In this lesson, we explore the factors that led to the emergence of peace in Europe and the nature of the tenuous political, economic and social stability that developed after WWII.
Emergence of Stability
Sometimes, the world can feel like the teeter-totter from your childhood playground. In order for everyone to have fun, all sides need to be balanced. When one person decides to be a jerk and not let the other person down from the top, it's really only fun for one side.
While the causes and motivations of the post-WWII settlement in Europe were certainly more complicated than rudimentary playground equipment, the balance that emerged after the war between the world's two largest countries fostered greater stability in Europe.
What this relatively peaceful post-WWII Europe would look like was largely decided before the war even ended. Indeed, by Christmas 1944, Germany's defeat in Europe seemed virtually inevitable. As a result, in early 1945, the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union held meetings with each other attempting to decide what the political map of Europe would look like.
The first of these conferences came in February, when Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin met in the Southern Soviet Union in the Crimean town of Yalta. At the Yalta Conference, Churchill and Roosevelt essentially agreed to grant the Soviet Union control and influence over most of Eastern Europe after the war. At the time, Roosevelt felt this measure was necessary because although Germany was almost defeated, the Pacific war with Japan had no end in sight. The concessions to the Soviet Union were made to secure Soviet help with the war against Japan. The conference also decided to include France in the post-war management of Germany.
But exactly how to manage Germany after its defeat was the main topic of the next major conference between the three powers at Potsdam, Germany, in July 1945. The Potsdam Conference was not nearly as successful as Yalta because new U.S. President Harry Truman was far less willing than his predecessor to grant the Soviet Union concessions. Both sides were willing to give up little ground.
The resulting agreement divided Germany into four different occupational zones, with the Soviet Union controlling roughly the eastern third of Germany while the western two-thirds was split between Great Britain, France and the United States. The agreement also ceded portions that were formerly Poland to the Soviet Union, and in recompense, Poland received a large portion of Eastern Germany.
An Uneasy Peace
The peace that emerged in Europe after WWII was an uneasy standoff between the two sides: Eastern Europe, largely communist and under the influence of the Soviet Union, and Western Europe, backed by the United States and the United Kingdom. The two Germanys that resulted from the rough division between communist East and capitalist West also grew separately according to their economic bent. West Germany and East Germany were the 'frontline' for this Cold War standoff.
The stakes of this standoff in Europe were raised with the advent of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles that could shoot the devastating warheads tens of thousands of miles. Both the United States and Russia rushed to stockpile these powerful weapons as a deterrent to the other side.
If war between the two Cold War superpowers were ever to break out and ruin the tenuous stability, it was likely to occur in Europe, where it nearly did in 1961. In Berlin, which was divided in half just like Germany, U.S. tanks lined up at Checkpoint Charlie in October after a dispute over authority and documents with East German officials. The Soviet Union responded with its own show of force, rolling tanks to the corresponding checkpoint in East Germany. A tense 16-hour standoff ended only after Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John Kennedy agreed secretly to stand down.
Political stability in Eastern Europe was largely enforced. Most states under Soviet domination - such as Poland or Czechoslovakia - had single-party governments where the only political party allowed to exist was the communist party. These governments were often closely allied with the Soviet government in Moscow, and all were fully integrated into the Soviet, communist command economy. As a result, most of these states underwent rapid industrialization during the early years of the Cold War in accordance with Soviet principles, often implemented by Soviet-style multi-year plans that placed wildly optimistic goals on industrial and economic output.
Political stability was also the norm in Western Europe, but these all possessed democratic political structures. For example, despite being a fascist dictatorship during the war, Italy abolished its monarchy and declared itself a republic shortly after the war's end. These democracies were bolstered by U.S. financial aid.
Through the Marshall Plan, the United States poured billions of dollars into the economies of Western Europe in order to help rebuild the war-ravaged region and also fuel the spread of capitalism and democracy. Indeed, the enormous U.S. aid had strings attached; when it appeared that communist and socialist parties might possibly take power in Italy's first post-war elections, the U.S. threatened to remove aid and subsequently caused the more capitalism-friendly Christian Democratic Party to win a majority of seats in Italy's first post-WWII parliament.
U.S. aid fueled a spectacular economic recovery in post-WWII Europe. Indeed, France and England both rebuilt their bombed out cities, and Italy experienced an industrial boom, which some historians still term the 'Italian Economic Miracle.' As capitalist economies in Western Europe rebounded, these same states looked to safeguard their expanded economies and the region's political stability through increased European integration.
For example, in 1951, six Western European states - France, West Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - formed the European Coal and Steel Community. The ECSC fostered further economic integration between the six nations and removed trading tariffs, which allowed industrial goods - in this case, mainly coal and steel - to move freely between these countries. This initial agreement laid the groundwork for later European integration, including today's European Union.
After two global wars that each killed tens of millions of people, it was clear Europe needed peace above all else. But the exact makeup of that peace was contested by the victorious allies. The peace that resulted was an uneasy one: a virtual standoff between the Soviet Union and her client states and the U.S.-backed west. However, the peace endured, and as a result, Eastern and Western Europe grew increasingly different with communication between the two regions severed according to the new world order. The capitalist economies of Western Europe caused these countries' economy to grow faster and integrate better with foreign economies than their Eastern European counterparts, a fact which left the economies of Eastern Europe lagging behind when communism finally fell in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
After finishing this video lesson, you should be able to:
- Identify the division between eastern and western Europe after WWII
- Recognize the stability created with the financial aid of the U.S. and free democratic elections in western Europe
- Describe the near breakdown of peace in 1961 Berlin