The impact of the war in Europe


Human cost

Summary of Human cost
Country Mobilised
Military killed
Civilians killed
Germany 11,000 3,250 700
Italy 4,500 330 500
Japan 6,095 1,700 360
British Empire 8,720 452 80
France 6,000 250 360
Poland 1,000 120 5,300
USSR 12,500 9,500 21,500
USA 14,900 407
China 8,000 1,500 7,800
Total 72,715 17,509 36,000

No other war has recorded such a loss of life in so short a time. Some estimates put the number of dead at more than 50 million, with nearly 40 million of them in Europe alone. Perhaps as many as two-thirds of the war dead were civilians, the most extreme example of this situation being Poland, which lost a fifth of its population, almost all of them civilians. In fact, in Europe only Germany and the UK suffered military losses significantly greater than civilian losses. American's casualties, meanwhile, were almost elusively military.

The horror for civilians did not end with the conclusion of hostilities. More than 20 million people had been displaced during the course of the war, not just as a result of the fighting, but also due to the actions of different countries in expelling and deporting whole groups of people. Stalin and Hitler alone were responsible for the forced removals of some 30 million people.

In addition, many people were forced to move from their homes once the war was over. In German-speaking areas in Hungary, Romania, and Poland, Germans were driven from their homes and forced to move to Germany, which at this time was a bombed ruin. This also happened in German lands taken at the end of the war by Russia and Poland. In all, between 1945 and 1947, approximately 16 million Germans were expelled from the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and many died as a result of this flight to the Western Europe. Thus, although the war was over, the suffering continued for many.

Economic cost

Summary of Economic cost

World War II was also much more devastating economically than World War I. Whereas in World War I the fighting had been limited to a relatively small area on the Western Front, in World War II the fighting took place over nearly all of Europe. Aerial bombing was particularly destructive. Very few cities of any size were left unscathed, and the result was of millions of dead and homeless people. In addition, transport and communications had been seriously disrupted, industry destroyed, and farmland ruined.

The consequences of this was that Europe was prostrate in 1945, with the 'victors' of the war (apart from the USA) emerging from the conflict almost as devastated as the losers. Food production had fallen to half pre-war production levels and 150 million people were dependent on some sort of relief food distribution during 1945−46. Britain was bankrupted by the war, and the Soviet economy suffered badly, with much of western Russia devastated and 25 million homeless.

Political consequences

Summary of Political consequences
"At the conclusion of the First World War it was borders that were invented and adjusted, while people were on the whole left in place. After 1945 what happened was rather the opposite: with one major exception boundaries stayed broadly intact and people were moved instead."
—From Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, 2008

Compared with the peace settlement at Versailles, the boundary changes after World War II were relatively slight with the exception of Poland, which saw its border being shifted westward − it lost 179,000 sq. km of land in the east and gained 104,000 sq. km from German territories.

The new boundaries for Poland were decided at the Yalta Conference. There was no major treaty drawn up as there had been at Versailles in 1919, but the Allied leaders met twice in 1945 to make decisions about post-war Europe, first at Yalta in February, and then again at Potsdam in July.

Significantly, no treaty was signed concerning the future of Germany itself. Although it was agreed at the Yalta Conference in 1945 that Germany should be temporarily divided into four occupation zones. Growing hostility between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union led to a permanent division of Germany by 1949. In addition, in all the countries that the Red Army had liberated − Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and later Czechoslovakia − one-party regimes under Stalin's control had emerged by 1948, despite an agreement at Yalta that free elections would be allowed in all Eastern European states.

The effects of the war on international relations


The USA and USSR emerge as superpowers

Summary of The USA and USSR emerge as superpowers

The most significant post-war development in international relations was the change in the balance of power. With some exceptions, such as Austria, the major powers before and after World War I were more or less the same. After World War II, however, the situation changed radically. American politician Dean Acheson wrote of the post-World War II situation:

"The whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the 19th century was gone."
—Dean Acheson

The USSR and the USA emerged from World War II significantly more powerful than they had been before the war, while the 'old powers' of Britain and France emerged significantly weaker.

Military reasons

Summary of Military reasons
  • To defeat Germany, the USA had acquired the largest air force in the world, with almost 73,000 aircraft. By 1945, it also had 12 million men in the armed forces and more than 70,000 naval vessels. It also possessed the atomic bomb.
  • To defeat Germany, the USSR had acquired the largest land army in the world.
  • France and Britain's inability to defeat Germany had changed the balance of power. They had become 'second rank' powers. Without the USA and the USSR, there was no way that Britain could have defeated Germany on its own.
  • The USSR now lacked any strong military neighbours. This made it a regional power.

Economic reasons

Summary of Economic reasons
  • The USA's economy was strengthened by the war. It was able to out-produce all the other powers put together.
  • The USA was committed to more 'open' trade; its politicians and businessmen wanted to ensure liberal trade conditions and market competition prevailed. The USA was willing to play an active role in preventing the pre-war pattern of trade-blocks and tariffs re-emerging. The USA now took the lead in international collaboration through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).
  • The USA had the economic strength to prevent a return to instability in Europe.
  • The small Eastern European countries that had been created by the Treaty of Versailles were not economically viable on their own; they needed to support of a strength neighbour, and the USSR could replace Germany in this role.

Political reasons

Summary of Political reasons
  • For the West, the ideals of democracy and international collaboration had triumphed over fascism. Thus the political system of the USA was the right path for the future..
  • For the USSR, it was communism that had triumphed over fascism, and the Communist Party was given a new lease of life. Indeed, communism had widespread respect in Europe because of its part in resisting the Germans. Many of the earliest resistance movements in occupied Europe had been dominated by the communists, and immediately after the war there were strong communist parties in several Western European states. Also, in Asia, communism filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of colonial empires.
  • The USSR's huge losses and the role of the Red Army in defeating the Nazis gave Stalin a claim to a large role in forming the post-war world.
  • The USSR had the political (as well as militarily) strength to prevent a return to instability in Eastern Europe. Communism could fill the political vacuum there.

The impact of the superpowers

Summary of The impact of the superpowers

Given the new position of the USA and the USSR in 1945, and their relative strength compared to the weakened European countries, it is not surprising that they were to become the key players in setting up the post-war settlement of Europe. After 1945, at least until 1949, Europe continued to be at the heart of international relations, but now as the battleground between the USSR and the USA, as the two super powers came into direct conflict over how the post-war settlement should be carried out. This tension developed into what became known as the 'Cold War.' The map of Europe after 1945 was determined by this growing conflict between the USSR and the USA, with a clear divide between Eastern and Western Europe. For the USA, this situation meant an end to isolationism and the beginning of a dominant role in world affairs.

"The Cold War began where it had left off in 1941, with profound distrust of Soviet motives, and an ideological divide every bit as deep as that between liberalism and Nazism. Only two years after the end of the war the American Air Policy Commission reported to Truman that the essential 'incompatibility of East and West' called for the build-up of a 'devastating' force of bombers and missiles equipped with nuclear weapons capable of operation at a range of 5,000 miles. American strategists moved effortless from one Manichaean world to the next."
—From Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, 2006

Western Europe

Summary of Western Europe

One aspect of the developing Cold War was the intervention of the USA and the USSR in the economic recovery of Europe. With Western Europe's economic weakness translating into political weakness, the USA was forced to step in to provide economic aid. This took the form of the Marshall Plan in 1948; the USA was spurred into action too do this in order to prevent the weakened governments of France and Italy falling to communism. Thanks partly to the Marshall Plan, Western countries were able to implement necessary social changes and recovery economically. In fact, in the 1950s and the 1960s, Western European countries enjoyed two decades of sustained economic growth.

With the elimination of fascism, Western Europe also saw the establishment of multi-party democracies led for the most party by elder statesmen who had entered politics many decades before.

"The vogue between the wars had been for the new and the modern age. Parliaments and democracies were seen by many − and not just Fascists and Communists − as decadent, stagnant, corrupt and in any case inadequate to the tasks of the modern state. War was occupation dispelled these illusions, for voters if not for intellectuals. In the cold light of peace, the dull compromises of constitutional democracy took on a new appeal. What most people longed for in 1945 was social progress and renewal, to be sure, combined with the reassurance of stable and familiar political forms. Where the First World War had a politically radicalising effect, its successor produced the opposite outcome; a deep longing for normality. Statesmen whose experience reached back beyond the troubled inter-war decades to the more settled and self-confident era before 1914 thus had a particular attraction... Whatever their part 'label,' the elder statesmen of Europe were all, by 1945, sceptical, pragmatic practitioners of the art of the possible."
—From Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, 2005

The 'social progress' that Judt mentions above took the form of new social legislation that revolutionised the role of the modern state and the expectations upon it. Every European country set up provision for a wide range of social services post 1945, though perhaps it was in Britain that the change in the role of the state was most marked. The election of 1945 swept out Churchill and the Conservative Party and returned the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee, which went on to establish the Welfare State, with care for the individual 'from the cradle to the grave.'

With Western and Eastern Europe divided economically, the traditional exchange between East and West was disrupted. On the other hand, the devastation of war and the communist threat led to a greater measure of economic cooperation in Western Europe than ever before, with the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community and ultimately the European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1950s.

Eastern Europe

Summary of Eastern Europe

Between 1944 and 1948, Stalin established control over Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, and Poland. This involved:

  • The establishment of one-party rule, including installation of national leaders dependent on the USSR.
  • Nationalisation of private enterprise.
  • Establishment of Soviet-style Five Year Plans; heavy industry was encouraged and agriculture collectivised.

In addition, the USSR sought to integrate its economy with those of Eastern Europe to offset the weakness of industry and agriculture in the USSR. It established the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon). Comecon was not a massive aid programme like the Marshall Plan, but more one of economic exploitation. Each satellite state had to produce what the USSR needed, e.g. Poland produced coal. The satellite states were not able to cooperate economically with each other, however. This situation was one of exploitation for the satellites states, and it had disastrous effects on any attempts at economic modernisation. There was not, therefore, the economic regeneration that Western Europe experienced. With no Marshall Plan, and with the priority of the USSR on heavy industry and the building of nuclear weapons, the citizens of both the Soviet Union and the satellite states suffered economic hardship in the next few decades.

This economic and political system was backed up by:

  • Social and ideological controls, e.g. Cominform, secret police,
  • Censorship of all media,
  • Suppression of religious freedom,
  • Military presence of Soviet troops, and
  • Political purges.

Conclusions on the effect of the war in Europe

Summary of Conclusions on the effect of the war in Europe

By 1949, a remarkable symmetry had emerged in Europe, with the political, economic, and military division of the continent. The Western block under the domination of the USA had a common political philosophy − democracy − and commitment by the USA, through the 'Truman Doctrine,' to its defence. The Western states were tied to the USA and to each other economically via Marshall Aid and the EEC, and by 1949 had a military alliance in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Similarly, the Soviet Block comprised communist states, members of a joint ideological organisation called the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform); they supposedly had an organisation for economic cooperation in Comecon and were 'protected' by the Soviet forces (the Warsaw Pact, a communist version of NATO, was established in 1955).

The impact of World War II in Asia


The casualties of war and the extent of destruction were also huge in Asia; China had lost about 12 million people (some historians claim the toll was actually as high as 20 million), and Japan had lost more than two million people.


Summary of Japan

Japan was eliminated as a major power in Asia. It was occupied by the Americans under the leadership of General Douglas MacAruthur, who was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP). Unlike Germany, where the occupying forces assumed direct control due to the fact that the government had completely collapsed, SCAP was able to rule indirectly in a supervisory rule. With the Emperor endorsing the process, MacArthur presided over a set of dramatic reforms. These turned Japan into a democratic state. The military and secret police forces were dissolved; anyone who had played a part in 'Japanese aggression or militarism' was purged from political office and industry; a new constitution was introduced that stated 'the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right' and declared that 'land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.' It also established protection for a wide range of human rights. The Emperor, however, remained; MacAruthur believed that he would help maintain political stability and facilitate reform.

The Treaty of San Francisco

Summary of The Treaty of San Francisco

No peace treaty was signed with Germany at the end of the war. A peace treaty with Japan, however, was finally signed in 1951 − the Treaty of San Francisco. There were many problems in devising a treaty acceptable to everyone, especially with the development of the Cold War. The USSR raised many obligations during the treaty meetings, seeing it as favouring Japan's relationship with America; the Soviets refused to sign it, along with Poland and Czechoslovakia. Neither the People's Republic of China on the mainland nor the Republic of China on Taiwan were invited to the peace conference; neither were North and South Korea. India and Burma refused to participate. The Philippines, though present, neither signed nor ratified the treaty until after it became effective, while Indonesia signed but never ratified it. In total, 49 of the participating 51 nations did sign the treaty.

Under the terms of this treaty, Japan:

  • Renounced all claims to Taiwan, Sakhalin, and the Kuriles,
  • Handed over the Pacific Islands of Micronesia (which had been given to Japan as a mandate after World War I) to be administered under the United Nations trusteeship,
  • Handed over the Ryuku and Bonin Islands to the USA (though Japan still had a claim on these islands), and
  • Accepted the judgments of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and of other Allied war crimes courts both within and outside Japan, and agreed to carry out the sentences imposed thereby upon Japanese nationals imprisoned in Japan.

The document further set guidelines for repatriation of and compensation to prisoners of war, and renounced future military aggression under the guidelines set by the UN Charter. The document nullified prior treaties and set out the framework for Japan's current status of retaining a military that is purely defensive in nature. No reparations were demanded, but Japan was to help rehabilitate countries that had suffered damage because of the Japanese occupation.

As with West Germany, Japan was to become allied to the Western powers, and was to become economically strong and politically stable. It also became an important military and strategic base for the USA and its fight against communism in Asia. On the same day that the San Francisco Treaty was signed, Japan and the USA also concluded a separate Security Treaty in which the USA promised to defend Japan until it could look after its own defence; this meant that the USA kept military bases in Japan.


Summary of China

In China, fighting continued between the nationalist forces of Jiang Jieshi and the communist forces of Mao Zedong. The conflict led to the victory of Mao in 1949 and the establishment of a communist China. For the USA, this turn of events served to widen the fight against communism from Europe to Asia.

The decline of European influence in Asia (Decolonisation)

Summary of The decline of European influence in Asia (Decolonisation)

The weakness of Britain and France meant that they found it increasingly difficult to hold on to their empires in Asia (and Africa). Their position of superiority and invincibility had in any case been seriously weakened by defeats inflicted on them by Japan during the course of the war. Nationalist movements, such as that led by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, also grew in strength during their fight against the Japanese. Condemnation of imperialism by the USA and the UN also weakened by the moral arguments for having an empire.

Thus, although the Europeans tried to return, they found their old colonies unwilling to submit and, after bloody struggles, the Dutch recognised the independence of Indonesia and the French were defeated in Vietnam in 1954 and Burma and Ceylon in 1948. As with Europe, Asia was to become part of the Cold War and the USA and the USSR sought to increase their spheres of influence in this area.

Other effects of the war


The establishment of war tribunals

Summary of The establishment of war tribunals

Tribunals were set up to try war criminals in both Europe and Asia. The Nuremberg Tribunal sat between November 1945 and October 1945. Such a trial was unique in history. Twenty-one Nazis were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. In Japan, General MacAruthur carried out trials against war criminals and 28 of Japan's leaders were tried before an International Tribunal of Tokyo. Over a six-year period, 5,700 Japanese war criminals were tried before Allied tribunals and about 1,000 were executed.

The United Nations

Summary of The United Nations

World War II, like World War I, saw the emergence of an international organisation, the United Nations, which again largely came about through US initiative. The UN was intended to be more effective in peacekeeping than the League of Nations had been, but with the onset of the Cold War and the procession of the veto in the Security Council by the USA and the USSR, the UN found itself marginalised in the superpower conflicts that dominated international politics after 1945.

The arms race

Summary of The arms race

With the US invention of the atomic bomb, and its use on Japan in 1945, an arms race became central to the Cold War, with the main focus on the development and acquisition of nuclear weapons. Thus the world now existed under the threat of total destruction, through the horrendous implications of using these weapons also acted as a deterrent to the USA and the USSR fighting each other directly. Although the level of tension in 1946−50 was much greater than that after World War I, no direct war between the major powers resulted.