The veterans fought for freedom and a better life in Europe. Can that peace and prosperity now endure in the face of so many new challenges?
They still parade through the streets, straight-backed, proud, bedecked with medals, honouring their comrades who fell in countless battles across the continent. But the veterans who won victory at Stalingrad, on the beaches of Normandy or in the ruins of Berlin are few in number now, many are in wheelchairs and most are in their 90s. It is now 70 years since VE (Victory in Europe) Day. And Europe has changed beyond all recognition for the men and women who fought for the continent’s freedom.
The Second World War left two important legacies that still endure. After the horrors of Nazi rule and the brutalities of the concentration camps, it underlined the vital importance of upholding human rights and individual liberty. The result was the founding of the Council of Europe in 1949. This body, based in Strasbourg, now includes 47 members and enacted the landmark European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. Its court in Strasbourg is the highest court of appeal on human rights issues for all the European signatories, creating a common European legal space for 850 million people.
The second legacy of 1945 was the universal determination that European states should never go to war with each other in the future. Leading statesmen of the day resolved to bind the core countries of Western Europe together in a common economic community to strengthen political links and lead, in the end, to some form of political union. This became the core of what is now known as the European Union. It began as a treaty between France and Germany to form a European Coal and Steel community, to prevent the two countries becoming political and economic rivals again. This led to the founding of the Common Market in 1957, comprising six core members: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg with a secretariat and headquarters in Brussels.
Seven of the countries left out, including Britain, Austria and Scandinavia, formed a rival European Free Trade Area. Europe was divided into sixes and sevens. But gradually most applied for full membership of the Common Market, which soon changed its name to the European Economic Community. This, in turn, became much more than just an economic arrangement, was renamed the European Union and adopted a commitment to work towards political union. In the past 20 years, since the fall of communism, the EU has opened its doors to the states of Eastern Europe, and now comprises a total of 28 members.
But there was one other all-important result of the Second World War: the rise of the Soviet Union, the spread of communism into Eastern Europe, the division of Germany and Europe and the beginning of the Cold War. Stalin’s determination never to allow any future military threat to arise from the West and his insistence on the political domination of neighbouring countries meant that Moscow engineered a series of revolutions and coups in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, assisted by the Soviet presence in all those countries liberated from the Nazis by Soviet troops. These coups established communist governments in all Eastern Europe and totalitarian dictatorships in every Soviet “satellite” country.
Western Europe was increasingly worried by this Soviet expansionism. Stalin had already attempted to upset the post-war arrangements for the occupation of Germany by trying to force the allies out of West Berlin with a blockade. But the success of the Berlin airlift in 1948 showed that if the West stood firm, Moscow would back down. And with the help of America, which increasingly saw the Soviet Union as a military rival intent on world domination, the west Europeans decided to form a collective defence treaty to protect themselves from Russia. This landmark treaty, signed in 1949, became the basis for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – NATO. Its key provision was that any attack on one of its members would be seen by the others as an attack on all of them, so that all would come to the aid of any country threatened with a Soviet attack.
The next 40 years were marked by the stalemate in Europe caused by the Cold War. The communist countries formed the Warsaw Pact, as a Soviet rival to NATO. But every so often the longing for freedom led to spontaneous uprisings – brutally suppressed by the local governments with Soviet help: in East Germany in 1953, in Poland and Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968. East Germany erected the Berlin Wall in 1961 to try to stop the flight of Germans to the West. Berlin was cut in two. The attempt by the Polish trade union Solidarity to challenge communist power almost led to another Soviet invasion; instead, the Poles themselves introduced martial law.
Change did not come until Gorbachev came to power in Moscow. Poland again led the way, and when it was clear that Moscow would not intervene, change accelerated rapidly. By 1989 all Eastern Europe was in revolt against communism. The culmination came with the opening of the Berlin Wall in November. From then on, communism in Eastern Europe was doomed. It collapsed also in the Soviet Union after the attempted coup against Gorbachev in 1991. Suddenly, Eastern Europe was free. Germany was swiftly reunited. Countries long cut off from their western neighbours rediscovered their historic links. Europe was made whole again, politically and culturally, and people began flocking across the borders in their millions.
The Eastern Europeans then discovered other massive changes that had been going on in the West since the 1950s. First, the West had become richer than it had ever been before. West German industry led the world. Italy, despite poor government, prospered. Spain and Portugal threw off fascist dictatorships. France and Britain both lost global empires, which caused considerable political pain, but were modernising their traditional societies. There was a massive movement from the countryside to towns across Western Europe, and huge advances in education and health care. By the mid-80s most countries had developed social security networks, with unemployment payments and health care systems that were either free or paid for through insurance.
The other big change was the huge increase in personal freedom. Class divisions became less marked, and educational and employment opportunities were open to all. People had money to buy cars, and car ownership increased tenfold. People began travelling much more, and the vast growth in tourism saw millions of Europeans taking summer holidays in foreign countries. Spain was receiving about 40 million foreign tourists every year.
In the 1980s East Europeans also suddenly discovered the sex revolution that swept the West in the 1960s. Traditional attitudes and taboos were being broken. Young people were having sex regularly before marriage. The contraceptive pill was freely available to women and completely changed women’s attitudes, making them less worried about getting pregnant. Advertising, films, television and theatre regularly featured sexual themes. Abortion was legalised, with certain conditions, in many countries despite opposition from some church groups. Homosexuality, which was once a criminal offence throughout most of Europe, was no longer illegal and the younger generations were tolerant of gay people. Indeed, by 2010 many countries, including Britain, France and Spain – usually traditional in social attitudes – had passed laws allowing gay marriage.
But demographic changes have also changed the face of Europe in 70 years. Millions of migrants have arrived, especially in Britain, Germany and France, from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, many coming in search of work in the 1960s. Black, Indian, Arab, Turkish and others from minorities, once rare in Europe’s cities, now account for almost half the population in some areas. There have been tensions and riots in some countries, but most West European societies are now multicultural. Even Scandinavia, once peopled by blond Nordic races, now has large numbers of dark-skinned citizens.
The elderly veterans have seen progress in all areas of life in Western Europe. But things may not be so smooth in future. Europe is now facing economic challenges from Asia, and has had to cut back its generous social security arrangements. There is widespread disillusion with the European Union, local nationalisms are growing, and many countries, especially Britain and Spain, have seen the growth of separatist movements. The Muslim population of Europe now numbers around 15 million people, but is being shaken by radicalism and extremism, and Europe is having to fight a global wave of terrorism. Above all, Europe, especially the former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact nations, are again feeling challenged by the resurgent nationalism of Russia. The “peace dividend”, widely anticipated after the fall of the Berlin Wall, may not be so easily cashed.
The veterans fought for freedom and a better life in Europe. They gave the continent 70 years of peace and breakneck change and development. But can that peace and prosperity now endure in the face of so many new challenges?
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