In the study of European history from 1450 to the present, there were many events of critical importance. The event that had the greatest impact in shaping the history of Europe was World War II. In this war, the democracies fought for their lives against militaristic, nationalistic, authoritarian, and totalitarian states in Europe and Asia, and they were allied with the communist Soviet Union in the struggle. The defeat of the militarists and dictators would not bring the peace they longed for, but a Cold War.
World War II was a global military conflict that, in terms of lives lost and material destruction, was the most devastating war in human history. It began in 1939 as a European conflict between Germany and an Anglo-French coalition but eventually widened to include most of the nations of the world. It ended in 1945, leaving a new world order dominated by the United States and the USSR.
Three major powers had been dissatisfied with the outcome of World War I. Germany, the principal defeated nation, bitterly resented the territorial losses and reparations payments imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles. Italy, one of the victors, found its territorial gains far from enough either to offset the cost of the war or to satisfy its ambitions. Japan, also a victor, was unhappy about its failure to gain control of China.
France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. had attained their wartime objectives. They had reduced Germany to a military cipher and had reorganized Europe and the world as they saw fit. The French and the British frequently disagreed on policy in the postwar period, however, and were unsure of their ability to defend the peace settlement. The U.S., disillusioned by the Europeans’ failure to repay their war debts, retreated into isolationism.
More than any previous war, World War II involved the commitment of nations’ entire human and economic resources, the blurring of the distinction between combatant and noncombatant, and the expansion of the battlefield to include all of the enemy’s territory. The most important determinants of its outcome were industrial capacity and personnel. In the last stages of the war, two radically new weapons were introduced: the long-range rocket and the atomic bomb. In the main, however, the war was fought with the same or improved weapons of the types used in World War I. The greatest advances were in aircraft and tanks.
There can be no real statistical measurement of the human and material cost of World War II. The money cost to governments involved has been estimated at more than $1,000,000,000,000 but this figure cannot represent the human misery, deprivation, and suffering, the dislocation of peoples and of economic life, or the sheer physical destruction of property that the war involved.
The destruction of World War II was immense and far exceeded that of World War I. France estimated the total cost at an amount equivalent to three times the total French annual national income. Belgium and The Netherlands suffered damage roughly in similar proportions to their resources. In Great Britain about 30 percent of the homes were destroyed or damaged; in France, Belgium, and The Netherlands about 20 percent. Agriculture in all the occupied countries suffered heavily from the destruction of facilities and farm animals, the lack of machinery and fertilizers, and the drain on manpower. Internal transport systems were completely disrupted by the destruction or confiscation of rail cars, locomotives, and barges, and the bombing of bridges and key rail centers. By 1945 the economies of the continental nations of western Europe were in a state of virtually complete paralysis.
In eastern Europe the devastation was even worse. Poland reported 30 percent of its buildings destroyed, as well as 60 percent of its schools, scientific institutions, and public administration facilities, 30-35 percent of its agricultural property, and 32 percent of its mines, electrical power, and industries. Yugoslavia reported 20.7 percent of its dwellings destroyed. In the battlegrounds of the western portion of the Soviet Union, the destruction was even more complete. In Germany itself, 39 percent of the dwelling units were destroyed or seriously damaged in 49 of the largest cities. Central business districts had generally been reduced to rubble, leaving only suburban rings standing around a destroyed core.
Millions throughout Europe were rendered homeless. There were an estimated 21,000,000 refugees, more than half of them “displaced persons” who had been deported from their homelands to perform forced labor. Other millions who had remained at home were physically exhausted by five years of strain, suffering, and undernourishment. The roads of Europe were swamped by refugees all through 1945 and into 1946 as more than 5,000,000 Soviet prisoners of war and forced laborers returned eastward to their homeland and more than 8,000,000 Germans fled or were evacuated westward out of the Soviet-occupied portions of Germany. Millions of other persons of almost every European nationality also returned to their own countries or emigrated to new homes in other lands.
The devastation of World War II in China was inflicted on a country that was already suffering from the economic ills of overpopulation, underdevelopment, and a half-century of war, political disunity, and unrest. The territory occupied by Japanese forces was roughly equivalent to that occupied by the Axis in Europe and the period of occupation was longer. That area of China unoccupied by the Japanese was virtually cut off from the outside world after the Japanese conquest of Burma in early 1942, and its economy continually tottered on the brink of collapse. In both areas, famines, epidemics, and civil unrest were recurrent, much farmland was flooded, and millions of refugees fled their homes, some several times. Cities, towns, and villages were laid waste by aerial bombardment and marching armies. The transportation system, poor to begin with, was thoroughly disrupted. Most of the limited number of hospitals and health institutions in China were destroyed or lost.
In India famine was recurrent, and the Indian economy was severely strained to support the burden the Allied military authorities placed upon it. The Philippines suffered from three years of Japanese occupation and exploitation and from the destruction wrought in the reconquest of the islands by the Americans in 1944-45. The harbor at Manila was wrecked by the retreating Japanese, and many portions of the city were demolished by bombardment.
In Japan the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey found the damage to urban centers comparable to that in Germany. In the aggregate, 40 percent of the built-up areas of 66 Japanese cities was destroyed, and approximately 30 percent of the entire urban population of Japan lost their homes and many of their possessions. Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered the peculiar and lasting damage done by atomic explosion and radiation.
World War II was the most terrible war in history. Military deaths are estimated at some fifteen million, and at least as many civilians were killed. If deaths linked indirectly to the war, from disease, hunger, and other causes, are included, the number of victims might reach as high
as forty million. Most of Europe and significant parts of Asia were devastated. Yet the end of so terrible a war brought little opportunity for relaxation. The dawn of the atomic age and the dramatic end it brought to the war made people conscious that another major war might extinguish humanity. Everything depended on concluding a stable peace, but even as the fighting ended, conflicts among the victors made the prospects of a lasting peace doubtful.
The quarter century following the conclusion of World War II saw the relative decline of European power. The United States and the Soviet Union emerged as two economic and military superpowers. They confronted each other across the globe at one crisis point after another in a long-lasting conflict called the Cold War. In Europe, the point of confrontation was often the divided city of Berlin. The United States voiced concern about Eastern Europe but was never willing to exert significant influence in that region.
The tense relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union was a direct result of World War II. Some scholars attribute the hardening of the atmosphere between the two countries to Harry Truman’s assumption of the presidency in April 1945, after the death of the more sympathetic Franklin Roosevelt, and to the American possession of an effective atomic bomb. Evidence suggests, however, that Truman was trying to carry Roosevelt’s policies forward and that Roosevelt himself had become distressed by Soviet actions in Eastern Europe. Nor did Truman use the atomic bomb to try to keep Russia out of the Pacific. On the contrary, he worked hard to ensure Russian intervention against Japan at the end of the war. In part, the new coldness among the Allies arose from the mutual feeling that each had violated previous agreements. The Russians were plainly asserting permanent control of Poland and Romania under puppet communist governments. The United States, on the other hand, was taking a harder line on the
extent of German reparations to the Soviet Union.
In retrospect, however, it is unlikely that friendlier styles on either side could have avoided a split that rested on the basic differences of ideology and interest. The Soviet Union’s attempt to extend its control westward into central Europe and the Balkans and southward into the Middle East was a continuation of the policy of tsarist Russia. It had been Britain’s traditional role to try to restrain Russian expansion into these areas, and it was not surprising that the United States should inherit that task as Britain’s power waned.
Under President Truman, the United States developed a policy of containment. This was a policy of support for free people who were resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. The United States also instigated the Marshall Plan. This plan provided broad economic aid to European states on condition only that they work together for their mutual benefit. The Marshall Plan was a great success in restoring prosperity to Western Europe and in setting the stage for Europe’s unprecedented postwar economic growth.
While early stages of the Cold War took place in Europe, the United States found itself confronting armed aggression in Asia. It intervened militarily in Korea, following the same principle of containment that directed its actions in Europe. Numerous border clashes had occurred between North and South Korea. In late June 1950, forces from North Korea invaded South Korea by crossing the thirty-eighth parallel.
The United States intervened and was soon supported by a United Nations mandate. For the United States, the point of the Korean conflict was to contain the spread and to halt the aggression of communism. For more than two years the war dragged on. Eventually a border was restored and President Eisenhower concluded an armistice ending the Korean War.
Another point of conflict was in the German city of Berlin. Throughout 1961 thousands of refugees from East Germany crossed the border into West Berlin. The western sector of the city was the single point in Eastern Europe where persons living under Soviet dominance might escape to a free political climate. This outflow of people was both a political embarrassment to East Germany and a detriment to its economy. For the Soviet Union, this movement of people indicated its inability to control events in Eastern Europe. In August 1961, the East Germans, with the support of the Soviet Union, took decisive action. They erected a concrete wall along the border between East and West Berlin, shutting the two parts of the city off from each other. Crossing from one part to the other was possible only at designated checkpoints and only for people with proper papers. The wall became a major symbol of the Cold War era.
The most dangerous days of the Cold War occurred during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which represented another facet of the globalization of the Cold War, on this occasion into the Americas. Fidel Castro toppled the existing dictatorship in Cuba and established a communist government allied with the Soviet Union. This caused enormous concern within the United States. In 1962 the Soviet Union began to place nuclear missiles on the island. Now concern turned to confrontation. The American government, under President Kennedy, blockaded Cuba, halted the shipment of new missiles, and demanded the removal of existing installations. After an extremely tense week, during which communications between Washington and Moscow were permeated with admonitions and threats, the Soviets backed down and the crisis ended. In 1963 the United States and the Soviet Union concluded a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. This agreement marked the beginning of a lessening in the tensions between the two powers.
Decolonization since 1945 has been a direct result of both World War II itself and the rise
of indigenous nationalist movements within the European colonial world. World War II drew the military forces of the colonial powers back to Europe. The Japanese conquests of Asia helped force the European powers from that area. After the military and political dislocations of the war came the postwar economic collapse, which left the European colonial powers unable to afford to maintain their positions abroad.
In 1947 war broke out in Vietnam. The United States intervened in attempt to eliminate the communist Diem regime and to establish a new government in South Vietnam capable of generating popular support. Eventually the United States’ troops were pulled back. The war, which grew out of a power vacuum left by decolonization, had a major impact on the entire Western world.
In conclusion, World War II was the single most important event in European history for several very clear reasons. There were many other important events, but none had near as great of an impact on the entire world as did World War II. The world had never before seen such great and terrible destruction. The defeat of the militarists and dictators did not bring the peace many longed for, but a Cold War. The Cold War drew the United States into several confrontations across the globe. Theses confrontations demanded the majority of U.S. and world attention for the entire second half of the century.