A Companion to Europe Since 1945
Klaus Larres is the Richard M Krasno Distinguished Professor of History and International Affairs at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill in the U.S. He also is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.
A Companion to Europe Since 1945
When World War II in Europe ended in early May 1945 the crushing defeat of the European continent became obvious. The entire continent lay in ruins, many of its people were homeless, severely wounded (both physically and mentally) or never returned from war service at all. The war provoked by Hitler's Germany had not only brought misery and death to many millions of people, it also ensured that the once proud nations of the European continent would for years be preoccupied with physical survival, reconstruction, and political and social reconciliation.
Even the victorious British found that they had hugely overstretched their resources and would soon not only face austerity and economic deprivation at home but also witness the collapse of their global influence, economic prowess, and the ever faster disappearance of their empire. In a very short period of time even fewer overseas possessions would remain in the hands of the French, Italians, Portuguese, Dutch, and Belgians. The entire eastern part of the European continent would be swallowed up by the Soviet Union within three years. Once fully sovereign countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania were forcibly integrated into Moscow's hugely expanded communist sphere of influence, which soon developed into a new sort of dictatorial and ideologically underpinned empire.
The only country which benefited from World War II, both economically and with regard to its global standing and immense military power, which included possession of the atomic secret, was the United States of America. Contrary to the expectations of many and contrary to America's decision to withdraw from Europe after World War I, the US made a deliberate effort to learn from history. Not withdrawal but further participation in the affairs of Europe appeared to be the recipe for preventing yet another world war originating on the European continent. Economic reconstruction, democratic re-education in for example Germany, Austria, and Italy, and the creation of a Franco-German rapprochement as part of an overarching process of European integration were deemed vital.
The Truman and subsequent Eisenhower administrations embarked upon an "empire by invitation," as Geir Lundestad has called it, and used Marshall Plan aid in the economic field and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the security and political areas to impose its will and ideas about the future shape of western Europe on the helpless European governments. Particular attention was paid to Germany, the divided nation, with the divided former capital Berlin at the frontline of the Cold War, to Franco-German relations and the economic revival of Europe to prevent the continent from once again becoming seduced by the promises of radical ideologies. The impetus to overcome the ingrained animosities of the past with the help of a process of European integration mostly came from British, French, and Italian thinkers who had first introduced such schemes in the 1920s and resuscitated and developed them during the most despairing times of World War II.
Within a mere decade most of the continent's most pressing economic, social, and political problems had been overcome. Both outside help and the enormous energy, imagination, and sheer will for survival of the peoples of western Europe had transformed the continent from a helpless colossus to a democratic, fairly prosperous and well-functioning half-continent. Europe had again become a force to be reckoned with in the world, in particular in economic terms. European integration - though initially only advocated by the Schuman Plan "Six" for a limited number of economic sectors - had played a vital role in overcoming the economic deprivation and the political dislocation which had characterized the initial postwar years.
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