Did the end of the Second World War mean liberation?
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
Whilst the collapse Nazi Germany was followed by an age of growth and a new international order, not everyone was liberated from the past.
It has been seventy-six years since the end of the Second World War, yet the effects and questions of the post-war period still linger within the current realms of geopolitics today. Historians and social scientists have analysed almost every aspect of the war, from developing theory from a then confused social class structure to the growth of new nationalist movements spurring from national identity crises. I want to explore the theme of liberation post World War Two and if citizens of central Europe and beyond were truly liberated from the grasp of fascism and authoritarianism. First, we will explore the definition of liberation with the complexities of branching factors and perspective. Second, we shall explore nations which may be deemed as liberated from the Nazi regime whilst also shifting the economic paradigm to Keynesian economics, especially on the belief of full employment. These nations will largely include the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Thirdly, this essay shall explore the theme of justice, as many of those who were arguably responsible for the atrocities carried never saw state action against them. This point will be developed by the theme of revenge presented by Buruma (2003) and Overly (2012), followed with other themes of exultation and hunger. These nations shall include France, Japan and Germany.
It is mistaken to assume that the definition of liberation is the same as freedom. Freedom is the singular power to act as one wants, whereas liberation is the action of freeing a group or actor from oppression or slavery. Freedom is the result of liberation. However the basic definition of liberation is far too abstract when understanding certain perspectives post World War Two. It is easy to see Europe liberated from the Nazi regime on a state level; however more individualistic micro factors are usually ignored. Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez (1968) expands the understanding of liberation with proposing it works on a spectrum rather than a singular meaning. To understand how liberated a group or actor is one must first understand if they have achieved this through political, economic, social, historical and religious dimensions. These dimensions are best achieved when state actors set up institutions to work progressively towards helping vulnerable groups. The more dimensions that are met the more liberated a certain group or individual is.
State action was key to tackling liberation, especially in a time when the academic world of economics was dominated by the thinking of John Maynard Keynes. Keynes’ central argument was that recessions were a result of inadequate demand for goods and services, plus that monetary policy was very limited in increasing demand. His solution was government intervention through increased government expenditure and public programs. This new rise of democratic social democracy had major impacts on numerous countries, more specifically the UK, US and Australia in a time of economic devastation from the war. Economic analysis in Australia confirmed the success of Keynes’ work. In 1945 the government produced a document titled “White Paper on Full Employment”, stating:
“Before the war not all those available for work were able to find employment or to feel a sense of security in their future… By contrast, during the war no financial or other obstacles have been allowed to prevent the need for extra production being satisfied to the limit of our resources.”
Australia’s expenditure program ensured that both economic and political stability was achieved. Economic stability ensured all citizens have a financial safety net, with the state creating institutions to utilise labour and resources. This form of intervention ensured Australians achieved negative freedom without the threat of a fascist movement in Europe. Politically Australia already democratic institutions in place, therefore they meet the dimensions set by Gutiérrez. The United States managed to reverse their previous austerity budgets to match this new thinking, with growth rates shooting up to 4.8% and nearly wiping out unemployment entirely. The United Kingdom went the furthest with their programs, creating a health service and welfare state with a Universalist approach under Prime Minister Clement Attlee, whilst wiping our unemployment entirely. As pointed out by British economist Robert Skidelsky, this was indeed “The Golden Age” of social democratic policies. For the UK, US and Australia it is clear they meet the dimensions of liberation when looking at various social and economic factors.
However what three of these nations share is the lack of infrastructural damage that occurred to other central European states. For nations that were ruined they lacked the labour and the resources. British Historian Geoff Eley would argue that for many states, such as Germany, this was a libertarian moment for society, as there was no government, black markets, economic hardship and free for all violence. Two thirds of Germany was completely destroyed by the allied bombing campaign, leaving literally rubble for German citizens to live amongst. This point is developed by Jewish philopsher Karl Jaspers, who after the Allies ‘liberated’ his home town in Heidelberg wrote in his diary:
“No electricity, no water, no gas. We are trying to equip ourselves. A spirit stove will do for some time. Water can be fetched from [the] spring…the young people are in the best mood. It is magnificent fun for them to live like Indians.”
The language alludes that there is a sense of complete freedom. The use of “Indian” is a reference to Native Americans in India who are symbolic for freedom itself. However the point is perspective. For the children they no longer had to go to school or participate in higher educational institutions, for them this was a true libertarian moment. Yet for German adults they bore the responsibility of rebuilding the German state, but with different drawn up zones by Western states a unitary state was no longer on the table. Instead Germany was used as the battle grounds against capitalism and communism. German citizens were pawns in a large game of geopolitics whilst rebuilding with little resource and reduced labour. This was not liberation, as their pre-war lives were offered them greater opportunities with negative freedom, but post-war life would demand a total reconstruction of what were their homes.
Whilst the Nazi regime collapsed in Germany, leaving Germans to rebuild and create new narrative, fascist collaborators still lingered on within other realms of Europe. However fascists did not linger simply by avoiding justice, for it were the Allies themselves who also allowed many collaborators to return to their previous positions for the sake of economic and political stability. Take the example of France, where French leader de Gaulle ordered citizens to restrain themselves as justice was carried out. This brought much anger amongst the populace, especially amongst the largely Communist community (who made up the majority of what was the French resistance). For many citizens it was time to bring hard justice in the form of prison or the death penalty, yet were aghast to find collaborators received light sentences or were entirely let go. Citizens hoping to be liberated from fascists walking amongst them would be bitterly disappointed. One only needs to look at the case of French designer and business woman Coco Chanel. Chanel actively exploited opportunities by the Nazis to take over Jewish businesses, notably Parfums Chanel. Chanel convinced authorities to give her ownership of the previously Jewish run businesses due to her “Aryan” status. Despite exploiting Jewish businesses under Nazi occupation she never received any form of state punishment. When looking at the total number of executions, both under state administration and carried out by groups, less than one-fourth of them were carried out post-war by the state. But without state action also saw action by rouge groups and individuals. On Saturday 26th 1944 de Gaulle was shot at by snipers near the Notre Dame cathedral, where one German citizen was found and arrested within the day. This was not liberation for many, as fascists had taken their very means of production or lived knowing those responsible still walked amongst them. Fascism was not truly gone, but rather say silently amongst the populace.
The lack of state action before, during and post war left a vacuum for libertarian or anarchist influence. Ian Buruma would develop this point with the theme of revenge, as he describes as “human as the need for sex nor food”. Many examples can be laid out as it would depend on the kind of revenge a state would seek. One could cite the Mukden incident which saw over 10,000 Japanese civilians were killed in Manchuria as an efficient form of revenge. However, this form of revenge was taken on a state level, whereas the end of the war saw more anarchy. With France nearly 3,450 executions were carried out unlawfully by citizens. These executions would not simply be carried out in the norm of a firing squad, as many collaborators were tortured and left in the open as a message to others. Executions spiked after the Vel' d'Hiv roundup, where 13,000 Jews (including 4,115 children) were sent to their deaths in concentration camps. Other examples include Russians entering Berlin near the end of the war, with the mass rape and murder of German citizens who were accused of giving the Nazi regime tacit consent. French citizens also took the action of shaving women bald and beating them in the streets, if suspected of working with collaborators of Nazi agents. This was known as “Collaboration horizontale”. Further violence was even extended if anyone was suspected of selling items to Nazi soldiers in the market.
However many of those who took part in the violence that occurred did so out of self-guilt. They too were responsible for either collaboration or committing their own crimes. It is worth noting that most violence was carried out by men. After facing humiliation from defeat many French men and soldiers were shunned by others at home. Patriarchal masculinity humiliated them, and in response this resulted in a wave of domestic violence.
These acts of revenge had major effect on Europe’s changing demographics, especially when considering how German land was being used as a front to tackle political ideologies between the West and East. Germany was split into 4 occupation zones (France, UK, US and UUSR), however the four way split is better characterised as a two way split, between capitalism and communism. With the formation of these new zones over 10 million Germans were displaced from their homes. These displaced actors (DPs) included non-Axis citizens, who were mostly favoured, ethnic Germans and stateless DPs (camp survivors). Many had to live under the rule of Stalin, many others moving to Austria. This had a large part to play in Germany’s reframing of themselves as the victims to the Nazi regime, highlighting that they were never truly liberated due to displacement. But Ian Buruma points out that DPs from Germany were slow to understand that their circumstances were a result of the way Germany had treated its neighbours. It is worth serious consideration over 2.25 million Jews were forced to adopt a new life under Communism, whilst the rest of Europe struggled to organise resources for the other 1.5 million remaining in the West. However the many that remained in the West eventually began the new conflict with the Palestinian State, which the British had left in 1948. Not only were the Jewish population thrown into another conflict, but another demographic lost many of their freedoms. It was clear the domestic population and refugees had multiple conflicts, which show neither group was truly liberated, despite the fall of the Nazi regime. What this further highlights is that post-war government such as Attlee were fine with ethnic cleansing in the sense it was carried out as a population exchange. This removed not only liberation but the entire sense of freedom for all parties.
On the Eastern front of the war British forces became glaringly familiar with mass starvation. It was clear Japan had relied heavily on Chinese resources to make up for the lack of domestic production, but with the Chinese front falling to rebel groups this would not be sustainable. This resulted in Japanese citizens being heavily reliant on food aid dropped in by Allied forces during the final days of the war. Buruma describes many of those starved to be skeletal. These descriptions are also shared by holocaust survivors at Bergen, with allied soldiers offering their own already rationed down supplies. This relates back to our point on the libertarian moment, as this allowed black markets to prosper and removed the distinction of class due to the shared experience of complete suffering. It is clear that despite the fall of the Nazi regime Germans and Japanese citizens did not share a sense of liberation; instead their post-war experience was more devastating than pre-war. For many Germans and Japanese citizens who starved also lost their initial fear of the Allies, instead refocusing their fear on their Eastern red neighbours.
To understand the extent of liberation one must be able to judge both by perspective and the spectrum of dimensions. For many nation states the Gold Age brought prosperity; a new wave of consumption and full productivity meant Western Europeans thrived. But these nations had not seen the worst of the war, particularly the US and Australia who had largely been untouched by invading fascists whilst also allowing capital to enter the country smoothly. France, Japan and Germany were left with what remained a torn Europe. Even with attempts of total psychological reconstruction to rid fascism did little to bring comfort for social groups, knowing fascists walked amongst them. The post-war experience left men struggling to return to normality and women taking the burden from revenge and spite, including violent public beatings in France and falling victims to sexual abuse in Germany by the Red Army. Whilst this created a moment of libertarianism it did not liberate these groups, for they took on an economic and social struggle they did not want. In the East displaced citizens lived under the fear of gulags, an image that resembled much of what was brought from the events of the holocaust. Whilst Europe and the world were liberated from the shadows of a Nazi regime, for many they were not free to live a life of peace or prosperity. The negative freedoms they wanted would take decades to rebuild, for some in the older generation it was already too late.
 Schubeck, T. (1993). Liberation Ethics: Sources, Models, and Norms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.57-58.  Quiggin, J. (2012). Zombie economics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, pp.6-7  Skidelsky, R. (2009). Keynes: The Return of the Master. Allen Lane, pp.116-126.  Stone, D. (2012). The Oxford handbook of postwar European history. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp  Kirkbright, S. (2004). Karl Jaspers. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.187-198.  Jean-Pierre Rioux (1985), ‘L’Epuration en France’ in Etudes sur la France de 1939 à nos jours, pp. 162-77 (164)  Mazzeo, T. (2010). The secret of Chanel No. 5. New York: HarperCollins, p.150.  Peter Novick (1968), The Resistance versus Vichy. The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France. New York. Pp. 117-128  Cobb, M. (2013). Eleven Days in August: The liberation of Paris in 1944. London: Simon & Schuster, pp.328-329.  Buruma, I. (2013). Year Zero. New York: Atlantic Books Ltd. Chapter 3.  Moeller, R. (1996). War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany. The American Historical Review, 101(4), pp.1008-1048.  Collingham, E. (2012). The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. London: Penguin Books, pp.18-57.