December 2020

Ruin and Renewal

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When World War II ended, Europe was devastated. There were over 40 million displaced people across the continent, including 8 million civilians in Germany alone, 10% of them Jewish. Malaria, tuberculosis and famine were serious threats in areas that lacked a stable society, moral authority and basic infrastructure. In his wide-ranging and consistently enlightening Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II, Paul Betts shows how efforts to “civilize” these devastated regions influenced much of our world today. His account combines political, cultural and intellectual history, while also touching on science, religion, photography, architecture and archaeology.

The first humanitarian efforts were waged by foreign volunteers from both secular and religious groups. Among the many agencies was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, made up of workers from 44 countries. They offered help to the “victims of German and Japanese barbarism,” and their legacy is mixed, but the organization “did forge a new language of civilization . . . for postwar Europe.”

Other types of aid had religious overtones. In 1946 Winston Churchill asserted that there “can be no revival of Europe without a spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.” His message of forgiveness went as far as a personal contribution to the defense fund for German officers accused of war crimes. Likewise, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower shaped a good deal of U.S. foreign policy according to their Christian beliefs.

The first half of the book focuses on the European continent, and the second half concentrates on Europe’s changing role in the wider world with regard to empire and decolonization. In all, this splendid overview provides striking new insights about where the Western world has been and where we may be going.

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