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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Another World War

The Effects of the War
Beyond the monumental devastation and the incomprehensible waste of human life, World War II brutally altered European social life.

The most important new activity in German-occupied Europe was the appearance of organized civilian resistance. At first, there were only individual acts of defiance, like that of the Dutch film projectionist who ran a newsreel of advancing Germans backward, to the brief delight of his audience. But the resistance movements took shape in every country and grew to become a major problem in policing for the Germans as the war turned against the Nazi regime. "Silent republics," the resistance organizations ruled by stealth and at night what the Germans still forcefully dominated by day.

The resistance movements destroyed military installations and attacked Germany's war economy by blowing up power plants, railroads, and other vital elements in the system. In retaliation, the Nazis increased the severity of the military occupation, imprisoned and executed hostages. Thus a shadow form of civil war intensified as the regular war front crumbled before the Germans.

Civilian life was plagued by shortages of food, fuel, medicine. "Ersatz," or artificial substitutes, were devised, the most important being the German discovery of the means of producing artificial gasoline. But the most pressing problem was housing, and this most drastic in Germany. Consider only the following single statistical unit: On August 24, 1944, the German city of Koenigsberg was attacked by 175 British bombers. The estimated damage of the raid was one hundred and thirty-four thousand people made homeless, and sixty-one thousand people forced to live in badly damaged houses. After the war, new cities had to be built - Coventry, Rotterdam, and Berlin being examples - and they were technocratically planned.

With an irony that once again underlined the fact that history is a human affair, the destruction of the war brought about considerable reorganization. Even before the war, the Soviet leadership began the relocation of Russian industry in and beyond the Ural Mountains so that it would not be susceptible to immediate ground attack from the West. During the war the Germans decentralized industrial production by dispersing aircraft factories around the country in order to protect them against concentrated bombing attack. And under the German occupation, the puppet government of France, known as the Vichy Regime from the city in which its capital was located, sought economic reorganization and began the foundations of what would be postwar planning under Jean Bichelonne, an engineering professor who was Minister of Production and Transport. Even more unusual, and with effects not easily measurable, was the intellectual migration the war produced. In the 1930s eminent scientists like Albert Einstein had left Nazi Germany, but immediately after the war, both the United States and Russia undertook a rushed treasure hunt as they sought to find and then utilize German scientists, notably those involved in rocket research. Werner von Braun, guiding genius of German war rocketry, came to the United States, eventually became an American citizen, and is today recognized as the technocratic father of American space efforts.

Thus, the war destroyed and forced the rearrangement of much of the old social and economic structure of Europe, just as it rearranged the political map. The truth is the European world we now know was born in debris.

The War in a Global Setting
No balanced historical analysis can afford to treat the European war as disunified from the global war. Among the major continents, only Latin America was spared serious involvement. Even Australia, traditionally known as "down under," feared Japanese invasion. And American blimps patrolled the Atlantic coast of this formerly "isolated" nation in search of preying submarines.

For once in military engagement, the world was viewed from above. While it is certainly true that the infantry soldier struggled and sacrificed to defeat the enemy, and ultimate victory was his, the war of the air was all important. The fighter defense of Great Britain and the bomber offensive against Germany after 1942 altered the proportions of the war. In a tone of despair, the British prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, had said in 1932, "The bombers will always get through." They did not, but they did frequently enough to make the cities of Europe the new "no man's land." Yet for all of this technological havoc, the bomber did not win the war, nor did it affect the enemy's war capacity anywhere as severely as had been anticipated. Across the world, the Pacific naval war was essentially an aerial war, with aircraft carriers serving as seaborne take-off points. The dramatic sinking of the magnificent and brand-new British battleship the Prince of Wales by Japanese torpedo bombers on December 10, 1941, can be taken as the symbolic end of the age of battleships. Thus, the first major naval warfare since the Napoleonic era also announced the end of traditional naval warfare. Again the war of the air triumphed.

As if adding to the symbolism of a closing age, the Japanese military activities in the Far East resulted in the fall of Singapore. That bastion of British imperial might, its fortress grimly confronting the sea and its heavy guns prepared to ward off an enemy navy, was taken in February 1942 by Japanese troops who descended overland through the seemingly impenetrable jungles that lie behind the city. The Japanese conquest of Singapore marked the beginning of the end of European colonial empire, the most obvious expression of Europe's domination of the world. Within two decades after Singapore's fall, the European worldwide colonial structure had collapsed beside it.

The dramatic point is this: World War II ended German domination of Europe and European domination of the world. It might be said that European history ended in 1945, and global history then began.

There are those critics, mostly European themselves, who have suggested that the two world wars were a new "Thirty Years War," separated by an extended interlude of uneasy peace. The analogy is tempting, and necessarily false - as are all analogies. But it does illuminate several persistent problems and conditions.

Surely the most obvious is the preponderance of Germany in European affairs of the first half of the twentieth century. This nation was the major industrial power in that period (and so remains in Western Europe today) and potentially the major military threat. Germany's defeat in World War I did not result in the annihilation of its military power, but rather only in its brief check. Indeed, the Allies in World War II introduced the concept of "unconditional surrender" to assure that Germany would be completely under their control, hence prevented from rising again as a military problem.

Furthermore, the suggestion of a "Thirty Years War" implies a continuity in the play of external European political and economic forces. Once again Russia and the United States added their national efforts to World War II as they had to World War I. What was perceived by many at the end of the first war as a shift in the locus of European power from the center to the rim-from France, Germany, and Great Britain to Russia and the United States-was a fixed reality after World War II Europe had been denied its position as the focal point of a world system; it was now one of the areas of contention in a series of global maneuvers by the two "super-powers," the Soviet Union and the United States.

From the perspective of diplomat and academic scholar alike, the older balance-of-power system had been replaced by a bipolar one: Communist Russia and democratic America were the two centers of ideological and political attraction. What had begun in 1917, when the United States entered the war and Russia had undergone revolution, was now politically consummated. And just as the United States and Russia had played the major roles in the defeat of Nazi Germany, so they played the major roles in the division of postwar Europe.

Winston Churchill would speak of an "Iron Curtain" descending on Europe. What he observed was a division of Europe into two camps, one dominated by Russia, the other by the United States. The line of demarcation was the Elbe River in Germany. Germany, no longer master of Europe, was now the border country divided between two competing world political systems.

But the so-called Second Thirty Years War can be forced no more in this historical analysis. There were decided differences that marked the war of 1914-1918 and that of 1939-1945. Perhaps the most obvious is the shattering psychological effects of World War I. At the risk of the use of simple metaphor, let it be said that World War I took the spirit out of Western civilization. The sense of despair, of fatigue, of emptiness that was so frequently commented on was not repeated after World War II. This difference can be discerned in one easy way, by a glance at the literature of both periods. No large numbers of significant "war novels" appeared after World War II as they had after World War I. There was little that had not already been said. In other terms, World War I was the last war in which the myth of the heroism and glory of war had been maintained. In World War II the most popular war song was a haunting German melody entitled "Lilli Marlene". Its lyrics spoke of love and loneliness, not of martial ardor and patriotism.

NEXT:  Part Four: Europe in the Contemporary World

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