The History Essay: How Europe rose from the dead

While the First World War triggered 30 years of terrible violence, the Second ushered in decades of peace. How can we explain the contrast? Ian Kershaw explores…

Adolf Hitler reviews troops of the Third Reich

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Europe between 1914 and 1945 stood completely in the shadow of war. The two world wars were a double – and interlinked – catastrophe for Europe (and for much of the rest of the world), while the years between largely amounted to the aftermath of one and the prelude to another great conflagration. The legacy of the First World War – what had been optimistically labelled the ‘war to end war’ – made another conflict likely. Within a generation, that conflict had begun, and in terms of human and physical destruction turned out to be far worse even than its predecessor. In Europe alone probably more than four times as many people were killed in the Second World War than the First, most of them civilians, while vast swathes of the continent (far more than in 1914–18) were left in ruins. Yet the catastrophes had utterly different outcomes. While the First World War produced lasting turbulence that paved the way for another conflict, the Second resulted in decades of peace, stability and unprecedented prosperity. What explains such an extraordinary contrast?

Some answers have looked no further than ‘the German problem’. The Germans – the explanation runs – were largely responsible for the First World War, which left them simmering with resentment at their defeat and, led by Hitler, were certainly responsible for the Second. The different outcomes have, consequently, a simple explanation. Germany was left to recover and cause further difficulties after 1918; ‘the German problem’ was ended by the total defeat of Germany in 1945.

Like most simple explanations of complex historical issues, it is not that it is utterly wrong; rather, that it is just inadequate. The plethora of works that appeared last year on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War showed the difficulties of reducing the cause of the war solely to Germany’s role, important without doubt though that was. And a vast amount of research over many years has demonstrated plainly that there was no one-way street in German history that led to Hitler. After all, as late as 1928, Hitler’s party was supported by less than 3 per cent of the German population. Even once Hitler had gained power in Germany, his escalating aggression – as libraries of books have spelled out – was made possible in good measure by the divisions and weaknesses of the European ‘great powers’, Britain and France. Hitler took Germany, Europe and the world into war, to be sure. But the cause of that war cannot be reduced just to Hitler.

Nor can the causes and outcomes of both great conflagrations be reduced just to Germany. While Germany is a crucial component, an explanation has to look to wider European (and world) dimensions, and to structural reasons for such contrasting outcomes to the two world wars.

As it emerged from the carnage of the First World War, Europe was beset by a multi-faceted comprehensive crisis that lay at the root of the subsequent descent into the even greater catastrophe of the Second World War. Four strands can be singled out, though it was their combination that led to such disastrous consequences.

The first was an explosion of ethnic-racist nationalist conflict, especially in the eastern half of the continent. A surge in extreme nationalism, in which national identity was usually defined ethnically, followed the collapse of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires and the violence of the Russian Civil War. Hatred of Jews – though Jews had in reality little or nothing intrinsically to do with conflicts between, say, Romanians and Hungarians or Ukrainians and Poles – became both more acute and also more widespread as part of these ethnic conflicts. Nationalist resentments could easily find scapegoats for social misery in the Jews, who in central and eastern Europe were generally both more numerous and less well integrated into society than in west European countries.

The new nation-states that were founded on the ruins of the fallen empires were not only products of defeat. Their multi-ethnic populations in some of the poorest and most war-stricken parts of Europe also faced struggles for limited material resources, and had weak and fragmented political systems that had been established in the most unpropitious circumstances imaginable.

A second, interrelated, strand of the comprehensive crisis was territorial revisionism. The Versailles Treaty of 1919, however well-intentioned its architects had been, produced a settlement that guaranteed conflict over disputed territories and demands for revision. Borders were disputed nearly everywhere in the newly created states of central, eastern and south-eastern Europe, with potential for serious disturbance from significant ethnic minorities that invariably faced discrimination from the majority population. And, of course, there was seething resentment in countries that saw the settlement as grossly unfair. Neither Italy nor Germany had internal ethnic divisions (though Italy had – and still has – a mainly German-speaking population in the South Tyrol). But the demands for revisionism in both countries intensified imperialist nationalism with evident ethnic implications. Italy was resentful at not being granted parts of Yugoslavian territory, while German ethnic minorities were a rising source of tension in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Thirdly, there was the festering sore of class conflict. This gained new and sharp focus after the First World War through the success of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the Soviet Union. The overthrow of capitalism and the creation of an entirely novel political system offered a model of government and society that posed an attractive alternative to the social misery and deprivation felt by wide sections of the impoverished industrial working class and the landless rural proletariat.

However, the presence of the Soviet Union both fatally split the political left and at the same time inordinately strengthened the radical right. Those who felt most threatened by the prospect of socialist revolution soon flocked into the new extreme counter-revolutionary movements. Hungary, Romania and Austria, countries in central and eastern Europe, where the fears of Bolshevism were palpable, produced strong counter-revolutionary forces. But where – as in Italy, then a decade or so later Germany – nationalist and virulent anti-Bolshevik forces harbouring expansionist ambitions gained power over the state, their hate-filled energies could be directed into foreign aggression. As a result, Europe’s peace stood in great danger.

The fourth element was interwoven with the other three. This was the unprecedentedly deep and lasting crisis of capitalism that followed the First World War and fed into the Second. This crisis had two enormously destructive phases, separated by only a brief intermission. The first, an inflationary crisis that flowed from the massive economic disruption produced by the war, lasted until 1924.

Practically all countries experienced inflation. But in central and eastern Europe it ran completely out of control. The calamitous German hyperinflation is well known. But hyperinflation was far from confined to Germany. In Poland, Austria and Russia the currency was ruined. People who had only cash assets were ruined, often turned into beggars. “There were endless heaps of money,” recalled the mayor of a Polish village. “Purses and the like were useless.

For things for the house one paid in thousands, then in millions, and finally in billions [of Polish paper marks].” This state of affairs lasted until the introduction of a completely new currency, the Słoty, in 1924.

Stabilisation of currencies and what seemed for a time to be the prospect of better conditions and hopes for the future lasted only five years before the second, even more destructive crisis of capitalism – global in extent, though especially damaging in Europe – struck. This time it was the deflationary crisis of the Great Depression. Where this afflicted countries with shaky political systems facing significant radical opposition from the left and, especially, from the right, the chances of dangerous dictatorial regimes gaining power were high.

Europe’s overwhelming and comprehensive crisis – political, socio-economic and ideological-cultural – arose from the interaction of all four components. It took Europe from catastrophe to even greater catastrophe, and to the verge of self-destruction. Nowhere escaped the crisis altogether – not even non-belligerent countries. Western Europe came off better than eastern, central and south-eastern regions of the continent. Even so, in the Mediterranean zone Italy succumbed to Fascism in 1922, Portugal was under authoritarian rule from 1926 onwards, and Spain – more mildly affected by the Depression than many other countries – experienced dictatorship between 1923 and 1930 and was plunged into a terrible civil war in 1936.

One country, though, experienced all four elements of the crisis in their most extreme form. This was Germany. Ethnic nationalism, territorial revisionism, class conflict and the crisis of capitalism reinforced each other in exceedingly dangerous fashion. They were linked by the ideological focus on ‘the Jewish Question’, which could be used to mobilise powerful forces both against what was now portrayed as ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’ on the one hand, and the ‘Jewish plutocracy’ as the backbone of rapacious capitalism on the other.

Hitler, a product of the postwar conditions, proved more adept than any other politician in Germany at exploiting the comprehensive crisis of state and society. Once he had consolidated his hold on power, a new catastrophe in Europe became far more likely and within a few years inevitable. Germany’s military and economic potential had been temporarily restricted, but not destroyed, at the end of the First World War and its strident revisionist ambitions had direct implications for the territorial integrity and independence of numerous other countries. So once this potential could be re-established, and under assertive nationalist leadership, the chances that the European crisis would end in a new cataclysm for the whole of the continent were high. Equally probable was that central and eastern Europe would be at the centre of the crisis as the continent descended into war once more, and that, once war had begun, the lands in the east would see the worst of the horror, the greatest destruction and the most grotesque inhumanity.

The Second World War touched depths of depravity that even the First World War did not reach. And the devastation to economies and societies as well as to the physical environment was immense. It seemed hardly conceivable in 1945 that Europe could within a decade produce political stability, flourishing economies and, above all, avoid another war engulfing the continent. Yet this is what happened, even if Europe was now divided down the middle by the Iron Curtain, producing contrasting political, social and economic developments in the separate halves. How did this remarkable transformation come about? Why did prolonged crisis follow one war; peace and prosperity a second?

Again, an answer has to be structural and multi-faceted. But, crucially, the Second World War in all its brutality, inhumanity and devastation fundamentally broke the crisis matrix that had led from one catastrophe to another and created a contrasting matrix of self-reinforcing elements that provided the preconditions for a new Europe to emerge.

First, the potential for further German aggression was eliminated. German ‘great-power’ ambitions and the militarism and extreme nationalism that had underpinned them and proved such a baleful element in Europe’s history since well before the First World War had been ended once and for all. At enormous cost, the political force of Nazism had been destroyed, its ideological basis (and that of fascism more widely) totally discredited. The purging of collaborators and those who had perpetrated the worst war crimes, grossly inadequate as the process was, drained much of the most deadly poison from postwar politics.

Secondly, Soviet domination of eastern Europe largely removed the sources of ethnic conflict. Border shifts, population transfers and drastic ethnic cleansing in eastern Europe, involving hundreds of thousands not only of ethnic Germans but also of Poles, Ukrainians and others – and carried out with great brutality and amid terrible bloodshed – produced much greater ethnic homogeneity than had existed before the Second World War. This contributed to the pacification, under Soviet repression, of the eastern half of the continent.

Thirdly, geopolitics had been completely transformed by the war. The former ‘great powers’, which had for so long competed for mastery in Europe, were all irredeemably weakened. The two superpowers, the USA and USSR, now recast separate halves of the continent in their own image and produced a binary political and ideological contest between democracy and communism. The ruthlessness with which the Soviet Union established near-monolithic control over almost the whole of eastern Europe promoted the growth of virulent anti-communism that became the ideological cement of western Europe. The prewar rampant anti-Bolshevism of the extreme nationalist right was thereby converted into the state-sponsored anti-communism of conservative governments.

At great cost to the peoples of the eastern half of Europe, subjected to communist rule for what would turn out to be more than 40 years and deprived of personal freedoms that people in the west took for granted, the Iron Curtain proved to be an essential platform for Europe’s postwar recovery.

Fourthly, in contrast to the searing crisis of capitalism of the interwar years, which had bedevilled the politics of Europe, the take-off into sustained and spectacularly high levels of economic growth, with roots reaching back to the war itself, now provided the platform for political stability.

A pivotal moment in Europe’s split was the announcement of Marshall Aid – the European Recovery Plan, as it was properly known – in June 1947, welcomed by west European countries but rejected by Stalin for the Soviet bloc. Marshall Aid was not the cause of the economic growth. The $12bn given to European countries over four years were simply not enough for that. But Marshall Aid gave impetus to the growth already under way and was of great symbolic importance, not least in the defeated nations of Germany and Italy, in helping to establish growing confidence in the economic new start.

Lessons had been learned from the disastrous economic legacy of the First World War. Without the sustained economic growth, the stabilisation of the new Europe would have been much more difficult – perhaps even impossible, as after 1918. Before long, too, the first steps were being taken towards a co-operation, initially economic though with political implications from the outset, which had been unthinkable in the nationalist, protectionist era between the wars.

Last but not least, there was now the prospect of nuclear devastation. The USA’s monopoly of nuclear power lasted only four years. By 1949 the Soviets had their own atom bomb. And by 1953 both superpowers possessed the far more devastating hydrogen bombs. Mutual assured destruction, though the term came later, concentrated minds. There could never again be the kind of war there had been in 1914 and in 1939. The prospect of nuclear war helped to establish a stable equilibrium, though the price was learning to live with the bomb. The mushroom cloud cast a long shadow.

Europe had nearly destroyed itself in its double catastrophe. But the Second World War had eliminated the negative constellation that had been the legacy of the First. From perhaps the lowest ebb in its long history, Europe had the chance to rise from the ruins in ways that few in the devastated continent of 1945 could have imagined possible.

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw is regarded as one of the world’s leading biographers of Adolf Hitler. 

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Further reading: To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914–1949 by Ian Kershaw (Allen Lane, September 2015)