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Life Beyond the Ruins: Extracts from 'The Europe(s) that emerged in 1945'

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the House of European History hosted a live debate, ‘The Europe(s) that emerged in 1945’, which reflected on both the immediate and long-term impacts of the war. We invited four speakers from across Europe to consider the political landscape in Europe after the war, as well as the fears and hopes among the different societies. As the debate unfolded, viewers from across the world were encouraged to post their questions to the panelists, which among other points, opened up some fascinating discussions on gender and the Cold War in relation to the Second World War.

The anniversary of the end of the war in Europe is a complex matter. While the occasion theoretically unites us as Europeans, it also divides us due to the diverse ways and dates we commemorate this event at the national levels. The distinctive ways of commemorating Victory Day became especially evident in the debate as Professor Olga Malinova from the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow explained, that due to the difficulty and reluctance of commemorating the victory due to trauma, May 9th was for a long time not a national holiday in the Soviet Union. Therefore, Victory Day was rather commemorated in private by Soviet citizens. As battles were still taking place in Slovenia up until May 15th, commemorating Victory Day also differs in Slovenia.

Europe in ruins

When the Second World War came to an end, Europe was in ruins. Entire cities needed to be rebuilt, as did societal infrastructure. Less apparent perhaps to a modern audience is the emotional trauma that was brought on by the war. Families were uprooted and separated, rationing left people hungry, and homelessness was prevalent throughout most of Europe. In the course of the debate, Professor Tatjana Tönsmeyer from the University of Wuppertal called attention to the fact that these circumstances left people emotionally conflicted throughout the occupation. As the war came to an end, people across the continent experienced feelings of happiness and joy, but at the same time feelings of trauma, moral panic and even revenge also emerged. The complexity of these feelings made emotional recovery and healing difficult during the aftermath.

Interestingly, this emotional ordeal also made way for some strong bonds across Europe. Professor Pieter Lagrou, Université Libre de Bruxelles, made the overall point that one of the outcomes of the war was the strong, shared ties between displaced refugees. Refugees from all across Europe suddenly felt a deep connection to one another. A connection that they would not have known had it not been for their shared experiences and trauma.

The role of women

When asked about the role of women during the war, Professor Tatjana Tönsmeyer pointed out that there was a very clear absence of men at the local level in society during the war. Whether the men were drafted to the armies or imprisoned abroad, men were more or less absent from civilian societies across Europe. Consequently, women took over work that had traditionally been carried out by men, such as manual labour. Whether the war actually brought true emancipation for the women is a matter of further debate.

There was a strong expectation that a more just society should emerge from the war efforts of all citizens, hence greater support for a shift towards the social economy. In many countries there was a common agreement that only a strong state could lead the way through the crisis and the rebuilding of Europe. Governments from both sides of the political spectrum generally supported a stronger state. After years of scarcity and rationing, social programs were on the rise as the countries struggled to regain their footing and care for their citizens. This laid the groundwork for a more equal society in Europe.

Covid in the context of World War II

When asked about the similarities between the after-war years and the current situation in Europe as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the debate panel noted that one of the similarities is the trust in a strong state. Rules and regulations are accepted as European governments deal with the ongoing pandemic, but as the situation is starting to come under control, worries about the limitations of personal freedom are growing. As Europe is slowly opening up not only its societies and borders, the importance of strategies and planning become evident – yet another notion that echoes the postwar years.

When the debate participants made their final remarks, Professor Pieter Lagrou noted that ever since 1945, people have been waiting for the same big moment of rupture that would allow the world to start anew. The current pandemic may to some extent offer the opportunity for a fresh dialogue between European societies and the state, and have a similar long lasting impact on our history as the Second World War.

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