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Rising from the Ashes

Humanity really outdid itself with the Second World War. After the Great War, remembered as the War to End All Wars, nobody in Europe could have imagined anything worse, and practically everyone in Europe, aside from Germany, did everything to avoid another such war.

Europe’s worst nightmares were realized, though, as the costliest and deadliest war in history played out largely in Europe. Almost miraculously, then, western Europe rebounded from the war and within a generation had become a bastion of world political, cultural, and economic leaders once again. And for the most part, the western nations accomplished this turnaround peacefully and without oppression. Eastern Europe did not experience the same recovery, mostly because of the tight Communist control over the Eastern Bloc nations that stifled the economies there.

The Devastation of the War

The cost of World War II can be counted in any number of ways. In terms of life, 50 million or more died, 10 million of them soldiers, the remaining 40 million, civilians. In many places, entire families, towns, and villages simply ceased to exist, eradicated.

National populations felt the blows of population loss, with the Soviet Union and Germany losing the greatest amount of people; the USSR lost perhaps 20 million citizens.

In terms of dollars, the devastation of the war can’t be accurately measured. However, national governments ran up debts because of wartime deficit spending. Businesses and industries were wiped out. Countless individuals lost everything—homes, farms, savings, heirlooms, and more. Farmland suffered from looting, bombing, fire, and battle. Burned out trucks, tanks, and planes lay where they crashed. Bombing raids destroyed historic landmarks and architecture. Looters, particularly the Nazis, stole or lost many priceless works of art that have never been recovered. The economic outlook in Europe could hardly have been worse.

Western Europe Prospers

Just as the phoenix rose from its own ashes to live again, so did western Europe after the war. The triumph over devastation took cooperation, energy, and creative new ideas. The leaders of the most prominent western nations after the war were committed to change, cooperation, and recovery.

Part of the cooperation included the removal of old trade barriers and tariff walls. In Britain, as in other places in Europe, the socialists led the way to recovery. Despite his steadfast moral support of the British during the war, Winston Churchill was replaced by the Labour Party’s Clement Atlee (1883-1967). The voters wanted to move toward a welfare state but Churchill opposed public health care and even some aspects of public education.

In France, the war hero Charles de Gaulle helped establish the Fourth Republic. He hoped for a strong central executive, but the people were wary of another Vichy regime. Despite frequent turnover in the government, the French economy did well.

In Italy, the brilliant Alcide de Gasperi (1881-1954), founder of the Christian Democrats or DC, won eight consecutive terms as Prime Minister of Italy. He and his Catholic constituents moved as far away from fascism as possible, and his reform- minded party dominated Italian politics until the 1990s.

To get their economies going again, each of these governments employed a new brand of economic policy developed by West Germans, an economic policy called a mixed economy. In the newly created Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) led the Christian Democrats much the way Gasperi did. A staunch opponent of Nazism who spent time in prison for his anti-Nazi views, Adenauer also centered his political career on Catholic values. Of the western nations,

France and Germany felt the greatest economic despair. Germany probably had the steepest hill to climb, though, because of huge population losses, severed ties with the eastern part of Germany, and the loss of those resources as well.

Would You Believe?

The Catholic Social Thought embraced by Christian Democrats included tenets such as care for the poor, protection of human rights, promotion of disarmament, and the rejection of both communism and laissez-faire economic systems.

Adenauer and his economics minister, Ludwig Erhard (1897-1977), introduced a new economic policy for West Germany known as a social market economy, featuring a state-controlled economy that emphasized low unemployment, welfare, low inflation, and social programs or public services. Theoretically, the social market economy combined some capitalism, some Catholic social thought, and some socialism. Adenauer and Erhard succeeded in reaching their financial and economic goals and engineered what Germans referred to as “the economic miracle” of prosperity in Germany.


In 1951, the nations of France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands signed a treaty that created the European Coal and Steel Community. Under the economic leadership of Frenchmen Jean Monnet (1889-1979) and Robert Schuman (1886-1963), the member nations created an economic union based on free trade. The smaller nations could not effectively compete in the European and global markets. As an economic union, though, the member states could compete in the coal and steel markets because the entire membership operated as a collective. On another level, the spirit of cooperation developed among and within the member states hopefully would help deter war in the future.

The plan worked so well that the six members created a new union in 1957 known as the European Economic Community. The new union greatly resembled the former but expanded the cooperation. By dropping tariffs and allowing free trade, the union created a huge market capable of fostering more success in each member state than they could possibly have achieved on their own. The EEC had as some of its goals complete economic unity, common prices for agricultural goods, common welfare and social programs, and similar foreign policies. The EEC would have to wait several decades before complete economic unity would be achieved. The economic success of the EEC, later called the European Community, greatly benefited the member states. The EC’s success also encouraged other nations to create economic communities and led to the eventual creation of the European Union (see Chapter 23).

Would You Believe?

The European Coal and Steel Community dissolved in 2002 because its charter provided for a 50-year existence.

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