In the summer of 1945, Germany lay in ruins. Millions were dead either in battle, through persecution or as a result of allied bombing raids. The transport structure had been almost totally destroyed, there was a desperate shortage of food and such power that existed was intermittent and unreliable. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners-of-war were languishing, mostly in the open, in hastily erected barbed wire compounds where death rates climbed day-by-day.
The almost total collapse of Germany left the victors with a mighty difficult problem; what to do with a country that had been responsible for a European war in which more than thirty-five million people had died? There were some, like the US Treasury Secretary Morgenthau who proposed that Germany’s industrial capacity should be totally destroyed and the country downgraded into a purely agrarian state.
Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed and the more astute politicians, political scientists and economists recognised the importance of a revitalised German economy to the long-term health of Western Europe. The rest of Europe were, by 1948, languishing under communist rule directed from the Kremlin by Stalin.
Western Europe had been at war, on and off, for centuries. From the Hundred Years War, through the Thirty Years War, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, culminating in the cataclysmic conflicts of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. The last three had, of course, involved Germany and her near neighbour France. The interim post-war French Government had Charles de Gaulle as its Prime Minister. He was distinctly hawkish in his attitude to Germany and, like Morgenthau, would like to see his warlike neighbour reduced to feudal status. Luckily for Europe, De Gaulle had one of those political fallouts that so characterised his career and resigned in 1946. By the time he was inaugurated as the first President of the Fifth Republic in January 1959, much of the West European political landscape had changed for ever.
Once the immediate post-war blood-letting and initial denazification had passed and some semblance of modest self-government had come into existence, the problem of how to re-integrate Germany into West European social, economic and political life remained. Ironically, it was a Frenchman, Robert Schuman, who first proposed a solution to this dilemma. Schuman was a former French Prime Minister who had been, since 1948, Foreign Minister. He had no love for the Germans, having been imprisoned by them in the early part of the war before escaping to join the Resistance in 1942. On May 9th. 1950, the Schuman Plan was announced that led to the formal establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in April 1951. The aim of the Community was two-fold (1) to end the frequent and bloody European conflicts and (2) to create a common market for coal and steel amongst its member states. There were six signatories to the charter; France and Germany were joined by Italy and the four Benelux countries.
The same six signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, thus creating the European Economic Community. The original six became nine in 1973 (including the UK), ten in 1981, twelve in 1986 and fifteen in 1995 until today membership of the re-titled European Union has reached twenty seven. Amongst the ten members admitted in 2004 were Central and East European States that had, until 1989, been behind the Iron Curtain. Europe, divided at Yalta in February 1945, was close to being totally re-united.
In Britain today, there is much discussion about the EU and our role in it. This is not the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of this debate and I probably know as little about the workings of the EU as a majority of the electorate who will vote in the referendum on continued membership should it take place in 2017. No doubt there are shortcomings but these should, in my view, be ironed out through negotiation rather than throwing our toys out of the pram.
The integration of the former Iron Curtain countries, has almost completed the European Union’s goal of setting up a family of nations. In 2012 The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” Some things are more important than nationalistic flag-waving.