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Political Reconstruction in Europe After WWII: History & Impact

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  • 0:03 Politics in Europe Post-WWII
  • 0:57 Ending of WWII
  • 2:05 Germany
  • 4:14 Italy
  • 5:32 Great Britain and France
  • 7:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the political reconstruction of Europe in the years immediately following World War II and the splitting of Europe between capitalist and communist states.

Politics in Europe Post-WWII

After a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake, the first thing most people want to do is rebuild the lives they've lost, from their own houses to their neighborhood schools and stores. While it's most important to return to normalcy, at the same time, the terrible disaster presents an opportunity to rebuild things better and more in line with the values and needs of the community.

Warfare can often be far more destructive to families and communities than natural disasters, and perhaps no conflict disrupted the lives of the Europeans more than World War II (WWII). WWII obliterated entire regions of Europe and brought several countries' governments to their knees. As most Europeans were trying to rebuild their lives, the victorious Allies were using the opportunity to reshape Europe. However, as this lesson will detail, not everyone had the same plans for the political settlement of post-WWII Europe.

Ending of WWII

As World War II drew to a close in 1945, the three most prominent allies, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, met at Yalta to determine what Europe would look like after Germany and her allies surrendered. At Yalta, and also at the Potsdam Conference later in 1945, the three powers effectively carved up Europe into spheres of influence. The Soviet Union was recognized as possessing many of the Eastern European states it had annexed prior to the outbreak of WWII, and also as having influence over the governments of many Eastern European states, like Hungary and Romania.

Meanwhile, most of Western Europe, including the formerly fascist state of Italy, was recognized as being part of the largely capitalist and democratic sphere protected by Britain, France, and the United States. Germany itself was carved up into four occupation zones, with the Soviet Union controlling Eastern Germany and a joint force of English, French, and American forces controlling the West. The capital, Berlin, though enveloped entirely by newly Soviet territory, was an international zone split down the middle between the two sides.

Germany

This post-war division of German territory did Germany little favors. The country was a shadow of the empire it had built up over the past century, losing territory in the East to Poland in addition to the division. Moreover, the United States, Great Britain, and France maintained certain powers over German affairs in their respective zones, and all three powers maintained their occupying forces in those regions.

Germany was not allowed to have any military force whatsoever, and certain measures were taken in order to ensure that any future German state would be unable to conduct a full-scale war again. For example, all three states systematically dismantled factories, ports, and other important aspects of the German military industrial complex in their respective zones.

In 1949, the American, British, and French zones merged to become the Federal Republic of Germany, what commonly became called West Germany. West Germany was immediately admitted to the newly formed United Nations, and in 1955, became part of the Western military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Politically, West Germany adopted a parliamentary republic, with an executive made up of a president and a chancellor, and a legislative assembly called the Bundestag.

The fourth zone of Germany, occupied by the Soviet Union immediately after WWII, experienced a far different post-war settlement. The German Democratic Republic, or East Germany, was also created in 1949 and became a member of the Eastern Bloc. Though the centrally-controlled command economy was technically ruled by the German Socialist Party, in reality most directives controlling the state came from the Soviet capital, Moscow.

West Germany rebounded considerably well economically due to assistance from the Marshall Plan. Named for U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the plan was an American effort to provide money, goods, and other economic assistance to Western European countries after WWII in exchange for greater social and diplomatic influence. East Germany, however, faltered under its Soviet directives, and life for those in East Germany was far harder than for its former countrymen in West Germany.

Italy

Germany's former ally, Italy, avoided being broken up and becoming a pawn to the same degree in the Soviet-American capitalism versus communism power struggle that soon dictated world politics. After defeat in WWII, and the subsequent Allied occupation, Italy became closely affiliated with the United States and other Western powers - a 'front-state' of the Cold War merely due to its proximity to the Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union.

The year after the end of WWII, Italy voted via popular referendum to abolish their monarchy, a body which had existed since Italy's 19th-century inception. In 1947, the Italians adopted a new constitution, which established Italy as a republic with a 2-chambered Parliament. Italian politics in this new democracy was dominated by the Christian Democratic Party, a centrist party that closely allied itself with the United States.

As a result, Italy received huge amounts of aid from the United States in addition to its Marshall Plan funds, and industrial growth rebounded quickly in Italy. Ironically, Italy also had one of the largest communist parties outside of the Eastern Bloc in post-WWII Europe, though they never seriously threatened to beat the Christian Democrats at the polls. Under Christian Democrat leadership, Italy joined NATO in 1949.

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