Why VE Day counted for less than the Marshall Plan

Last week’s anniversary of Victory in Europe day – the seventieth – provoked a good deal of moment-marking around the world. But there has been one thing missing from commentaries – one thing that became increasingly evident during the days and weeks that followed the Nazi capitulation on 8 May 1945.

Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery decorating Soviet Generals, Berlin, 12 July 1945. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery decorating Soviet generals, Berlin, 12 July 1945. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Europe was in a mess. Whole families had been torn asunder – ripped apart by the fighting, by the horrific crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazi regime, by the war itself as it surged through and over their homes, villages and farms.

For all the debate over the Allied bombing campaign – which had not much affected German war production – Germany had been bombed flat in places, or torn by war – or both. By May 1945, some 5,000,000 homes had been destroyed; and in West Germany the shortage was exacerbated by the 12,000,000 refugees who had surged west to avoid being caught up in the Soviet controlled regions.

Allied commanders were worried about potential post-war Nazi resistance – the ‘Werewolf’ movement – which they feared might find sanctuary in hidden Alpine valleys, terrorising both civilian Germans and the Allied occupation forces for years after the surrender.

In the middle of this the wartime alliance crumbled. New Zealand soldiers encountered the nascent Cold War as early as the beginning of May, as they surged into Trieste and ran headlong into Tito’s Communist forces. And as the weeks went on it became clear the wartime alliance – which, at the best of times, had been a rogue’s alliance, one that Churchill in particular did not trust – was crumbling. Stalin had his own aims and ambitions, and they did not include further close friendship with the West.

What to do? In 1919, Germany had been soundly punished for its First World War crimes – deeds often no less hideous than those perpetrated in 1939-45. But reparations and humiliating armistice terms had served merely to provoke. The problem, as Lord Robert Vansittart observed in 1944, was the ‘Reich’ mentality that had first sprung into life in the 1870s. The Nazis were merely the latest expression of it; and as far as Vansittart was concerned, it was this that had to be dealt with, if Germany were to return as a responsible world citizen.

Initially, efforts were made to hobble any German recovery, restricting raw materials imports and ensuring the new German government did not re-arm. But with an ‘iron curtain’ falling over Europe – as Churchill put it – this clearly wasn’t a long-term answer. With France still only hobbling to its feet, and with Communist revolt threatening in Greece – particularly after British aid failed in 1947 – the British and United States needed a strong West Germany to help deter Soviet ambition. After the Berlin crisis in 1947, US President Harry Truman and his advisors looked for new answers. And they found them in the immense ‘Economic Cooperation Act’, signed into law on 3 April 1948, by which the United States embarked on a massive ‘European Recovery Programme’, also known as the ‘Marshall Plan’ after US Secretary of State George Marshall.

The plan was not welcomed by the Soviets, who did not want German recovery in any form. And in its original form this Act was designed to not merely pour money into rebuilding a shattered Germany –  that support was also available to the Communist states of the emerging Eastern bloc. Stalin refused it, realising that this aid would undermine his own control of those nations. But in the West, US money was gratefully accepted – some $13 billion worth (about $150 billion in 2015 money) between 1948 and 1952. Sixteen countries, including Britain, received funding.

The Marshall Plan was not the only factor behind German recovery during the 1950s and 1960s. But it was a significant one; and for all the overt political reasons behind it – the need to undermine Stalin and his successor, Nikita Khrushchev – it was still a complete contrast to the humiliating Versailles terms that had been imposed over Germany in 1919. In a social sense, this act of building Germany up was almost certainly one of the factors behind the practical ‘de-Reiching’ that followed.

By the 1960s, when a new generation grew to adulthood, Germany had clearly stepped away from its dark history. That transformation was underscored in 1985 when the President, Richard von Weiszaecker, referred to the 1945 defeat as a ‘liberation’; and again, just this year, when the Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called on the Japanese to confront their own past – just as Germany had.

This, then, was where things went in the years and decades after the war ended – and that general direction, guided in part by the Marshall Plan, was surely more crucial in terms of defining the broad shapes and patterns of history, and of our world today, than the specifics of which single day the conflict ended in 1945.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


16 thoughts on “Why VE Day counted for less than the Marshall Plan

  1. In your opinion how do you think the Marshall Plan neutralised that Reich mentality? Between the 1870s and 1914 Germany was a powerful rich industrialised country, (fostering the Reich mentality); how did the industrial and economic recovery from 1945 onwards differ? Or where there other factors running alongside the Marshall Plan eg war fatigue?

    And on a tangential note: if US forces hadn’t been in Europe following D-Day do you think the Soviet forces would have continued pushing west beyond Berlin?


    1. The Marshall Plan was one of several factors post-WW2 Germany that contrasted with WW1. These factors all worked together. Possibly the most crucial was a generational change of attituse. I have seen it argued that it was the baby boomer generation – with their conscious rejection of the ‘age of warfare’ and its ideals that made the lasting difference. To this extentvthe Marshal Plan was enabler rather than sole cause. But I think all factors had their effect in various ways.

      1. There was definitely a change in the German world view, but I’d argue that started to set in during the closing months of the war when Germans began to realize that they were going to be defeated, and were going to be at the mercy of the victors. At that point, you can find some commentary amongst Germans that their defeat was Divine in nature, given the evil nature of the Third Reich.

        Following the war, the Germans really had their noses rubbed in what they’d done, which had a long term impact on their views. Additionally, I’ve sometimes wondered if the splitting of German into two, with the Soviets taking the Prussian half, freed the remaining Germans from the source of Prussian militarization and allowed the Federal Republic to develop without it.

        1. There’s a book worth checking out – Frederick Taylor ‘Exorcising Hitler: the occupation and denazification of Germany’ (Bloomsbury, London 2011) – that looks into the post-war ‘de-ideology’ in quite significant detail. There were all kinds of responses, he argues, including from those who’d never supported the Nazis and were relieved when the Third Reich ended; but also from those who were sorry it had ended – who didn’t poke their heads up afterwards, but who continued to support its ideals for some time, quietly. An interesting argument, at the very least, supported by one or two disturbing points such as a 1947 poll that revealed a large slab of Germany still supported Hitler. Ouch! Possibly the Soviet occupation had something to do with that. It was Taylor who argued that the full freedom from that era didn’t come until the ‘baby boomers’ grew to adulthood in the 1960s and – like the baby boomers everywhere – rejected the whole world of their parents.

    2. I should add – the counterfactual of Soviet tanks on the Rhine was a very real possibility if D-day had failed. France would have become a Soviet puppet.

      1. Indeed, the level of Communist participation in the Resistance can’t be overemphasized, and France had a pretty rocky go of things for many years following the war.

  2. Very interesting post. It’s scary to imagine what could’ve happened in Europe without the Marshall Plan and related efforts..

    1. Scary indeed. We have but to look at East Germany to see the human cost of non-recovery. And there was Stalin, who would almost certainly have wondered about the vulnerability of western Europe.

  3. The rebuilding of western Europe after World War II is one of those subjects I’ve never read enough on but have been endlessly fascinated by. I mean, the rough outline is easy enough but just the question of “what did everybody do the day after peace was declared?” doesn’t get much focus. I understand histories finding the exciting final battles and political intrigue more fun, but … there were a lot of people who needed the water turned back on and the trash collected and a market to get dinner from. How was that put together?

    1. With difficulty! The Marshall Plan helped. People knuckled down and made the best of it. I’d argue that eastern Germany never really recovered until after the wall came down. But in most places the 1950s were bleak. My father spent some time in London later in that decade and found that everybody felt ‘their’ district had come off worst in the blitz. But even this century I found signs that the war left its mark culturally, despite the physical recovery. I still remember sitting in a plane at Schiphol, about to depart, when the whole of the Netherlands stopped for a minute’s silence to mark the liberation in 1945. The war still echoed.

  4. Interesting post.

    Indeed, I wonder if the effectiveness of the Marshall Plan can be argued to be as significant, in long term European stability, as the Soviet fighting effort was to winning the war? If so, and I think that can be argued, it’s a significant balance against the argument made for Soviet apologist that their effort was so great as to be the only really significant one, which is a flawed argument in general, but one you will hear.

    1. I think from the Soviet perspective their war effort was immense – ‘The Great Patriotic War’ – and seen from within that framework they were probably justified to consider they bore the brunt of the struggle. Certainly they took the brunt of the ground fighting; had Hitler’s armies not been tied up in Russia, there would have been little the Allies could have done to stop a thrust into the Middle East and with it the loss of British oil reserves. But there were definitely other significant efforts – the British resistance in 1940 comes to mind; and the immense US industrial build-up. Both, to my mind, were easily in the same league as the Soviet effort. The Soviets may have borne the brunt of the ground fighting, but we mustn’t forget that they did it with US logistic support. The vehicles on which the Red Army drove west were, I believe, built by Chevrolet!

      1. “The vehicles on which the Red Army drove west were, I believe, built by Chevrolet!”

        Mostly by Studebaker, actually.

        US 6×6 truck production (and to my mind the 6×6 truck was the greatest weapon of the war), was so large that one entire manufacturer’s product line, that being Studebaker, was basically dedicated to the Soviet Union. Of course, they were other vehicles supplied to them as well, including Jeeps.

        This is one of those topics that’s more significant than it seems, as without US vehicles, the Soviet Army would have resembled the Imperial Russian Army in terms of mobility. Indeed, the German army always retained a fair amount of horse transport and was the least mechanized army in the European war at some point after 1943. The Soviets would have fought the war in a much less mechanized fashion but for the western allies.

        1. Yes, the key issue here was US logistic/transport support. The extent of German horse usage, right to the end, has always been a curious reality given the popular impression of their armies as fully motorised. I suspect the truth of it was masked by the early emphasis on mechanised warfare and the popular focus on the performance of their panzer divisions – nobody noticed the horse-drawn supply chains.

          One of the few fully motorised infantry divisions early in the war was the New Zealand force, which was equipped with enough trucks to embark the whole force, right from the outset – unique at that time among the British and Commonwealth forces in the Middle Eastern theatre in 1940-41. It was these vehicles that enabled them to rush from Syria to the Western Desert in mid-1942 to try and stop Rommel’s thrust to Egypt, after the fall of Tobruk – and this same total motorisation that enabled them to escape, at Minqar Qaim, after being encircled by the DAK. I can’t post pictures in WordPress comments, but here’s a link to the NZ government site with the war artist’s rendition of the moment: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/media/photo/the-breakout-minqar-qaim-peter-mcintyre

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