Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

When World War 2 ended, a new classification of Europeans appeared: "displaced persons". This was what homeless people who belonged nowhere were called. Some of them were still classified as that 30 years after the war had ended.

John Terraine, in his book The Mighty Continent, A View of Europe in the Twentieth Century, points out that displaced persons suffered this special punishment for the crime of being European in 1945.

The book was published in 1974 and was complementary to the BBC television series of that title, broadcast in the same year. It covers the history of Europe in the 75 years from the heyday of the Habsburg Empire in 1900.

The facts are known from many sources. In that period two world wars were fought, the old imperial dynasties of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia came to an end, and socialism, communism, the United Nations (UN) and the European Economic Union emerged. The 1970s student counterculture movement occurred in that time frame as well.

During World War 2 millions of people were brought into Germany as slave labourers. Those from Western Europe could go home after the war, but for the Eastern Europeans it was less simple. Their countries were then controlled by the new Soviet-dominated governments. Returning was not an option. These people became displaced persons, believed to number about 20m.

About 35m Europeans died during World War 2, said to be about double the number of the casualties of World War 1.

The survivors had to face the daunting task of reconstruction. All over, great cities were badly damaged; 90% of Warsaw was in ruins and there was vast destruction of German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union. In Germany a large percentage of homes were destroyed, or so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable.

The survivors had to face a level of poverty and famine not seen since the Middle Ages. In 1945 nearly 100m Europeans had to survive on what was termed "a slimming diet", and even that had to be reduced.

More sinister was the prospect of the tyranny continuing behind what Winston Churchill called the Iron Curtain. In a speech at Fulton in the US in March 1946, he warned that "from Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste on the Atlantic an Iron Curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind it lie the capitals of the old states of Central and Eastern Europe — Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade and Sofia."

The victorious alliance of Britain, the US and the Soviet Union was breaking up and behind the Iron Curtain Stalin’s rule was supreme.

In April 1946, the League of Nations held its last meeting, to wind up its affairs and to transfer its archives to the UN, which had replaced it.

In Southeastern Europe only Greece and Turkey remained outside the Iron Curtain. They could be helped only by the US; Britain and France were incapable of providing any assistance.

On March 12 1947 US president Harry Truman announced what was termed the Truman doctrine. He asked the congress for US$400m for aid to Greece and Turkey. This meant the end of American isolation; the role of safeguarding Western civilisation had passed from the great European powers and was taken over by the US.

Further evidence of this development was the Suez Canal crisis, which erupted in July 1956. After hostilities had broken out when Israeli troops invaded Egypt, French and British aircraft bombed Egyptian airfields and British and French paratroopers were dropped in Port Said. Hugh Gaitskell, Labour leader of the opposition, had warned British prime minister Anthony Eden not to start a war with Egypt without US backing and the moral sanction of the UN and of the Commonwealth. American opinion strongly condemned the invasion, as did Commonwealth countries Canada and India.

Britain and France then had to face US wrath and pressure, which threatened their economic collapse. It was said that Eden was sobbing as he pleaded with US president Dwight Eisenhower to grant the British and French forces 24 hours, which was all they needed to reach Cairo. The request was refused, and the invading force had to withdraw after 24 hours of action. The Empire’s days were over; the US now called the tune.

Terraine warns that modern communications have brought the nations of Europe very close together, which has made them "very vulnerable."

He writes: "The satisfaction resulting from the technological advances made in the past decades should be tempered. The continent still has many adjustments to be made."

The Mighty Continent, A View of Europe in the Twentieth Century by John Terraine was first published in 1974 by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Hutchinson, London.

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