Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt smokes during a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Bergedorfer Forum of the Koerber Foundation in Berlin, September 9, 2011.
Reuters

Three speeches had a decisive impact on the economic and political rehabilitation of Europe after World War II: Winston Churchill's in Zurich in 1946 about a United States of Europe; George Marshall's at Harvard in 1947, offering American aid to Europeans struggling to escape their postwar predicament; and Robert Schuman's in Paris in 1950, proposing communal control of Europe's coal and steel resources. It would, of course, be unfair and historically inaccurate to credit these three men alone with Europe's successful revival. Many other leaders were instrumental in rebuilding the continent, and if not for Stalin's imperialism, many courageous acts in the United States and Western Europe, among them Secretary of State Marshall's plan, would have gone undone.

To understand the effects of the Marshall Plan, one must first comprehend what life was like for ordinary Germans, like me, toward the end of World War II and in those first turbulent years afterward. We had lost. I had been convinced for several years that we would, and many of my comrades in Germany's armed forces had reached a similar conclusion. During the day, we fulfilled our missions on the battlefield; at night, we hoped for a quick defeat of our own country. After the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, when my division was driven out of Belgium and Luxembourg, I complained to my commander about Germany's war strategy: prudence dictated that we concentrate our energies on the Soviets in the east, and in the west let the Americans occupy as much German soil as they wanted. Although he angrily rejected my suggestion, he did not report me.

I had imagined that when we lost the war we Germans would have to live in caves and holes in the ground, but this apocalyptic vision turned out to be much worse than our actual conditions. True, we struggled for coal and food; there were days during the winter of 1946-47 when we stayed in bed because there was nothing to eat and nothing to burn for warmth. Divided into four zones and occupied by the Allies, Germany was in agony. Its remaining industrial capacity was being dismantled, unemployment was rising, and the black market was the only market. But my generation, cut off from the rest of the world since adolescence, had a great desire for knowledge and for a new beginning. I studied economics, while my wife taught in a secondary school.

Germans who grew up in the 1930s -- I was 14 when Hitler came to power in 1933 -- did not know much about the rest of the world. Our knowledge of America was limited to the little we were taught in school: the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. role in the First World War, Black Friday on the New York Stock Exchange. When the war broke out, my ideas about economic and social conditions in the United States did not have a positive cast. Only the widespread anti-American propaganda made me suspect that the United States must have some virtues; otherwise, why would Goebbels go to such trouble to debase it in our eyes? I do not remember Churchill's or Marshall's noted pronouncements from the postwar years, but I do recall a speech in Stuttgart in September 1946 by the American secretary of state, James Byrnes. For the first time, a Western political leader projected positive, if vague, views about Germany's future.

PAX AMERICANA

In June 1948 the American, British, and French occupation authorities replaced the hopelessly inflated reichsmark with a new currency, the deutsche mark. Together with the gradual abandoning of the ration-card economy, this reform ushered in a totally different state of economic affairs. Until then, we had lived on the meager rations our cards got us, and money did not really matter, except in the shadows, where one paid six reichsmark for a single cigarette. Now money became all-important. The ration cards slowly disappeared over the next two years, and shops began to fill with goods we had only dreamed about: bread, butter, fruit, even coffee and cigarettes.

This monetary and economic revolution would never have transpired had it not been for the Marshall Plan. The American aid program became operational in Germany in the summer of 1948, about the time the deutsche mark was put in place. The Japanese currency reform of 1946 had largely failed, while that in Germany had succeeded, and the difference was the Marshall Plan. The American, British, and French zones of occupation in western Germany merged in 1949 to become the Federal Republic, and the new state was a success within a decade. I had been raised an Anglophile, but over the course of the 1950s the United States became my most-favored nation.

In 1953 I was elected to the West German parliament, the Bundestag. At the time, the Soviet military threat loomed large, and many feared that communist parties might take over parts of Western Europe, as they had to the east. The Berlin airlift of 1948-49 and the formation in 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which West Germany joined six years later, alleviated the first concern, convincing me that the United States, Canada, and their European allies had irrevocably decided to jointly defend Western Europe in case of attack. We appreciated the risk the American government had assumed and saw the United States as the military, political, and economic anchor of the security and well-being of Western Europe. The United States had proved itself a generous nation, standing by its commitments and fulfilling its promises. "Pax Americana" seemed to me an accurate description of the age, and we Germans turned in hope and faith to the United States. Yet we were troubled by a nagging concern: the strategy of massive nuclear retaliation, which the United States had adopted during the Eisenhower administration, implied that in case of war against the Soviet Union, Germany would become a major battleground.

As the postwar recovery continued, it became clear that the market-oriented Western European economies, founded on the basis of free, private enterprise, had a far more promising future than the communist command economies of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and the rest of Eastern Europe. At the same time, European integration struck me as necessary, less for economic than political reasons. After the disastrous wars of the past hundred years, in which Germany had played a key role -- the Napoleonic Wars, Bismarck's war against France, and two world wars -- I believed it desirable to bind my country into a greater European entity to prevent the recurrence of such conflict. I became a proponent of the French political economist Jean Monnet's step-by-step approach that would tie France as well as Germany into the European Economic Community.

NO GRAND PLAN

Reflecting on the late 1940s and the decades that followed, one could come to the superficial conclusion that the Cold War had proceeded according to some master plan: the Marshall Plan was established, NATO and the European Community were formed, the Soviet empire collapsed, Eastern Europe was liberated, Germany was reunified. But history is far more complicated, for the chain of events included several crises that might have erupted in war. That outcome was averted thanks to leaders who did not act according to plan, but instead relied on their moral and national visions as well as their common sense. Our understanding of the Cold War must reserve a central place for historical contingency and skilled statecraft.

Had British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin not enthusiastically embraced the Marshall Plan and had Britain and France not quickly coordinated the economic activities of the recipient countries, Marshall's idea might never have become reality. Had German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer capitulated to political pressure rather than stubbornly pursue his vision, the Schuman Plan and German membership in and contributions to NATO might not have come to pass. Had Harry Truman not reacted courageously and John Kennedy prudently, the two Berlin crises -- the Soviet blockade in the late 1940s and the erection of the wall in 1961, which cut the city in two -- might not have been overcome. Had Kennedy and his team not sensitively handled the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, it could have set the world afire. If not for the insights and efforts of Jean Monnet and later Charles de Gaulle, France and Germany might never have been reconciled.

If not for the Helsinki Act of 1975, which called for the protection of human rights throughout Europe and was signed by Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and all the other communist dictators, the dissident movements led by Lech Walesa in Poland, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Andrei Sakharov in Russia might never have emerged and persisted. Helsinki would not have occurred without West Germany's Ostpolitik -- détente with the eastern bloc -- a policy whose rationale many in the West doubted at first. China would perhaps not have grown to be a rational world power had Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger not seized the opening in the early 1970s and had Deng Xiaoping not unexpectedly pursued economic reforms while maintaining a firm grasp on power. And finally, the tensions within the Soviet Union might have resulted in outward aggression rather than the empire's implosion if not for Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost.

The United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, China, Japan, indeed most countries -- including my own -- did not pursue consistent and clear strategies over the last 50 years. Over that half-century, the perceptions and aspirations of political elites everywhere changed. New leaders came to power with new goals. Sometimes the process took decades, as with the momentous reversal of imperialism under Gorbachev. Sometimes it took just a few years, like the transformation from Mao Zedong's disastrous policies to Deng's "socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics."

De Gaulle vetoed Harold Macmillan's effort to bring Britain into the European Community, but less than a decade later, another British prime minister, Edward Heath, succeeded because the next French president, Georges Pompidou, was not opposed. John Kennedy led his country into tragedy in Vietnam, and only after many years of humiliation was Ronald Reagan able fully to restore American self-esteem and pride. But Reagan's Republican Party showed little respect for the United Nations, which America had helped design and build after World War II.

The entrepreneurial and financial elites have changed their views as well. Under Roosevelt's aegis, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White created the Bretton Woods system, which made the American dollar the keystone of the global financial system. A quarter-century later, Nixon took the dollar off the gold standard, unintentionally sparking instability in exchange rates and opening the door to unprecedented speculation in the financial markets. A new capitalist attitude arose, first in America but quickly spreading all over Europe, which put "shareholder value" above loyalty to a corporation's employees and clients -- and in some cases even one's country. Today the question seems to be: what can I do for my business and thereby for myself? In the United States and especially in Europe, governments see their powers challenged by multinational corporations, and tax evasion has become common. And the globalization of financial services weakens governments' ability to control speculative escapades.

THE FALSE PROMISE OF AID

The United States and Europe have fared much better than anyone imagined at the time of the Marshall Plan. They have produced leaders who have guided them smoothly through many unforeseen events and crises. Aldous Huxley's brave new world is not in the making, and neither Oswald Spengler's decline of the West nor Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations is unavoidable.

But grave problems, very different from those of the postwar years, lie ahead. The world's population has quadrupled in the last century, and the explosion will continue, bringing still greater misery to much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The demographic tension is already beginning to lead to wars and mass emigration to North America and Europe. Not since the end of World War II has the world seen so many millions of refugees.

The Marshall Plan is hardly the model for a solution to these coming challenges in the developing world. Over the last 50 years, the developed world has spent huge sums on development aid and the World Bank has been very active, but, with a small number of exceptions, these efforts have not been successful. Megacities, marked by poverty and violence, are mushrooming throughout the developing world. Marshall aid was successful because Europe possessed a long-standing entrepreneurial heritage, a base of business acumen, a high level of general education, and technological knowledge as well as engineering capabilities. No Marshall Plan can succeed where such prerequisites do not exist.

A large-scale Marshall Plan for Russia would probably fail because many years must pass before Russia will generate the entrepreneurial skills and develop the personal experience in decision-making among managers and employees. By contrast, China does not need such an aid program, thanks largely to the entrepreneurial heritage cultivated in the 60 million overseas Chinese, many of whom are now loyally investing in the mother country, despite its communist regime. Western corporations have followed their example, adding to the infusion of capital. In central Europe, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are on a satisfactory course toward industrial and financial development, and the three Baltic republics are hopefully beginning to move down that path. But many other countries in Eastern Europe and on the Balkan Peninsula are in dire need of help, for neither democracy nor entrepreneurship has significant roots there.

It all comes down to one basic truth: aid will be successful only where the possibility of self-help exists or can be revived. Otherwise, these efforts will be limited to mere charity.

THE INTEGRATION IMPERATIVE

By the next century, there will likely be three superpowers: the United States; Russia, for in spite of its present weakness and foreseeable crises, the country still possesses enormous territory, rich mineral resources hitherto only partially explored and even less exploited, and military might, including great strategic nuclear capabilities; and China, which has an enormous population, soon to number 1.3 billion, a strong and growing economy that will make it the world's largest exporter within three decades, a highly trained and well-equipped military, and great influence in Asia and the Pacific Rim. Both Russia and China, however, may not achieve this status: Russia's great challenge is simply maintaining its cohesion, and China must build the necessary infrastructure in the inner provinces and avoid conflict between the poor interior and the well-to-do seaboard. Japan may also deserve a place among the superpowers thanks to its huge reserves of capital as well as net capital exports, but only if the Japanese can maintain their outstanding savings rate.

As this new world emerges, what will be Europe's role and weight in international affairs? Neither Britain nor France is a world power any longer, even if they find this difficult to admit to themselves. Italy ceased to be a world power when the Germanic barbarians destroyed the Roman Empire. And, after losing two world wars and constraining itself within a web of European institutions, Germany will never again become a world power. None of the European nation-states will be sufficiently influential to pursue its national interests alone as the world comes to terms with the oncoming global paradigm shift and attempts to address the host of issues that will arise over the control of financial markets, over exchange rates and freedom of trade, arms control, limits on population growth, and the deterioration of the atmosphere and the oceans. Only a vital European Union will have the political, economic, and financial weight to exert an influence on global affairs equal to that of the three superpowers. This perception is gaining ground among the leaders of the EU, and it provides an additional strategic motivation for European integration.

When Churchill spoke of the United States of Europe in 1946, he clearly had two strategic motives in mind: a barrier against Soviet imperialism and protection from future German expansion. Given the current weakness of Russia, Churchill's first concern is no longer relevant, but the second remains valid. In 1946 West Germany had some 40 million inhabitants, and by 1989 it had a population of more than 60 million, largely because of the influx of German refugees from the east. Since reunification, Germany's population is over 80 million, almost one-and-a-half times that of Britain or France and double that of Poland. Germany's preponderance in Europe poses a potential threat to the stability of the continent, and it must be bound into Europe-wide institutions, as Monnet and de Gaulle understood, and French President Jacques Chirac understands today.

During the 1960s the Common Market enabled the six participating countries -- France, Italy, West Germany, and the three Benelux countries -- to grow faster economically than the European countries outside the European Community. The EC’s economic success has led eight additional countries to join the community since the early 1970s: Ireland, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Austria, Sweden, and Finland. The quest for economic advantage is the third strategic motive for European integration. Only Britain joined the EC for a different reason: to retain her influence over European affairs.

A fourth strategic motive, maintaining European influence in world affairs, is becoming ever more important. In the postwar period America fostered European integration because it furthered U.S. strategic interests. It was also natural that during the Cold War West Germany participated in the integration process while maintaining a close relationship with the United States, since Germany's security ultimately rested more on the United States than on its European allies. Because of this basic strategic reality, de Gaulle never succeeded in enticing Germany away from the United States. During nine years of very close personal cooperation with my French friend Valery Giscard d'Estaing -- first as ministers of finance, and then as France's head of state and West Germany's federal chancellor -- he and I carefully avoided letting Germany's strategic preference be called into question.

But today Germany no longer lives under the Soviet threat, and Russia will not in the future occupy as important a place in German strategic thought. Naturally, NATO and the alliance with the United States no longer have the same influence on German grand strategy. Germany will remain in the alliance, but European integration -- further development of the EU and close cooperation with France -- is increasingly important. Germany remains thankful to the United States for the help and encouragement it received throughout the Cold War, and America can rely on this gratitude. On the other hand, the United States must understand that in the next century Germany will not automatically take its side in disputes between Washington and Paris. Germany's vital interest dictates that it not become isolated or insulated from its European neighbors, and France is the most important. It was France that first extended its hand in reconciliation with its traditional German enemy, and the two countries are now striving for a common European currency as both attempt to overcome mass unemployment. Other steps will follow: enlargement of the union, deeper and stronger EU institutions and infrastructure, and, later, a common foreign and security policy.

This process will of course experience crises and failures, as many as have plagued integration since 1954, when the French parliament voted down the creation of a European Defense Community. But I am confident that France and Germany possess sufficient political will and ability to overcome all such future crises. The basic strategic motives underlying integration will carry more weight than any transitory conflicts that might arise out of domestic politics, ideology, or vanity.

The European Union still has far to go. It is an undertaking unique in the history of humankind. Union members are, all of us, determined to maintain our different national languages, heritages, and identities. Nevertheless, we are joining together, not because of a dictator or conqueror, not because of one superior power, but because of our common belief that a strong and vital EU will best serve our respective national interests, however great the global transformations of the next century.

Some Americans frown on this prospect. They suspect that the new currency, the Euro, will detract from the importance of the American dollar. They suspect that a common EU foreign policy will weaken the hitherto dominant American influence over Europe's foreign policy. But they should rest assured that Europeans will remain committed to the values that they share with Americans: democracy, human rights, the freedom and dignity of the individual, and justice. Europe and America are closely linked by history, religious belief, philosophy and literature, and civic, democratic, and economic norms. These bonds will last. And the United States ought not to forget that the emerging European Union is one of its own greatest achievements: it would never have happened without the Marshall Plan.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now