Chapter 26 Postwar Europe and North America, 1945-1968

Section 2 Reconstruction and Renewal in the West  

The creation of NATO fostered a feeling of safety in Western Europe against the threat of communist expansion. The revival of the Western economies, including those in North America, and the reestablishment of normal life made this security permanent. At the same time, as the European powers began to grant their overseas colonies independence, they increasingly concentrated on their own domestic affairs and on building up trade relations with other European countries.  


The German "Miracle"

Germany had suffered tremendously in the war. In May 1945 a war correspondent surveyed the damage to Germany's capital:


      "Nothing is left in Berlin. There are no homes, no shops, no transportation, no government buildings .... Berlin can now be regarded only as a geographical location heaped with mountainous mounds of debris."    

The situation throughout much of the rest of Germany was similar.


After the war's end, millions of displaced persons, including homeless refugees and survivors of the Nazi death camps, roamed Germany, as well as much of the rest of Europe. Factories were in ruins; from those that remained, Allied forces, especially the Soviets, seized equipment and sent it back home. Farms had been overrun and livestock slaughtered or driven off. The Soviets and the French hoped to keep the Germans weak for a long time. However, by the time of the Berlin blockade, Western governments had decided that the Soviets posed a greater threat than a revived Germany.


Like other European countries, Germany benefited enormously from the Marshall Plan. With this renewed economic stability, West Germans began digging out from the destruction left by the war and rebuilding their homes and businesses. West Germany's recovery was spectacularly successful, so much so that people often referred to the German "miracle." The country became one of the industrial giants of the world by the mid-1960s. 


Equally essential in Germany's rehabilitation was the establishment of a democratic government. The Christian Democrats provided stability. By the time Konrad Adenauer left the chancellorship in 1963, West Germany had developed into one of Europe's most stable democracies.

New Republics in France

The challenges France faced after the war were similar in certain respects to those of Germany. The fighting in 1940 and 1944 had ravaged many French cities and towns, as well as much of France’s countryside. Like Germany, France benefited from U.S. Marshall Plan aid. France's recovery was slower and less spectacular than West Germany's but, inspired by economist Jean Monnet, the French economy prospered and grew during the 1950s.

France's political course was rockier, however. The French people remained deeply divided because of the split between those who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war and those who had remained loyal to a free France. In October 1945 French voters overwhelmingly rejected a revival of the prewar Third Republic. Instead, they adopted a new constitution and established the Fourth Republic in October 1946.

The new government faced a variety of difficulties. In addition to continuing economic troubles, the active and well-organized French Communist Party posed a major challenge. Perhaps more important were troubles within France's colonial possessions. Nationalist revolt in Indochina led to a bloody war-and ultimately to a French defeat in 1954. The most serious challenge of all, however, came in Algeria when Algerian nationalists revolted against French rule in 1954. At first, almost no one in France was prepared to contemplate the possibility of Algerian independence. The country had been a department – an integral part of the Republic of France with full representation in the nation’s government – since the 19th century. Over a million French citizens, known collectively as the pieds noirs, lived and worked in the province. As the Algerian conflict grew more and more bloody, however, many in France began to consider accepting Algerian independence. Soon, the whole country began to divide over the Algerian conflict, and violent protests broke out in many French cities.

With France on the verge of civil war, in May 1958 the French assembly turned to General Charles de Gaulle. A staunch nationalist, as well as France’s greatest war hero, De Gaulle was seen as a savior by many, particularly in the French Army, where it was assumed that he would act decisively to suppress the rebels and save Algeria for France. Ironically, however, after accepting power with the proviso that he be given a free hand to settle the crisis any way he saw fit, De Gaulle astonished everyone by granting independence to Algeria and, soon thereafter, to the rest of France's colonial posses­sions. Meanwhile, after voters approved a new constitution in September, de Gaulle became president of the Fifth Republic. De Gaulle held the presidency for 11 years, finally bringing polit­ical stability to France.

Postwar Britain

Although Britain had not been occupied by enemy troops during the fighting, the war had brought Britain to the brink of bankruptcy. It had also accelerated a trend toward social reforms that had been brewing even before the war. In July 1945 British voters rejected Churchill's Conservatives and installed the Labour Party, with Clement Attlee as prime minister.  

Attlee's government took over important parts of Britain's economy. The government quickly nationalized the coal, steel, and transport industries. It established the basic elements of the welfare state-a state in which government institutions provided social services such as medical care, unemployment insurance, and retirement pensions for all citizens. Although the Conservatives defeated the Labour Party in 1951, the most important aspects of the welfare state survived and became a basic part of postwar British life. Other Western democracies soon followed Britain's lead, adopting many aspects of the welfare state.


Throughout this period, the country continued to face economic hardships. In 1945 the British had to approach the United States for a $3.75 billion loan to avoid complete bankruptcy. Wartime rationing restrictions remained in force in Britain well into the 1950s.


Britain also began to experience turmoil in its colonial empire. The most serious incident occurred in 1956, when the Egyptian government nationalized the Suez Canal. An attempt by Great Britain and France to intervene against Egypt resulted in complete failure and essentially marked the end of Britain's role as a major imperial power.

Economic Cooperation

Early steps toward European economic integration, such as reduction of barriers to trade and investment, greatly helped Western Europe's recovery. The Marshall Plan provided the first incentive toward economic unity-the U.S. government tied aid to European passage of measures to reduce tariffs and trade quotas. The Schuman Plan, named for French foreign minister Robert Schuman, went into effect in 1952, creating the European Coal and Steel Community. This organization of France, West Germany, and several other Western European coun­tries helped reorganize the coal and steel industries.


The Coal and Steel Community provided the basis for the European Economic Community (EEC), or Common Market. Established by the Treaties of Rome in March 1957, the EEC extended the free-trade principles of the Coal and Steel Community to other sectors of the economies of its members. Members included France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Supporters of the EEC reasoned that economic integration would reduce national economic rivalries and thus lessen the possibility of future wars. As the Treaties of Rome explained, the EEC was to encourage

"the harmonious growth of economic activity in the [European Economic] Community as a whole, regular and balanced expansion, augmented stability, a more rapidly rising standard of living, and closer relations between the participating states."

The United States and Canada

In North America the war had stimulated the U.S. and Canadian economies, ending the Great Depression and restoring a large measure of pros­perity. The postwar period also brought other important changes. For the United States, the most important change was a commitment to continued involvement in world affairs. After the war the United States embarked on a determined policy to ensure free and open trade around the world. The United States took the lead in the postwar reconstruction of the world economy. This included the Marshall Plan, as well as major U.S. financing of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, better known as the World Bank.

Another way in which North America continued its involvement in world affairs was through the NATO alliance. Canadian and U.S. troops, ships, and planes took part in regular military exercises in Europe and the Atlantic. For the United States, Canada served a special pur­pose in military defense. The United States and Canada jointly constructed the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a string of radar stations across the far northern reaches of North America. The purpose of the DEW Line was to detect attacking Soviet bombers early enough to provide a military shield for North America.