Europe's Second Thirty Years War

Ian Kershaw sees 1945 as a real watershed in Europe’s history of the last century.

Every football fan knows the cliché: ‘it was a game of two halves’. But what about ‘a century of two halves’? Perhaps this might apply to Europe in the seventeenth century, when the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War. It certainly can be applied to Europe in the twentieth century, when the unprecedented death and destruction that occurred after 1914, in what had been, in many respects, Europe’s second Thirty Years’ War, ended with the defeat of Germany in 1945, heralding a lasting era of peace and prosperity.

About 10 million died or were maimed in the fighting of the First World War. More Englishmen died in military action in little over four years than in the previous thousand years of English history, not to mention the Scots, Welsh, and Irish. If we include those who died in its immediate aftermath in Eastern Europe, where the conflict only nominally ended in 1918, the civilian dead numbered a further five million. Another five million fled or were driven from their homes.

Even these figures are dwarfed by the human calamity of the Second World War. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at over 50 million, nearly 40 million of them in Europe. And, unlike any earlier war,  perhaps as many as two-thirds were civilians. Poland alone, where the actual fighting lasted only about a month, lost a fifth of its population, almost all of them civilians, during the war. And when the war finally ended, it left more than 20 million ‘displaced persons’, expelled, deported, or having fled from persecution and genocide. Major bloodletting continued in some parts until about 1950.

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