1945: year zero

I am reading Postwar, Tony Judt’s magnificent history of Europe since 1945. It is extremely long, and I am only up to the mid-’50s. The book will surely provide the material for future blogs, but here are some initial impressions on the immediate post-war years.  

Comments on national or world affairs – mine or almost anyone else’s – usually focus on what is wrong, on what needs to be improved or mended, on problems that appear to be intractable. It is therefore uplifting to be reminded quite how bad everything was in 1945, and quite how far we have come since then.

It’s not as if any of this is news, but it is something that can easily be brushed aside and taken for granted. To read, page after page, of the complete physical, economic and moral prostration of an entire continent in 1945 is also to be reminded of the almost unlimited human capacity to rise above the most abject of circumstances. If now, for example, one looks at the ruins of Syrian cities and wonders how it will be possible to rebuild that country when its appalling civil war eventually ends, post-war Europe is a potent reminder of what can be achieved, and how quickly, and on a much larger scale.

Judt’s book is simultaneously a tribute to enlightened forethought, to decisions taken for the future that were not necessarily in the immediate self-interest of those taking them, but also to the role of chance and error.

The sections on Germany are particularly revealing. I have always assumed that the post-war division of Germany and the establishment of two separate German states was the conscious decision of all the Allies. That it may have followed directly from the positions of the armies when the war ended, but that it was also intended and agreed. Not at all. None of the Allies initially had any intention of dividing Germany. It was never agreed between them.

The plan was for Germany to become one single, demilitarised, neutral (at least to begin with: East and West had different views as to what might happen later) and (if the French had got their way) deindustrialised country. Instead, over a period of some years and through a haphazard sequence of events, West Germany was established, then East Germany. The Deutschmark and the Ostmark were introduced a little later and the physical barrier between East and West a long time after that. None of this was planned in an overall, coherent sense. It sprang from events, from mistakes, from circumstances. Just as NATO and the European Coal and Steel Community – the forerunner of the EU – emerged haphazardly from the same set of events.

Another revelation is for how long after the war, to France and America in particular, Germany remained the enemy, not the Soviet Union. Hence the insistence that Germany should be demilitarised, and preferably (for some) deindustrialised. Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder in the 1930s were overlooked; his role as a wartime ally was remembered. France wanted the vengeance over Germany denied in 1918. Many American politicians were breathtakingly naive. Strangely enough, it was the British Government, thanks in particular to the Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, that was the most consistently clear-headed of all the Allies.

Circumstances changed, and events acquired a momentum of their own. Stalin’s attitudes to democracy in his new satellite states of Eastern Europe became clear, especially after the coup d’état in Czechoslovakia in 1948. East and West drifted apart. It is chilling to recall that, throughout the post-war period and up to the latter stages of the Cold War, the Russian army could have overrun Western Europe any time it wanted. Only if America had chosen to use nuclear weapons could it have been prevented.

The other factor in all this was, as always, money. All the participants in World War II, with the partial exception of America, were skint by its close. Which makes the vast Marshall Aid programme all the more remarkable and enlightened. It was made available even to Stalin, but he declined. Britain, unfortunately and one may think unfairly, needed to use most of its aid to repay wartime debts rather than to rebuild its economy. Other European countries did not have wartime debts. Or not financial ones, anyway.

That is one reason why Britain was so keen for Germany to reindustrialise. Otherwise, Germany would not be producing goods to sell, and other countries – mainly Britain and America – would be compelled in perpetuity to subsidise it heavily, as indeed they did immediately after the war. Money also largely dictated defence policy. It was essential for the West to switch to a nuclear strategy because the cost of maintaining standing armies and conventional weaponry to match the capacity of the Red Army was economically insupportable, and would have become politically insupportable.

So Europe’s regeneration after 1945, rapid and remarkable, was not entirely the product of a brilliant and far-thinking strategy, and neither was it inevitable. There were elements of brilliance and forethought, but also large elements of chance, and perhaps even larger elements of necessity. However, the combination of all these elements had produced, by 1955, a landscape that would have been unimaginable in 1945.

No matter how it was achieved, though, the fact that it was achieved at all should offer some hope for the future. Particularly at a time when Britain and the European continent stand at another crossroads.