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Europe lay in ruins, with more struggles to come

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For thousands of children, there was nobody to come home to. For millions, there weren't houses: There was simply no money or supplies to counter the effects of the craters and house the baby boom (which began in Europe during the war, with birth rates beginning to soar in 1942).

This had its political effect. The war economy, however painful and authoritarian, had seemed an improvement over the Depression. The postwar economy was something else altogether.

“After six years of sacrifice, people did not want to go back to the bad old days of poor industrial relations, inadequate health for the poor, insufficient educational opportunities, the state failing to take a role in regulating unemployment,” Ms. Gardiner said.

Eventually, as a result, miracles were worked. Universal public health care came to Britain in July of 1948, and to most other European countries soon after. Decent public education and free, accessible universities were introduced almost everywhere. Labour standards improved. When housing was built, it was public housing available to all.

But this came at a terrible economic cost. In Britain more than any other country, the postwar economy was simply a continuation of the war economy. It had been a total war, and the state had taken control of all the means of production.

After the war, this control increased, choking off any possibility of a real economy developing. In 1946, the iron and steel industries were taken over by the government, followed by full nationalization of all railways and ports, of electrical generation and transmission, of most transport, and of major industries like the Jaguar car company.

Housing became the sole concern of the government. Before the war, most Britons lived in private rental accommodations. By 1980, almost half the country rented their apartments and houses from the government. In between was a flurry of construction of public-housing complexes, most of them ugly and grim, on the craters and flatlands that Hitler had created throughout every British city.

The poor and middle classes were taxed heavily to pay for these monopoly industries, and high duties prevented any other kind of economy from emerging. As a result, wages stagnated, unemployment soared and living standards plummeted.

This economic strangulation proved painful. At the end of 1947, after celebrating the birth of public medicine, Britain's Labour government was forced to pass an emergency austerity budget that severely restricted access to services, increased duties to prohibitive levels, and caused even more rationing of meat, fuel, potatoes and bread.

Within two years, the austerity measures were tightened further. And just as this was occurring, the billion-dollar American war loans were exhausted.

There was no sign of an economy emerging, and imperial Britain had been reduced to developing-world status. Never during the war had people suffered so much.

But those in Britain who were able to travel to continental Europe realized how much worse it could have been. Mr. Wheal, taking his national military service as a teenager, aided in the reconstruction of Germany — most of which involved armed security patrols to prevent the starved and desperate people from robbing and killing each other for food.

“It didn't look like reconstruction was even going to get going there,” he said of his German stint. “There were just mountains of rubble on every street, and there were people starving everywhere and really nowhere for anyone to live. It made you think about your own experience, didn't it, and how much worse they had it than we did.”

How did Europe escape all of this? In large part, because of American money. But it didn't happen quickly.

This is another of the enduring, indelible images of the last century: The euphoria of V-E Day, followed by the great reconstruction of Europe. But the contemporary imagination of those events tends to leave out a gap of 10 to 15 years — some of which, in Germany especially, bore a striking resemblance to today's reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Americans, enjoying a postwar production boom, were horrified to find that Europe, years after the end of the war, still had developed no viable economy. It was not just the starvation and misery that worried them: It was the complete lack of foreign markets for U.S. exports, and the deep-seated worry that Stalin's Soviet Union, which had now engulfed half of Europe, would soon seem more appealing to the other half.

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