In 1945 much of Western Europe lay prostrate. Whole cities had been reduced to rubble. An estimated 60 million people had lost their lives on the battlefields, in bombed towns, and in concentration camps. Millions more had been expelled from their homes.
A psychological legacy of defeat had been suffered by all European countries except Britain, the Soviet Union, and a handful of neutral states. The legacy of mass murders conducted in the twentieth century was on a scale that would have sickened Genghis Khan. The very language had been debased; Nazi Germany had exported words such as panzer, blitzkrieg, gestapo, and endlösung. In the former German-occupied countries, resistance and collaboration alike had entailed countless moral dilemmas. Innumerable accounts had been left to settle, with real or assumed traitors and criminals. Children had grown up in a world where the grandmotherly concièrge next door might well be a police informer with blood on her hands. Forgery and assassination for many had become a patriotic duty. The future looked grim. The Hitler cult might well revive in Germany. The Soviet threat to many looked irresistible. Recovery was a prospect uncertain and remote.
Yet war was followed by an age of achievement that would have seemed incredible during the Great Depression and even more so during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Islands of poverty remained, but, overall, Western Europe experienced the most rapid recovery in its history. Cities were rebuilt. Unemployment—the scourge of the interwar years—strikingly declined. Living standards rose throughout the Atlantic community. Western Europe (especially France) achieved a striking demographic rejuvenation—notwithstanding the numerous gloomy forecasts on the subject made during the interwar period.
The North American economy grew at a slower rate (not as much as it had between 1914 and 1929). Women flooded into the workplace; education for men and women expanded enormously. New industries spread to the Southwest and West. Suburbs grew and grew; new transcontinental highways and air routes linked America evermore closely. In all these respects, the Western European countries followed suit in a process widely described as Americanization or modernization.
The United States took part, through the Marshall Plan, in rebuilding the polities and economies of Western Europe and Japan—with a degree of foresight and generosity unparalleled in world history. The United States achieved a predominant position in science and technology and by example profoundly influenced Europe with regard to education, scientific research, technology, business methods, managerial practices, agriculture, and marketing. America’s constitutional democracy and consumer culture spread to Europe and Japan. American radio and television, movies, musicals, and print media made a profound impression on popular culture in Europe. English turned into a worldwide language, the new koine (the popular Greek spoken during the Hellenistic era) of the Western world. At the same time, the technology and dollar gap between the United States and Western Europe began to close, in part through American help.
Even more astounding were the political achievements of the Western world. Democracy revived. Democratic institutions took root in West Germany and Italy. Despite many pessimistic predictions, Nazism failed to revive; the specter of the Third Reich was laid to rest—there would be no Fourth. In part under U.S. influence, the Western European countries developed new forms of political association. Former enemies were reconciled. The Western European states developed into liberal democracies; their example later prevailed in Spain and Portugal, where authoritarian governments had previously held sway. The legitimacy of parliamentary governance and the peaceful relations that prevailed between the West European states contrasted most favorably with a long preceding record of domestic instability and foreign wars. The sentiments of Western nations toward one another improved. For instance, the subsequent Franco-German rapprochement in particular would have appeared incredible to previous generations brought up to think in terms of a “hereditary enemy” on the wrong side of the Rhine.
The Western democracies at the time produced an astonishing array of political talent, with luminaries such as Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer, De Gasperi, Spaak, Truman, Eisenhower. Although in opposition to one another, the moderate parties acted in informal concert on major issues. Between them, they strove for the reconciliation of social classes (through welfarism) and for economic productivity (through private enterprise modified by various forms of state intervention).
Led by the United States, the Western powers mastered the perils of the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO, formed in 1949) and its associated agencies turned out to be immensely more successful than their makers could have anticipated. Despite numerous strains and stresses, the NATO alliance endured longer than any in history, even though it was based on voluntary cooperation among its members rather than on imperial dictation imposed from without. The United States avoided the temptations of a preventive war, even though the Americans by 1949 held in their arsenal some 200 nuclear bombs—this at a time when the Soviet Union had just readied for its first atomic bomb test. Long-standing national animosities diminished in Western Europe. The various Western European countries, under American pressure, increasingly opened up toward one another and also toward North America. However tentatively and imperfectly, a new Atlantic system came into being. The Soviets lost the battle for European and U.S. public opinion that they had won in World War II. Within Western Europe itself, the communist challenge proved ineffective even in France and in Italy, where the Communists after the end of World War II had commanded widespread support among workers and intellectuals alike.
In every respect, Western democracy proved immensely more successful than the dictatorship over the proletariat of the nomenklatura within the Soviet bloc. The West remained inviolate from invasion and the world free of global war. It was an age of achievement. Who—at the war’s end—could have foreseen this outcome? And who could have asked for more?