The Transformative Impact of World War II

von by A.W. Purdue Original aufOriginal in English, angezeigt aufdisplayed in English
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    The article evaluates the degree to which the Second World War was responsible for the development of Europe since 1945. It seeks to disentangle effects that were clearly directly due to the war from those which can be seen as the result of changes already affecting pre-war Europe, and those due to post-war developments, such as the Cold War and the European Union. It examines the relationship between long term social, economic and cultural developments and the impact of the war and political turning points.

    InhaltsverzeichnisTable of Contents
    See also the article "Judging, Atoning, Reconciling" in the EHNE.

    The Impact of the War

    That great events have great effects seems a truism and it would follow that the Second World War, a conflict which caused a colossal loss of life, saw a continent divided as mighty armies strove for supremacy, and ended with much of in ruins and the rest impoverished, must have had a transforming effect. Few would deny that the great context for the development of Europe, politically, socially and economically, in the immediate post-war years was the war, but did it really transform Europe and, if so, for how long?

    Among the problems in assessing the changes to Europe, its nations, societies, economies and cultures, that may or may not be seen as consequent upon the war is the perennial historian's dilemma in distinguishing between short and long term developments. Many of the changes that seem at first sight to have been due to the conflict and its aftermath may well have been simply the further effects of salient developments evident before the war. Then, of course, the impact of the war varied considerably as between the defeated and the victorious states, and indeed between combatants and neutrals, the latter providing a "control" for any assessment of the war's effects. Post-war and looked very different in, say, 1950 to what they had been in 1939, but can the same be said for or, for that matter, ?

    An essay on this subject written in, shall we say, 1950, 1970 or 1992, would have a very different perspective, for many of changes made by the war were far from permanent and, arguably, post-war developments had a greater effect. This is most obviously the case when we consider the redrawing of the map of Europe in the immediate post war period. The war ended with what in historical terms was an odd peace, for there was no peace treaty with Germany,1 in part because the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers had left no authority to conclude peace with, and also because of the disintegration of the alliance of the victorious powers shortly after the moment of victory. Nevertheless, states (, and ) disappeared, frontiers were changed, and, most importantly, the division of Germany into occupied zones provided the blueprint for the emergence of two German states. In general, moved west, in terms of frontier changes, seen most evidently in those of Poland, which lost territory to the and gained it at the expense of what had been Germany, and because of the movement of millions of people, expelled from their homes and moving west in search of security. There was also a movement in the opposite direction as Latvians and other people and numerous other ethnic groups, such as Tartars, were forcibly moved eastwards by the Soviet authorities.

    A feature of the post-1945 settlement was thus, if settlement is not an inappropriate term, the brutal displacement of populations. Whereas the Versailles SettlementThe Peace Conference in Paris 1919 IMG had attempted to make frontiers coincide with national or ethnic divisions, the aftermath of the Second World War saw peoples made to fit frontiers. In particular, millions of Germans were expelled from and other German territory ceded to Poland, and from the , while there were parallel movements of Poles from the territories ceded to the Soviet Union into that gained from Germany. Although the fate of and was largely decided at in February 1944, the future political shape of the continent was formally agreed at , Churchill, Truman und Stalin während der Potsdamer Konferenz 1945 IMG 17 July to 2 August 1945, where the Allied leaders decided that there should be an inter-allied council to co-ordinate the four occupied zones of Germany and agreed that should be independent, be returned , and the Sudetenland, and that Poland's western frontier should be the Oder-Neisse Line (previously the Curzon and then the Molotov-Ribbentrop Line).

    The palimpsest of the 1945 arrangements was distinct in 1950 and discernible in 1970 or even the late 1980s, when troops of the wartime allies still garrisoned , but by 1992, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, the "velvet" revolutions in the satrap people's republics, and the reunification of Germany, the map of Europe resembled that in the wake of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918, rather more than that of 1945-92, though the end of and recent events in the remind us that political geography is rarely permanent; a hundred-year-old inhabitant of will have been an , a Polish, a Soviet, and a Ukrainian national during his or her lifetime.

    We must also consider the view that the two World Wars should not necessarily be treated as autonomous but perhaps be seen as parts of a single conflict, a "Thirty Years War" of the twentieth century,2 a conflict that arose from the long-term political and economic rivalries of great powers and Europe's fault lines which led these rivalries to ignite into warfare. It is, indeed, possible to argue that the Cold War period can be seen as at least a sequel to it. Such an interpretation of the dark history of Europe in the twentieth century does, of course, downgrade the importance of ideology and of the "great dictators" and has been attacked on the grounds that the coming to power of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) was, not only the major cause of World War II, but that his hysterical and paranoid agenda gave that war its own unique and horrific nature.3 Acceptance of the "long war" thesis would tend to shift enquiry from the particularity of World War II as an engine of change to longer term European developments, problems and rivalries.

    Nevertheless, the outcome of the Second World War and the nature of the fracturing alliance that triumphed was clearly the major factor in determining, in political-geographic respects, the map of post-war Europe. Its impact was clearly discernible for nearly half a century, although we can debate whether it was the position of the armies of the western powers vis-a-vis the Red Army in 1945 or the subsequent announcement of the Truman Doctrine and Marshall PlanLogo des Marshallplans IMGin 1947, the formation of NATO in 1948,Map of NATO, Karte, 2007, unbekannter Ersteller; Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. or the entry of into the alliance in 1954 that decisively made for a divided Europe. In that the division was also an ideological one, it determined the nature of economies and societies. It is, however, when we come to the economic and social effects of the war upon Europe, that determining the degrees and the ways in which the experience of the war as well as its outcome shaped the post-war world becomes difficult. The major problem is that of distinguishing between pre-war influences, the experience of the war, its result, and the Cold War, which followed so swiftly.

    Devastation and Recovery

    The relentless advance of Allied forces in 1944 and 1945 achieved a victory, so complete as to prevent any revival of the defeated regimes. Although celebrated with justice by the victors, it was gained at an enormous cost to all of Europe. The excesses of the Soviet forces, which raped and looted their way through are now well known,4 but for many years this went unrecognised by western writers. If the conduct of the western Allies was far superior, total war cannot be waged without leaving desolation and a huge loss of civilian life in its wake and, what one author has called, "collective amnesia",5 has obscured the costs of liberation as armies fought their way through France, and .

    Europe in 1945 offered a picture of desolation and ruin. Parts of the Soviet Union had been fought over three times, while Poland had suffered aggression from both Germany and in 1939 and the Soviet advance in 1944 had paused only to allow the German army to destroy . Central Europe has been described as a "lunar landscape dotted with enormous heaps of rubble and bomb craters",Unknown photographer, Aerial of destroyed Frankfurt old town in June 1945, after heavy Allied bombing raids (die Altstadt von Frankfurt nach den schweren Bombardements durch Alliierte, Luftbild von Juni 1945). Source: University of Wisconsin via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain.6 while, in Berlin, "Ninety-five per cent of its urban area lay in ruins".7 The state of and France was better only in comparison. Victorious but battered, Britain was, a threadbare and austere country with an exhausted economy, now that American aid was withdrawn, and the French economy was dislocated: "food was scarce in the winter of 1944-5, and there were virtually no reserves of gold or foreign currency".8

    Two European civil wars (or one punctuated by a lengthy armistice) had not only resulted in the problems of reconstruction, but had substantially reduced the power and influence of the major European states with the exception of Russia, long perceived in western and central Europe as largely an extra-European power, but one whose armies had penetrated deep into Central Europe in 1945 much as they had done in 1815. As the Cold War developed, it became clear that only two powers in the world had emerged from the war with enhanced strength and that these two "super powers" were the and the Soviet Union or USSR.

    A further weakening of the position of Europe came with the diminuendo of the colonial empires of Britain, France and the Netherlands. The stress and expense of war and of humiliation at the hands of Japan had already impacted severely upon the positions of the imperial powers, while the opposition of the USA and of the emergent United Nations to colonial possessions was a further factor. Winston Churchill (1874–1965)[Winston Churchill (1874–1965) IMG] had, perhaps, failed to realise or had ignored the anti-colonial implications of the Atlantic Charter, which he and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945)[Leon A. Perskie: Original black & white transparency of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) taken at 1944 Official Campaign Portrait session by Leon A. Perskie, Hyde Park, New York, August 21, 1944. Gift of Beatrice Perskie Foxman and Dr. Stanley B. Foxman. August 21, 1944. Source: FDR Presidential Library & Museum via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.] had signed in 1941, or the strength of American opposition to empires. US policy was, nevertheless, ambiguous as anti-imperialism could conflict with its Cold War interests; having refused to back Britain during the Suez crisis in 1956, it proceeded to press her to retain bases of strategic importance, as with and . The process of decolonisation set in, sometimes "with astonishing – and in some cases excessive speed", as with the British Empire,9 at a single blow with the Dutch Empire, collapse and precipitate withdrawal as with the Belgian Empire, or accompanied by a hard and lengthy struggle as with France's wars in and ,10 but it was practically complete by the early 1960s. Essentially the imperial powers lost the appetite and will to hold on to empires, which were no longer seen as worthwhile by their home electorates. As Mark Mazower (born 1958) has commented, "imperial powers were rarely forced to retreat as a direct result of military insurrection – Algeria was the exception rather than the rule".11 Nevertheless, decolonisation impacted severely upon the political positions of the imperial powers, particularly Britain and France. Britain, at first sought a substitute for Empire in the Commonwealth, but was then to waver between Atlanticism and Europe, while France, hastily, turned its attention towards Europe and followed a policy of forming a close relationship with West Germany.

    The physical and economic recovery of Europe was, despite the enormous damage done to the infrastructure, industry, agriculture and commerce, to be quicker than most observers expected and that of Western Europe was spectacular after the bleak and austere immediate post-war years. It has been argued that it was the depths to which Germany had sunk in 1945, the near-starvation, disorder and hopelessness that inspired a West German recovery that prioritised economic recovery stability, and order,12 while another view is that it was a determined effort to erase the past.13 A major characteristic of those years was the deepening divide between Eastern and Western Europe, while the concept of central Europe, which states like and Czechoslovakia had identified with, disappeared for several decades as a political and cultural concept. These developments were underpinned by different economic and social systems and, if in part the result of the war and differing national traditions, were also consequent on America's aid to the West via the Marshall Plan. A salient feature of the recovering Europe has been identified as the increased role of the state as director of economies and, via increased taxation and state welfare, of civil societies and the organisation and direction of states for the war effort has been held to be a major influence on these developments. A little disputed effect of total war is that it vastly increases the power of governments and both governments and peoples had become accustomed to, respectively, positions of command and dependency.

    Whether these post-war developments represented a continuation of war-time systems of government, had already been evident in pre-war Europe, or were largely a response to the problems of a ravaged Europe can be debated. The more extreme forms of state control of economic and social life experienced by the states of Eastern and Central Europe may be seen as imported from, or imposed by, the Soviet Union, though many of these states had formerly been used to a high degree of government direction and were experiencing some of the worst problems of post-war dislocation and poverty. Central to the recovery of Western Europe was a balance or synthesis between liberal capitalism and socialism, though in France and this was challenged by powerful Communist Parties, strengthened by the Resistance movements which had developed late in the war. The general direction of governments' policies was contested between social democratic and moderate conservative parties, but moved steadily towards the latter from the early 1950s.

    The Cold War Divide

    Whether the Cold War divide, the formation of the Soviet Bloc and the imposition of socialist one party economic and political systems of government on much of East Central Europe was planned by Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) from the beginning has been much debated. Hugh Seton-Watson's (1916–1984) The East European Revolution (1950) identified a pattern for the Communist seizure of power and Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928–2017) in The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict (1960) identified a similar process. Anne Applebaum (born 1964), Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 (2012) has, more recently, provided support for this thesis. Certainly the take-over of the Baltic States had already provided a taste of what was to come, while Communist parties in states overrun by Russian forces clearly expected full support for their seizure of power. Against this interpretation, there is Stalin's apparent flexibility in making his "back of an envelope" Percentage Agreement with Churchill, while Mark Mazower has queried whether over Italy and Poland there was not, "at the highest levels, a tacit quid pro quo?"14 In addition, the fact that the process of establishing one-party governments was not complete until 1948 has enabled some historians to claim that there was no overall blueprint.15

    Blueprint or not, the fact remains that, one by one, socialist states, closely allied to the Soviet Union or "people's democracies" emerged: , where from 1944 a Communist-dominated Fatherland Front was the only legal political group; Poland and Romania, where a strong parallel state was dominated by Communists; and Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where, until 1948, a limited degree of democracy was permitted. Some have argued that the timetable of the Soviet takeover was dependent on Stalin's reactions to US policies - the ending of aid to the Soviet Union, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan -but there are good reasons for believing that whatever flexibility he demonstrated elsewhere, as in , Stalin was determined to place sympathetic governments and economic systems in the countries "liberated" by the Soviet forces. As he said to Milovan Djilas (1911–1995), the Yugoslavian partisan, who eventually fell out with Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892–1980), "This war is not as in the past: whoever occupies a territory also imposes his own system".16

    That the USSR would reject the aid proffered by the Marshall Plan of 1947 to it and its satellites had been foreshadowed by its refusal to be bound by the conclusions of the Bretton Woods Conference of July 1944 or to join the two economic organisations set up by it, the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and development, considering, correctly, that the new economic order they represented gave a considerable advantage to the USA and to the US dollar which became the lynchpin of the world's financial system. Essentially the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan represented the policy of the containment of Soviet power and influence and they and the Soviet reaction reinforced the emerging division of Europe.

    The Irresistible Rise of Germany

    The most striking post-war development was the division of Germany into two states by the "Iron Curtain", a term first used by Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945) and later, in different circumstances, by Churchill.Karte des durch den Eisernen Vorhang getrennten Europa IMG By no means planned by the Allies (though the Morgenthau Plan had toyed with idea of dismembering Germany, just as Ferdinand Foch (1851–1929) and Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), had done in 1918), the division of Germany proceeded in step with the development of the Cold War; the defeat of Germany provided the opportunity and the Cold War the rationale. As with Europe as a whole, troops on the ground in 1945 largely dictated the character and loyalties of the two Germany's, but, even after the establishment of the two republics in 1949, a unification of Germany remained a theoretical possibility until the rejection by the new Federal Republic's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967)[Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) IMG], of the "Stalin note" of March 1952, which offered the possibility of unification at the price of the Federal Republic of Germany not entering into an alliance with the western powers.

    What followed was the German "economic miracle", the transformation of the bleak and battered landscape of post war Western Germany into a thriving industrial economy that quickly became the power house of Western Europe, although when the two German Republics were formed in 1949, neither appeared destined for economic success. Both owed their existence to the Second World War, but in the Anglo-American Bizone, Earl F. Ziemke: The U.S. Army in the Occupation of Germany, Karte, 1975. Bildquelle: Global Security Via Wikimedia Commons, Gemeinfrei. anti-Nazism had quickly been replaced by anti-Communism, a process made seamless as it had Germany's experience of 1945 to build on, whereas in the Soviet zone which became the GDR or , anti-fascism and the idea that German anti-fascist forces had played a great role in freeing the country of the National Socialist regime became what has been described as the GDR's "congenital myth".17 The contrast between the two states, the one becoming the outstanding example of a western synthesis of capitalism and social democracy and the other the most formidable example of the Soviet Bloc's command socialism can be found in the ideologies and economic policies of Konrad Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard (1897–1977), on the one hand, and the hard-line Communism of Walter Ulbricht (1893–1973), who almost out-Stalined Stalin, on the other. European economic development was on the cusp of the end of industrialisation and the beginning of the post-industrialisation era. This was not yet apparent to most observers, for the very name of the major step towards the European unity, the European Coal and Steel Community,Europäische Gemeinschaft für Kohle und Stahl (EGKS), 1951 IMG demonstrates that the economic common sense of the time prioritised coal and heavy industry. Both western and Soviet Bloc states were able to make advances within the bounds of an economic outlook that was about to become moribund. The Soviet Union and its satellites were as good at building steel works and giant shipyards as their western competitors, but the former failed to satisfy the emerging demands of consumers, just as they failed to provide political choice. Inevitably the first stage of European recovery had to be along the old lines - coal, steel and the rebuilding of the infrastructure - and here the Eastern European economies were able to compete.Photographer: Igel, Wiederaufbau in der DDR [Sowjetischen Besatzungszone] im Juli 1949. Blick auf das Bergmann-Borsig-Werk in Berlin-Wilhelmsruh von der Strassenseite her. Source: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-S86402 via Wikimedia Commons,_Berlin,_Aufbau_Bergmann-Borsig.jpg. CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE. But, and here the two Germanys can be taken as representative, a gulf opened when it came to the consumer revolution in the production of automobiles,Lothar Schaack, Wolfsburg, VW Autowerk, Käfer (Production of Beetles at the VW plant, Wolfsburg), 22 January 1973. Source: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F038788-0014[form][SIGNATUR]=B+145+Bild-F038788-0014, via Wikimedia Commons,_Wolfsburg,_VW_Autowerk,_K%C3%A4fer.jpg?uselang=de. CC-BY-SA 3.0. refrigerators and other "white goods" to satisfy the aspirations of consumers, it was West Germany and Western Europe which made progress.Sune Sundahl (photographer), Ralph Erskine (architect): Interior of the "Shopping" mall in Luleå, Sweden. Black-and-white photograph, 1955. Souce: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. A famous Italian film of 1948, directed by Vittorio de Sica (1901–1974), was Bicycle Thieves,Vittorio De Sica, Still from the film "Ladri di biciclette" ("Bicycle Thieves"), 1948. Upload: User:sconosciuto. Source: Wikipedia (Italian), Public Domain. a title and plot that would have been puzzling in Western Europe a decade later.

    The success of the Western European economies in recovering from the nadir of 1945 was infinitely superior to the much more limited progress made by the Soviet Bloc, but it is easy from an early twenty-first perspective to underestimate the limited but real achievements of the Eastern European economies in the first post-war decades. When the wave of what was virtually the looting of defeated and overrun states by the Soviet Union was over, towns and cities were rebuilt, if brutally and insensitively, while new industrial towns were established. Central planning saw employment and basic security implemented and was effective in the production of coal, iron and steel, though poor at encouraging agricultural production. Statistics were, of course, massaged for five-year plans could not be seen to have failed, but the success of Soviet science was seen as phenomenal in the West and was symbolised by the launch of Sputnik in 1957,Soviet stamp shows Sputnik 1, unknown artist, 1957, source: Wikimedia Commons:, public domain. while higher education was a priority in most Eastern European states, to an extent which contradicts the widely held belief that education and economic prosperity necessarily go hand in hand. East Germany may have lagged behind its western neighbour, but itself became by far the most economically successful state amongst the People's Democracies, even though the uprising of June 1953, crushed by the Red Army and followed by the mass exodus of professionals and skilled workers to the West, demonstrated that without Russian intervention the GDR could have collapsed. The Hungarian revolt of 1956Unknown photographer, Man spitting on decapitated head of Stalin statue, Hungary 1956, black-and-white photograph. Source:, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License. again demonstrated the internal contradictions of the Eastern European economies and its suppression demonstrated that even post-Stalin, no significant deviations from Marxist-Leninism would be permitted.

    The war had brought the USA, as well as the USSR, into the heart of Europe, though it was essentially the disintegration of the wartime Grand Alliance that made it stay there, and American aid via the Marshall PlanUnknown artist, Map from The Marshall Plan at the Mid-Mark, 1950. Copyprint from The Marshall Plan at the Mid-Mark. Averell Harriman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Oversize 954, Public domain. undoubtedly played a major role in assisting the recovery of Western Europe and determining its political complexion; the results of the Italian election of 1948 were important here in that they resulted in a resounding victory for the Christian Democrats as was Adenauer's narrow victory in the first elections to the Bundestag in August 1949. Parallel, however, to the close association in defence and politics with the United States was a movement towards European unity. A Congress of Europe met in Haager Europakongress, 1948 IMG in May 1948 to discuss various plans for closer integration and this led to the formation of the Council of Europe the following year, which in turn set up a parliamentary assembly and then, in succession, to the Schuman Plan, the subsequent formation of the Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community (EEC)."Die Europäische Wirtschaftsgemeinschaft (EWG) und die Europäische Freihandelszone (EFTA) bis 1975", source: Geschichte Lehrbuch für Klasse 10/ Rudolf Dau und Horst Diere - Berlin: Volk und Wissen, 1977, S. 122-124 -GEI: DDR HB-1(1,77)10.[sid]=73#. Whether these twin developments were complementary or whether the latter involved a degree of anti-Americanism is arguable, especially in the case of France. Although Ludwig Erhard, often seen as the pioneer of West German recovery, claimed that the recovery owed nothing to American economic support, the FDR was in general more sympathetic towards US policies.

    As with so many aspects of post-war Europe, it is difficult to see the moves towards what was to become the European Union as a direct result of the Second World War, if only because of the pre-war antecedents, such as Aristide Briand's (1862–1932) "Memorandum on a European Federal Union" (1930) and Jean Monnet's (1888–1979) collection of essays, entitled The United States of Europe (1931); indeed most of the best known proponents of European unity in the post war period had been promulgating it before the war. Nevertheless, the war and its immediate aftermath, undoubtedly, gave a great fillip to the movement in that two of the motivations behind it, that a divided Europe inevitably seemed to lead to war and that individual national states could not compete in economic and political power with the USA, seemed clearly evident. Yet, paradoxically, it was the threat from one super power and the protection of the other that provided the context for the post-war success of European supra-nationalism and the most important reason for it, the rapprochement of France and Germany.

    Ever since 1870 and even more earnestly from 1918, France's main diplomatic aim had been the containment of what was, if only potentially, the major continental power. Although the defeat and division of Germany reduced that potential, France was, at least as determined as in 1918 to exact a territorial and economic price in order to contain the country it still regarded with hostility. France's initial refusal to join its zone of occupation with those of Britain and the USA when the latter set up the Bizone was largely because it objected to a process intended to assist German recovery and was still intent upon exacting reparations. After , Britain and the USA had failed to support France's need for security and the memory of the way the Anglo-Saxon powers had reneged on the Treaty of Guarantee by which they had agreed to defend France against a future German attack and had been lukewarm in the enforcement of the Versailles settlement still rankled. From 1948 the Cold War resulted in commitments that gave France and Western Europe as a whole the necessary security, for the cooperation that had proved impossible previously. Added inducements for rapprochement were a realisation of the precariousness of France's great power status especially as its colonial problems mounted and above all, the perception of the advantages of economic cooperation. Thus, the shield of the NATO alliance, though France's attitude to the Soviet Union was more ambivalent, her membership of NATO less solid, and her acceptance of West German re-armament more reluctant, than those of other members of the Alliance, provided the basis for closer German-French relations. The Elysée Treaty of 1963, signed by Adenauer and French president Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) codified this rapprochement.Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) mit Konrad Adenauer (1876–1967) IMG The parallel growth of intra-European economic cooperation, which was to result in the EEC, led to mutually convenient closer ties in a variety of fields. It is striking, however, that defence has been the field in which Franco-German cooperation was least evident. The failure of Robert Schuman's (1886–1963) proposal for a European Defence Community in 1950 and France's virtual withdrawal from NATO in 1956 revealed basic divisions in the European approach to defence. Subsequent attempts at combined European defence arrangements have come to little and, although the European Union may have become an economic super-power, it remains a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War dependent upon NATO for its defence.

    The Wartime Legacy

    A number of developments, which were common to most western European countries and which shaped their political, social and economic systems, are often put down to the experience and effects of the war. As we have seen, one result of the war was that the role of the state increased enormously in most countries, yet the degree to which this occurred and the forms it took differed widely, while there are anomalies in any easy elision from the war-time or pre-war experiences to this development. It might have been expected that those countries in which society and economy were officially dedicated to the direction of the state would have moved with speed after the outbreak of war in the direction of a total mobilisation of all resources including human resources. Such states have often been called "totalitarian", though human nature, even when faced with horrendous penalties for disobedience, has inevitably eluded total control. The pre-war Soviet Union got the closest to being a state where the party controlled nearly every aspect of life and had little need to move towards a war economy because it already had one: its command economy gave armaments production priority over living standards and continued to do so during and after the war. Fascist Italy for all its supposed commitment to the corporate state never came close and the church, individual employers and the monarchy all retained a degree of autonomy and influence. Italy had peaked in armaments production and military spending before her entry into the war and both war-related production and the industrial economy as a whole fell back after 1940.18

    One of the great paradoxes is that National Socialist Germany, the state, whose leaders' rhetoric was full of words like "planning", "corporation" and "state, party and society", had not prepared its economy for a long war and, allowing business interests, workers and consumers to enjoy something closer to a peacetime economy than any other combatant state, managed to avoid a total war economy until 1942. The reasons for this have been the subject of debate among historians: one answer has been that many of the problems facing the German economy were able to be solved by the state's territorial expansion and even impelled that expansion. Czechoslovakia offered rich pickings and it and further conquests provided raw materials and productive capacity and disguised the overheated state of the German economy, while prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union Germany was able, due to the pact with the USSR, to take raw materials from Eastern Europe without interference. Thus, it has been argued, Germany was able to do without the imposition of a total war economy during the first years of the war and spare its population the consequent hardships, though, of course, the bulk of the population was reduced to abject poverty in the war's final year.19 Another theory is that Hitler did plan for a total war, but one that would begin in the mid-1940s and found himself at war while plans for a total war economy had only begun to be implemented.20 The National Socialists may also have been reluctant to impose sacrifices upon the population because of memories of the First World War, when civilian unrest at austerity was seen to have played a part in Germany's defeat.

    Another paradox is that it was, Britain, arguably the most liberal-capitalist of pre-war European states, which, apart from the Soviet Union, achieved with its war economy the closest subordination of economy and society to the state, introducing rationingFood in England, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 1943, unbekannter Fotograf; Bildquelle: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC: and controls on travel, the direction of labour, and the limitation of the production of what were deemed luxury goods. Though the efficacy and success of Britain's state direction of the economy and especially its record of productivity of war materials has been challenged, there was a widespread acceptance in 1945 that it had been responsible for seeing the country through to victory and Britain, for good or ill, continued to employ state control in its post-war recovery programme. There was a plethora of state controlled marketing boards and rationing persisted into the 1950s. This was a world where "the man from the ministry knows best".21

    Rather than an effect of the war, it can be argued that the growth of the state was a predominant feature of all European societies, during and before the war, driven by the social tensions arising from industrialisation and urbanisation. Imperial Germany had, after all introduced a state insurance system in the late nineteenth century and the development of state welfare was a feature of the response to inter-war unemployment in most countries, as was state intervention on Keynesian lines to stimulate economies. Sweden, which was neutral in both wars, has been described as "relatively backward, both in economic and political terms" before 1914,22 but had by the 1970s become the epitome of the prosperous welfare state. It may well be that we have to reassess the nature of the economic and social policies of the National Socialist regime in Germany and those of Vichy France when considering their impact upon post-war developments. Nazi economic policies had been largely welcomed by Germans in the 1930s and Mark Roseman (born 1958) has observed that class relationships were visibly changing under the regime: "Everywhere there was the characteristic and curious mixture of the Fuhrer-Prinzip (sic) and egalitarianism".23 He concludes that neither fascism nor war left many positive legacies, but certainly the years of Nazi rule reduced aristocratic influence and post-war Germany is sometimes seen as a "levelled middle class society".24 The Vichy government in France, it has been suggested, had, despite its Catholic-conservative ideology, an approach to planning and a faith in a technocratic elite that had an enduring influence upon post-war French economic policies: it "attracted experts and technocrats.... their plans for modernization stood to prosper without the obstacles of parliament, party politics and trades unions".25 Though largely still-born because Hitler viewed them as mere tools for exploitation, the economic agreements with Germany and Italy between 1940 and 1943 looked forward to the European Coal and Steel Agreement of 1951. In Britain, the war undoubtedly led to a controlled economy, and the Beveridge Report of 1942 is seen as leading to post-war welfare legislation and was a factor in the election victory of the Labour Party under Clement Attlee (1883–1967)[Unknown photographer, Photograph of former British Prime Minister Clement Attlee during visit to Hill Auditorium at University of Michigan, 1956-1957 academic year. Source: 1957 Michiganensian, p. 39, via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain. ] in 1945. Yet the 1930s had already seen improvements in the system of unemployment benefits and a number of planning initiatives introduced to stimulate the economy, while groups in the Conservative Party shared with Labour leaders a belief in the almost miraculous capacity of planning and corporatism to transform economies. In short, the evidence for a direct connection between the experience of the war and post-war developments is mixed and varied and, when the reaction against corporatism and the swing back to the free market and a lesser role for the state began, it can be seen, in its national variations, as return to pre-war trajectories. Britain, for instance, can be seen as taking up where it had left off in 1939 in moving from the 1950s towards a consumer-orientated economy and society.Town Hall, Harlow, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 1971, unbekannter Fotograf; Bildquelle: Creative Commons License.

    Despite the continuities, however, it can be argued that the impact of and the memory of the war led to a major change in the role of the state and what it meant to citizens in much of western Europe had changed fundamentally by the 1960s. Rather than the focus of loyalty for cultural or ethnic reasons, a body to which the individual owed obedience, the state became a dispenser of rights and it owed the individual the good life, order and stability. This process has gone furthest in Germany and has been marked by the de-militarisation of the state and by what some have seen as "constitutional patriotism".26 James Sheehan (born 1937) has argued that the "civilian state", marked by a commitment "to escape the destructive antagonisms of the past" and provide the good life for its populace, has become the European model.27 With the exception of France and Britain such states spend little on defence and restrict the roles of their armed forces. It has been questioned whether such liberal states can provide the sense of identity which has been such a function of nation states,28 and whether the priority they place upon peace, though it may make them unlikely to start wars, fits them, either singly or as a group, to be able to prevent them.

    Social and Cultural Change

    An influential view of the social effects of the Second World War argued by Arthur Marwick (1936–2006),29 is that total war had far-reaching effects, which went beyond the obvious negative effects of destruction, deaths and dislocation. They also tested the institutions of societies, and, due to the need to mobilise the entire economy and society for the war effort, led to "progressive" social changes. The impact of war upon societies has since become a major field of study and much work has concentrated upon the social and cultural as well as the political and economic impact of the Second World War. Central to this thesis is the argument that the war had a socially levelling impact and that significant indicators were a narrowing of the gap between rich and poor in terms of incomes and wealth due to income tax, death duties and an increase in state welfare; it did not erode class differences, but improved the position of the working classes. Marwick highlighted the growth of the British welfare stateMinistry of Health and the Central Office Of Information: The New National Health Service leaflet, 1948. Source: National Health Service Western Isles Health Board via Wikimedia Commons Public domain. and increased state welfare throughout Western Europe, the increase in working-class wages, and the concern of governments to maintain high levels of employment. Though this thesis has been much criticised, largely by left-wing historians who feel that post-war societies were insufficiently changed,30 it is clear that conservative and Christian Democratic parties in the post-war period largely accepted state welfare measures and the responsibility of governments for wages and employment to a far greater degree than before the war.

    Marwick also argued that both world wars had seen more women employed in a wider range of occupations and that, after 1945, women were to enjoy greater opportunities and a more equal position in society.Turners Photographic of Newcastle: General Office of Wrights Biscuits, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, unbekannter Fotograf; Bildquelle: Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums via Wikimedia Commons: Certainly, for many women the war was a liberating experience. They served in the armed forces and worked in government offices, in fields and factories, and in Hitler's bunker and Churchill's underground Cabinet War Rooms; Hitler's pilot, Hanna Reitsch (1912–1979)[Verleihung des Eisernen Kreuzes an Hanna Reitsch durch Hitler, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 1941, unbekannter Fotograf; Bildquelle: Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons:,_Verleihung_des_EK_an_Hanna_Reitsch_durch_Hitler.jpg?uselang=de. Creative-Commons-Lizenz „Namensnennung – Weitergabe unter gleichen Bedingungen 3.0 Deutschland.] flew the last plane in and out of Berlin, when Soviet troops were already in the German capital. Just as women received the vote in Britain and Germany after the First World War, so in France and Italy they gained it, along with general declarations of equal citizenship in 1945 and 1946 respectively. Whether the war experience resulted in a transformation of the position of women in post-war society and whether many women wanted such a change have been doubted by some historians. François Bedarida (1926–2001) has for instance argued that, even in the French Resistance, "women were for most of the time confined within their traditional roles".31 The structure of economic life and the types of employment it provided meant that any major changes in women's position had to await the de-industrialisation that began in the 1960s, while, even then, many women had different priorities to those of men. Probably, again as with most social developments, it is more realistic to see the war as, at best, giving a push, and perhaps only a brief one, to change.

    The major alterations to European society and culture did not emerge until the 1950s and are often seen as a process of "Americanisation", although it may well be that American society was simply the first to display the changes that are often gathered together in the unsatisfactory term, "modernisation". American popular culture had, of course, been influential in pre-war Europe. Even someone as anti-American as Hitler enjoyed watching Hollywood musicals, ironically, often made by American-Jewish film moguls. American films provided a glimpse of an individualistic consumer society and a lifestyle to which many came to aspire. The impact of American films was naturally, given the common language, more evident in Britain, and J.B. Priestley (1894–1984) in his English Journey remarked on the "New England": "America I supposed was its real birthplace. This is the England of arterial and by-pass roads ... of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafes ... factory girls looking like actresses".32 Depictions of depression and unemployment as the salient characteristics of the Thirties too often obscure the fact that pockets of this world were to be found in continental Europe as well as England. Its advance was to be interrupted by the Second World War but was resumed in the 1950s in Britain after Labour's "New Jerusalem" had lost its popular support.

    The war itself saw, with thousands of US troops crossing the Atlantic, a new wave of American influence, first in Britain and then in areas of Europe occupied by American forces. Jazz, the bandleader Glenn Miller (1904–1944)[Glenn Miller (1904-1944), Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, unbekannter Fotograf; Bildquelle: U.S. Government via Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain.], US radio stations and GI bridesW. J. Hynes: War brides and their children en route to Canada, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 1944; Bildquelle:,3352285,3523566,3352282,3204397,3204398,3193079. Gemeinfrei. were ubiquitous manifestations of America and the increased popularity of cinema was a major channel of influence. During the war cinema had become ever more popular. Warring states used it as a major means of propaganda, though overtly propagandist films were less well-received than those, like the, just pre-war, Russian Alexander Nevsky and the British Henry V which brought past victories to the aid of the present. Nothing better illustrates the importance attached to film than that in 1944, as Allied armies approached Germany, the Wehrmacht provided several thousand troops as extras for the filming of Kolberg, a film depicting the resistance of a besieged German city on the Baltic following Prussia's defeat at the battle of Jena and Auerstedt in 1806. Such historic allegories were acceptable, but what audiences in all the combatant countries wanted was entertainment and, after the war came the period in which cinema dominated popular entertainment.

    In the immediate post-war period, there was, understandably little demand for films that dealt with the war or with the problems of its aftermath. Neither the German Trümmer (rubble) films or those of the Italian neo-realists attracted mass audiences, though they were applauded by intellectuals throughout Europe who attended art-house cinemas. As James Chapman (born 1968) has pointed out, the British film, The Wicked Lady (dir. Leslie Arliss, 1945), a costume melodrama, exemplified the sort of film people wanted to see and was popular in both East and West Germany.33 The British film industry, had, like those of continental Europe, to be subsidised and have government imposed quotas to protect it against the overwhelming appeal of the products of Hollywood. With Hollywood came the "American Dream" and it inspired modified versions in Europe. There were interesting reactions with both French and British cinemas presenting films that presented quintessentially native views of social life with the British Ealing Comedies championing the individual against state interference and Americanisation, but, for the most part, Hollywood produced the box-office hits. The French cinema achieved an interesting reversal of the usual trans-Atlantic cinematic traffic when the New Wave directors of the 1950s found hitherto unacknowledged merits in Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), whom they hailed as formative auteurs.34

    Hollywood can be seen as part of the cultural arm of the Marshall Plan and its message complemented the Plan's aim of raising the European standard of living and attaining economic stability by 1952. Fiercely opposed by intellectuals of the left and right, by the Marxist Frankfurt SchoolJeremy J. Shapiro: Max Horkheimer und Theodor W. Adorno, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 1964; Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. and by T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), on both political and cultural grounds, much of Western Europe was indeed transformed in the 1950s into an increasingly prosperous society, which, consumed cultural products as avidly as motor cars and washing machines.35 European societies, it has been argued, became part of an "irresistible empire" in which American consumerism and popular culture were triumphant at the expense of native national cultures. Tourism accelerated the process as, perversely, local cultures adapted their needs, thus destroying what visitors had come to see. Vast tracts of rural Europe may have been untouched, but Priestley's New England became reality throughout Europe. In this sense the war was a long punctuation mark. It had changed frontiers and divided Europe along political and ideological lines, but social, economic and cultural changes move to a different timetable, though war and peace may accelerate or delay their development.

    Salient characteristics of post-war European society were already evident in 1939 and even in 1914. That even half of Germany was the strongest European economic power by the 1960s would have surprised few who had known Imperial Germany with its large privately-owned industries and the great department stores of Berlin, nor its combination of prosperous capitalism with an advanced system of social security have astonished those who had benefited from the pre-1914 state insurance system. It seems apposite that the implosion of the Soviet Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s is often seen as a "shopping revolution" in that, as windows were opened by the media, the attractions of Western Europe's consumer society became evident.Hans Peter Lochmann: Berlin, Grenzübergang Bornholmerstraße, Schwarz-Weiß-Fotografie, 1989; Bildquelle: Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons:,_Berlin,_Grenz%C3%BCbergang_Bornholmer_Stra%C3%9Fe.jpg. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany.


    The transformative effects of wars seem enormous in their immediate aftermath and the reverberations of the Second World War continue to effect contemporary Europe, yet, one has only to reflect upon the enormous death tolls of wars to see that they do not impede population growth for long. The Black Death had more impact upon Europe than all the wars of the medieval period. Historical change is not easily measurable and disentangling the contribution of wars from other factors difficult. To disregard the importance of wars as determinants of historical development for good or ill would be as ridiculous as to argue that only long term structural changes are important, for wars, like great individuals, are products of their ages and influence human development. The historian's problem is the interaction between war and the broad sweep of history. Perhaps the answer to the question of how great a difference the Second World War made to Europe should be along the lines of the response, often attributed to Mao Zedong (1893–1976)[Portrait von Mao Zedong (1893-1976) am Tor des Himmlischen Friedens, unbekannter Künstler; Bildquelle: Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.] but more likely to have come from the more sophisticated Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), to the question of what the French Revolution had meant for the course of history: "It's too early to tell".

    A.W. Purdue



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    1. ^ Treaties were later concluded with Italy and other states which had fought alongside the Axis powers.
    2. ^ See Howard, Thirty Years War 1986. I discuss the concept in Purdue, Second World War 2011, pp.12–16.
    3. ^ Tooze, in The Deluge 2014, makes the case for a fundamental disconnection between the two wars.
    4. ^ Bessel, Germany 2009.
    5. ^ Hitchcock, Liberation 2008, p. 372.
    6. ^ Laqueur, Europe 1982, p. 9.
    7. ^ Mayne, Recovery 1970, p. 24.
    8. ^ Bell, World 2001, p. 36.
    9. ^ Ferguson, Empire 2003, p. 356.
    10. ^ The rickety Portuguese Empire survived longer, losing its major African colonies in 1975.
    11. ^ Mazower, Dark Continent 1998, p. 383.
    12. ^ Bessel, Germany, 2009.
    13. ^ Hitchcock, Liberation, 2008.
    14. ^ Mazower, Dark Continent 1998, p. 230.
    15. ^ See, for instance, Swain and Swain, Eastern Europe 1993.
    16. ^ Quoted in Rupnik, Other Europe 1988, p. 72.
    17. ^ Kettenacker, Germany 1997, p. 217.
    18. ^ See Abse, Italy 1992, p. 107.
    19. ^ Roseman, World War II 2001, pp. 238–254.
    20. ^ See Overy, Road to War 1989.
    21. ^ The original statement made by Douglas Jay in The Socialist Case (1937) was "the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves", but it was simplified by opponents of the 1945–51 Labour government.
    22. ^ Lowe, State and Social Welfare 1997, p. 63.
    23. ^ Roseman, World War II 2001, p. 247.
    24. ^ "Nivellierte Mittelstandsgesellschaft", a phrase coined by the German sociologist Helmut Schelsky in 1953.
    25. ^ Kedward, Vie en bleu 2006, p. 269.
    26. ^ A phrase coined by Jürgen Habermas which is discussed in Buruma, Wages 1995, pp. 185–6.
    27. ^ Sheehan, Monopoly 2007, ch. 8.
    28. ^ See Kettenacker, 1997, on Germany, pp 213–235.
    29. ^ Arthur Marwick's view of the effects of war on society was first put forward in a study of the First World War in The Deluge (1965) and he developed it with respect to both world wars in War and Social Change in the Twentieth Century (1974).
    30. ^ For example, see for the impact of the war on Britain, Calder, People's War 1971.
    31. ^ Bedarida, World War II 1988, pp. 89–90.
    32. ^ Priestley, English Journey 1984, p. 375.
    33. ^ Chapman, Film and Radio 2006, p. 194.
    34. ^ Kedward, Vie en bleu 2006, p. 413.
    35. ^ De Grazia, Irresistible Empire, 2005.

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    : The Transformative Impact of World War II, in: Europäische Geschichte Online (EGO), hg. vom Leibniz-Institut für Europäische Geschichte (IEG), Mainz European History Online (EGO), published by the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG), Mainz 2016-04-18. URL: URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2016041204 [JJJJ-MM-TT][YYYY-MM-DD].

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