Of all the major dates of the 20th century, 1945 has a good claim to be the most famous. It sits almost exactly at the centre of the century, dividing the recent history of Europe into two halves: a first half of total war, economic crisis, revolution, and ethnic killing, contrasted against a second half of peace, material prosperity, and the reconstruction of a regime of democracy, social justice, and human rights.
The collapse of the Third Reich
There is of course much that is simplistic about this account. It prioritises the western half of the continent over the experience of Soviet occupation in the east, as well as marginalising the bitter wars of decolonisation in which the European powers continued to engage long after 1945. But, even so, the importance of 1945 is impossible to deny.
The collapse of the Third Reich, symbolised so powerfully by the ruins of the major German cities, marked the demise of the mad hubris of Hitler, and more profoundly of the project of a German-centred Europe, which had dominated European politics since Bismarck’s unification of Germany in the mid-nineteenth century. It also discredited, almost irredeemably, fascism.
That combination of authoritarian politics and an ideal of a popular community, defined by nation, history, and race, had been the dominant political innovation of the preceding decades, leading not only to the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, but also to a wide range of authoritarian imitations from Romania to Portugal.
A mood of uncertainty
1945 was therefore a year of destruction and endings, but what did it create? Because we know what happened next, it is all too easy to find a pattern in the events of the year, which would have been entirely invisible to contemporaries.
We are accustomed to the photographs of civilians cheering the arrival of Allied liberating troops. But the dominant personal experiences were of defeat, bereavement, food shortages, and criminality fuelled by desperation and the easy availability of guns.
Above all, there was a mood of profound uncertainty as to what would come next. Almost everywhere governments had collapsed, frontiers had been kicked over, and Allied military rulers often from far beyond the frontiers of Europe had imposed their dictates. No wonder then that the dominant mood was less of revolution than of a desire to return to normality.
Normality, at both an individual and collective level, was, however, for many Europeans an impossible dream. During 1945, millions were demobilised from armies, or would return home – on overcrowded trains, or on foot – from deportation as prisoners of war or deported labourers in the Third Reich.
But there was no homecoming for those German (and other pro-Nazi) soldiers newly imprisoned as Allied prisoners of war, or for those Europeans of all nationalities who had perished in Nazi camps – in many cases as a consequence of the diseases that spread through the camps during the final desperate months.
Many Europeans, moreover, had no homes to go to: family members had disappeared amidst the chaos of the conflict, housing had been destroyed by bombing and urban fighting, and millions of ethnic Germans had been expelled from their homes in territories that were now part of the Soviet Union, Poland or Czechoslovakia by the Soviet armies and local populations.
Europe was therefore in ruins in 1945. The ruins were not just material, but in the lives and minds of its inhabitants. The immediate priorities of food, clothes, and shelter could be improvised but the larger challenge was to restore a functioning economy, rudimentary structures of government, and a regime of law and order. None of this was achieved overnight, but the major surprise of 1945 was that the war did indeed end.
The armies of the victorious powers established viable regimes of occupation in their respective spheres of influence and – a few near misses aside – did not initiate a new war between themselves. Civil war became a reality in Greece, but not in the many other areas of Europe – most notably France, Italy and Poland – where the end of German rule had left a volatile cocktail of rival state authorities, resistance groups, and social chaos.
Regaining order in Europe
Gradually, Europe regained a semblance of order. This was a top-down order imposed by occupying armies, or by new rulers such as de Gaulle whose legal and democratic credentials to exercise power were more improvised than real. Government preceded elections, and the latter were often subordinated – especially in the Soviet-controlled east – to serve the interests of those in power. But it was order all the same.
Economic collapse and mass starvation and disease were averted, new structures of welfare provision decreed, and housing projects initiated.
This unexpected triumph of government owed much to the learning experiences of the war. Armies, on all sides, had had to do much more than fight battles over the preceding years, by improvising solutions to massive logistical challenges, and drawing on a wide range of economic and technical experts.
This mentality of pragmatic administration carried on into peace, giving government throughout Europe a more professional and collaborative focus, in which ideologies mattered less than the provision of stability, and the tentative promise of a better future.
And, with time, that future also became democratic. Democracy was not a term that had a good reputation at the end of the war. It was associated, for most Europeans, with military defeat, and the failures of inter-war regimes.
But, at least in Europe west of the limits of Soviet rule, democracy became after 1945 part of the new package of government. It was less about the rule of the people than rule for the people: a new ethos of administration, focused on solving the problems of society, and meeting the needs of citizens.
This democratic order was far from perfect. Inequalities of class, gender and race persisted, and were reinforced by the actions of government. But, in place of the oppression and suffering of the recent past, the rituals of elections and the predictable actions of national and local governments became part of the world in which Europeans arrived in 1945.
Martin Conway is Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oxford and Fellow and Tutor in History at Balliol College. In Western Europe’s Democratic Age, published by Princeton University Press in June 2020, Conway provides an innovative new account of how a stable, durable, and remarkably uniform model of parliamentary democracy emerged in Western Europe—and how this democratic ascendancy held fast until the latter decades of the twentieth century.