By 1945, World War Two had become the deadliest conflict in human history. 78 million people died during the war. And, thanks to “total war,” more civilians died than soldiers. The United States lost 418,000 people and Great Britain lost 450,000 in the war which, amazingly, is low compared to the other nations involved. For comparison, Japan lost 3 million, Germany lost 9 million, and Russia lost 23 million people. 23 million.
The major Axis Powers, Germany and Japan, were occupied in the years after the war. In Japan, the war ended before the Soviets could get too involved, lucky for the United States. General Macarthur led the complete demilitarization of Japan. He also was nice enough to write a new constitution for them. Among other things, this new constitution created a true parliamentary democracy. In a surprisingly culturally sensitive move, the U.S. decided to allow the emperor to remain the emperor. But he went back to being a figurehead, especially since the military was now gone.
The MacArthur Constitution stated that Japan would never build up a military again. They were allowed a small defense force but never allowed to build an offensive military. Interestingly, Japan just voted to remove this part of their constitution in 2017. Maybe they don’t love the idea of not having their own military so close to places like China and North Korea, I wonder why…
In Germany things were more complicated. All of the Allied troops had conquered parts of the country and they all wanted a say in what happened to it after the war. The Soviets wanted to break up the country, never allowing them to unify and rise again. They were like, “Invade me once, shame on me. Invade me twice, you don’t get to exist anymore.”
But the other Allied Powers from the west wanted to learn from the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles. They believed that further punishing Germany would only make it more difficult to establish peace in Europe. They settled on a compromise. Germany was split into two countries: East Germany, overseen by the Soviets, and West Germany, monitored by the British, French, and Americans. They tried out two different strategies and… let’s just say that one worked a lot better than the other. The Soviets used East Germany as a satellite state to rebuild Russia. Anything of value, especially for industrial production, was taken from East German back to the mother country. And the East German economy was revamped to become part of the Soviet command economy.
Meanwhile, in the west, the Americans took the lead in rebuilding the economy. This wasn’t all charitable, the U.S. was seriously concerned that out of the poverty of the postwar world communism might be seen as a popular alternative. But, whatever the motivation, West Germany thrived. Nowhere was this easier to see than in the city of Berlin.
Berlin was located deep in the heart of East Germany. But it was such an important city that the United States was not willing to let it all fall into Soviet hands. So the city of Berlin itself was divided into East and West. Basically West Berlin was a tiny island city in the middle of East Germany that was technically a part of the West. It’s confusing. The Soviets tried to take control by blockading the city after the war, but the United States airlifted in supplies for over a year. After that, the Soviets built the Berlin Wall to keep people from the east from defecting to the west, which was clearly beginning to thrive in the years after the war. Berlin was really the first battleground of the Cold War, but we’ll get back to that next episode.
Another huge impact of the war is that it directly leads to the end of empires. For one, the Nazis really gave empire-building a bad name. I mean, it was always bad, but now imperial expansion was associated with Adolf Hitler and no one wanted to be in that club. Also, the Allies had spent the entire war issuing propaganda around the world about how they were fighting for freedom against tyranny and dictatorship. After that, it was pretty hard for them to turn around and keep subjugating Africa and Asia.
Another factor that led to decolonization was the fact that the colonists fought for the Allied Powers. Millions of subjugated people fought and died in the name of freedom and were no longer willing to wait for their own independence. Add the fact that the newly created United Nations was getting pretty preachy about ideas like self-determination and human rights.
Finally, Europe was destroyed, physically and economically. They could no longer afford to maintain their massive empires and so Britain, France, and Belgium somewhat willingly granted many new nations independence.