Across the globe, people greeted the end of World War II with a profound sense of relief. By virtually any measurement, the war had been the most devastating conflict in human history. All nations were touched by it to some degree. The war's economic cost alone has been calculated at perhaps five times that of World War I. In human terms, it claimed half again as many military lives: 15 million versus 10 million for World War I. Including civilians, between 41 and 49 million people died in the war, a figure that would have been much higher without the advent of sulfa and penicillin drugs and blood plasma transfusions.
When the war finally ended, vast stretches of Europe and parts of Asia lay in ruins. Whole populations were utterly exhausted, and many people were starving and living in makeshift shelters. Millions more had been uprooted from their homes and displaced; many of them had been transported to the Reich to work as slave laborers in German industry and agriculture. Transport—especially in parts of western and central Europe and in Japan—was at a standstill. Bridges were blown, rail lines were destroyed, and highways were cratered and blocked. Ports, particularly those in northwestern Europe and Japan, were especially hard hit, and many would have to be rebuilt. Most of the large cities of Germany and Japan were piles of rubble, their buildings mere shells.
Some countries had fared reasonably well. Damage in Britain was not too extensive, and civilian deaths were relatively slight; Denmark and Norway escaped with little destruction. The rapid Allied advance had largely spared Belgium, although the port of Antwerp had been badly damaged. The Netherlands, however, sustained considerable destruction, and portions of the population were starving. The situation in Greece was also dire, and Poland suffered horribly from the brutal German and Soviet occupation policies and armies sweeping back and forth across its territory.
Among the major powers, the USSR was the hardest hit. With 27 million of its people killed in the war, national demographics were dramatically impacted, an effect that has persisted even to the present. In 1959, Moscow announced that the ratio of males to females in the Soviet Union was 45 to 55. Aside from the catastrophic human costs, the Germans had occupied its most productive regions, and the scorched-earth policy practiced by both the Soviets and the Germans resulted in the total or partial destruction of 1,700 towns, 70,000 villages, and 6 million buildings, including 84,000 schools. The Soviet Union also lost 71 million farm animals, including 7 million horses. There was widespread destruction in such great cities as Kiev, Odessa, and Leningrad. Perhaps a quarter of the property value of the USSR was lost in the war, and tens of millions of Soviet citizens were homeless. Simply feeding the Soviet population became a staggering task. All of these factors help to explain the subsequent policies, both internal and external, of the Soviet Union.
Efforts in Europe, as well as in Asia, centered for several years on the pressing problems of providing food, housing, and employment. As it turned out, much of the damage was not as extensive as initially thought, and many machines were still operational once the rubble was removed. In one perverse sense, Germany and Japan benefited from the bombing in that they rebuilt with many of the most modern techniques and systems.
With the end of the war, the liberated nations carried out purges of fascists and collaborationists. Many of these individuals were slain without benefit of trial. In France, 8,000 to 9,000 people were so executed; subsequently, 1,500 more were sentenced to death and executed following regular court procedures. The victorious Allies were determined to bring to justice the leaders of Germany and Japan, whom they held responsible for the war. Two great trials were held, in Nuremberg and Tokyo. Afterward, interest in bringing the guilty to justice waned, even in the cases of those responsible for wartime atrocities. Punishment varied greatly according to nation and circumstance, and it proved virtually impossible to work out acceptable formulas that might punish the guilty when so many people had, to some degree, collaborated with the occupiers.
At the end of the war, it appeared as if the idealistic, left-leaning resistance movements might realize their goals of forging new political, economic, and social institutions to bring about meaningful change. Although most people thought a return to prewar democratic structures was impossible, bright hopes for building new structures in the future were soon dashed. Resistance leaders fell to quarreling among themselves, and the fracturing of the Left, as occurred in France and Italy, made room for the return of the old but still powerful conservative elites. The political structures that ultimately emerged from the war, at least in western Europe, were little changed from those that had preceded it. In much of eastern and central Europe, where the Soviet Union now held sway, there was significant change, including land reform, although this was seldom to the real benefit of the populations involved. Soviet rule also brought widespread financial exactions in the form of reparations and the stifling of democracy.
The war did intensify the movement for European unity. Many European statesmen believed that some means had to be found to contain nationalism, especially German nationalism, and that the best vehicle for that would be the economic integration of their nations, with political unification to follow in what some called the "United States of Europe." They believed that a Germany integrated into the European economy would not be able to act alone. Although Europe was slow in taking steps in that direction, such thinking led, a decade after the end of the war, to the European Common Market.
Asia was also greatly affected by the war. In China, the bitter prewar contest between the Chinese Nationalist Party—the Guomindang, or GMD (Kuomintang, or KMT)—and the Chinese Communist Party resumed in a protracted civil war when Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) sent troops into Manchuria in an effort to reestablish Nationalist control of that important region. The conflict ended in 1949 with a Communist victory. To the west, British imperial India dissolved into an independent India and Pakistan.
The United States granted the Philippines delayed independence, but in other areas, such as French Indochina and the Netherlands East Indies, the colonizers endeavored to continue their control. Where the European powers sought to hold on to their empires after August 1945, there would be further bloodshed. The French government, determined to maintain the nation as a great power, insisted on retaining its empire, which led to the protracted Indo-China War. Fighting also erupted in many other places around the world, including Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies. Even where the European powers chose to withdraw voluntarily, as Britain did in Palestine and on the Indian subcontinent, there was often heavy fighting as competing nationalities sought to fill the vacuum. Nonetheless, independence movements in Africa and Asia, stimulated by the long absence of European control during the war, gathered momentum, and over the next two decades, much of Africa and Asia became independent.
One of the supreme ironies of World War II is that Adolf Hitler had waged the conflict with the stated goal of destroying communism. In the end, he had gravely weakened Europe, and rather than eradicating his ideological adversary, he had strengthened it. In 1945, the Soviet Union was one of the two leading world powers, and its international prestige was at an all-time high. In France and Italy, powerful Communist Parties were seemingly poised to take power. The Soviet Union also established governments friendly to it in eastern and central Europe. Under the pressure of confrontation with the West, these states became openly Communist in the years after World War II. In 1948, the Communists made their last acquisition in central Europe in a coup d'état in Czechoslovakia. Communists also nearly came to power in Greece.
Indeed, far from destroying the Soviet Union and containing the United States, Germany and Japan had enhanced the international position of both. Western and Soviet differences meant that, although treaties were negotiated with some of the smaller Axis powers, there were no big-power agreements concerning the future of Germany and Japan. Germany, initially divided into four occupation zones, became two states in 1949: the western Federal Republic of Germany and the Communist German Democratic Republic. Korea also had been "temporarily" divided at the thirty-eighth parallel for the purposes of a Japanese surrender. Unlike Germany, which was reunited in 1990, Korea remained divided as of 2004—another legacy of World War II.
Despite the continued importance of secondary powers such as Britain and France, the year 1945 witnessed the emergence of a bipolar world, in which there were two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Added to the confrontational mix was the threat of nuclear war as both governments embarked on a new struggle known as the Cold War.
Spencer C. Tucker
Black, Cyril E., et al. Rebirth: A History of Europe since World War II. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.; Wheeler, John, and Anthony J. Nicholls. The Semblance of Peace: The Political Settlement after the Second World War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1974.