Saturday, Dec. 07, 1996

Out of the Ashes

Cover Story

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.

In their eagerness to return to what people remembered as normality, few noticed the dimensions of onrushing economic disaster. Europe was not only incapable of resistance to the Soviets but was also engaged in a desperate ordeal for survival that had nothing to do with the communist threat. The U.S. had already poured more than $10 billion into Europe just to ward off freezing and starvation, but that amount barely sufficed. By 1947 it was clear that aid had to be linked to a long-range plan to make Europe economically self-supporting. Between 1948 and 1952, the U.S., through the Marshall Plan, distributed more than $13 billion to 16 countries. Britain, France and Germany accounted for half the total. Moscow rejected participation.

The Marshall Plan was a bargain at the price; its achievement was nothing less than the salvation of Western Europe's democracies. Two years after the aid began flowing, overall European industrial production had risen 45% higher than in 1947 and 25% higher than in the last prewar year, 1938. Bevin called the plan "a lifeline to sinking men."

Europe's economic pulse revived from a flicker to a beat. American officials demanded economic cooperation: here is the pie, the recipients were told; you must cut it among yourselves. In the process of arguing over how to split the aid, old rivals bared their economic plans and secrets to one another.

It was the first small step toward European economic integration.

That act might not have been possible without the timely and inadvertent assistance of Joseph Stalin. It was the Soviet leader's ambition for conquest that persuaded the U.S. Congress to spend whatever was deemed necessary to stop him. And it was fear of Stalin that drove Europeans together for self-protection.

The U.S. was a reluctant superpower. Even as American dollars poured out, Washington made no pledge to defend Europe. Where the Red Army had stopped, sprawled across Eastern and Central Europe, Soviet power reigned and probed westward. Only when a communist insurgency threatened to overthrow the British-backed monarchy in Greece and when Soviet pressure grew on Turkey did the U.S. finally react. On March 12, 1947, Harry Truman announced a program of economic and military aid to both countries. In what became known as the Truman Doctrine, the President said it was henceforth U.S. policy "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation."

Yet Stalin struck again, this time on June 24, 1948; with scant warning, the Soviets blockaded Berlin. The U.S. mounted an unprecedented airlift of some 500 C-47s, C-54s and other craft that over 11 months flew into Berlin a total of 1.6 million tons of food, clothing, fuel and other necessities, until Stalin relented and reopened the roads.

The Berlin crisis institutionalized the cold war. On July 6, 1948, the U.S. entered into discussions with its major allies to establish a military alliance, and on April 4, 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by 12 countries. West Germany joined in 1955. No one expected an immediate Soviet attack, nor were the U.S. and its war-weary European partners ready to invest in a military buildup. NATO essentially amounted to the U.S.'s throwing its nuclear cloak over Western Europe.

Fifty years later, it seems astonishing that the architecture of Europe's postwar order was established in so short a time. It would be a mistake, however, to give U.S. and European diplomacy a logic and coherence that it never actually possessed. Under exceptional circumstances, an extraordinary generation of leaders merely improvised as they went along. The luck of history was with them. Except for Britain, the political landscape had been wiped clean. In France, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium, Old Guard leaders and their parties were tainted by defeat or collaboration. And in the war's aftermath, none of the old vested interests had yet come back strong enough to block bold reforms.

The U.S. bestrode the world — not, of course, to everyone's satisfaction. Europe's wounded pride did not suffer American hegemony gladly. Still, the Pax Americana inaugurated an era of unprecedented prosperity that fostered the old dream of unity. It lasted 44 years, not so long a run as the Roman Empire, but not a bad one in this ravaged century.