Was 1945 the world’s year zero?

Every corner of the planet was affected by the Second World War. But how did this vast shared experience influence us after the conflict? Keith Lowe investigates...

Night view of people jammed into Times Square, New York, celebrating the end of the war in Europe. (Photo by Herbert Gehr/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty

The Second World War was one of the greatest communal events in human history. Between 1937 and 1945 more than 100 million men and women were mobilised into the armed forces around the world. Hundreds of millions of civilians were also dragged into the conflict – as factory workers, as suppliers of food or entertainment, as prisoners, as slave labourers, and as targets. Every corner of the planet, even those far from the fighting, was affected by this global catastrophe. But how did this vast shared experience influence us after the war? Did it create a communal mindset, and if so, how did this manifest itself? In short, how did the memory of the Second World War change the world?

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The end of the war is often remembered as an idealistic time. Wild celebrations took place in London and Paris on VE Day and VJ Day, fireworks burst over the Kremlin, and sailors kissed nurses in New York’s Times Square. In the USA, President Truman repeatedly told his people that they were “standing on the threshold of a new world”, and that with the death of a “world at war” came the birth of a “world of peace”. On 16 August 1945, the day after Japan capitulated, he proclaimed to the world that they were witnessing a “new beginning in the history of freedom on this Earth”.

President Harry S Truman as he proclaims VJ Day. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)
President Harry S Truman as he proclaims VJ Day. (Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images)

Genuine though these sentiments were at the time, they are a very selective view of the wave of emotions that accompanied the end of the war. Alongside the joy and celebration were all kinds of other responses. In many parts of the world, the overriding emotions in 1945 were those of anger and shame. Across western Europe the shaven-headed woman, who had given her body to the enemy, became a powerful symbol of collaboration; and violent waves of revenge against collaborators broke out both in Europe and in Asia. In many of the most devastated areas, particularly in the defeated nations, people often succumbed to despair – “the loneliness of complete physical defeat”, as the war correspondent Janet Flanner put it. Even in the victorious countries, emotions were not so clear-cut as we remember them. “I just felt a slightly lost feeling,” remembered John MacAuslan, a former British intelligence officer. “What you’d known for an awfully long time had vanished, and there seemed to be nothing to take its place… It was all gone.”

The memory of 1945 as the dawn of a new age of hope is therefore a highly selective one. And yet it is this memory that lies at the very core of the postwar mindset. Part of the reason that it is so strong is that this is the way the end of the war was reported at the time, almost everywhere. Leading the charge was the USA. America emerged in 1945 as the undisputed victor of the war. It had the largest navy, the largest air force, and an army that was rivalled only by that of the Soviets. At the time, it was the world’s only nuclear power. It had also been vastly enriched by the war: between 1939 and 1945, America’s economy had almost doubled in size, and by the war’s end it accounted for around a half of the world’s total GDP.

When public figures in America proclaimed the dawn of what they were already calling ‘the American Century’, they were not merely bragging: they were also trying to come to terms with the awesome responsibility they now bore. At a stroke they had become the world’s policeman, the world’s financier, and the closest thing the world had to a Good Samaritan. It was only natural that they wished to convince themselves, as well as others, that the world would be a better place because of their efforts.

Public figures in America proclaimed the dawn of ‘the American Century’

The other great victor of the war was the USSR and, by extension, the communist party in general. The communists had always dreamed of revolution, and the Second World War had given them exactly that. Right up until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the war was still being commemorated in eastern Europe as “one of the greatest events in world history, which dealt the irreparable blow to the capitalist system”, to quote the Albanian defence minister, Prokop Murra, in 1985.

It is undeniable that communism achieved a huge surge of popularity because of the war. Within three years of the war’s end, more than 900,000 Frenchmen had joined the communists, as had more than a million Romanians, 1.4 million Czechoslovakians, and 2.2 million Italians. This expansion of support was also reflected in China, where the communists would soon take over the country; in Latin America, where communist party membership more than quintupled between 1939 and 1947; and even in the Soviet Union itself, where the communist party grew by almost 50 per cent between 1941 and 1945, even after all the losses of the war. As the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas stated in the 1950s, the party’s massive growth during this time “accustomed us to hearing in this movement the very footsteps of Destiny”.

Invocations of a brave new world were perhaps made most strongly in those nations that had suffered large amounts of devastation during the war. In much of Europe, governments could not afford to indulge feelings of anger or despair. Their job was to take control, re-establish stability and rebuild. All over the continent police forces were purged, collaborators arrested, and tribunals set up. But governments had to give their angry and demoralised peoples something to hope for. No wonder that Charles de Gaulle promised “to begin the journey to salvation”, that Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito offered “a magnificent vision of a new life” of “brotherhood and unity”, and that the postwar Labour government in Britain promised the creation of the ‘New Jerusalem’.

Japan was telling itself that it had been born again in the nuclear flash of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

For the defeated nations, too, the temptation to succumb to despair had to be resisted. In Germany, 1945 was proclaimed ‘Year Zero’ – not only to reflect the fact that they had been bombed into the Stone Age, but also in the hope that the nation might be allowed to start again with a clean slate. Meanwhile Japan was telling itself, and the world, that it had been born again in the nuclear flash of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a famous speech that would later be reproduced in one of the most important Japanese movies of the era, atom bomb survivor Takashi Nagai presented his home city as a martyr that had given new life not only to Japan but to the whole world. “Let us be thankful that Nagasaki was chosen for the whole-burnt sacrifice,” he said in November 1945. “Let us be thankful that through this sacrifice peace was granted to the world.”

The devastated city of Hiroshima after the US nuclear bombing of the city on 6 August 1945. (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)
The devastated city of Hiroshima after the US nuclear bombing of the city on 6 August 1945. (Photo credit should read STF/AFP/Getty Images)

Even nations far away from the violence were affected by the atmosphere of revolutionary change and rebirth generated by the war. In Latin America a new wave of democracy swept the continent. Military dictatorships fell like ninepins in Ecuador, Venezuela, Guatemala and Bolivia. Peru held its first ever free elections in 1945. According to one annual survey published shortly after the war: “The years 1944 and 1945 brought more democratic changes in more Latin American countries than perhaps in any single year since the wars of independence” of the 19th century.

In much of Asia, too, the thirst for change seemed unquenchable after the war. The future prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, frequently invoked the Second World War as one of the major factors in his country’s rebirth as an independent nation. “We have just come out of the world war and people talk vaguely and rather wildly of new wars to come,” he told the Indian parliament in December 1946. “At such a moment this New India is taking birth – renascent, vital, fearless.” Indonesia’s future president, Sukarno, went so far as to thank god for the recent years of violence, which had given birth to a “free Indonesia tempered in the fire of war”. For these countries and many more across Asia and Africa, 1945 was presented as the dawn of a new age.

If the whole world adopted this mindset of radical change and idealism after the war, it was because it suited almost everyone. Soon, all kinds of grand schemes were being offered up as idealistic visions of the future. Advocates of central planning spoke enthusiastically about nationalising industry, collectivising farming, regulating financial systems and organising societies so that health, education and prosperity could be shared more equally.

All kinds of grand schemes were being offered up as idealistic visions of the future

Such visions came not only from socialists but from Christian Democrats; they were championed not only in Europe, but also in Asia, Africa and Latin America. “Planning is becoming almost universal,” wrote the exiled Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath during the war: “Planning as a war measure, planning as economists’ anti-slump medicine, planning as a pleasure for architects and planning as a characteristic of the new pattern of our society.”

Some of the most enthusiastic visionaries were the urban planners who were charged with rebuilding Europe’s devastated cities. Architects in 1945 often spoke without irony about how the destruction had been a ‘blessing’. They saw Coventry, Hamburg and Warsaw rising from the ashes like so many phoenixes, better, brighter and more modern than the old slum-filled towns that had been destroyed. So enthusiastic were planners in Britain that it left their American counterparts feeling secretly envious. “If the Blitz did it,” wrote the American housing expert Catherine Bauer in 1944, “then that explains the secret guilty regret deep within many American liberals that we missed the experience.”

Others saw science as mankind’s saviour. The technological wonders created during the war – particularly the advent of nuclear power – filled the postwar generation with an awe that is difficult to imagine today. Journalists like Time magazine’s Gerald Wendt began to imagine a future in which “science will have freed the human race not only from disease, famine and early death, but also from poverty and work”. Fantastic stories began to appear all over the world about “nuclear-powered cars” and “inexhaustible power”. One Berlin newspaper ran a story predicting the advent of spacecraft capable of taking man to the moon in just three hours and 27 minutes. The Illustrated Weekly of India painted dreams in 1946 of express trains that would run from Bombay to Calcutta in only an hour, of the conversion of deserts into oases and the north pole into a holiday resort.

Perhaps the grandest scheme of all was that of globalisation. Building on the collaboration of the Allies during the war, dozens of new institutions were created in the wake of the war. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were set up in just three weeks in the summer of 1944, at a conference in the American resort town of Bretton Woods. That so many nations – 44 in total – were able to agree a complete overhaul of the world’s financial system in such a short time is a testament to how important they each thought it was to create an integrated, and regulated, global economy.

A year later, as the war was ending, the United Nations was set up in San Francisco. A plethora of other institutions quickly followed:  the Organisation of American States, the EEC, Nato, the Warsaw Pact, the Non-Aligned Movement, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade – the list is seemingly endless. Grand schemes abounded, and international agreements were made on everything from aviation to a global postal system. The World Health Organisation launched a series of international drives to tackle global killers like tuberculosis, malaria and smallpox.

Almost all of these institutions refer to themselves as organisations “born out of the fires of the Second World War”. Indeed, the United Nations has a huge mural of a phoenix rising from the ashes of warfare painted on the wall of its Security Council chamber.

Despite their many other emotions about the Second World War, people all over the world embraced these ideas after 1945. Even those who did not embrace them were prepared to go along with them. “We can’t return, even if we wanted to, to the social and economic framework of 1939, for it no longer exists,” wrote the ultra-conservative British historian Arthur Bryant, regretfully, in 1945. Most historians today agree with him. “The world could not possibly be the same [after the war],” writes Ian Buruma. “Too much had happened, too much had changed.”

Nevertheless, there were many continuities. For all their rhetoric about purging fascists and collaborators from European institutions, the postwar governments were not particularly successful. The civil service in postwar Germany, for example, was riddled with former Nazis – including some, like Wilhelm Hauser, police chief of Rhineland-Palatinate, who had presided over massacres and atrocities.

Across Europe, the economic necessities of rebuilding always trumped the need for retribution. By 1946, collaboration trials were being quietly dropped everywhere, and amnesties handed out to those who had been convicted. The economic miracle of the 1950s was built on this foundation.

The same was true in Japan, where none of the country’s industrial leaders ever saw trial, no matter how involved in war crimes they might have been. As a result, the issue of war guilt has never properly been put to bed. Even in the 21st century, Japanese corporations like Mitsubishi, Mitsui and Nippon Steel still have to fight court cases because of their alleged behaviour during the Second World War.

Neither were all of the new global institutions quite so new as they pretended to be. The UN was little more than a rehashed League of Nations – it even contained many of the same staff, statutes and agencies (such as the International Labour Organisation). The true idealists of 1945 regarded the UN not as an expression of postwar hopes, but as a betrayal of them. “There is no first step to world government,” wrote Emery Reves in 1945. “World government is the first step.”

It did not take long for many of the most beautiful postwar bubbles to burst. Atomic scientists, like Otto Frisch, pointed out that dreams like those of nuclear powered cars were impossible: “A few minutes’ ride in this car would be enough to kill you.” By the 1960s, urban planning was discredited when writers like Jane Jacobs and Oscar Newman wrote about how it had inadvertently created dystopian inner cities plagued by anti-social behaviour. By the 1980s many of the great centralising projects, such as the nationalisation of industry, were being reversed. Politicians such as Ronald Reagan began to believe that “government does not solve problems; it subsidises them”.

Many of the international and global projects from 1945 have also begun to unravel. The first to fall was the global fiscal system set up at Bretton Woods, which collapsed after the USA withdrew from the gold standard in the 1970s. The UN has limped on, despite being routinely ignored by the very nations that form the permanent core of its Security Council. Even the European Union, probably the most successful international institution that was “born out of the fires of the Second World War”, has recently begun to contract.

Today, the emotions most likely to be expressed about the war are no longer those that characterised the postwar mindset: idealism, communalism, trust in experts and institutions. Instead, as the headlines on newspapers around the world testify, they are more likely to be the very emotions that were suppressed in 1945: anger, shame and fear.

Keith Lowe is a writer and historian. His books include Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin, 2013).

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This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine