look after their own peoples and deal with reincorporating their military into civilian society. The four horsemen of the apocalypse – pestilence, war, famine and death – so familiar during the middle ages, appeared again in the modern world.
Politically, the impact of the war was also great. The once great powers of Japan and Germany looked as though they would never rise again. In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see that their peoples, highly educated and skilled, possessed the capacity to rebuild their shattered societies. (And it may have been easier to build strong economies from scratch than the partially damaged ones of the victors.) Two powers, so great that the new term "superpower" had to be coined for them, dominated the world in 1945. The United States was both a military power and an economic one; the Soviet Union had only brute force and the intangible attraction of Marxist ideology to keep its own people down and manage its newly acquired empire in the heart of Europe.
The great European empires, which had controlled so much of the world, from Africa to Asia, were on their last legs and soon to disappear in the face of their own weakness and rising nationalist movements. We should not view the war as being responsible for all of this, however; the rise of the US and the Soviet Union and the weakening of the European empires had been happening long before 1939. The war acted as an accelerator.
It also accelerated change in other ways: in science and technology, for example. The world got atomic weapons but it also got atomic power. Under the stimulus of war, governments poured resources into developing new medicines and technologies. Without the war, it would have taken us much longer, if ever, to enjoy the benefits of penicillin, microwaves, computers – the list goes on. In many countries, social change also speeded up.
The shared suffering and sacrifice of the war years strengthened the belief in most democracies that governments had an obligation to provide basic care for all citizens. When it was elected in the summer of 1945, for example, the Labour government in Britain moved rapidly to establish the welfare state. The rights of women also took a huge step forward as their contribution to the war effort, and their share in the suffering, were recognised. In France and Italy, women finally got the vote.
If class divisions in Europe and Asia did not disappear, the moral authority and prestige of the ruling classes had been severely undermined by their failure to prevent the war or the crimes that they had condoned before and during it. Established political orders – fascist, conservative, even democratic – came under challenge as peoples looked for new ideas and leaders. In Germany and Japan, democracy slowly took root.
In China, people turned increasingly from the corrupt and incompetent nationalists to the communists. While many Europeans, wearied by years of war and privation, gave up on politics altogether and faced the future with glum pessimism, others hoped that, at last, the time had come to build a new and better society. In western Europe, voters turned to social democratic parties such as the Labour party in Britain. In the east, the new communist regimes that were imposed by the triumphant Soviet Union were at first welcomed by many as the agents of change.
The end of the war inevitably also brought a settling of scores. In many parts people took measures into their own hands. Collaborators were beaten, lynched or shot. Women who had fraternised with German soldiers had their heads shaved or worse. Governments sometimes followed suit, setting up special courts for those who had worked with the enemy and purging such bodies as the civil service and the police. The Soviets also tried to exact reparations from Germany and Japan; whole factories were dismantled down to the window frames and were carted off to the Soviet Union, where they frequently rotted away. Much of the revenge was to gain advantage in the postwar world. In China and eastern Europe the communists used the accusation of collaboration with the Japanese or the Nazis to eliminate their political and class enemies.
The allies instituted an ambitious programme of de-Nazification in Germany, later quietly abandoned as it became clear that German society would be unworkable if all former Nazis were forbidden to work. In Japan, the head of the occupation, General Douglas MacArthur, broke up the zaibatsu, the big conglomerates that were blamed for supporting the Japanese militarists, and introduced a range of reforms, from a new school curriculum to a democratic constitution, that were designed to turn Japan into a peaceable democratic nation. In both Germany and Japan, the victors set up special tribunals to try those responsible for crimes against peace, war crimes, and the catalogue of horrors that came increasingly to be known as "crimes against humanity".
In Tokyo, leading Japanese generals and politicians, and at Nuremberg, senior Nazis (those that had not committed suicide or escaped), stood in the dock before allied judges. Not a few people then and since wondered if the trials were merely victors' justice, their moral authority undercut by the presence, in Nuremberg, of judges and prosecutors from Stalin's murderous regime, and by the fact that in Tokyo, the emperor, in whose name the crimes had been committed, was shielded from blame.
The trials, inconclusive though they were, formed part of a larger attempt to root out the militaristic and chauvinistic attitudes that had helped to produce the war, and to build a new world order that would prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. Well before the war had ended, the allies had started planning for the peace. Among the western powers, the United States, by 1945 very much the dominant partner in the alliance, took the lead.
In his Four Freedoms speech of January 1941, President Roosevelt talked of a new and more just world, with freedom of speech and expression and of religion, and freedom from want and fear. In the Atlantic charter later that year, he and Churchill sketched out a world order based on such liberal principles as collective security, national self-determination, and free trade among nations. A host of other allies, some of them represented by governments in exile, signed on.
The Soviet Union gave a qualified assent, although its leader Stalin had no intention of following what were to him alien principles. Roosevelt intended that the American vision should take solid institutional form. The key organisation was the United Nations, designed to be stronger than the League of Nations, which it was replacing, and the economic ones known collectively as the Bretton Woods system, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. This time, Roosevelt was determined, the United States should join. Stalin again gave grudging support.
While much of what Roosevelt hoped for did not come about, it was surely a step forward for international relations that such institutions were created and largely accepted and, equally important, that they were underpinned by notions of a common humanity possessing the same universal rights. The idea that there were universal standards to be upheld was present, no matter how imperfectly, in the war crimes trials, and was later reinforced by the establishment of the United Nations itself in 1945, the International Court of Justice in 1946 and Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
It had already become clear at the top-level conferences of Teheran (1943), Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July-August 1945) that there was a gulf in what constituted universal values and goals between the United States and its fellow democracies and the Soviet Union. Stalin was interested above all in security for his regime and for the Soviet Union, and that to him meant taking territory, from Poland and other neighbours, and establishing a ring of buffer states around Soviet borders. In the longer run, where the western powers saw a democratic and liberal world, he dreamed of a communist one.
The grand alliance held together uneasily for the first months of the peace, but the strains were evident in their shared occupation of Germany, where increasingly the Soviet zone of occupation was moving in a communist direction and the western zones, under Britain, France and the United States, in a more capitalist and democratic one.
By 1947, two very different German societies were emerging. In addition, the western powers watched with growing consternation and alarm the elimination of non-communist political forces in eastern Europe and the establishment of Peoples' Republics under the thumb of the Soviet Union. Soviet pressure on its neighbours, from Norway in the north to Turkey and Iran in the south, along with Soviet spy rings and Soviet-inspired sabotage in western countries, further deepened western concerns. For their part, Soviet leaders looked on western talk of such democratic procedures as free elections in eastern Europe as Trojan horses designed to undermine their control of their buffer states, and regarded the Marshall plan, which funnelled American aid into Europe, as a cover for extending the grip of capitalism. Furthermore, their own Marxist-Leninist analysis of history told them that sooner or later the capitalist powers would turn on the Soviet Union. Within two years of second world war's end, the cold war was an established fact.
Both sides built military alliances and prepared for the new shooting war that many feared was bound to come. In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb, giving it parity, at least in that area, with the United States. That the cold war did not in the end turn into a hot one was thanks to that fact. The terrifying new power of atomic weapons was to lead to a standoff suitably known as Mad – Mutually Assured Destruction.
The cold war overshadowed another momentous international change that came as a result of the second world war. Before 1939 much of the non-European world had been divided up among the great empires: the ones based in western Europe but also those of Japan and the Soviet Union. Japan and Italy lost their empires as a result of defeat. Britain, France, and the Netherlands all saw their imperial possessions disappear in the years immediately after the war. (The Soviet Union was not to lose its until the end of the cold war.)
The former imperial powers no longer had the financial and military capacity to hang on to their vast territories. Nor did their peoples want to pay the price of empire, whether in money or blood. Furthermore, where the empires had once dealt with divided or acquiescent peoples, they now increasingly faced assertive and, in some cases, well-armed nationalist movements. The defeat of European forces all over Asia also contributed to destroying the myth of European power.
The British pulled out of India in 1947, leaving behind two new countries of India and Pakistan. Burma, Sri Lanka and Malaysia followed the road of independence not long after. The Dutch fought a losing war but finally conceded independence to Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies, in 1949. France tried to regain its colonies in Indochina but was forced out in 1954 after a humiliating defeat at the hands of Vietnamese forces. The Europeans' African empires crumbled in the 1950s and early 1960s. The United Nations grew from 51 nations in 1945 to 189 by the end of the century.
Because of the cold war, there was no comprehensive peace settlement after the second world war as there had been in 1919. Instead there were a number of separate agreements or ad hoc decisions. In Europe most of the borders that had been established at the end of the first world war were restored.
The Soviet Union seized back some bits of territory such as Bessarabia, which it had lost to Romania in 1919. The one major exception was Poland, as the joke had it "a country on wheels", which moved some 200 miles to the west, losing some 69,000 sq metres to the Soviet Union and gaining slightly less from Germany in the west. In the east, Japan of course lost the conquests it had made since 1931, but was also obliged to disgorge Korea and Formosa (now Taiwan) and the Pacific islands that it had gained decades earlier. Eventually the United States and Japan concluded a formal peace in 1951. Because of an outstanding dispute over some islands, the Soviet Union and its successor Russia have not yet signed a peace treaty ending the war with Japan.
Remembering the war
We have long since absorbed and dealt with the physical consequences of the second world war, but it still remains a very powerful set of memories. How societies remember and commemorate the past often says something about how they see themselves – and can be highly contentious. Particularly in divided societies, it is tempting to cling to comforting myths to help bring unity and to paper over deep and painful divisions. In the years immediately after 1945, many societies chose to forget the war or remember it only in certain ways. Austria portrayed itself as the first victim of Nazism, conveniently ignoring the active support that so many Austrians had given the Nazi regime. In Italy, the fascist past was neglected in favour of the earlier periods of Italian history. For a long time, schools did not teach any history after the first world war. Italians were portrayed in films or books as essentially good-hearted and generally opposed to Mussolini, whose regime was an aberration in an otherwise liberal state.
In France, the Vichy period, after France's defeat by Germany, when there was widespread French collaboration, some of it enthusiastically antisemitic and pro-Nazi, was similarly ignored. From de Gaulle onwards, French leaders played up the resistance in such a way as to claim its moral authority but also to imply that it was more broadly based and widespread than it actually was.
West Germany was not able to escape its past so easily; under pressure from the allies and from within, it dealt much more thoroughly with its Nazi past. In West German schools, children learned about the horrors committed by the regime. East Germany, by contrast, took no responsibility, instead blaming the Nazis on capitalism. Indeed, many East Germans grew up believing that their country had fought with the Soviet Union against Hitler's regime.
In the east, Japan has been accused of ignoring its aggression in the 1930s and its own war crimes in China and elsewhere, but in recent years it has moved to teach more about this dark period in its history.
How should the past be remembered? When should we forget? These are not easy questions. Acknowledging such difficult parts of the past is not always easy and has led to history becoming a political football in a number of countries. In Japan, the conservatives minimise Japanese responsibility for the war and downplay atrocities on nationalist grounds. Japan, they argue, should not apologise for the past when all powers were guilty of aggression.
It has not necessarily been easier among the nations on the winning side. When French and foreign historians first began examining the Vichy period in France critically, they were attacked from both the right and the left for stirring up memories that were best left undisturbed. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was, for a time, a willingness among Russians to acknowledge that many crimes were committed in Stalin's regime in the course of the war, whether the mass murder of Polish army officers at Katyn or the forcible deportation of innocent Soviet citizens to Siberia.
Today, the conservatives argue that such criticism of the great patriotic war only gives comfort to Russia's foes. Britain and Canada played a major role in the mass bombing campaign of German cities and towns; suggestions that the destruction of Dresden or other targets that may have had little military significance might be war crimes causes impassioned debate in both countries. That the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki might have been morally wrong or unnecessary causes equal controversy in the United States.
Today, particularly in the countries that were on the winning side, there is a reluctance to disturb our generally positive memories of the war by facing such issues. The second world war, especially in the light of what came after, seems to be the last morally unambiguous war. The Nazis and their allies were bad and they did evil things. The allies were good and right to fight them.
That is true, but the picture is not quite as black and white as we might like to think. After all, one ally was the Soviet Union, in its own way as guilty of crimes against humanity as Nazi Germany, fascist Italy or Japan. Britain and France may have been fighting for liberty, but they were not prepared to extend it to their empires. And Dresden, or the firebombing of Hamburg, Tokyo and Berlin, the forcible repatriation of Soviet prisoners of war, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, should remind us that bad things can be done in the name of good causes. Let us remember the war, but let us not remember it simplistically but in all its complexity.
Margaret MacMillan is the warden of St Antony's college and a professor of international history at the University of Oxford. Her books include Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (2001) and Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao (2006). Her most recent book is The Uses and Abuses of History (2008)
Europe in the period after 1945 has seen a clear, if gradual, shift towards cooperation over conflict. At this time, in the wake of the Second World War, nations lay in tatters and the continent was soon to be divided completely in half with spheres of US and Soviet influence. Beginning with those nations to the west of the ‘Iron Curtain’, a new environment emerged in which leaders vowed never to allow such widespread devastation as occurred in the two ‘Great Wars’. From that point a burgeoning sense of commitment to each other has evolved; from ‘The Six’ initial delegates into an organisation with a vast remit for control of mainly economic but ever increasingly social and defence policies throughout its membership of 27 states. In the modern day the European Union is a world leader in terms of supra-national governance and integration (Kegley Jr. ’09, p177); with its single market and multilateral currency and with a growing sense of the prospects of the entire group being intertwined. It is a model for other inter-governmental organisations in the East and South America (ASEAN, USAN etc.).
In Europe post 1945 there remained a tension between the traditionally opposing Allied and Axis powers as well as the new issue of Russian dominance in the East. The Red Army had marched in to Berlin, which was now divided in to four spheres of influence; US, British, French and Soviet. The nations of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and East Germany amongst others had all fallen beyond the control of the Western Powers and the continent was more divided than ever. The idea of the all-powerful nation state had been discredited and the key players of the mainland; namely France and Germany, were keen to build closer relations (Pinder 1998, p3). For France this was as much to limit the power of the German state as for advancement of their own. The idea of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was devised by Jean Monnet as a starting point; a lowest common denominator for these two nations to agree, with the aim of expanding cooperation at a later time (Ross 2009, p479). Six nations agreed to join this community (France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries) and from that seed has emerged over half a century of ever expanding central governance in Europe. This essay will seek to identify the key reasons for this shift from conflict to international cooperation in the period post-1945, and explain the reasons for their occurrence and the motives of the key actors.
One of the key factors in the changing attitudes of powerful actors after World War Two was the sheer devastation and loss caused by the conflict. Overall 60 million people had died worldwide, including 37 million civilians and 6 million Jews. This was loss unequalled even by the First World War and it lead the key players in Europe to question the methods of peacemakers at Versailles as well as the traditional power of the ‘nation-state’ itself. Versailles, and more specifically the reparations and ‘War Guilt Clause’, had almost certainly played a part in Hitler’s rise to power and the burning resentment within the German state. It would certainly not have been wise to have ignored this lesson and again sought to punish the aggressors. Nationalism and the ”Fascist glorification of the nation-state” was a stark lesson on the problems caused by a lack of coordination between European governments and many discussed the possibility of Federalist system and close cooperation (Pinder 1998, p4).
The French still had reservations about rebuilding Germany and integration was viewed by some as a way of taking some control of German policy. If they could make Germany commit to supra-national control and inter-governmental cooperation whilst she was in a weakened state then future governments would struggle to withdraw from these arrangements later on. Jean Monnet picked up on coal and steel as an initial area for cooperation, which would allow the French to disassemble the German war machine and exert an element of control over its resources. Joint control over these key manufacturing industries would make it nigh on impossible for one country to attack the other, given the difficulty of gaining the resources required and the massive hit it would take to its own economy. It was important for Europe as a whole that it developed multi-lateral security through cooperation and joint ventures, in order to avoid the type of ‘security competition’ that lead to the problems and divisions in the build up to World War Two (Art 2007, p6) It could easily be argued that Monnet was himself a federalist, advocating strong powers for European government, but was intelligent enough to see that people would only accept the idea in small steps; it would never be possible to make an immediate switch to a ‘United States of Europe’ but he had much grander plans for the development of the ECSC (Burgess 1991, p27).
A second key factor is a decline in global influence. After World War Two those nations, especially Britain and France, that had been major world powers in the past began to realise that they no longer had sufficient influence in the world if operating alone. The growth of the USA and USSR, with their massive populations and geographical domination, had the economic and military power to completely engulf Europe in a ‘Cold War’ with pressure exerted from both sides. It became apparent that European governments could only hope to control the actions of these key players on European soil if they spoke together.
Whilst Britain was happier to downplay its European ties in favour of the Atlantic Alliance and Commonwealth, the French especially were worried that they no longer had the global influence or economic fire-power that once saw these two nations dominate the world with vast empires; it became clear that only a united Europe could carry any weight globally (Senior Nello 2009, p18). The USA was happy with any idea that prevented a continent-wide despair and an influx of Communism. It was, at least in part, the provision of Marshall Aid from 1947 that lead to the creation of the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC), with the job of deciding how the money was to be distributed (Weigall and Stirk 1992, p39). This was the first official union of the major European states and the start of an ‘economic community’ which has evolved in to the modern European Union.
Even those states which rejected the mainstream development of economic union, through the ECSC, were not averse to the idea of cooperation. Britain, the Swiss, Austrians, Portuguese and Scandinavian nations rejected the Coal and Steel Community but instead formed a separate alliance, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Cooperation was seen as the most effective method of economic development and the split between ‘The Six’ and the EFTA was over the style of its implementation, not its principles.
Thirdly the western European powers had to look outwards. As well as internal issues the European states also needed to protect themselves from the external threat of Soviet Russia and the impact of the Cold War. Europe was divided in half through Berlin and those countries to the west of the wall were determined to prevent a domino effect and the spread of Communist influence. The Treaty of Rome (1957) set up a European Economic Community; a unity of the same six nations of the ECSC but with even stronger links and broader cooperation. Article 2 of the treaty set out its key objectives, which included increased stability and steady expansion; a clear sign that those six nations were consciously defending themselves against the ‘Evil Empire’ and sought closer cooperation with other European states (Senior Nello 2009, p27). The uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1948 had been a real cause for concern, as was the development of Soviet nuclear arms. These Cold War security issues amongst many others evidenced the fact that ‘The Six’ had to work together and expand to find safety in numbers.
The European states were, to an extent, duty bound to act against the USSR because of the level of aid from the USA and the debts they owed. US troops were stationed in West Germany, which was seen to be the most vulnerable, but the neighbouring states were uncomfortable with the idea of German rearmament. The North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) signed in 1949 was an attempt to protect Germany, and the rest of the European mainland, under a banner of unity and integration whilst avoiding the risk of a renewed German threat (Taylor 2007). It was also another example of integration in action, but on a larger scale. At the time NATO comprised 12 nations whilst Europe’s union was only 6.
After the initial successes of the 1940s and 1950s the ‘European Project’ took off and even Britain, who were initially ”of’ Europe but not ‘in’ Europe” (Churchill 1946) applied for membership in 1961 and 1967 (only to be vetoed by Charles de Gaulle). The fourth factor in the push for integration is the success of integration in itself. The rise in living standards targeted by the Rome Treaty made those nations, chiefly of the South and the Scandinavians, see the benefits of integration for their economies and this remained a key selling point right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989-1991 when the former Eastern Bloc states were equally keen to join the EC.
The idea of ‘ever-closer union’ gained momentum ”…and its own prophets who exhibit zealous faith as to its destiny” (O’Neill 2009, p 4). Its usefulness and mutual benefits saw the idea of integration take deep root within many political elites and, despite a certain separation from the people at large, levels of cooperation continued to grow throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
In conclusion it is clear that after half a century of tension and conflict there was a real push for closer ties and cooperation within Europe after 1945. Whilst the East came under the shadow of the USSR and stagnated, practically every nation to the west of the Berlin Wall saw sense in the notion of a united European union as a means to economic growth and security; even if they didn’t initially want a part in it themselves (as with Britain). It was important, especially for the French, that Germany be contained and controlled. The ECSC brought these two nations together with shared resources and has led to over 60 years of peaceful friendship. Second the former European powers had lost much of their global influence and fallen far behind the US and Soviet Union; the only way for them to have a significant voice on an international stage was by joining together to work for mutual gain. Third was the external security concern of Communism, which was combated through the NATO alliance and defensive cooperation. Finally, all of these factors in unison lead to a rise in living standards and levels of security that Europe had not experienced for centuries. The success of the integration project was its own catalyst for ‘ever-closer union’ and the growth of the Community.
Art, R. J. (2007) Why Western Europe needs the United States and NATO. The Political Quarterly, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK.
Burgess, M. (1991) Federalism and European Union. Routledge, London, UK.
Churchill, W (1946) Speech at Zurich 19/09/1946 sourced from Weigall, D. and Stirk, P. (1992) The origins and development of the European Community. Leicester University Press, UK.
Kegley Jr., C. J. (2009) World Politics; Trend and Transformation. Cengage Learning, CA, USA.
Ross, G. (2009) ‘Politics and Economics in the Development of the European Union’ in Kesselman, M. and Krieger, J. (2009) European Politics in Transition. Cengage Learning, CA, USA.
Pinder, J. (1998) The building of the European Union. Oxford University Press, UK.
Senior Nello, S. (2009) The European Union: Economics, Policies and History. McGraw-Hill Education, Berkshire, UK.
Taylor, J. (2007) Motives for European Integration Since 1945 taken from http://www.helium.com/channels/565-Politics-in-Europe
Weigall, D. and Stirk, P. (1992) The origins and development of the European Community. Leicester University Press, UK.
WW2 History (2011) taken from http://www.secondworldwarhistory.com/world-war-2-statistics.asp on 21/12/2011.
Written by: Ben Bradley
Written at: Nottingham Trent University
Written for: BA Politics
Date Written: December 2011