The Decade of European Recovery
The Cold War and Bipolarization
As much as Winston Churchill had hoped and diplomatically
maneuvered to guarantee that Great Britain would be worthy of its qualifying
adjective in the postwar era, that grand old nation slipped from the forefront
of world powers, as did every other European state. Within two years of the
end of World War II, the British were retreating from the areas of the world
in which they had long enjoyed dominance. Big power politics was now
beyond the strength of the British economy to play.
Dramatically, the world split in two. This condition was nowhere more
evident than in Germany, where interallied disputes over that country's fate
led the initial zones of military occupation to become political lines of
division. West Germany (formerly the zone occupied by the United States,
Great Britain, and France) and East Germany (formerly the zone occupied by
the Soviet Union) emerged as two separate states. This obvious political split
was soon extended to global proportions, aggravated by the opposing
ideologies of the United States and the Soviet Union and by the intensifying
suspicions harbored by the leadership of each nation. The Cold War began.
The truth is that the United States and the Soviet Union had a
different vision of the postwar world. While the war raged, projections of
what the post-Hitlerian era would be like were vague, ill-focused. Even at the
two major conferences held by the Big Three (Great Britain, the Soviet Union,
and the United States) at Yalta in February of 1945 and at Potsdam in July of
the same year, little happened to regulate the peace.
The war was decisively won; the peace was indecisively prepared. Two
views of the European world were gained, one from the East and the other
from the West. Russia, heavily invaded and almost defeated by the Germans,
had developed a tremendous fear of that nation and was determined to
protect itself, primarily by buffer states, from any future outbreak of German
militarism. Moreover, the Russians wanted a severe peace, one that would
provide large reparations to compensate for the destruction wrought by the
Germans. The United States was more Wilsonian in its attitude, now
pushing for the establishment of a United Nations Organization as a strong
successor to the League of Nations and for a reconstructed Europe in which
democratic principles, defined within reconstructed nation-states, would be
The difference of objectives, compounded by a strong difference in
ideology - the ghosts of Wilson and Lenin had returned to haunt the world -
explains the new mood of tension.
In sum, Russian fear and American suspicion lay behind the
antagonism of the Cold War. But Russian fear of Germany was also matched
in intensity by Stalin's desire to expand Russia's sphere of influence for more
persistent political reasons. What had proved impossible immediately after
World War I now seemed ripe for success immediately after World War II.
"World revolution," not "socialism in one country," was the dusted-off
watch-word. The Cominform, the Communist Information Bureau, officially
designated to be the coordinating agency of Communist party policies in the
various European nations, was established in 1946 and soon seemed to be
serving in much the same way as had the Comintern before it.
From the Western perspective, therefore, the Soviets were back to their
old historical tricks. A rash of new facts offered confirmation of this
contention. In 1946 the Soviets attempted to establish a Communist-
dominated state in Iran's northern province, but were forced by American
pressure to stop. In 1946-1947, Communist guerrilla warfare in Northern
Greece threatened to bring that country down. In February of 1948, a
Communist coup d'etat in Czechoslovakia placed that nation under
Communist rule. And in 1948-1949, the Soviet occupying forces blocked off
West Berlin, then under French, English, and American jurisdiction, so that
the city was isolated. A massive airlift, now known as the Berlin Airlift,
supplied the besieged population, and in the spring of 1949 the Soviets again
opened roads to the city.
Thus, within a span of four years, the wartime allies had become the
peacetime antagonists. In reply to these Soviet advances, the West, under the
direction of the United States, evolved a policy of "containment." The Soviet
Union was to be held back, contained by both military and economic means.
On March 12, 1947, President Harry S. Truman announced his plan for
military assistance to Greece, and the plan was broadly defined to include
military and economic aid to any nation struggling to maintain its freedom.
The Truman Doctrine was soon joined by the Marshall Plan. Although the
latter originally began for economic purposes, and Eastern European
countries were invited to participate, it now clearly became part of American
Cold War strategy. American aid was no longer singularly directed to
reconstruction, but was given for military purposes as well. By 1953, some
$15.7 billion had been given to Europe as economic aid, as against $7.7 billion
for military aid. Moreover, in 1949, again under American direction, the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established. This defensive alliance, the first
European one in peacetime in which the American government was
involved, boldly proclaimed that an attack against any one of its members
would be provocation for war on the part of all others. The alliance was
directed against Russia and the Communist states in eastern Europe, and was
one of the most forceful actions taken during the Cold War.
Of course, the Soviet Union responded. From the Soviet perspective,
the United States was ringing Russia with military bases and diplomatic
negotiations. The Warsaw Pact of 1955, generally seen as Russia's answer to
NATO, organized the defense of Eastern Europe under the Soviet military
and allowed for the stationing of Soviet troops in the satellite states.
The Cold War in Europe thus came to mean rival military alliances,
rival economic aid, intensifying political propaganda and mutual suspicion.
When Soviet forces invaded Hungary in 1956 to put down a rebellion against
the Soviet-dominated regime there, the already tarnished image of Soviet
communism was further darkened in the West.
Even though the postwar recovery of Europe was thus marked by
intensifying rivalry between the two superpowers, the domestic political
situation did not long reflect such anxiety.
Politics and Classes
In an interesting reverse ratio, as international politics became more
ideological, domestic European politics became less so. After a series of
general strikes, precipitated by the Communist parties in 1946 and 1947, the
democratic order seemed to become a re-creation of the prewar one. There
were notable exceptions, however. The Communist party remained an
important political force, even if it did enter into the governments of most of
the Western European states. The new political strength was that of the
Christian Democrats in Italy, the Christian Democrats in Germany, and the
Popular Republican Movement (MRP) in France. All of these large left-of-
center parties were made up primarily of Catholic constituents now
committed to programs of social action. In France, Italy, and Germany, they
were the major governmental parties, and it was their leadership that
directed the destinies of the democracies in the first two decades of peace.
Yet the appearance of new political forces did not represent the
appearance of new ideological concerns or the intensification of older ones.
The French spoke of depolitisation, meaning less the end of politics and more
the transformation of their purposes.
The universal, or all-embracing ideologies of the late nineteenth
century declined in appeal in European domestic politics.
To many critics writing on the subject in the 1950s, ideology had first
emerged historically as a function of economic imbalance, the protest of the
oppressed and the dissatisfied. In a Europe of the economic "miracle," such
distinctions were blurred by the glare of automobile headlights or unnoticed
on food-laden tables. Industrial technology, state planning, and the increase of
workers' benefits, like paid vacations and participation in management
decisions, removed the earlier harsh conditions that suggested a class-
divided, hence conflicting, society.
Equally important, there was a new social spatialization. Worker and
place of work were separated as never before. The traditional workers'
districts, like the famous "red belt" that ran around the outskirts of Paris,
were greatly altered. Residential distinctions were no longer as sharp as they
had been. Moreover, continuity in family employment, so evident in
nineteenth-century European working families, declined. The working-class
son might even go to the university and become a professional, or he might
escape his working-class origins by entering new forms of employment-as
did "The Beatles" in both an unusual and dramatic manner. The working-
family ethic, described by Charles Dickens and Emile Zola, was lost in the
modern rush forward and upward.
The social and economic fragmentation of families was proof that
social mobility increased as the European economy improved. If class lines
were ever a stark reality, they were in the days of Karl Marx. But that aspect of
the mid-Victorian world was now as anachronistic as the stove-pipe hat. The
expansion of the economy meant the diffusion of class distinctions. Social
conflict was not removed; it was mitigated and altered. The older "social
question" - what to do about proletarian unrest - need then no longer be
However, the truth is the European economy recovered more quickly
than did the European mind.
The Reshaping of the European Mind
The war had numbed all intellectual enthusiasm. In 1946 there was no
expression of hope or any outburst of rage. A sense of bleak resignation settled
into the thinking of postwar intellectuals who came to accept evil as a
permanent element of existence and absurdity as the fundamental human
In the most significant play of the 1950s, Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for
Godot", the two main characters wait at a road's edge for the arrival of
someone they have never seen, for reasons they are not sure of. This is the
meaning of life - or life as imagined by many who then reflected on their
Beckett's play was a statement about existentialism, and existentialism
was the most popular stance taken by Europeans in the first decade after the
war. Philosophers, journalists, cafe conversationalists, students - and even
students in the United States - all discussed it.
The absurdity of life, its fundamental meaninglessness because nothing
existed outside one's self - these were the dreadful realities that the
existentialist saw and accepted. But to overcome these realities, or, at least, to
defy them, the individual had to act, to act totally, to be "committed." It was
in acting that being was found. Albert Camus, the most widely read of the
existentialist novelists, stated in "The Rebel" (1951) that he had to act against
reality: "I proclaim that I believe in nothing and that everything is absurd, but
I cannot doubt the validity of my proclamation, and I must at least believe in
my protest." It is defiance of life's absurdity by searching for an order that does
not exist which gives life purpose. Again, to quote Camus: "Man is the only
creature who refuses to be what he is."
Some critics have argued that existentialism was an ad hoc philosophy,
an interim statement by Europeans worn out from war, despairing of the
future, and deeply suspicious of all ideologies. Although the intellectual roots
of the movement reach across the subsurface of twentieth-century European
thought, existentialism gained in definition and resonance among those
Europeans, and particularly Frenchmen, who had served in the Resistance,
who had fought against the evil of Nazism, and yet had witnessed its
Now many of the same individuals were witnessing the betrayal of
communism. George Orwell's 1984 was satirically concerned with mind
manipulation, ideological gamesmanship, and managerial control that
modern totalitarianism, in the name of some doctrine, might engender-and
with Big Brother watching malevolently over all of us. The basic deception of
ideology was put most pungently by the Romanian-born, French playwright
Eugene Ionesco in 1958: "If there is something that needs to be demystified, it
is those ideologies which offer ready-made solutions (and which are the
provisional alibis of parties taking over power)."
As Ionesco suggested, the process of intellectual disengagement from
ideologies in the postwar era was demystification. The world was observed
coldly, harshly, in light of the wartime experience and of postwar Stalinist
Russia. The Enlightenment was now indeed centuries away. The universe as
reasonable, history as progress, ideas as moral guides - each and all were seen
as false. As Life magazine told its readers in the June 17, 1946, issue,
existentialism meant that "what man does with his life depends on his own
stoical reaction to his environment."
In 1959 Federico Fellini, one of Italy's and the world's greatest film
directors, finished his "La Dolce Vita" (The Sweet Life). The film dealt with
contemporary moral decadence, with middle-class, urban life brocaded in
wealth and sensuality. The film was Fellini's personal vision of the state of
postwar European culture. If "La Dolce Vita" did not suggest that life was
endowed with more meaning than did the thought of the existentialists some
ten years before, it did demonstrate that extending materialism might mean
growing decadence, not a morally improving world.
Historians, philosophers, and film makers all wondered whether
European culture would recover. The new environment of economic prosperity was
not yet matched by new philosophical purpose.
"Where the elite meet" announced the statement on the checks that
were handed to customers at the fashionable "Aux Deux Maggots" cafe on the
Left Bank of Paris. Here the existentialist leaders, Sorbonne students, and
American tourists still gathered in the early 1950s. That the slogan was
printed in English says much; that a French cafe even bothered to employ an
advertising slogan of this sort says much more.
The war was far removed, as were many aspects of prewar European
culture by the early 1950s. The first decade of recovery was spectacular.
Rotterdam was rebuilt, now displaying one of the most fashionable shopping
centers in Europe. West Berlin presented an American skyline. The French
were doing research on one of the world's finest color television systems.
And London, so long depicted as the capital of financial sobriety, was known
as a "swinging city."
Scholars, particularly in the United States, studied the Nazi regime
with continuing intensity. But the "Thousand Year Reich" that had lasted but
thirteen years was now only publicly displayed through its regalia offered for
sale at flea markets.
Perhaps the most pronounced change in this new Europe was its
consumer-directed economy. Both the generation of new wealth through
increased industrialization and the redistribution of much of the old wealth
through taxes meant more people had more money to spend. In England
alone the number of registered automobiles jumped from less than 2 million
in 1940 to 10,816,100 in 1968.
True, Europe was no longer the center of the universe, whether it be
defined politically, culturally, or economically. The Continent itself was
divided ideologically between the two superpowers. And the colonial empires
that Europe had extended around the world were beginning to disintegrate.
Yet for all that, Europe was rebuilding and reasserting itself. The Old
Continent would remain an important part of the new global community.
NEXT: Chapter Fourteen: The Retreat from Empire