When the bombs stopped falling and the peace treaties were signed, the world began to question what the war – and the Liberation – meant.
The same questions that were being asked in 1945 are still being asked today. Have national narratives been fairly shaped by the war and the Liberation? Do people remember the war and the liberators as they really were – or how they want to see them? And can we learn any universal lessons from World War II?
The Liberation was at once a series of battles culminating in the defeat of Nazi Germany and a vastly complicated web of decisions and deeds. Countless soldiers, politicians, civilians, victims and survivors have done their best to communicate their experience through written, recorded and filed accounts – it’s up to the new generation to listen.
As people today sift through evidence and consider its meaning, it is important to be wary of two distractions: patriotism and moralizing. Each country involved in World War II remembers its catastrophic events and the Liberation in a different way; national memories are not always universally true and are rarely compatible with each other. Just as historical memory is shaped to fit a national narrative, the historian – and reader – is influenced by their own conscious and unconscious biases, as well as by who they choose to read or listen to.
In the 21st century, people have the advantage that distance brings, the benefit of hindsight and the ability to consider the war and the Liberation from multiple angles. It is hard to imagine the complex forces that acted on an individual soldier, occupier, collaborator, citizen or victim at the time. Acts of barbarism and atrocity were committed on both sides; so were acts of humanity and heroism.
Despite the problems associated with remembrance, some basic principles can be garnered from World War II and its conclusion.
Firstly, the Allies’ aim – or at least the western democracies’ – was broadly noble: for stronger states to restore autonomy to weaker ones and to foster international diversity. The Allies fought to prevent military might from dictating international relations.
Secondly, the Liberation succeeded because a variety of nations were able to temporarily set aside their individual interests and cooperate to achieve a shared goal. This collaboration paved the way for the creation of the United Nations and the European Union.
Thirdly, in the case of the western Allies, the Liberation was – for the most part – ethical and law-respecting in its methodology. Terrible atrocities were committed, but they were recognized and condemned. The concept of human rights emerged as a result.
But it’s essential to remember that Europe had failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II in 1939, and by 1945 the war had cost more than fifty million lives. It must also be emphasized that the process of freeing the occupied states of Europe was far from perfect. Many of the liberators vilified the entire German population and the Allies also did little to nurture homegrown resistance movements within Germany that might have succeeded in shortening the war.
To continue learning from World War II, it is important to remember its events in as many ways as possible. The monuments, museums, battlefields and cemeteries that mark the Liberation Route across Europe all tell a different story from a different perspective, contributing to a shared European history. Each one is a potent reminder of the lessons learned by previous generations, and a prompt to apply them to the tensions of international affairs that characterise our complex modern world.
After the destruction of World War II and the Liberation came the formidable task of rebuilding Europe.
Throughout the war, a great deal of permanent damage was caused by the armies of the Allied and Axis powers, as well as by their air forces. Total war had left structures of every kind – houses, roads, railways, factories, schools, hospitals and churches – scarred, demolished or obliterated. The unprecedented number of explosives and incendiaries had razed entire towns and villages to the ground, and many cities lay in rubble. Roads and fields were cratered. Every bridge across the Rhine had been blown up, as well as countless bridges across smaller rivers.
Some of this damaged was inflicted deliberately, as military and economic targets were pummelled relentlessly in order to drive the enemy back. Much of the damage, however, was unintentional, the collateral effect of armies passing through and the aftermath of bombing missions of varying accuracy.
While nature – the ploughed-up fields and the woods shattered by tanks – would repair itself over time, the manmade infrastructure that sustained civilization could only be revived through a colossal reconstruction effort.
In addition to the physical landscape, Europe also needed reconstructing in other, less material, ways. Societies had been polarized by the promises and threats of Nazism; political institutions had been suspended, exiled or replaced; people’s belief in human morality had been shaken; and bonds of cooperation and trust had been worn.
These unseen traumas would take a long time to heal, but beginning Europe’s physical reconstruction would improve living standards while politics and society returned to some kind of normalcy. Immediately after the war, the Allies repaired and rebuilt what was needed in the short term. Roads, railways and bridges were essential for the Allies to move about, for refugees to be relocated and for food (in scarce supply) to be distributed.
There was also a pressing need to demilitarize Europe, which was awash with munitions. After the armistice, people were still being killed by landmines, and farmers frequently turned up unexploded bombs in their fields. Even today, lost bombs dropped decades ago are occasionally found in unexpected places.
Aiding the reconstruction effort in France or Belgium was one thing, but it was harder to know what to do with Germany – the instigator of the war, disgraced and defeated. Should its surviving population, purged of Nazis, be held responsible for the events of World War II and punished accordingly?
For most of the war, the general feeling among the Allies was that Germany should pay for its transgression against the international order, just as it had in 1918.
As peace became a reality, a more considered policy emerged. World War II had been caused, at least in part, by German resentment at the punitive way it had been treated at the end of World War I. They would not make the same mistake twice.
The USA had ended the war with its homeland entirely unscathed, and – unlike much of Europe – its economy hadn’t been completely decimated by military demands. The debate in Washington towards the end of the war, and immediately after the armistice, centred on how to deal with a shattered post-war Europe. It was generally agreed that since the USA had nobly helped liberate Europe, it should have a hand in the continent’s recovery, too. There were also pragmatic reasons for the USA’s continued involvement. The Americans were fearful that if Europe wasn’t helped back to its feet, chaos or – worse still – Soviet communism might take hold. A recovered Europe would also be able to trade with the USA – and buy its goods.
The USA’s attitude towards reconstruction was settled by the emergence of the Cold War. The Soviets made it clear they intended to “Bolshevize” the territories in eastern Europe that they had acquired by liberation-conquest. Russia reconstructed these new zones of influence in its own image.
An ambitious programme of financial assistance, known as the Marshall Plan (named after the US secretary of state but officially called the European Recovery Program), provided the means for western Europe to rebuild (physically and economically) after the ravages of war. Britain, France and Germany were all leading beneficiaries of Marshall money. Much of this was “tied aid” – money lent on the condition that a proportion would be used to buy from American businesses. The Marshall Plan benefitted the USA by increasing its influence in Europe and creating willing trading partners equipped with the money to buy American consumer goods. Only Spain, still under fascist rule despite the defeat of Nazism, was denied Marshall funds.
The people of post-war Europe took the help they were offered and set about rebuilding. Historic buildings were often painstakingly reproduced, but the destruction also provided opportunity to realise stark modernist visions of concrete architecture. The heavily bombed port of Le Havre in France is considered a masterwork of post-war re-planning. German towns, too, often chose resolute futurist solutions to plugging the gaps in streets created by bombs: better to build looking forwards than to reconstruct the edifices of a past of which no one wanted to be reminded.
Immediately after the war, the prevalent attitude in Europe was to forget what had happened in the terrible years of 1939–1945. Gradually, however, it became clear that covering up the tragedy would not erase the memories of World War II, nor prevent a similar event in the future. There was a need to remember the past, but in the right way. In a few places – Oradour-sur-Glane in France and San Pietro Infine in Italy – the ruins were deliberately preserved as a warning to future generations against succumbing to an ideology of militarism and hate. Similarly, although most concentration camps were razed by the liberators as abominations that should never have existed, a few were preserved and opened to visitors as proof that the unspeakable and unimaginable really had happened.
As the war receded, Europeans were increasingly able to come to terms with what they or their parents had lived through, and it seemed vital to build monuments and museums along the Liberation routes. All around, post-war buildings celebrated contemporary life, but space was found to honour the memory of World War II, too.
Top image: Rotterdam after the city was bombed in 1940 © Everett Historical / Shutterstock