Europe After WWII

The conditions of Europe in the aftermath of World War II defy comprehension. The human costs of war, the destruction of its cities, and the complete devastation of the continents’ food supply created an international emergency on a scale so immense, it would be years before normalcy returned to the continent. Historians estimate that 35-40 million people died in Europe as a result of the second World War. Of that number 20 million were civilians who lost their lives as a result of the bombings, disease, and starvation. But for those who survived the war, what was left? What did the years following the war look like?

Physical Destruction

St. Pauls' Cathedral in London after the Blitz

The physical destruction of Europe was immense. The German Luftwaffe dropped nearly 50,000 tons of bombs on Britain and was responsible for the destruction of 202,000 homes and damaging 4.5 million more. 460,00 buildings in France were destroyed with an additional 1.9 million damaged. Eastern Europe fared worse. Germany’s cities suffered the worst destruction. According to the Reich’s Statistical Office, Berlin lost 50% of its housing, Hamburg lost 53% and Cologne lost 73%. 18-20 million Germans lost their homes as a result of the battles in their cities.1

Combatants on both sides engaged in the strategy of total war, completely destroying each other’s industries and farmlands. Half a million acres of Holland were flooded and ruined after German troops destroyed the dykes that protected its land from the ocean. Upon retreat from the USSR, Himmler demanded that his SS leaders leave “not one person, no cattle, no quintal of grain, no railway track must remain behind…The enemy must find a country totally burned and destroyed.”2

Food Shortages

Food shortages posed a problem during the war. German troops extorted food from its occupied territories, leaving the civilians of each conquered nation to survive off severely restricted rations. By the end of the war in occupied Holland, the official daily food ration was just 400 calories. Black markets thrived but eventually food ran out there too.3

After the war, according to a 1946 report from the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, 100 million Europeans were surviving on 1,500 calories per day. Strict rationing remained in effect after the war in efforts to feed starving populations . In some parts of Germany, citizens subsisted on 900 calories or less per day.4

The situation in Europe prompted the United States government to announce an aid program that would alleviate the suffering across the Atlantic. Secretary of State, George C. Marshall, announced the plan at Harvard University on June 5, 1947.5

"Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist. Such assistance, I am convinced, must not be on a piecemeal basis as various crises develop. Any assistance that this Government may render in the future should provide a cure rather than a mere palliative. Any government that is willing to assist in the task of recovery will find full co-operation I am sure, on the part of the United States Government. Any government which maneuvers to block the recovery of other countries cannot expect help from us. Furthermore, governments, political parties, or groups which seek to perpetuate human misery in order to profit therefrom politically or otherwise will encounter the opposition of the United States."

1. Keith Lowe, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2012.), 3-5.

2. as quoted in Lowe, 6.

3. Lowe, 35.

4. David Ellwood, Rebuilding Europe: Western Europe, America and Postwar Reconstruction (New York: Longman Publishing, 1992), 34.

5. "The Marshall Plan Speech at Harvard University, 5 June 1947," Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.