Europe 1945- A Devastated Land

Berlin 1945

Never in history had so many people been killed. Never had so many been homeless. Never had there been so many refugees. That was Europe at the end of World War II. The Nazis had killed milions and destroyed cities town and villages. The Allies to defeat them had destroyed much of Germany. From Moscow to English Channel much of Europe lay in ruins.

At the end of World War II, Europe was a broken and desolate continent. Europeans were exhausted. Most were hungry; many were without shelter. World War II was a total war that affected everyone throughout Europe; a war, in which, civilians were not spared. While the history of Europe is replete with a host of military occupations, most of the occupiers lived off the civilian populations.

Occupiers were known to kill random civilians and oppress the local population. However, the Nazis were different. The Nazi manner of operation was to either put civilians to work for their regime, or kill the civilians and replace them. By the end of the war, there were 7,487,000 foreigners in Germany, and they constituted 21% of the German workforce. Most of those individuals were in Germany against their will.

The scope of physical damage perpetrated upon Europe by the combat and bombardment campaigns of this war is hard to imagine. German cities, such as Hamburg and Düsseldorf, were largely destroyed by Allied bombing. In the final battle for Berlin, 40,000 tons of artillery fell on the embattled city, leaving 75% of its building uninhabitable.

Fighting in the East left the Byelorussian City of Minsk decimated. Nazis destroyed most of the city of Warsaw as they withdrew. This war caused sweeping devastation; very few cities in Europe were spared. WW II was a war unlike any armed conflict before, or since. When the war ended, an estimated 25 million people in the Soviet Union were homeless, along with 20 million people displaced in Germany. Countless bridges and roads were destroyed. At the end of the war, of the 12,000 railway locomotives possessed by France when the war began, only 2,800 were in service when the war ended. The same story applied throughout Europe.

While the material cost of the war was immense, the human cost was even more staggering. Between 1939 and 1945, a mind-boggling 36.5 million Europeans lost their lives from war-related events. An astounding 19 million were civilians, including the 6 million Jews the Nazis murdered.

The military losses were also stunning. It is estimated that the Soviet Union lost 8.6 million men and women in the military, and Germany lost 4 million. Almost half of the Soviet deaths took place in German prisoner of war camps. Germans captured 5.5 million Soviet soldiers; of that number, 3.3 million died of starvation and disease in their camps.

The Nazis were clearly the main culprits in the war, both in terms of initiating the war, and the genocidal nature of their conquest. However, in the final months of the war, the Red Army did not lack cruelty. In his memoirs, George Kennan describes the following scene:

The disaster that befell the area with the entry of the Soviet forces has no parallel in the modern European experience. There are considerable sections of it were to judge by all existing evidence scarcely a man, woman, or child of the indigenous population was left alive after the initial passage of Soviet forces. In Vienna, 87,000 women reported being raped after the Soviets conquered the city; in Berlin, the number was even higher. Between 150,000 and 200,000 Russian babies were born in Germany in 1945-46. After five years of fighting, during which Soviet soldiers never received leave, and after seeing and hearing the destruction and atrocities committed by German troops took revenge on Germans, especially the women.

The first months after the war was terrible for those who survived, especially the children; disease and hunger were widespread. There was not enough food available, hospitals had been destroyed, and sewer systems were not working. Amidst all this, Europe was coping with the largest refugee crisis in history.

World War II brought about unprecedented transfers of population. Between the German and Soviets, 30 million people were displaced, or forced to move. In addition, the Soviets moved 1 million people from occupied Poland to the East. The Germans displaced Poles, and replaced them with Germans.

All of the massive number of coerced relocations had to be unraveled, and rectified, once the war was over. The millions of laborers that Germans compelled to work in Germany, against their will, wanted to return home. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviets, in attempts to make their way west. There were also a relatively small number of Jews who had somehow survived the Nazi attempt to eradicate them.

Many of those who survived the concentration and death camps were in such poor health that four-out-of-ten soon died. Once they were strong enough, a number of Polish survivors tried to return to their homes, only to find they were not welcome back in Poland. After local Poles killed several camp survivors, it became clear that that going back home was not an option. Before long, 250,000 Jewish survivors were living in camps administered by the US and British army, with assistance from the UN.

The most significant number of WWII refugees were Germans, who were expelled from all of the areas outside of Germany. Czechoslovakia insisted their native German population in the Sudetenland, part of Hitler’s excuse for seizing the country, be expelled back to Germany. In June 1945, Germans and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia had their property confiscated; soon after, they lost their citizenship. Over the course of the next 18 months, almost 3 million were expelled to Germany, and 267,000 died in the process.

However, the largest expulsion that took place was that of Germans from Poland. The borders of Poland had been moved Westward. As a result, seven million Germans now found themselves living in Poland — where they did not want to be, and where the Polish did not want them. So they all moved back to Germany, which is estimated to have absorbed as many as 21 million ethnic Germans in the two years following the end of the war. Altogether, it is estimated there were as many as 50 million refugees in the immediate aftermath of the war. At its peak, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency, together with other agencies, cared for almost 7 million refugees. 

Overall, in the aftermath of the war, Europe faced both a physical and humanitarian crisis unparalleled in history, which it managed to overcome, in part thanks to massive aid from the United States