Germanys Population After Ww1 Essay


We investigate long-run effects of World War II on socio-economic status and health of older individuals in Europe. We analyze data from SHARELIFE, a retrospective survey conducted as part of SHARE in Europe in 2009. SHARELIFE provides detailed data on events in childhood during and after the war for over 20,000 individuals in 13 European countries. We construct several measures of war exposure—experience of dispossession, persecution, combat in local areas, and hunger periods. Exposure to war and more importantly to individual-level shocks caused by the war significantly predicts economic and health outcomes at older ages.

I. Introduction

The Second World War (WWII) was one of the major transformative events of the 20th century, with 39 million deaths in Europe alone. Large amounts of physical capital were destroyed through six years of ground battles and bombing. Many individuals were forced to abandon or give up their property without compensation and to move on to new lands. Periods of hunger became more common even in relatively prosperous Western Europe. Families were separated for long periods of time, and many children lost their fathers. Many, including young children, would personally witness the horrors of war as battles and bombing took place in the very areas where they lived. Horrendous crimes against humanity were committed. Due to WWII, political and economic systems in many countries would be permanently altered.

In this paper, we investigate long-run effects of World War II on late-life economic and health outcomes in Western continental Europe (health, education, labor market outcomes and marriage). We explore several channels through which this war might have influenced individual lives, and document which groups of the population were most affected. Our research relies on retrospective life data from the European Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) that have recently become available. SHARE covers representative samples of the population aged 50 and over in 13 European countries, with about 20,000 observations. We also collected external data on casualties, timing and location of combat action, yearly GDP by country, population movements, and male-female population ratios. To our individual-level analysis of the multidimensional effects of a major shock that affected life circumstances, we add new dimensions to a rapidly increasing literature that aims at explaining the causes of health and wealth gradients in labor and health economics (see Deaton, 2007; Smith, 2009a; Heckman, 2012).

SHARE not only measures major contemporaneous economic and health outcomes of adults over age 50 in these European countries, but includes retrospective modules meant to capture salient parts of early life experiences, including those related to the war. There simply are no micro economic panel data in either the United States or in Europe that have prospectively tracked people for that long a time period.1 The co-existence of current prospective data combined with retrospective data on key events that preceded the survey baseline opens up important new research opportunities not before possible, and not simply those associated with the WWII. Since the end of WWII, western continental Europe has had a rich and sometime tumultuous economic and political history, the effects of which on its residents are not well documented.

There is legitimate concern about the quality of recall data, particularly for time periods decades in the past. But that concern has been lessened by a realization that recall of events during childhood is better than for other periods of life, particularly if events are salient as they certainly are in this application. Smith (2009b) investigated several quality markers and showed that his childhood health instrument was successful in matching known secular trends in childhood illnesses decades in the past.2 Moreover, we will provide evidence in this paper that these recalled events in the SHARE retrospective about the war matched the historical record.

One aim of the paper is to illustrate how such retrospective life data can further our understanding of effects of early-life conditions as affected by large external shocks, such as a war. The existing literature measuring impacts of macro-events mostly used “natural experiments” such as wars or famines to study effects of early-life conditions at the aggregate level. Largely due to data reasons beyond their control, the studies of which we are aware could not use individual-level measures of whether a particular person was affected by the war and through which channel. Retrospective life data, such as those from SHARE, contain detailed information and provide the opportunity of studying that issue.

Analyzing different outcomes is a first step in understanding the channels and mechanisms by which wars affect people’s lives. Another possibility is using different measures of war exposure such as the closeness of combat. We construct such measures from external data sources. In addition, SHARE data contain retrospective questions on several possible channels of war exposure: hunger, the absence of the father, dispossession, and persecution.

Given the scale of the war and number of ways it fundamentally changed the world, the existing economic literature using WWII as a natural experiment is surprisingly thin. Moreover, the literature that does exist using WWII is relatively recent and more American in context than European. This may reflect the fact that the popularity of ‘natural experiments’ framework in economics itself post-dated WWII by many decades. Still, it does suggest that excellent research opportunities remain, especially given the wide diversity of European experiences in WWII.

This paper is divided into six sections. The next highlights the main attributes of SHARE data and the additional data we collected for this research. Section III sets the stage for our analysis by presenting evidence of possible changes on which long-term effects of WWII may operate. The fourth section summarizes statistical models that capture impacts of the experience of WWII on individual adult labor market, demographic, and health outcomes. We also present our models of the influence of the war on some of the primary pathways through which it had long lasting impacts—hunger, dispossession, the absence of a father, and marriage. The final section highlights our main conclusions.


A. SHARE and Retrospective Early-life Data from SHARELIFE

SHARE is a multidisciplinary cross-national panel interview survey on health, socioeconomic status, and social and family networks of individuals aged 50 or over in continental Europe. The original 2004/2005 SHARE baseline included nationally representative samples in 11 European countries (Denmark, Sweden, Austria, France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and Greece) drawn from population registries, or from multi-stage sampling ( For these countries, a second wave of data collection took place in 2006, and the third wave of data collection on this panel (SHARELIFE) was completed in 2008.

In addition to a standard set of demographic attributes (age, marital status, education), SHARE data include health variables (self-reported health, health conditions, health behaviors), psychological variables (e.g., depression and well-being) economic variables (current work activity, sources and composition of current income, and net wealth (including housing, cars, and all financial assets (stocks, bonds, and cash) minus all debts)).

SHARE’s third wave of data collection, SHARELIFE, collected detailed retrospective life-histories in 13 countries (Poland and the Czech Republic were added in wave 2) in 2008–09. SHARELIFE was based on life history calendar (LHC) methods. The interview starts with the names and birth dates of the respondent’s children (and other information about them including any deaths), which is followed by a full partner and residential history. This information is used to aid in dating of all other events.

The information in the life history includes family composition and type of home (number of rooms, running water, toilet, etc), number of books, and occupation of father. These measures were used to create an index of childhood SES at age 10. A childhood health history is also included based on the Smith module included in the PSID and HRS that queries about individual specific childhood diseases and an overall subjective evaluation of childhood health status (Smith, 2009b). In addition, respondents are asked about childhood immunizations and hunger during childhood. Adult health histories and job and income histories were also collected. Moreover, SHARELIFE provides detailed data on within-country region of residence and housing during the full life of respondents (childhood and adulthood).

B. Other Data Sources

In addition to SHARE data, we also use external data sources to identify aggregate channels of war-affectedness. Since WWII affected not only countries differentially, but also regions within countries, we constructed data on combat operations using sources from military history (Ellis, 1994). Using maps of within-country regions for each month during the war, we documented whether armies engaged in battle in that place at that time. We combined these data with information about the region in which respondents lived during each year of WWII and use it as one measure of individual war exposure.

Since we analyze data over a time period of 50 years, we also have to account for country-specific economic performance that may have affected childhood circumstances differently. We therefore use GDP data, which are available for each European country (Maddison, 2011). We also used external data on country-specific civilian and military causalities associated with WWII, population movements, and the sex ratio. Table 1 contains definitions of variables derived from SHARE and SHARELIFE that will be used in our analysis in this paper. Appendix Table A provides a parallel list of variables constructed from external data sources with a documentation of the source that was used.

III. The Channels of Long-term Effects of WWII

This section presents descriptive data and reviews the current literature on possible major channels through which WWII might have affected people’s lives well into their older years. The channels include future per capita income growth of countries affected, mortality, changing sex ratios, absence of a father, periods of hunger, migration, dispossession, and persecution. This section is used to motivate the rationale for analyses pursued in section IV.

A. Per Capita Income Growth

If wars alter long-term economic growth, they would permanently depress economic prospects of future generations. Warfare reduces capital stock through the destruction of infrastructure, productive capacity, and housing through bombing and fighting, and results in a relocation of food and other production into military production. It obviously destroys human capital—but the real question for our analysis is will there be catch-up growth, or will the destruction show up many decades later?

Based on Harrison (1998), table 2 displays GPD per capita of some of the major countries involved in the war relative to that of the US at key illustrative dates. The immediate impact of WWII was apparently quite destructive for the countries involved, especially so for those on the losing side—Germany, Japan, and Italy—presumably reflecting their much larger losses in both physical and human capital during the war. However, by 1973 and certainly by 1987, the European ‘losers’ actually had higher per capita growth than European ‘winners’. What appears to be essential in the long-term was not whether a country was on the winning or losing side, but whether or not they transited to democracy and open-market economies.3 The poor performance of USSR countries illustrates that point.4

Table 2

GDP per Head Relative to US GDP per Head

B. Mortality

In 1939, there were about 2 billion people in the world. The best estimates indicate that between 62 and 78 million of them would die due to WWII—more than 3% of the world’s population. While earlier wars also resulted in deaths of civilians,5 civilians were particularly heavily affected by WWII with about half of the WWII European casualties being civilians. Among civilian deaths, between 9.8 and 10.4 million civilians were murdered for political or racial reasons by the Nazi regime (Auerbach, 1992). Deaths due to the war were very unequally distributed across countries, whether they were military deaths due to combat, civilian deaths, or the holocaust. Figure 1.A displays the fraction of the 1939 population who died in a large array of affected countries. Among European countries covered by our data, Germany and Poland bore the brunt of these casualties. In contrast and for comparative purposes only, American causalities in the European and Asian theatres combined were a bit over 400,000, the overwhelming majority of whom were soldiers. Similarly, total deaths in the UK are estimated to be about 450,000, 15% of whom were civilians.

Figure 1

Figure 1.A.—WWII Casualties as Percent of the Population

Figure 1.B displays total number of deaths by type in the same countries. Deaths were highly concentrated in Germany and Poland where deaths measured around 5 million in both countries. In Germany, there were almost as many civilian deaths as military ones, while in Poland civilian deaths including the holocaust are by far the dominant ones. In many of the remaining countries in our data, deaths due to WWII are measured instead in the hundreds of thousands, but still often amount to a large fraction of the pre-war populations in several other countries, particularly Austria and the Netherlands. The other European countries that stand out are those that would comprise most of the Soviet Union, where one in seven perished in the war with about 10 million military deaths and 13 million civilian deaths. Unfortunately, data on these countries are not part of the SHARE network of European countries.6

C. Sex Ratios and Absence of Father

Mostly men died during the war, producing low male/female ratios in Europe after the war as well as absence of many fathers during respondents’ childhood years. Since the male bias in deaths was concentrated among soldiers as civilian and holocaust fatalities were largely gender neutral, it is countries in figure 1 who experienced many military deaths that were most affected. With 3 million military deaths, the most affected country in our data was Germany.

The top left-hand side of table 3 shows one immediate demographic consequence of the war by listing by country and period when one was age 10 the fraction of individuals who had a biological father absent when they were 10 years old. Once again, the largest effects took place in the war-ravaged countries of Austria, Germany, and Poland. In Austria and Germany, about one in four children lived without their biological fathers when they were age 10 during the war. The legacy persists into years after the war since many who were age 10 during 1950–1955 had fathers who died during the war. In Germany, almost a third of those age 10 in these years were not living with their biological father. Absent father rates fall sharply in the post-1955 years since these children were born after the war. We observe war spikes in other countries as well (Italy, France, Denmark, and Belgium), but the contrasts with the pre- and post-war years are not as dramatic.

Table 3

Percent of SHARELIFE Respondents with Father Absent at Age 10; by Time Period

Sex ratios before, during, and after the war are contained in the bottom-right half of table 3. In Germany, the sex ratio dropped from 0.96 in 1939 to 0.72 men per women in the 15–45 age group after the war in 1946. Thus, many women did not marry, and many children grew up without a father. Even after the war, about 4 of the 11 million German prisoners of war remained in captivity, and the last 35,000 German soldiers returned from the Soviet Union in 1955 which further compounded the problem of absent fathers (Wehler, 2008).

D. Hunger

One channel by which WWII might have affected long-run adult health and SES outcomes is hunger. World War II caused several severe hunger crises which led to many casualties, and may have had long-term effects on the health of survivors. For example, since the beginning of the German occupation in Poland, the nutritional situation of the non-German population was poor. The average caloric intake for the Polish population was about 930 calories in 1941. The situation was worst in the Warsaw Ghetto where average food rations were limited to about 186 calories per day in 1941.

Similarly, in the fall and winter 1941/1942, Greece was struck by a severe famine with about 100,000 to 200,000 deaths (Hionidou, 2006). In WWII, Greece was under Bulgarian, German, and Italian occupation. The famine was mainly caused by three factors: (1) occupiers imposed a naval blockade; (2) prices to farmers were fixed at such low levels that they were not willing to market their products; (3) mobility between different regions of the country was reduced due to occupation. The nutritional situation returned to acceptable levels towards the end of 1942. Neelson and Stratman (2011) use Cohort Data to show that undernourishment of children who were 1 or 2 years old at the time of the famine had a significantly lower probability of being literate or to complete upper secondary education.

A combination of a food blockade and a harsh winter led to a severe hunger crisis in winter 1944/1945 in the Netherlands. About 20,000 deaths, mainly among elderly men, are attributed to this famine. The famine ended with the end of the German occupation in May 1945. The Dutch famine has been extensively studied because it affected an otherwise well-nourished population at a very specific time and region. Individuals exposed to this famine in utero are shown to suffer from cognitive and mental problems and addiction (Neugebauer et al., 1999; Rooij et al., 2010), diabetes and coronary heart disease, and they also perform worse regarding anthropometric and socio-economic indicators (Almond and Currie, 2011).

Germany suffered from hunger between 1945 and 1948 when the food supply from occupied countries ceased. In the US occupation zone, the Office of Military Government for Germany established a goal of 1550 calories per day in 1945, but in the first months of occupation, this goal often could not be met. There were regions where average calories per day were around 700 (Gimbel, 1968). Death rates raised by the factor 4 for adults and 10 for infants during this period. With a good harvest and currency reform in June 1948, nutritional shortages were overcome (Zink, 1957).

Figure 2 demonstrates that hunger episodes during the war were much more severe in war countries than in those countries that did not participate in the war. We also see that there was a great amount of diversity in periods of hunger within war countries. Hunger is more common in regions where combat took place within war countries. Finally and not surprisingly, the experience of hunger was far more common among those of low socio-economic background as a child. With respect to hunger, our analysis shows that the individual-level reports in SHARELIFE match well historical information on the timing and location of hunger episodes we collected from historic sources. To illustrate, in figure 2 the Greek hunger spike occurred in 1941–1942, the Dutch in 1944–45, and the German in 1946–1947.

Figure 2

Percentage of SHARE Respondents Suffering from Hunger: War versus Non-war

E. Dispossession, Persecution, and Migration

SHARELIFE documents the extent of the experience of dispossession of property linked to WWII and its aftermaths. Dispossession was often associated with persecution and resulted in geographic displacement of populations during and immediately after the war. A further advantage of SHARELIFE is that we can observe where and when individuals moved during their lifetimes, including the wartime period.

There were three main periods when people were forced to flee their homelands. During WWII, millions of Jews, but also opponents of the Nazi regime, were expropriated, and often sent to concentration camps and were murdered there. Second, the end of WWII was associated with dramatic border changes in Eastern Europe. These border changes induced millions of individuals to leave their places of residence and flee to other parts of Europe. The Soviet Union annexed territory from some of its neighboring countries, inter alia from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Poland. Poland in turn received one part of pre-war Germany in compensation. Those Poles having lost their homes in the part occupied by the Soviet Union were moved to the new part, so Poland and with it millions of people were moved westwards.

Figure 3 shows inflows and outflows of populations during and after the end of WWII into the new states in their new borders. Germany lost about one quarter of its territory. About 2 million people have been estimated to have died on the flight. After the war, the remaining territory of Germany was divided into four occupational zones. About 4 million people fled from the approaching Soviet armies to the British and US zone where the occupation was less severe. In Germany, destroyed cities had to accumulate millions of ethnic Germans from other parts of Europe. A further wave of dispossessions happened in Eastern countries after WWII when private property was nationalized in the socialist and communist economies. Even in France, there was a wave of nationalizations at the end of WWII. Mainly banks, energy, and transport firms were nationalized, but there were also some expropriations which happened as penalty for cooperation with the Nazi regime.

Figure 3

Total Inflow and Outflow of Population 1939–1947

The bottom left-hand side of table 3 displays dispossession rates in our SHARE countries by time period with the final column indicating the percent ever dispossessed. Figure 4 complements the data in table 4 by showing the percentage of dispossessed individuals in SHARELIFE for the foreign and native-born populations. In the Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland more than 5% of respondents experienced dispossession during their lifetime. For respondents living in Germany and Poland, dispossession happened more frequently during the war period, while they happened after the war in Czechoslovakia. Dispossessed individuals in our sample are over proportionally born outside of the current borders of their country. Analyzing countries of origin, many of them came from Eastern Europe, thus they most probably lost their property with the big wave of nationalizations after WWII. Not surprisingly, it is the foreign-born living in our SHARE countries who were most likely to be dispossessed.

Figure 4

Dispossession of Population in WWII

Table 4

Number of Observations Available in SHARELIFE; by Country

IV. WWII and Individual Outcomes: Analysis of SHARELIFE Data

Based on the descriptive data and review in the prior section, we find enormous variation even among war countries in the immediate impact of WWII. Long-term economic or population growth rates seem unlikely to be a primary pathway through which the war’s influence took place. Instead, changing gender ratios induced by differential male mortality in the war appear to be a more plausible pathway operating both through absence of fathers and difficulties faced by women in marrying. Hunger and immediate and long-term stress created by battles, dispossession, and persecution would also appear to be plausible pathways that could impact adult health, both physical and mental, and our later life measures of adult SES.

A. Measures of War Exposure

To analyze long-term impacts of WWII on health and economic outcomes, we use the fact that different countries in Europe and different people in those counties were differentially affected by WWII at different points in time. To study effects on adult outcomes, we use two indicators of being affected by World War II: (a) that one lived in a war country during the war period, and (b) that one was exposed to combat in the area within a country in which one lived during the war. Our first measure essentially creates a war dummy equal to zero for everybody in a non-war country (Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden), and for everybody born after the war period no matter what country they lived in. Alternatively, it is equal to one for everybody alive in a war country (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Netherlands, and Poland) during the war period. The war period ends in 1945 for all war countries, while it includes 1946 to 1948 in Germany and Austria, when they were under allied occupation. For these countries, the war period ended with the currency reform in Germany in 1948. Individuals could certainly have been affected by the war even if they were born after the war, but the channels we emphasize in this paper—combat, hunger, dispossession, persecution, and the absence of a father—were more likely to have affected those who lived during the war.

Our second war measure involves constructing a variable indicating whether there were combats and how many combats occurred in the region within the country in which the individual lived during WWII. Thus, in the war countries, we create two dummy variables based on the number of months of exposure the respondent had to combat in the place they lived during the war—0 to 2 months of exposure to combat and 3 or more months of exposure to combat. The purpose of this variable was to test whether actual exposure to combat was an important mechanism for the war effects that we estimate below.

Table 4 provides the list of SHARE countries that are part of our analysis with the sample sizes of those SHARELIFE respondents who experienced the war and those who had no direct experience of war. We did not include Spain in our analysis since Spain experienced a civil war in the late 1930s, so a distinction between whether Spain is a war country or not is very ambiguous. The results were not significantly different if Spain was included.

B. Micro-level Regressions of Adult Health and SES Outcomes

We next turn to our statistical modeling of whether individuals’ experiences during WWII predict their health and socio-economic status in their later adult life. For all of our later-life health and SES outcomes and channel outcomes, our estimating equation takes the form

Yitcβ1 ∗ waritcβ2 ∗ maleiλtηcεitc


where Yitc is the late-life outcome of respondent i born in year t and living in country c. Male indicates a respondent was male. War is one of our two measures of war exposure outlined above, which vary by country (or region within a country) and year of birth. Because there may be unmeasured country and year effects associated with these outcomes, λt is a full set of year of birth dummies and ηc is a full set of country dummies. εitc is a random error term. Since error terms within country and within year may be correlated, we used the cluster option in STATA.

Our principal interest is to obtain estimates of β1—the ‘war’ effect in addition to birth-year and country effects. We estimate reduced form models using our two War variables on later adult life health and SES outcomes and the principal channels of war. We consider several adult dependent variables all measured in 2009, the year of SHARELIFE. Health outcomes include prevalence of diagnosed diabetes and heart disease, body height in centimeters (a summary measure of early-life health conditions), whether an individual is depressed using a dummy variable for presence of at least four symptoms on the EURO-D scale, and self-reported health status. Self-reported health status is recorded on a scale excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor which we have translated to a scale from one to five with five the best health status. Our adult SES and economic outcomes include log of household net worth, whether the individual was ever married, and life-satisfaction in 2009. SHARE respondents are asked “On a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 means completely dissatisfied and 10 means completely satisfied, how satisfied are you with your life?” We model this outcome as a score from 0–10.

We have two education measures in SHARE. The first is obtained from baseline SHARE in 2004 and, in an attempt to make the education variable comparable between individuals in the same country, assigns a standardized year for each education value. For example, university graduates in a country would be assigned a 16. The second education variable is available in the second SHARE wave and is equivalent to the actual number of years spent in education. We use the second measure because Poland and the Czech Republic were not part of baseline SHARE and for those two countries the first measure is not available. However, we hypothesize that WWII may have disrupted education for many respondents and resulted in a longer time to complete a given level of education. To test that hypothesis for the sub-sample of respondents who have both measures of education from the second and first SHARE waves, we estimated a model that amounts to the difference between the two education measures (the second-wave education minus the first-wave education variable).

Figure 5 displays the association of three of our key outcomes—education, self-reported health, and depression—with time period of birth using three sub-sets of countries—Germany and Austria combined, other war countries, and the non-war countries. These outcomes are each expressed as the difference between each of the first two kinds of war countries minus the outcome in the non-War countries. For all three outcomes, the outcomes deteriorate relative to the non-war countries for those born at a time they would experience war.

Figure 5

Later Life Outcome Differences between War and Non-War Countries by Period of Birth

Table 5 summarizes results obtained for adult health outcomes and table 6 for adult SES outcomes. We present regressions in the A panels that use only the aggregate war exposure measures and in panel B the measure that distinguishes between very limited exposure to combat (two months or less, including zero) or an more extensive combat exposure (three or more months) with the left-out category being not exposed to war at all. In terms of right-hand side variables, there are no missing values for gender. If the outcome in any particular model is missing, this observation was not included in that specific model. Missing values in our outcomes are relatively rare. In terms of main channels (dad absence, dispossession, hunger, and persecution), missing values are in the order of one in a thousand observations.

Table 5

Adult Health Outcomes Associated with World War II

Table 6

Adult Economic Outcomes Associated with World War II

Consistent with the literature, men have higher levels of adult diabetes and heart disease, lower levels of depression, and report themselves in better subjective health than woman do (Banks et al., 2010; Smith, 2007). Our principal concern involves estimates for aggregate war and combat variables. Living in a war country during the period of WWII is consistently statistically significantly associated with higher levels of adult diabetes, being more depressed, and reporting one’s subjective health as worse. Being in a war country during the war increased the probability of diabetes in later life by 2.6 percentage points and depression by 5.8 percentage points while decreasing self-reported health by 9.4 percentage points. These increases are all high relative to baseline rates (Appendix Table B). Estimated effects on heart disease and height are not statistically significant.

The B panel of table 5 displays results for months of combat exposure variables—number of months of exposure respondents had to combat in the place they lived during the war in war countries using 0–2 months of exposure to combat and 3 or more months of exposure to combat. These results basically parallel those obtained for the war variable in both direction and magnitude—those with combat exposure were more likely to have diabetes as an adult, were in worse self-reported health, and were more likely to be depressed. The results are weaker for heart problem although 3 or more months of combat exposure increases the likelihood of heart disease as an adult and is statistically significant at the 10% level.

Table 6 repeats the same type of models for adult economic outcomes in 2009. Not surprisingly for these generations, compared to women men achieve more years of schooling, have higher net worth, are less likely to marry, and have higher levels of life satisfaction—common findings in the literature. Our measure of war exposure is strongly associated with all these SES outcomes, except ln Net Worth. Those in a war country during the war achieved about three-tenths of a year less education7 and achieved lower levels of life satisfaction (about a third of a point lower relative to a mean of 7.6) as older adults. The education difference model suggests that war makes respondents take longer (a third of a year) to reach a given level of education. Similarly, this exposure to war reduced the probability of women being ever married (about three percentage points) but not the marriage probability for men, consistent with the relative scarcity of men due to war. In contrast, ln household net worth is not associated with the wartime experience suggesting that this outcome mainly depends on post-war savings behavior and trends in asset prices. The war combat models in the B panel of table 6 produce roughly similar results in direction and magnitude of these outcomes.

One purpose of our combat variables was to test whether the actual exposure to combat was an important mechanism for the war effects that we estimate above. With the sole exceptions of adult depression (table 5) and live satisfaction (table 6), the estimated magnitude of the worse adult SES and health outcomes appear to be about the same amongst those with large or small exposures to actual combat.8 This suggests that experiencing combat and battles close by to where you lived during the war are not the primary mechanism by which these war effects operate. The exceptions are of interest since it seems reasonable that frequent exposure to combat is associated with adult depression and lower levels of life satisfaction as the vivid memories of that experience persist into adulthood.

C. Selection Effects

As in any such analysis, there are issues of possible selection effects due to fertility, mortality, and migration that may have biased our estimates. The concern with selective fertility is that high-SES mothers reduced their fertility more during the war, which on average would lead to less healthy babies. SHARE does not contain variables on education of parents so we used instead our measure of childhood SES, acknowledging its possible endogenity. We examined fertility in SHARE in three time periods by SES—pre-war (before 1939), during the war (1939–1945), and post-war (>1945). Childhood SES was split at the median.

Mean Number of Children per Women
Median SES splitpre-WarDuring WarPost-War
Low SES1.281.432.47
High SES1.111.252.25

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In all three periods, fertility is highest in the low-SES groups. But differential changes by SES in fertility across these three time periods do not seem large enough to be producing our results. Comparing pre-War and during-War periods, there was about 0.14 increase in fertility for both low-SES and high-SES groups. Similarly, comparing post-war to during-war periods, average fertility rose by about one child in both SES groups. Moreover, when we added childhood SES measures to our models, which should partly control for any selective fertility associated with the war, our estimates of the long-term effects of war did not change much.

Individuals in our analytical sample are those still alive in 2009 so they are a selected sample of the population that experienced WWII. To the extent that those more affected are less likely to have survived, our results should understate the full effects of war on long-term health and SES outcomes. A more complicated issue concerns differential mortality by SES induced by the war. If mortality due to the War was much higher in low-SES groups (whose health would have been worse anyway), we would further understate health effects of War. We examined data on age of death of father by SES by whether one lived in a war or non-war countries, and by whether you experienced the war as a child (born before 1946). Once again, dividing SES at the median we found the following for the mean age of death of father. Those born after 1946 who did die should be younger but the key comparison is differentials by SES.

CountryAge of Death of Fathers
Before 1946After 1945Before 1946After 1945

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For non-war countries, we find that in comparing pre- and post-1945 that the age of death of father decreased by .8 of a year in both low- and high-SES groups. Using the same comparison, the age of father fell by .4 of a year in the war countries, but this was approximately the same for the low- and high-SES groups. Once again, this degree of selection does not seem large enough to be driving our results.

Because of population shifts, especially inflows documented in figure 3, we confined our analysis to the native-born in each country. Among countries in our data, figure 3 shows that outflows were significant only in Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany. Since it was not encouraged by receiving countries, migration during and after the War was quite difficult in Europe. But there was some migration and one must allow for the possibility that selective migration may influence our estimates on war effects especially for these three countries. Of course, people could have temporarily left combat areas as combat was taking place but stayed inside the same country, which should lead to an understatement of combat effects.

D. Models of Channels of War

We next turn to our estimates of how the micro pathway channels we highlighted above—hunger, dispossession, persecution, and the absence of father—are related to the experience of WWII. SHARELIFE respondents were asked ‘Looking back on your life was there a period of time during which you were hungry?’ If the answer was yes, they were asked when this occurred. Individuals in SHARE are also asked “whether they or their family were ever dispossessed of any property as a result of war or persecution,” and if yes the date of that dispossession. They were also asked whether they had ever been victims of persecution because of their political beliefs, religion, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or their background. Unfortunately, no time period for that persecution was asked. Finally, the absence of the father is defined as the absence of the biological father at the age of 10. About 8% of our respondents experienced a period of hunger, 9% have lived without their father at age 10, and 5% suffered from persecution and dispossession, respectively. We also included in our models an additional possible pathway—whether a respondent received immunizations as a child.

Table 7.A shows how micro channels are related to the experience of war. Males are both more likely to suffer from hunger and to be persecuted. The latter is what we expected given that mainly men were politically active during this period of time. Having experienced WWII increases the likelihood of experiencing hunger by about eight percentage points,9 dispossession and persecution by one percentage point, the absence of a father by two percentage points. These estimates are large relative increases given baseline risks. For example, the probability of experiencing hunger is doubled by war exposure and the probability of an absent dad is increased by 25% in relative terms. The experience of war was associated with a lower probability of immunization as a child, which is unsurprising given that this was wartime. This immunization result may be a pathway through which adult health eventually suffers.

Table 7

Channels of War Associated with World War II

In table 7.B our interest lies in whether the experience of combat is the mechanism that leads to war effects. Once again, the size of these estimates is very similar to those obtained by the country wartime variable. The experience of hunger and absence of the father is somewhat stronger for our respondents who lived in a region strongly affected by combat (3–10 months of combat) than for those in regions with none or only mild experience of combat. However, differences are not large. In fact, we expect the death of men during wartime to not necessarily happen in their region of residence. Persecution is related to war per se, but not necessarily to an increased experience of combat. Thus, combat does come with an increased likelihood of hunger as, for example, was the case in the Dutch hunger winter. It can be due to other aspects of war, as was the case for the Greek and German experience with hunger during WWII. Also, combat led to local deaths of the civilian population, but military casualties and the deaths of fathers often occur far from the families affected by it.

E. The Uneven Consequences of War

In addition to models summarized above, we investigated whether consequences of experiencing WWII vary by respondents’ socio-economic status (SES) as a child by estimating models that included interactions of War variables with childhood SES. Childhood SES is an index generated by factor analysis (Mazzonna, 2011). SES unifies four measures for SES during childhood at age 10. The variables are: logged proportion of number of room in the household and persons living in that household; logged number of books in the household; features in the household, namely warm water, cold water, fixed bath, toilet inside, central heating; and occupation of main breadwinner. For our analysis, we divide childhood SES status into three terciles and label those terciles low, middle, and high.

We separate our analysis of distributional consequences of WWII from our main analysis above since we recognize that childhood SES may partly be endogenous to WWII. Given the destructive scale of WW2 that included bombing that sometimes destroyed civilian homes and movement of men into the military, the possibility of such endogenity is clearly an important caveat to keep in mind. We did re-estimate all models in tables 5–7 with these dummy variables for childhood SES terciles included and our estimates of the war barely changed.

Our distributional results are contained in table 8. All models continue to contain country and year of birth dummies and a dummy for male. We include both main effects for experiencing war and for childhood SES being either low or middle class. To identify distributional effects of war, we include a full set of interactions of the war with childhood SES. Once again, the results obtained are very similar whether we use the war country variable or our combat variable so table 8 only displays the results for the war variable. The outcomes modeled are the same as those in tables 5–7—adult health, adult SES, and channels of war.

Table 8

War Interaction with Childhood SES Models

We first discuss main effects of childhood SES. Compared to those in the high childhood SES group, those in the lowest one have higher levels of adult diabetes (3.2 percentage points), are smaller in stature as adults (1.8 centimeters), experience higher levels of adult depression (2.5 percentage points), and self-rate themselves in worse adult subjective health. The middle childhood SES group consistently lies between the bottom and top in terms of these adult health outcomes. These results conform to the general finding in the literature that childhood economic circumstances are very predictive of later-life adult economic and health outcomes (Currie, 2009; Case et al., 2002; and Smith, 2009b). Similarly, in accordance with the literature, higher childhood SES is associated with much higher levels of adult education, net worth, and life satisfaction, another indication of the strong economic transmission across generations in these outcomes. The more novel results are in the third panel of table 8 which deals with the channels of war. The probability of being dispossessed was highest in the high childhood SES group, not surprising as there was more to capture. Persecution was also highest in the high SES category, while obtaining childhood immunizations was highest in the lowest SES category. Absent fathers were not strongly differentiated across SES categories.

Finally, we examine differences in associations with war by childhood SES categories. For childhood SES by WWII interactions among the health variables, we find the negative health effects to be either neutral by SES categories or that the negative health effects are concentrated on the middle class as in the summary measure of self-reported health or concentrated in the middle and lower class as with heart disease, possibly reflecting the role of lifetime stress with that disease.

In contrast, we find very strong interactions of a negative middle class war interaction for many of our adult SES outcomes—education, and ln net worth. Life satisfaction decrements associated with the war were concentrated on the lower and middle class. In terms of being ever married, the negative effects of the war were highest on the highest SES women and the lowest SES men. A summary of health and SES outcomes does suggest that the middle class suffered more due to the war with the lower class next in line. Finally, the length of time it takes to achieve a given level of education due to war expands the most for the low and middle class compared to the upper class.

The bottom panel of table 8 shows that some pathways through which war operates are concentrated among the poorest households (hunger and immunizations (present for the middle class), some are concentrated among middle class (dad absent), or the highest SES households (dispossession). Persecution was focused on the middle and upper classes.

V. Conclusions

In this paper, we present a micro analysis of effects of WWII on some key SES and health outcomes of those experiencing the war. To conduct this analysis we use new data—SHARELIFE—that records not only adult outcomes in 2009, but also contains retrospective data for salient aspects of the wartime experiences of respondents. We augment these data with historical information on how WWII affected individuals differently over time and across regions. Our data allow us to analyze which type of individuals were most affected, and by which channels.

Our analysis shows that experiencing war increased the probability of suffering from diabetes, depression, and with less certainty heart disease so that those experiencing war or combat have significantly lower self-rated health as adults. Experiencing war is also associated with less education and life satisfaction, and decreases the probability of ever being married for women, while increasing it for men. We also analyze pathways through which these wartime effects took place and found strong effects for hunger, dispossession, persecution, childhood immunizations, and having an absent father. While a war of the magnitude of WWII affected all social classes to some degree, our evidence does suggest that the more severe effects were on the middle class with the lower class right below them in size of impact.

This paper highlights advantages of having life-histories in prospective studies such as SHARE. Population-based economic panels are relatively recent, but combining them with life-histories covering salient past personal and macro events opens up many new research opportunities of which WWII is only one illustration. This is especially so in Western Europe where the political and economic history of the past four decades is particularly rich and varied.


We would like to thank Alexander Danzer, Angus Deaton, Benjamin Friedman, Edward Glaeser, Dirk Jenter, Olmo Silva, Till von Wacher, participants of the conference on “Fetal Origins, Early Childhood Exposure, and Famine” at Princeton University, September 2011, as well as seminars audiences at Boston University, Harvard University, and the University of Cologne for helpful comments on earlier versions. Sarah Lehner and Johanna Sophie Quis provided excellent research assistance. Kesternich acknowledges financial support from the DFG through SFB/TR 15. Smith is supported by various grants from NIA. This paper uses data from SHARELIFE release 1, as of November 24th 2010 or SHARE release 2.5.0, as of May 24th 2011. The SHARE data collection has been primarily funded by the European Commission through the 5th framework and 6th framework program. SHARELIFE was supported through the 7th framework program. Additional funding from the U.S. National Institute on Aging as well as from various national sources is gratefully acknowledged.

Appendix Table A.—External Data Variable Definitions

Variable nameDefinitionSources
Total deathsTotal casualties of WWIIThe data has been collected from four sources:
  1. van Mourik, W. (1978): Bilanz des Krieges. Lekturama-Rotterdam.

  2. Putzger, F. W. (1963): Historischer Weltatlas. Velhagen & Klasing.

  3. Overman, R. (1999): Deutsche Militaerische Verluste im 2. Weltkrieg. Oldenburg Verlag.

    Statistical Yearbook for the German Reich 1939

Total deaths/pop 39Percentage of casualties in population
Military deathsMilitary deaths in WWII
Military deaths/pop 39Percentage of military deaths in population
Civilian deaths/pop 39Civilian deaths of WWII,
Civilian deathsFraction civilian deaths/total population
Holocaust deathsHolocaust deaths of WWII,
Holocaust deaths/pop 39Fraction holocaust deaths/total population
Population movement
Source countryCountry from which people leftKulischer, E. M. (1948): Europe On the Move—War and Population Changes, 1917–47. Columbia University Press.
Target countryCountry to which people moved
Time periodYear in which people moved to target countries
Number of combat operations
War combat 0–2 monthsRespondent was living in a war country during the war period in a region within the country that experienced 0–2 months of combatEllis, J. (1994): World War II—a Statistical Survey. Aurum Press.
War combat 3 or more monthsRespondent was living in a war country during the war period in a region within the country that experienced 3–10 months of combat
Gross domestic product
Log(GDP)Country specific GDPMaddison, A. (2011): Historical Statistics: Statistics on World Population, GDP and per capita GDP, (accessed June, 2011).
Sex ratio
Sex ratioRatio of men to women for time periods before and after warStatistical Yearbooks for Germany, chapter “Bewegung und Bevölkerung”, and “Internationale Übersichten”, 1909–1939 and 1945–53

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Appendix Table B.—Descriptive Statistics

Percentage MissingAll
War = 0
N= 11,411
War = 1
N= 9,855
Background information
Year of birth0.00019429.5219478.0719367.13
Childhood SES0.0340.−0.210.96
Outcome measures
Ever married0.0000.940.230.930.250.950.22
Heart disease0.0020.120.320.
Life satisfaction0.0817.601.727.871.627.291.79
Log(net worth)0.04012.451.8712.941.8311.881.75
Years of education0.08010.724.1611.713.889.564.18
Education Diff in Years0.4660.422.910.512.780.343.03
Channels of war exposure
Dad absent0.0170.
Childhood Immunizations0.0120.950.230.980.150.910.29

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1PSID, the longest micro-economic panel, began in 1968 more than 20 years after WWII. The longest running European micro-economic panel, GSEOP, began in 1984, almost 40 years after the war.

2There was also no evidence of backwards attribution of new episodes of adult health problems into a revaluation of childhood health. Adult respondents whose health deteriorated between PSID waves were no more likely than before to say their childhood health was not good or to cite additional childhood health problems (Smith, 2009b)

3Waldinger (2012)

The EU has provided the essential infrastructure to deal with ‘the German Question’ – the role of the largest and most powerful state in Europe. When Europeans commemorate the Great War of 1914-18 this summer they should be reflecting not only on the diplomatic blunders and the enormous waste of lives but also the beginning of a new approach to international relations epitomised by the EU.

The First World War destroyed empires, created numerous new nation-states, encouraged independence movements in Europe’s colonies, forced the United States to become a world power and led directly to Soviet communism and the rise of Hitler. Diplomatic alliances and promises made during the First World War, especially in the Middle East, also came back to haunt Europeans a century later. The balance of power approach to international relations was broken but not shattered. It took the Second World War to bring about sufficient political forces to embark on a revolutionary new approach to inter-state relations.

After both wars Europe was exhausted and devastated. The difference was that the second major internecine war in Europe in a generation led to a profound change in political thinking, at least in Western Europe, about how states should conduct their relations. Die Stunde Null was the backdrop to the revolutionary ideas of the EU’s ‘founding fathers,’ statesmen such as Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, Jean Monnet who developed the novel idea of a community of states establishing a political system based on sharing sovereignty. This system has brought many benefits to Europeans but in recent years the system has been under challenge by the rise of Euroscepticism, populism and nationalism. As Europe reflects on the titanic struggle of 1914-18 it is important to recall the advances made since 1945 through European integration and redouble efforts to combat nationalist and extremist forces.

Responsibility for the Great War remains hotly debated today with very different dimensions of the war accentuated by the various combatants. What is incontestable, however, is the number of advances in science, technology and medicine, as well as the revolutionary changes in social behaviour that occurred as a result of the 1914-18 conflict. The aristocracy was overthrown or its role greatly diminished. The socialist and labour movements seized the opportunity to make considerable advances; but so too did communism and fascism.  Germany was at the centre of both failed experiments and was unable to achieve a peaceful unification as a democratic state until 1990. But Germany’s neighbours have not forgotten Germany’s role in both World Wars and hence the burden of history weighs more heavily on German shoulders than for any other nation in Europe. Yet Germany has dealt with Vergangenheitsbewältigung better than any state in history; certainly much better than Japan or the Soviet Union/Russia. Europeans should contrast and compare today’s Germany with that in 1914 or 1939 when they look back on the two calamitous wars of the twentieth century. Today’s Germany, embedded in the EU, is the most successful, progressive, democratic state in its entire history. All Europeans thus have a stake in the continued success of the EU as it provides a safe anchor for the most powerful state in Europe.

This paper considers how the 1914-18 war led to fundamental changes in European politics, economics and society, paving the way after 1945 for a historic new way of dealing with inter-state relations in Europe. It suggests that the horrors of the Great War remain alive in Europe today and colour the reluctance of most Europeans to resort to war to achieve political ends. It argues that the process of European integration has been extremely beneficial to Germany and that the German Question may finally be put to rest.

Who caused the War?

Part of the debate in today’s Europe about Germany goes back to the origins of both world wars. Many believe that because of Germany’s role in both World Wars it is too big to act as an independent nation state and has to be embedded in structures such as the EU and NATO for its own good. Thousands of books have been written about the 1914-18 conflict with many seeking to apportion responsibility for the outbreak of war. The renowned German historian, Fritz Fischer, caused a sensation in the 1960s when he published a book Griff nach der Weltmacht claiming that Germany was primarily responsible for starting the war as it had secret ambitions to annex most of Europe. In more recent times, historians such as Margaret Macmillan The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War and Christopher Clark The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 have adopted more nuanced arguments. Macmillan agrees that Germany should bear much of the responsibility as it had the power to put pressure on its Austria-Hungary ally and stop the drift to war. Clark argues that Germany, like the other major powers, sleep-walked into the war. Another famous historian, Neil Ferguson, has argued in The Pity of War that Britain should not have become involved as the stakes were too low and the ultimate costs too high.

What is perhaps more interesting is how the major powers involved have presented different narratives about their involvement in the Great War. In Germany the shame of the Nazi period including the Holocaust has meant that there has been little appetite to reflect about the 1914-18 conflict. For Russia, it is has always been the heroism and sacrifice of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45 that remain uppermost in the national psyche rather than the disasters of the First World War, including defeat and revolution. President Putin has recently lamented the changes after the First World War that left millions of Russian speakers in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. The war also means different things to the constituent parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria looks back with regret tinged with nostalgia for its glory days. Hungary still finds it difficult to accept the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon. Czechoslovakia gained its independence only to be swallowed up by Germany twenty years later. France views the war as a tragic but massive endeavour to save the motherland from Les Boches. The First World War certainly plays better in the French national memory than the defeat in 1940 followed by occupation and collaboration. For Britain, the Second World War was the ‘good war’ whereas the rights and wrongs of Britain’s participation in the First World War were less clear - and are still debated today. Each year millions of Britons wear red poppies to commemorate Armistice Day and hold memorial services around war memorials on which the names of the dead in the First World War vastly outnumber those of the Second.

The controversies about the causes, strategies and consequences of the Great War remain matters of contemporary concern. In March 2014, the British education secretary, Michael Gove, tried to reclaim this year’s commemorations for those for whom the war was a just cause fought for liberal values. He complained that for too long the conflict had been portrayed as a series of catastrophic mistakes by an aristocratic elite. The impact of the two world wars has been such that in other parts of the world politicians have been competing to draw analogies. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in February 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speculated that the Sino-Japanese territorial disputes over tiny rocky islands in the East China Sea might be analogous to the various crises that led to the outbreak of the First World War. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both likened Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of the former Czechoslovakia in 1938.

More recently Putin has spoken of the need to protect ethnic Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics including Ukraine. But Hitler had a geopolitical vision – the domination of Europe – and the reunification of German-speaking peoples was merely the means by which he could acquire the critical mass needed to attain that geopolitical end-state. Putin appears to want to restore Russia to a central global position in international politics, something the former Soviet Union enjoyed for much of the post-World War II era. It does not mean, however, that Putin seeks to restore the former Soviet empire. Surprisingly Putin’s actions have found more sympathy in Germany than other European countries with at least two former Chancellors expressing understanding for Moscow’s actions. German public opinion also seems to show more forgiveness to Russia’s actions than in other European countries, perhaps reflecting some latent war guilt. Although politicians often use historical analogies to describe an unfolding situation it does not mean that analogical reasoning is not fraught with potential dangers. It is important to note that each situation is unique although some unscrupulous political leaders often exploit these opportunities for their own ends.

The Changes resulting from the First World War

The human cost of the First World War was horrendous. More than 16 million people, both military and civilian, died in the war. An entire generation of young men was wiped away. In 1919, the year after the war was over in France, there were 15 women for every man between the ages of 18 and 30. It is tragic to consider all of the lost potential, all of the writers, artists, teachers, inventors and leaders that were killed in ‘the war to end all wars.’ But although the impact of the First World War was hugely destructive it also produced many new developments in medicine, warfare, politics and social attitudes.

The First World War changed the nature of warfare. Technology became an essential element in the art of war with airplanes, submarines, tanks all playing important new roles. Mass production techniques developed during the war for the building of armaments revolutionised other industries in the post-war years. The first chemical weapons were also used when the Germans used poisonous gas at Ypres in 1915. A century later the international community was seeking to prohibit President Assad of Syria from using chemical weapons against his own people. The Great War also led to mass armies based on conscription, a novel concept for Britain, although not on the continent. It is ironic that the principle of universal military service was introduced in Britain without the adoption of universal adult male suffrage. The war also saw the first propaganda films, some designed to help enlist US support for the Allies. The Charlie Chaplin film Shoulder Arms offers a vivid illustration of the horrors of life at the front. Propaganda films would later be perfected under the Nazis.
Modern surgery was born in the First World War, where civil and military hospitals acted as theatres of experimental medical intervention. Millions of veterans survived the war but were left maimed, mutilated and disfigured. These were the so-called ‘broken faces’ whose plight was often eased by the development of skin grafts. Blood banks were developed after the discovery in 1914 that blood could be prevented from clotting. The First World War also led doctors to start to study the emotional as opposed to the physical stress of war. Shell shock and traumatic shock were identified as common symptoms. But despite these insights and countless more sufferers in the Second World War, it was not until the aftermath of the Vietnam War that this condition was formally recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder. It was also found in troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and was often cited as a cause for many gun killings in the US.

The war also had major implications for the class structures in Europe. The upper classes suffered proportionately greater losses in the fighting than any other class, a fact that ensured that a resumption of the pre-war status quo was impossible. The decline of the upper classes was further hastened by the introduction of broad universal suffrage in Europe. The extension of the franchise, coupled with an explosion in trade unionism, afforded the working classes greater political and social representation. The various armies had also to promote new officers from humble backgrounds who were not willing to continue the culture of deference to the upper classes.

The horrors of the Great War also gave an impulse to Christian socialism with the rally cry of ‘never again’. It also forced women into jobs that had previously been a male preserve. Many of the women whom the war effort had forced out of domestic service and into factories found themselves unwilling to relinquish their new independence. The War thus gave a boost to demands for women’s emancipation. The War also sparked a peace movement that had disarmament as its main aim. It flourished briefly in the inter-war years, was reborn during the Vietnam War and found many adherents in Europe e.g. the campaign for nuclear disarmament (CND). Although less formally organised than during the 1980s, the anti-war movement in Europe showed its strength in the mass demonstrations against the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The war also had major consequences for the European socialist and labour movement. Although well organised in many countries, including Britain, France and Germany, the socialist movement failed to stop the war in 1914. Initially skilled workers in the armaments industry were not only exempted from military service but also enjoyed higher wages and better food in return for the banning of strike action. But as the war continued living and working conditions for factory workers gradually declined. Socialist groups began to agitate for peace, a process that received a boost as a result of the 1917 Russian revolution. At the end of the war in 1918 the socialist and trade union movement was much stronger than in 1914.
The Great War also saw the introduction of the planned economy and a much bigger role for the state. Soon after the outbreak of war the German government took control over banks, foreign trade and the production and sale of food as well as armaments. It also set maximum prices for various goods. When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917 they embarked on a vast nationalisation programme and later a comprehensive planned economy. The planned economy also had its adherents in other countries, especially after the twin shocks of hyperinflation in the 1920s and the Great Crisis of 1929.

Foreign policy implications

The 1914-18 conflict had a global impact. In the Middle East, for example, the British and French promised different things to the Arabs and the Jews in return for their support against the Ottoman Empire. Under the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement, London and Paris carved out respective spheres of influence in what was to become Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. But at the same time the British promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine under the equally infamous Balfour Declaration laying the foundations for the emergence of Israel and the world's most intractable contemporary conflict. When the British deceit was exposed it led to a permanent feeling of mistrust between many Arabs and European colonial powers.  Many analysts point to the European carve up of the Middle East in 1918 with the many artificial borders as the root cause of the continuing turmoil in the region today. Ethnic, sectarian and tribal differences were of little concern to the colonial-era map-makers. Iraq was formed by merging three Ottoman provinces - dominated respectively by Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. It was also cut off from Kuwait – the genesis of trouble later. The biggest losers of the post-war lottery in the Middle East were the Kurds. Nowadays this still stateless people enjoy a high degree of regional autonomy – as well as relative peace – in federal Iraq while their compatriots in Syria and Turkey face challenges from Damascus and Ankara.

As regards the map of Europe, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were broken up and drastically shrunk, while Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were all born or reborn as nation states. Russia underwent the Bolshevik Revolution that would have a major impact on European and world history. Germany was reduced in size and forced to pay substantial reparations. The Kaiser went into exile, and Germany plunged into economic and political chaos that paved the way for the rise of Hitler. The new countries were poor and often in conflict with each other. US President Wilson had talked about transparent international agreements, unfettered access to the seas and the lifting of trade barriers. These would prove utopian as was his concept of borders based on ethnicity, a concept that would be the precursor to many conflicts. The biggest of the new countries was Poland, which had disap-peared from the map for over a century after being partitioned in 1795. In 1923 when its bor-ders were finally settled, Poland had relatively good relations with only two neighbours – tiny Latvia to the north and a distant Romania to the south. If the Treaty of Versailles was deemed harsh then the Treaty of Trianon was arguably much harsher, leaving Hungary as a much reduced state with millions of Hungarians outside its borders. These minority issues were suppressed during the communist era but resurfaced post 1989 causing major problems between Romania and Hungary and Slovakia and Hungary. Inevitably the EU was also drawn into attempts to resolve these minority issues. The Stability Pact, or Balladur Plan, was devised to provide EU guidance and support for the treatment of minorities.

The real winner of the First World War was the United States. It was late in entering the war, only in 1917, but emerged far stronger than most other nations as it had not suffered either the bloodletting or the wasted industrial effort of the major European nations. It became, al-most overnight, the leading financial power in the world, elbowing Britain out of its way en route to becoming the world’s banker. The war also involved hundreds of thousands of sol-diers from the European colonies and British Dominions, including India, Australia, New Zea-land, Canada and South Africa. Their experience and loss of life helped push demands for independence. India alone sent some 100,000 troops to fight for Britain. More than 10,000 never returned home. The First World War also heralded the birth of the League of Nations, a body of nation states to promote international peace and security. Regrettably its staunchest supporter, President Woodrow Wilson was unable to persuade the American Congress that the US should join. In 1945 the US would adopt a different approach.

The financial crash of 1929 brought misery across Europe. Adolf Hitler seized the opportunity to seize power, under dubious semi-legitimate circumstances, and start building up Germany’s armed forces in contravention of the Versailles Treaty. Few in Western Europe believed that Hitler was deadly serious about creating a Greater Reich across the European continent. There were also concerns that the reparations that had been demanded by France at Versailles had been too harsh, a view expressed eloquently in The Economic Consequences of the Peace by John Maynard Keynes. When London and Paris finally awoke to the threat it was too late. By 1941 Hitler controlled half of Europe after a stunning series of Blitzkrieg victories. But Hitler over-reached himself by declaring war on the US before defeating the Soviet Union. In 1945, just thirteen years after the proclamation of the one thousand year Reich it was all over. Germany was divided and lay in ruins.

Changes from the Second World War

The Second World War was directly related to the First World War. It was the greatest and deadliest war in human history, with over 57 million lives lost. In combat, approximately eight million Russians, four million Germans, two million Chinese and one million Japanese soldiers lost their lives. Britain and France each lost hundreds of thousands. The civilian toll was probably higher – an estimated 22 million Soviet citizens were killed, and six million Jews in the Holocaust. It would take a coalition of the UK, the US and the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler after six years of bloody warfare that again brought widespread death and destruction to Europe – and to many other parts of the world. The war was not confined to Europe. It affected the Middle East, Africa and Asia causing untold suffering, not least when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.  

The war also increased demands for independence throughout much of the colonial empires still in European possession – the Dutch in Indonesia, the French in South East Asia, the Belgians in Central Africa, the British in India, etc. This was a particularly traumatic and drawn out process for the French, in Algeria and in Vietnam where they fought prolonged and bitter wars in an attempt to maintain their colonial control. The balance of global power moved from London, Paris, Berlin to Washington and Moscow. The defining paradigm for the next half century would be the Cold War. The Russian people had suffered immeasurably during the war, and western Russia was devastated by the land warfare which was primarily on Russian territory. But, in the process of defeating the Germans, the Russians had built a large and powerful army, which occupied most of Eastern Europe at the end of the war. The US economy was greatly stimulated by the war, even more so than in World War I. Spared the physical destruction of war, the US economy dominated the world economy by 1945. The US was also the major military power in the world and de facto ‘leader of the Free World.’

Like the First World War, the Second World War also brought advances in medicine and technology. Vaccinations helped lower mortality rates and boosted population growth. Pro-gress in electronics and computers fundamentally transformed the post-war world. The de-velopment of the atomic bomb by European and American scientists during the war, not only changed the nature of potential future wars, but also marked the beginning of the nuclear power industry. World War II also gave the impetus for the establishment of the United Na-tions in 1945, with the full backing of the US and other major powers. The US also helped establish the other multilateral organisations such as the IMF, World Bank and the GATT, the forerunner of the WTO. There was a determination to avoid the mistakes of the interwar years which had exacerbated the Great Depression.

One of the main results of the Second World War was the division of Europe. Huge armies stared at each other through an Iron Curtain that ran through the heart of Europe. The US marshalled Western Europe into a system of containment aimed at limiting and ultimately diminishing Soviet power. NATO was established in 1949 while a huge financial package (the Marshall Plan) helped Western European economies to recover. The division of Europe froze political change for several decades. Attempts by some Soviet satellite states to break free (East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968) were brutally suppressed by the Red Army. There was no possibility for the nations that had been bolted together in the state of Yugoslavia to establish their own identities. The pent up demand for independence would later tear the Balkans apart in the 1990s after the death of President Tito. 1954 also saw Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gift Crimea to Ukraine, a move that would later come back to haunt the European body politic in 2014 when Putin reclaimed the territory in a bloodless coup.  

By the 1980s it became clear that Soviet communism was failing to deliver the standard of living that most people enjoyed in the West. The appointment of a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1984, opened the path for a fundamental realignment of the European political landscape. His policies of glasnost and perestroika offered hope to the peoples of Eastern Europe and in 1989 he declined to send in the Red Army to suppress demonstrations for greater freedom in East Germany. In November that year the Berlin Wall came down leading to the swift unification of Germany and opening up the possibility of East European countries ‘returning to Europe’ by joining the EU.

The Rise of the EU

One of the strongest motivations for the birth of the EU was ‘never again’ should there be war in Europe, or at least not between the members of the EU. The prescient founding fathers took the highly symbolic coal and steel industries as the starting point for a new community method of government. If France and Germany shared responsibility for the industries that were at the heart of the armaments industry then there really could be no further war between these two rivals. This logic continued with the birth of the European Community in 1957. The desire to develop a new system of governance and avoid war as an instrument of policy was at the very heart of the discussions leading up to the Treaty of Rome. The EU was viewed then and continues to be viewed as a peace project. The EU has become a ‘security community’ in which the members eschew war or the threat of war in their inter-state relations. By building up a community covering most aspects of economic life, from trade to a common currency, the EU has achieved a unique model of regional           integration.

The EU (and NATO) also provided the context in which Germany was able to return to a seat with the international community. Until unification in 1991 Germany was content to take a back seat to the US on security matters and to France on EU matters. Germany was a Musterknabe of the EU and one of the strongest supporters of a federal Europe. This ap-proach began to change under the chancellorship of Gerhard Schroeder and accelerated under Angela Merkel. Germany began to play a more assertive role in defending its national interests. A further boost to Germany’s leadership role was provided by the 2008-09 financial crisis that shook the EU to its foundations. It swiftly became apparent that only Germany had the financial and economic muscle to rescue the debt-laden members of the eurozone. But Germany received little thanks for its bail-out assistance. Indeed in Greece and other Mem-ber States there were open references to Germany throwing its weight around as during the First and Second World Wars. Anti-German sentiment was also to be found in many other countries, from Spain to Hungary. There was resentment at Germany forcing austerity poli-cies on highly indebted countries and also resentment at Germany’s huge export surplus which some economists considered was one of the causes of the euro’s problems.

Implications for Europe today

Even though Germany has become the undoubted leader of the EU it is still reluctant to play a dominant role in military matters. It contributes less to European security than Britain or France: in 2013 it spent 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence, while France spent 1.9 per cent and Britain 2.3 per cent. This reflects a continuing horror of war in general and a determination that German troops should never again be used for the purposes of aggrandizement. This had led to Berlin being at odds with its EU partners, especially France and the UK, over issues such as the intervention in Libya and the proposed intervention in Syria. The burden of the two world wars is much more obvious in Berlin than Paris or London. But the reluctance to use force to achieve political aims is widespread in the EU. Only the UK and France, two members of the UNSC with a long tradition as military powers, regularly show a willingness to use force, whether in the Balkans or Africa. The US continually presses the Europeans to spend more on defence, a plea that usually falls on deaf ears. The bloody conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, however, showed that war as a means to achieve political goals has not disappeared from the European continent. The Russian military intervention in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that the Russian bear was also ready to use force to achieve its aims.

The EU response as a conflict prevention manager and peacemaker has been patchy. Tony Blair hoped that the Balkans tragedy would push the Europeans to do more. Together with Jacques Chirac he promoted a plan for the EU to have its own defence forces. Germany remained a reluctant follower although the SPD/Green coalition government did authorise German forces to be used in the NATO operation in Kosovo. The ambitious aims outlined in 1999, however, have never been realised. True, the EU has engaged in some useful peacekeeping operations in the Western Balkans and in parts of Africa. But overall the EU is not perceived as a hard security actor. This again reflects the deeply ingrained memories of the horrors of war on the European continent, especially in Germany.

The Russian de-stabilisation of Ukraine in the first half of 2014 has also brought challenges to Germany. Traditionally Germany has enjoyed a close and privileged relationship with Russia, partly due to historical ties (including war guilt) and partly due to economic and trade interests. Germany gets more than 30% of its energy from Russia. These economic ties led Germany to be very cautious about agreeing to pursue a sanctions policy against Russia. The group of Russlandversteher crossed party lines epitomised by former Chancellor Schroeder greeting Putin with a bear hug in St Petersburg at his 70th birthday party. Merkel and Steinmeier, however, seem to have grasped the enormity of Putin’s move against Ukraine and have sought to steer Germany into a middle position regarding EU policy towards Russia. Germany has also been to the fore in seeking a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis although it remains to be seen whether this will produce acceptable results.


The shadow of 1914-18 (and 1939-45) is thus still present in Europe today. Perhaps the biggest change is that military power is far less significant in European politics than it was a century ago. There is little or no appetite for using force to achieve political goals. Defence spending remains low. The numbers in Europe’s armed forces have been dramatically reduced since the end of the Cold War and despite Russian incursions into Ukraine there is little or no appetite to increase numbers. The rise of television and social media has brought the horrors of land wars and casualties instantly to a broad public. One has only to compare the public and media reactions to one soldier killed in Afghanistan to the huge numbers killed at the Somme.

But as the world moves from a hegemonic system based on the US hyper-power to a more multi-polar world this will have serious consequences for Germany and Europe. For Germany, will it be content to behave as a ‘big Switzerland’ or will it accept, as some politicians including President Gauck and Foreign Minister Steinmeier have argued, that Berlin should play a political/military role commensurate with its economic and financial power? For Europe, will it redouble efforts to deepen the European integration project, trying to ensure a closer connection between the EU institutions and European citizens? Or will it drift back into a system of nation states adopting beggar thy neighbour policies? As leader of Europe Germany again has a key role to play. It has also profited hugely from the EU and thus has a moral duty to ensure the continued success of the European project. Germany’s European partners should also pause to reflect on how the EU has contributed to a resolution of the historic ‘German question’. These gains should not be under-estimated.

The anniversary of the First World War should give us the occasion to reflect on what kind of Europe we want. A Europe dominated by populists and nationalists has never brought a more peaceful or prosperous Europe. It has only led to conflict. But as the results of the European Parliament elections in May 2014 demonstrated we cannot take the progress in European integration since 1945 for granted. We owe it to the fallen in both world wars to fight for a closer and more integrated Europe.


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