Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image

World War II, Legacy of

By virtually any measurement, World War II was the most devastating conflict in human history. All the world was touched by it to some degree. The war's economic and financial cost alone has been calculated at perhaps five times that of World War I. In human terms, World War II claimed half again as many military lives: 15 million versus 10 million for World War I. Total deaths from World War II, including civilians, came to 41–49 million people, a figure that would have been much higher without new 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 Nazi Germany to work as slave laborers in German industry and agriculture. Transportation—especially in parts of Western and Central Europe and in Japan—was at a standstill. Bridges were blown, rail lines destroyed, and highways cratered and blocked. Ports, especially 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 and their buildings mere shells.

Some countries had fared reasonably well, however. 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 from armies sweeping back and forth across its territory.

Among major powers, the Soviet Union was the hardest hit. Its 27 million dead in the war dramatically affect national demographics to the present day. 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 Soviet Union 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 this goes far to explain subsequent Russian policies, both internal and external.

Recovery efforts in Europe as well as in Asia centered for several years on the pressing problems of 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 a perverse sense, Germany and Japan benefited from the bombing in that they rebuilt with the most modern infrastructure and factories.

With the end of the war, the liberated nations carried out purges of fascists and collaborators. Many were slain without benefit of trial. In France, 8,000–9,000 people were so executed, while afterward 1,500 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 working out acceptable formulas that might punish the guilty when so many people had to some degree collaborated with the occupiers proved virtually impossible.

At the end of the war it appeared as if the idealistic, Left-leaning Resistance movements might realize their goals of new political, economic, and social institutions to implement meaningful change. Most people thought that a return to prewar democratic structures was impossible, but the bright hopes were soon dashed. Resistance leaders fell to quarreling among themselves. The fracturing of the Left, as 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. Even so, extensive social welfare reforms were implemented throughout Western Europe, in part to compensate ordinary people in those nations for their wartime privations. In the United States, wartime rhetoric of democracy and equality encouraged African Americans, many of whom saw military service, to demand an end ro segregation and second-class status, which gave new impetus to the civil rights movement. In much of Central and Eastern 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 war reparations to the Soviet Union and the stifling of democracy.

The war did serve to 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 a "United States of Europe." They believed that a Germany integrated into the European economy would not be able to act unilaterally. Although steps in that direction were slow, 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 Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) party and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) resumed in a protracted civil war when Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi 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 in 1947.

The United States granted the Philippines delayed independence, but in other areas, such as French Indochina and the Dutch 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 France as a great power, insisted on retaining its empire, which led to the protracted Indochina War and a bitter insurgency in Algeria. Fighting also erupted in many other places around the world, including Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Even where the European powers chose to withdraw voluntarily, as in the case of Britain 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.

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 Central and Eastern 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 while 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, in 1949 became two states: the Western-style Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) and the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany). Korea also had been temporarily divided at the 38th Parallel for the purposes of a Japanese surrender. Unlike Germany, which was reunited in 1990, in 2007 Korea still remained divided, 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

Further Reading
Calvocoress, Peter. Fall Out: World War II and the Shaping of Postwar Europe. New York: Longman, 1997.; Kimball, Warren F., ed. America Unbound: World War II and the Making of a Superpower. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.; Linz, Susan J., ed. The Impact of World War II on the Soviet Union. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1985.; Wheeler-Bennett, John, and Anthony J. Nicholls. The Semblance of Peace: The Political Settlement after the Second World War. New York: Norton, 1974.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer