Only 21 years after World War I ended, the armies of Europe were unleashed again to finish off the fratricidal rivalries left from the first round of slaughter. This time Europe emerged a political cripple, no longer master of its fate. That role passed to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, whose armies met face-to-face across a divided Germany. Peace came as a blessing to the Continent that had seemed cursed by history. An overwhelming sense of relief at mere survival rolled across the land. In the six-year struggle to bring down the Nazi empire, an estimated 40 million Europeans lost their lives in combat, under the bombs that obliterated cities, through Hitler's methodical genocide or simply from hunger, cold and disease. By 1947 the euphoria of victory faded with the slow realization that Europe was close to destitution as a modern civilization.
The year began with the worst winter yet of the century, punishing victors and vanquished alike. The bitter cold froze the Thames and virtually shut down Britain's enfeebled economy. Coal was rationed 45 kilos a week per household and butter, cheese and bacon allotments were slashed below wartime levels. Italian and French diplomats quarreled over possession of four shiploads of American relief wheat already on the high seas. The hard winter was followed by a blazing summer that produced the best wine vintage in 20 years and the worst food crops in longer than that.
In shattered Germany, government had ceased to exist; one-third of the country had been wrenched away and occupied by the Russians. By April 1947, the daily German ration had fallen to 1,040 calories, one-third less than the minimum considered necessary to sustain life. Workers collapsed at their jobs for lack of food. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cologne had earlier declared that it was not a sin to steal food or coal to get through the winter.
It was one of the U.S.'s illusions at the time that Britain could assume leadership of Europe. In fact, Britain was bled white. The empire was stirring with revolt against colonial rule, and Britain simply lacked the resources to play a big-power role. In a moment of hard truth, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin told the House of Commons, "The day when we... can declare a policy independently of our allies is gone."
Old pretensions of national grandeur got short shrift from public opinion. Cranky voters in Britain and France turned against their war heroes. Only two months after celebrating victory, the British rejected Winston Churchill. Charles de Gaulle, facing rising opposition in the National Assembly, simply resigned, fed up, he said, with the political parties' petty games. In Italy, defeat was blissful liberation. Recalled veteran news broadcaster Ruggero Orlando: "Everything that had been prohibited for 20 years was now allowed elections, communism, liberalism, free enterprise, everything. You could almost feel it in the air."
The problem was communism. In world capitals all eyes were focused on the fateful electoral showdown in 1948 between Italy's Communist Party, the most powerful one in Western Europe, and Prime Minister Alcide de Gasperi's Christian Democrat government. The governing parties won with 48.5% of the vote; the Communists and their allies received 31%. That was the high-water mark of Moscow-directed electoral strength in Western Europe. Even so, an opinion poll taken for TIME by the Elmo Roper organization showed that most Europeans believed the Russians, not the Americans, were winning the cold war.
What had changed most profoundly since the guns fell silent was the way Europeans saw themselves: they were no longer the center of the world. In Paris, Marxist author Jean-Paul Sartre presented a philosophical amalgam called existentialism that seemed tailored for postwar trauma. Sartre argued that the long spiritual progression of Western culture was exhausted: literary culture, along with fashion's haute couture, was about all that France and, by implication, Europe could now offer the world. If life was meaningless, Sartre argued, existentialism at least gave people a sense of dignity amid the degradation and absurdity.
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