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.
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