The end of World War II presented Western Europe with Herculean challenges. War casualty estimates suggest that in addition to some 4.5 million military deaths, Western Europe suffered more than 1 million civilian deaths. The Holocaust also claimed the lives of several hundred thousand West European Jews.
Conditions were made worse at the end of the war by a mass influx of displaced persons and refugees, many of them Germans and Poles from Eastern Europe, who had fled the advancing Soviet armies. These people often had only the clothes on their backs and required food and shelter as well as employment. Although damage from bombing was not as severe as it seemed at the time, factories would have to be put back into operation and people given work. The job of rebuilding was the preeminent task occupying most West European nations in the first half decade or so of the Cold War.
In the immediate postwar period, the political Left was in power. For the most part, the rightist parties had been largely discredited by their association with fascism. But the broad coalition of the leftist parties soon fractured, and bright hopes of the resistance were soon quashed as the old vested interests reasserted themselves. Nonetheless, in the immediate postwar years, socialists and communists attracted considerable electoral support in Western Europe. Italy and France were home to the region's two largest communist parties, while the Labour Party came to power in Britain.
The Americans, British, French, and Soviets occupied vanquished Germany. Wartime agreements had divided Germany and the city of Berlin into four occupation zones. With the coming of the Cold War these divisions became permanent. In 1947 and 1948, the British and Americans (Bizonia), followed by the French (Trizonia), combined their zones economically. This move and the deadlock over reparations and other issues prompted the Soviet Union to blockade West Berlin in June 1948. The Soviets hoped to drive the Western powers from the city, which lay deep inside their zone of Germany. The United States responded to the blockade with a massive airlift. The blockade, which Soviet leader Josef Stalin lifted in May 1949, was tangible proof to many West Europeans of the Soviet threat.
The Berlin Blockade hastened the establishment in 1949 of both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). The proclamation of a West German state in turn led directly to the creation of the Soviet-sponsored German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). Konrad Adenauer, a Christian Democrat, served as chancellor of West Germany from 1949 to 1963, whereas Walter Ulbricht dominated the GDR from 1949 to 1971.
In Britain, the wartime coalition came apart even before the end of the war, with the Labour Party demanding new elections after the defeat of Germany. Labour won the July 1945 elections by focusing on domestic issues that had been ignored during the war, and Labour leader Clement Attlee replaced Winston Churchill as prime minister. To Churchill's chagrin, Labour's anti-imperialist stance led to the dismantling of much of the British Empire and resulted in precipitous and bloody departures from both India and Palestine. Attlee and Labour introduced the cradle-to-grave welfare state and nationalized the Bank of England; coal mines; the electric, iron, and steel plants; and other industrial sectors.
In France, General Charles de Gaulle governed by general consent, the rightist parties having been discredited by their support for the wartime Vichy regime. The vote in the first postwar elections was evenly split among the new Popular Republican Movement (MRP), the socialists, and the communists. Despite de Gaulle's pleas for constitutional reform that would bring a strong presidency, the new Fourth Republic emerged as a near carbon copy of the flawed Third Republic. De Gaulle resigned in protest over developments in January 1946. Major changes were undertaken, however, in centralized economic planning, in the nationalization of certain industries, and in improving social services.
In Italy, the involvement of King Victor Emmanuel III with Benito Mussolini's fascist regime brought a postwar referendum on the monarchy in which the republican north overwhelmed the monarchist south. Italy officially became a republic on 10 June 1946. The new Christian Democrats emerged as the leading political force in Italy, but the communists remained influential and continued as the largest communist party in Western Europe. As in France, however, much of its appeal was on domestic issues, particularly demands for improved worker benefits.
The Benelux states—Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—established a close relationship at the end of the war. Wartime damage was particularly severe in Belgium, although there had been considerable damage through flooding in the Netherlands. Belgium abandoned neutrality, and the three states worked to enhance regional economic cooperation and were at the forefront of European integration and the establishment of NATO.
Spain emerged from the war as a pariah state not only because of the Nationalist defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) but also because of Head of State General Francisco Franco's support for Germany in World War II. The attitude of the United States toward Spain changed with the coming of the Cold War, however, when Washington provided extensive aid to Franco's regime in return for air and naval bases. Many Spaniards were angry at the United States, believing with some justification that this policy helped continue Franco's authoritarian rule.
Western Europe rebuilt rapidly after the war. Emergency economic assistance, particularly under the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), helped, and prompted by state economic planning such as the Monnet Plan in France, Western Europe began to approach prewar economic levels by 1947. But recovery depended on continuing American assistance, including food, fuel, and raw materials. Concerned that long-standing economic turmoil could bring the communists to power and believing that a healthy European economy would be to the benefit of the United States, Secretary of State George C. Marshall announced a program of American economic assistance in June 1947. In this program the United States insisted that recipient states work out internal reform programs of their own and cooperate economically. This and the perceived Soviet threat were key factors promoting European economic integration.
European culture in the immediate postwar years reflected profound disillusionment with societies that had given birth to fascism, Nazism, and the Holocaust. The existential movement, responding to a feeling of moral bankruptcy, argued that all knowledge was relative and that man lived and made decisions in a world without meaning. The chief proponents of existentialism were two French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
Soviet threats and bellicose behavior ensured continued close cooperation between Western Europe and the United States. Among events unnerving West Europeans were the establishment of the people's democracies in Eastern Europe, the 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Blockade, the June 1953 Soviet crackdown in East Berlin, and the Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
As the economies of most of Western Europe continued to improve and wartime memories receded, moderate and even rightist political parties reappeared and vied for power. Adenauer's right-of-center Christian Democratic Union (CDU) dominated the early decades of the FRG. Adenauer held power from 1949 to 1963, reaching out to both France and Israel. German hard work ( fleiss), the CDU's social-market approach to the economy, and U.S. assistance combined to produce a West German "economic miracle."
The most fractious domestic issue in the FRG in the Adenauer years was German rearmament, which was strongly opposed by the Social Democrats, who feared that it would prevent German reunification. The Korean War (1950–1953) drove the United States in particular toward this solution to countering the seemingly monolithic and overwhelming global communist threat. Efforts to subsume German rearmament within a West European military structure, however, were torpedoed when the French National Assembly failed to approve the European Defense Community (EDC). The FRG was then permitted to rearm within NATO.
Adenauer resigned in 1963. In 1969 Social Democrat Willy Brandt became chancellor of the Grand Coalition between the socialists and the CDU; his most striking achievement was to continue and extend the trend of Ostpolitik that he had pursued as foreign minister. Brandt fostered better relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, especially Poland and the GDR.
France experienced considerable political turmoil in the 1950s, with frequent changes of government under the Fourth Republic. The principal shocks to the political fabric came from abroad, however. From 1946 to 1954, France fought a war to retain Indochina. The defeat of French forces in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu allowed the politicians to shift the burden of failure onto the military. The 1954 Geneva Conference extricated France from what had become a very unpopular war.
Almost immediately thereafter, fighting broke out in Algeria. The Algerian War became a vast imbroglio, with Paris unwilling to grant independence to what was, technically, an integral part of France. In May 1958, fearful that the politicians in Paris were about to sell them out, French Army leaders and European colons in Algeria combined to topple the Fourth Republic and bring de Gaulle back to power.
Under de Gaulle, France adopted a new constitution with a strong presidency, a system tailor-made for its new leader. Whereas the Fourth Republic had seen twenty-five cabinets between 1946 and 1958, the Fifth Republic marked the beginning of great political stability, with just three cabinets in its first eleven years. Chief among de Gaulle's accomplishments were the new political framework for France, détente with Adenauer's FRG, and the ending of the Algerian War. This torturous process involved the elimination of options until Algeria received full independence in 1963.
De Gaulle remained controversial, however, as he sought to carve out a major role for France in world affairs. Although a strong supporter of the Western alliance, he took France out of the NATO military command and built an independent nuclear strike force (the Force de Frappe), vetoed British membership in the Common Market, and reached out to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. France also extended full diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China (PRC).
In Britain, Labour lost its majority in Parliament in 1951, and the Conservatives governed for the next thirteen years. Britain continued to experience financial problems and imperial decline. The 1956 Suez Crisis was a watershed in British history. Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden worked with France and Israel in an attempt to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and restore British control of the Suez Canal, which Nasser had nationalized. When U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower opposed the British action, however, Eden was forced to back down and, indeed, soon resigned. The Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain's pretensions as a major power.
Meanwhile, the economic unification of Western Europe proceeded apace. West European leaders sought to improve the economies of their states by opening a wider free market that would both compete more effectively internationally and prevent Germany from being able to go to war independently. The easing of trade restrictions prompted economic growth, larger markets, and increased prosperity. The six nations (France, the FRG, Italy, and the Benelux nations) that had signed on to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 initialed the Treaty of Rome in March 1957, creating a free-trade area known as the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market. Demographic changes also allowed for rapid industrial growth. Between 1940 and 1970, the population of Western Europe grew from 264 million to 320 million.
Culturally, the 1960s movement known as structuralism replaced the existential pessimism of the immediate postwar years. Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist and the father of the movement, argued that studying relations among the various units in society, social myths, and underlying conditions present in all societies would allow human beings to understand greater truths. The response to his theses, called poststructuralism, or postmodernism, concentrated on language, time, and existence. Among the leading poststructuralists were Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes. None of these philosophers believed in a universal, timeless structure or truth. Marxism also reemerged as an intellectual force in the 1960s, although West Europeans for the most part rejected Stalinist Marxism in favor of humanistic Marxism.
Popular European music exerted a powerful international influence in the 1960s. Rock bands such as the Beatles, the Kinks, and the Rolling Stones dominated the music charts and set trends in fashion, lifestyle, and sexual attitudes. Although the most successful rock bands hailed from the United Kingdom, they attracted legions of fans worldwide.
Europe also experienced a film renaissance that included directors Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, and Wim Wenders. Godard, Rohmer, and Truffaut epitomized the French New Wave movement of 1958–1964. Drawing on existentialism, French New Wave films often portrayed characters who rejected societal conventions and played by their own rules. These young loners symbolized the amoral antihero, who flagrantly broke the law. A less influential New Wave movement also occurred in Britain, where directors created stark, working-class cinema that eschewed the gloss of Hollywood productions.
In the late 1960s, popular dissatisfaction with postwar society boiled over into the streets. German students and intellectuals who believed that the FRG was dominated by the same interests that had given rise to the Third Reich took to the streets in large numbers. Some eventually formed terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction that would be prominent in the 1970s. It was France, however, that experienced the greatest popular discontent.
In May 1968, students at the University of Paris at Nanterre demonstrated against proposed changes in French higher education. The Events of May soon spread, leading to widespread strikes and street rioting. Ultimately, more than 10 million French workers went on strike. France appeared poised on the brink of revolution, but a popular backlash, skillfully managed by Premier Georges Pompidou in a snap election, led to a Gaullist triumph at the polls.
The 1970s and 1980s were a period of difficult transition for Western Europe. Although women had long had the vote in most West European countries, women's movements became more radical in the 1970s, fueled in part by the fact that women's salaries were usually about half those paid to men. Inflation and the economic downturn that increased the need for two wage earners persuaded women to increase their efforts to achieve equal pay and other rights. Women made up a surprisingly large percentage of the terrorists who emerged in West Germany during this time. Problems also abounded over immigration issues such as the influx of Turkish workers in the FRG and of North Africans in France.
The 1970s saw Europe's position as a capital of art, fashion, and culture fade, but European artists continued to make major contributions. In film Jean-Jacques Beineix led an international postmodern movement that juxtaposed the past and the present and high culture with pop culture.
Pop culture influenced art and music, creating new genres. An antiauthority, antimilitary movement that glamorized narcotics and championed sexual liberation emerged. Artists reacted against abstractionism by using strong colors and returning to art in which objects were clearly represented. Classical music continued to decline in popularity, as a new generation embraced punk, hip-hop, and other forms of popular music, much of it drawn from the United States. More West Europeans watched American television programs because, aside from Britain, European countries produced few shows of their own. To the chagrin of many Europeans, American culture became pervasive.
In major political developments, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to serve as British prime minister. Holding office from 1979 to 1990, she reenergized the Conservative Party and in 1983 took the nation to war to retain possession of the Falkland Islands (Malvinas). The war was expensive but nonetheless emotionally satisfying to the British people.
Thatcher also established a close relationship with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose conservative beliefs mirrored her own. She forged strong ties with French socialist leader François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of West Germany. Despite her firm anticommunist stance, Thatcher established cordial relations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.
Mitterrand was the first of his party to hold the presidency of the Fifth Republic (1981–1995). National elections in 1986, however, forced him to share power with conservative Premier Jacques Chirac. The French Communist Party continued to decline in importance. A greater threat came from the National Front, a racist, chauvinistic party that espoused anti-immigration policies and was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen.
In Italy the communists distanced themselves from Moscow and adopted a policy of operating within established parliamentary procedures. Eurocommunism was born. Italians enjoyed an improved standard of living, but growth was uneven, with the agricultural south lagging behind the industrial north.
Spain also underwent significant change after Franco died in November 1975. He was succeeded by King Juan Carlos I, who played a pivotal role in both the restoration and survival of democracy in Spain. Spain still suffered from serious economic problems, terrorism by Basque separatists, and attempted coups from the political Right, however. Juan Carlos's strong support for democracy was vital in surmounting these threats, and Spain eventually became a European success story.
Dictatorship also ended in Portugal, which had to undergo the difficult challenge, following costly colonial wars, of divesting itself of its overseas empire. Belgium survived considerable ethnic tension in the period as agitation increased between Flemings and Walloons.
In the FRG, Brandt resigned in 1974 and was succeeded by fellow Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt. Schmidt was more conservative economically but failed to secure the coalition with the Free Democrats in the 1982 elections. The Free Democrats transferred their support to the CDU, elevating Kohl, leader of the CDU, to the chancellorship. Among Kohl's challenges were maintaining a strong economy and confronting growing concerns over the placement of Pershing missiles in the FRG.
By the 1980s, West European per capita spending on social programs far exceeded that of the United States. Britain's Thatcher privatized state-owned industries, undertook policies that sharply reduced inflation, and also reduced the power of labor unions. Mitterrand in France and Kohl in Germany struggled with many of the same problems, seeking to curb unemployment and curtail the growth of the welfare state, but with only mixed success.
European integration affected the economic policies of all West European countries. In 1973, having overcome French opposition, Britain joined the EEC, along with Ireland and Denmark. But discussions regarding closer economic union often faltered on individual, national agendas. Only after Jacques Delors became president of the EEC in 1985 did that organization make progress toward greater cooperation and fewer trade restrictions.
Delors' efforts resulted in the Single European Act (SEA) in 1987, which bound member countries to the goal of creating a single EEC market. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the reunification of Germany added unforeseen dimensions to the debate over the direction the EEC should take. EEC members met in Maastricht, the Netherlands, and signed a treaty on 11 December 1991. It renamed the EEC the European Union and offered three principles upon which further European integration would be based: continued economic integration including the introduction of a common European currency (the euro was introduced in 1999), the development of a common foreign and security policy, and increased cooperation in justice and internal security issues.
In the 1990s, Germany took center stage. On 3 October 1990 the Cold War division of Germany ended as the two German states merged into one. Hopes for a quick and easy reunion were dashed by the tremendous costs and cultural shocks of bringing together two societies that had gone separate ways for nearly half a century.
At the end of the Cold War, West Europeans enjoyed a high standard of living, and democracy was strongly entrenched throughout the region. Problems remained, including questions over the degree of political integration within the EEC, agitation over the end of subsidies, and social services issues. Nonetheless, West Europeans had come a long way since 1945.
Michael Creswell, Melissa Jordine, and Spencer C. Tucker
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