Martin van Creveld sees our victory in WWII by what didn’t happen afterwards

Summary: On Memorial Day we remember the sacrifices by those who fought in America’s wars. But let us also remember the victories they won. None greater than in WWII. Here the eminent historian Martin van Creveld reminds us of what people expected for the post-war world. We did much better than that, showing what we are capable of doing in the future.

When after many battles past,
Both tir’d with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! taxes, widows, wooden legs, and debt.

— Francis Moore in the Almanac’s Monthly Observations for 1829. We did much better.

From Clement Attlee's 1945 general election campaign against Churchill.
Clement Attlee’s 1945 campaign against Churchill.


The Things that did Not Happen

By Martin van Creveld
From his website.
7 May 2014
Posted here with his generous permission.


Seventy years ago, World War II in Europe came to an end. No sooner had it done so — in fact, for a couple of years before it had done so — people everywhere had been wondering what the post war world would look like. Here it pleases me to outline a few of their expectations that did not become reality.

Communism sweeps through Europe

In 1945, much of Europe — and not just Europe — was devastated. Tens of millions had been killed or crippled. Millions more had been uprooted from hearth and home. Scurrying about the continent, they were desperately seeking to rebuild their lives either in their original countries or elsewhere. Entire cities had been turned into moonscapes. This was true not only in Germany (and Japan), where British and American bombers had left hardly a stone standing on top of another, but in Britain (Bristol, Coventry), France (Caen, Brest), Belgium (the Port of Antwerp), the Netherlands (Rotterdam and Eindhoven), Hungary (Budapest), and Yugoslavia (Belgrade). Transportation and industry were in chaos.

With unemployment, cold — the nineteen forties witnessed some of the harshest winters of the century — and even hunger rife, many expected large parts of the continent to go Communist.

In fact, it was only Eastern Europe that became Communist. And then not because its inhabitants, war-ravaged as they were, liked Communism, but because Stalin and the Red Army forced it on them. Many west-European countries, especially France and Italy, also witnessed the rise of powerful left-wing parties. So did Greece, which went through a civil war as vicious as any. None, however, succumbed to the red pest. By 1950 production was back to pre-1939 levels. By the late 1950s, though eastern countries continued to lag behind western ones as they had begun to do as early as 1600, most of the continent was more prosperous than it had ever been.

Germany WWII poster

Germany repeating WWI and WWII

During the first years after 1945 many people worried about a possible revival of Prussian-German militarism and aggression. It was that fear which, in September 1944, led US Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to propose the plan named after him. Had it been adopted, it would have deprived Germany of many of its territories which would have gone to its various neighbors not only in the east, as actually happened, but in the west as well. The rest would have been divided into several separate states. That accomplished, “all industrial plants and equipment not destroyed by military action” was to be dismantled. That even included the mines, which were to be “thoroughly wrecked.” Since both Roosevelt and Churchill at some points supported various versions of the plan, the chances of its being turned into reality looked pretty good.

In the event, Germany was dismembered and lost large tracts of land that had been part of it for centuries past. It was also partitioned, though not along the lines Morgenthau had proposed. Both the Soviets and the West, but the former in particular, dismantled parts of the German industrial plant that fell into their hands. However, Germany never came close to being a “primarily agricultural and pastoral country.” For example, by the end of 1945 Volkswagen, thanks to a British order for 20,000 vehicles, was back in business. In 1950 the firm celebrated the production of the 100,000th Beetle; the rest is history.

Furthermore, the reconstruction of German industry did not lead to the much-feared revival of Prussian-German militarism. Let alone of National Socialism and “revanchism.” Instead, Germany was turned into a federal democracy with human-rights guarantees as strong as those of any other democratic country. With the slogan “nie wieder krieg” (no more war) on almost everyone’s lips, by the time of the 1976 election-campaign, which I happened to witness, the country was being touted as “the most successful society in Europe.”

The Wiedervereinigung (re-unification) of 1989-90 gave rise to some renewed fears among Germany’s neighbors. It was to counter those fears that Prof. Michael Wolfson, a German-Israeli teaching at the Bundeswehr University in Munich, penned his best-seller, Keine Angst vor Deutschland (No Fear of Germany). He turned out to be right. Not only has there been no revival of National Socialism and militarism, but at no time since 1945 has Germany posed the slightest danger to any of its neighbors. By now, with Putin doing what he is doing in the Ukraine, some people would argue that its unwillingness and inability to do so are precisely the problem.

Atomic bomb explosion

World War III

Above all, there has been no World War III. The objective of World War I, at least according to President Wilson, had been to put an end to war. In 1945, its miserable failure to do so had long become a matter of record. Everybody and his neighbor expected another world war — this time, one waged between the US and the Soviet Union and fought, if that is the word, with the aid of nuclear weapons. As a friend of mine, a retired Bundeswehr colonel whose grandfather and father were killed in 1914-18 and 1939-45 respectively, put it to me: “When I joined the Bundeswehr I did not expect to live.”

Only during the 1960s did fear of another “total” war, as the phrase went, slowly begin to wane away. As late as 1968, American planners claimed to be preparing for “two and a half wars;” a major one in Europe, another major one in the Pacific, and a smaller one somewhere else. Since then they have gradually lowered their sights. So much so that, by now, the most they can hope for is the ability to wage two small wars, such as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, simultaneously. Even that is becoming a little doubtful.

Rather than go through world wars III and IV, as all historical precedents seemed to suggest would happen, humanity has entered into the so-called “long peace.” As a result, and in spite of the terrible things that are going on in quite some places, the chances of the average person of dying in war are now the lowest they have ever been.

The factors that have brought along the long peace have been hotly debated. Personally I believe that ninety percent or more or the credit belongs to nuclear weapons and the fear they inspire. To be sure, the weapons in question could not prevent all forms of war. There have been plenty of those, and quite a few are ongoing even at this moment. They did, however, prevent its most important and most deadly forms, namely those waged by important states against each other.

Other factors that contributed to the largely peaceful, and by all previous standards unbelievably prosperous, nature of the post-1945 decades have been the relatively benign nature of the American Empire; the rise, side by side with that empire, of numerous international institutions that are daily entwining more states in their coils; and the restraint and sagacity shown by at least some governments — as, for example, when Mikhail Gorbachev ensured that the USSR would the only empire in history to fall apart without major bloodshed. Most important still, success was grounded the hard work of billions of ordinary people who tried to do the best for themselves and their families; and who often succeeded in doing just that.

Have a happy anniversary, Europe. Have a happy anniversary, world.


Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has provided both the broad historical context — looking both forward and back in time — much of the analytical work, and a large share of the real work in publishing both academic and general interest books. He does not use the term 4GW, preferring to speak of “non-trinitarian” warfare — but his work is foundational for 4GW just the same.

Professor van Creveld has written 20 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. Some of the best known are Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and  Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict. He’s written books about the technical aspects of war, such as Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.

He’s written controversial books, such as Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than our!) and Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line? He’s written some of the most influential books of our generation about war, such as The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (which I consider the best work to date about modern war) and The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq.

His magnum opus is the dense about mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – the ur-text describing the political order of the 21st century. For links to his articles see The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

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2 thoughts on “Martin van Creveld sees our victory in WWII by what didn’t happen afterwards”

  1. Agree 100%. Same thinking applies to the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement.

    What failed to happen after these events?

    1. Mike,

      Great point! Conservatives gave ominous predictions about the years following the Civil Rights Movement (“all those blacks walking the streets, thinking they’re people”).

      I don’t know what people expected after the Civil War. I suspect few expected the successful counterrevolution by the planter-merchant aristocracy and rapid reintegration of the South to America.

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