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Europe lay in ruins, with more struggles to come

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To say that darkness hung over Europe was no metaphor. No outdoor light had shone for six years, and blackout curtains had prevented any indoor light from penetrating a window.

From the moment of the D-Day landings in Normandy a year earlier, people had expected the war to end at any moment. Instead, Hitler had unleashed the V-1 and V-2 flying bombs, food rationing had become tighter and tighter and the cities remained plunged in darkness. Europe's cities had the feel of dense, terrifying forests.

“By this point, the blackout was supposedly over,” Ms. Gardiner said. “There'd been a dim-out since the autumn, but almost none of the councils observed it, they just kept the lights out. . . . It wasn't really till the end of the war that the lights went up again.

“So it was really a very, very dingy, bleak, dreary, dismal place — and the people were much the same, I think. Everybody was exhausted from it, desperate for it to end, and in a sense feelings were dominated by a tremendous war weariness and desire for closure.”

The look of the cities seemed to prefigure the mood of the victors. “London was just incredibly grubby — it's always been grubby, but now even the nice parks and squares looked a terrible mess, with rubble and dust everywhere, everything covered in filth,” Mr. Wheal said. “And it looked about the way I felt. There was a serious sense of comedown. You built up thoughts of the end of the war, as if that would be the end of all your difficulties.”

Indeed, behind the exhaustion and wariness was a mood of impossible optimism.

“We thought everything was going to be wonderful,” said Susan Goodman, who was 10 years old at the end of the war and had lived in exile in the countryside. “In 1945, there really was a feeling that complete and total change was going to happen. We were never going to go back.”

It was a revolutionary feeling: After the Depression, the totalitarian movements of the 1930s and the huge personal sacrifices of the war, it seemed like society could be remade completely.

And in many ways it was. By 1950, new forms of government and economy, the welfare state and the mixed economy, had emerged in Europe, as a direct result of the strivings and expectations felt so strongly in that last week. But, to the shock of many, it didn't feel any better. In fact, it felt worse.

The food rationing during the war was bad. After the war, it was terrible. Posters were put up reading, “Eat Less Bread: Eat Potatoes Instead.” Then, in the spring of 1946, those posters went down: There was no bread at all. There never had been bread rationing during the war; for years after, it was a regular reality.

Coal supplies were cut back to almost nil, so the winter of 1947, the coldest in British history, people were ordered not to heat their homes. The winter was followed by the wettest spring in history, during which meat was severely rationed and food had to be delivered by soldiers because of a long-running dockworkers' strike.

“The end of the war was a terrible shock for most people,” Ms. Gardiner said. “Britain came very, very near to collapse. Really, it was on the edge. There were no coal supplies so therefore there was no electricity; therefore no production, and then the whole society was going down. The whole postwar period was one of great disappointment for most people.”

If the economies and buildings and cities were fractured, even worse damage was done to families.

Even in supposedly victorious nations like Britain, which had escaped the utter decimation of population and mass rape of women suffered by German civilians, the scars ran deep.

About four million children had been shipped away from their parents, to unknown locations and with almost no contact, for years. Children and parents alike returned from the war to find things utterly different, or even completely gone.

“My father came back in July,” Ms. Goodman said from her house in Maida Vale, a London neighbourhood that was badly damaged in the war. “I was sent to meet him, rather than my mother, and I can't quite remember why.

“The state of all our clothes was really terrible — there had been no fabric for six years — so I borrowed a sky-blue linen dress from a friend. It was the first nice piece of clothing I'd worn in years. And then this man got off the train — he was very tall and very yellow. He came up and said, ‘Hello, Sue, I'm Daddy,' and I put out my hand and said, ‘How do you do?' It was not auspicious.”

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