Out of the Ashes - Post-War Europe 1945 - 1990

In 1945 Europe lay in ruins. In a devastating six year war its cities and towns had been bombed and fought over, its infrastructure of road and rail destroyed, its economies ruined. Millions of people had died and over a thousand years of settlement patterns and civilization had been wiped out. Millions of Europeans who survived were 'displaced persons', some were refugees, many more were the victims of deportation. Many were desperate to go home, to try and find family members who might still be alive, but where was home?

Border changes and 'ethnic cleansing' meant that for many 'home,' as they had known it in 1939, no longer existed. For all those seeking to return, vast numbers sought desperately not to be sent 'home,' knowing that on arrival it would mean imprisonment and probably death. It was said that in 1945 Europe resembled a giant ant hill which someone had kicked over.

Hardly had the dust of the Second World War settled than a new war broke out in Europe which was to last until 1990 - 1992: the Cold War. The USSR and its satellites faced the USA and its allies across a divided Europe symbolized for many by the division of Germany and Berlin. After 1949, when the USSR exploded its first atomic bomb, the world faced a new threat, that of mutually assured destruction in a nuclear war. Throughout our period Europe lay under the shadow of this threat.

The Cold War was dominated by the superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, and western European leaders sought to define a new role for themselves and for Europe in these new circumstances. One response, both to the Second World War and the Cold War, was greater co-operation between western European states. This process began in the late 1940s and resulted in the creation of the European Economic Community in the 1950s. Some hoped that the EEC would provide Europe with a new role in the world and the search for that new role also involved the dismantling of European empires in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. By the mid-1960s Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium had all divested themselves of most of their imperial possessions, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not, and the process and significance of decolonialization will be studied.

One consequence of the Cold War was the continued American presence in Europe and shed loads of American money ensured the economic recovery of Western Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s. For most of the peoples of western European the 1950s and 60s were a period of affluence and prosperity. They were better educated and healthier than ever before, they had work, money to spend and shops packed with goods to spend it on - consumerism in the west confronted communism in the east! All of this had been achieved in just ten or fifteen years after the end of the Second World War, it is hardly surprizing that it was called 'the economic miracle.'

While there might have been anxieties over the Cold War and the place and significance of Europe between the superpowers, in other respects Europeans changed in more subtle ways during this period. In the West, the 1950s witnessed the invention of the 'teenager', a process encouraged by the fashion, popular music and film industries. Young people had more freedom and more money to spend than ever before and by the end of our period many of them were politically aware and politically active. In the east young people looked on in fascination and envy at their contemporaries on the other side of the wall, and the influence of western popular culture undoubtedly played a part in turning many of the youth of the Soviet bloc against the system they lived under.

By the 1970s the post-war vision of ever increasing prosperity and progress was beginning to turn sour as western economies stalled, and the 1980s was a decade of radical change and confrontation played out against a backdrop of increasing tensions between East and West. While Americans and western Europeans debated the virtues of state power and private enterprise, the events in Prague in 1968 demonstrated the limits of reform in Eastern Europe and the 1970s and 1980s were to see the 'command economies' of the Soviet bloc slide into deepening crises which were to eventually bring down the whole system. The fifty years since 1945 transformed Europe on both sides of the wall politically, economically and socially and whilst it is often hard to assess which of the changes were permanent, there is no doubt that "the times, they are a-changin'!"

Dr Andrew Lacey
May 2020

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