Churchill Archive Platform - Post War Europe

On VE Day, 8 May 1945, much of Europe was in ruins. Millions of people had been killed or were severely injured. Many countries suffered twice. First they were defeated and occupied by the German armies and their economies geared to support the German war effort. They were then damaged again as the Allies advanced on the Eastern and Western fronts and the German armies retreated. There were severe shortages of food and raw materials and a risk of starvation and epidemics of disease. After the end of the First World War, millions of Europeans had died from epidemics of influenza and typhus. Many feared the same would happen again after the even more destructive Second World War.

To compound the economic problems, there was a crisis of political legitimacy. Britain was the only European country, apart from neutral Sweden, Switzerland and Portugal, that had not been allied with, or invaded and occupied by, the Axis powers. Some European governments were tainted by collaboration with the Nazis. Others, newly established in 1945, drew their authority from the occupying power, rather than from established tradition or democratic elections.

Despite massive losses of men and materials, the Soviet Union emerged from the war as a clear victor and new global superpower. In countries in Eastern Europe, liberated by the Soviet armies, new governments were established in which leading communists, who had often spent the war in exile in Moscow, held predominant or controlling positions.

Germany was divided into four zones of occupation. The British Zone was the largest of the four by population and the most heavily industrialised. But instead of taking on an asset (which could be used to assist British economic recovery) the British Zone was a liability, with chronically low levels of industrial production, severe shortages of raw materials, and a population that was short of food and often close to starvation. The British Zone merged with the US Zone at the end of 1946 and with the smaller French Zone in 1949 to form the Federal Republic of (West) Germany, while the Soviet Zone became a separate (East) German state, the German Democratic Republic.

Economically Britain had been damaged less than most other countries in Europe, although industrial production had become unbalanced by the diversion of resources to support the war effort and the government was dependent on financial support from the US. The British Empire was still intact. The special relationship with the United States had been reinforced by the wartime alliance, and the ease of communication with people who shared a common language. British politicians, both Conservative and Labour, accepted the responsibility that accompanied their status as leaders of a great power, and participated fully in negotiations that attempted to create a post-war settlement and minimise the risk of another, third, world war.

The wartime coalition government was dissolved on 23 May 1945, but Churchill remained as Prime Minister until the results of the general election were announced at the end of July. He was then out of office until the start of his second term as Prime Minister in October 1951, but remained an influential figure as leader of the opposition and revered global statesman.

Where to find documents in the Churchill Archives

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.

Now the war is over

The Churchill Archive provides revealing insights into some of the problems facing the British government in the first three months after the end of the war in Europe, while the war in the Far East continued until the surrender of Japan in August. Food and essential supplies such as petrol continued to be rationed in Britain throughout the immediate post-war period as they were in Germany and most of Europe. The end of the war in Europe brought cheering crowds onto the street of London on VE May, 8 May 1945, but governments and ordinary people across Europe faced an uncertain future. While CHAR 20 highlights some of the international issues that remained unresolved at the end of the war in Europe, CHAR 23/14, Churchill’s directives to the War Cabinet from 29 December 1944 to 17 July 1945, can help place these in context and illustrate some of the other foreign and domestic issues he was grappling with at the time.

  • Churchill’s official correspondence – mainly telegrams and associated materials - from 6 May to 26 July 1945, while he was still Prime Minister [CHAR 20/218 to CHAR 20/222] illustrates some of the challenges he faced once the war in Europe had ended. You can browse the files sequentially by date, using the catalogue references to decide which documents to select and read in full. Alternatively you might like to trace specific themes such as his correspondence with President Truman or Marshal Stalin, or explore topics such as preparations for the Potsdam conference, code-named Terminal. Much of the correspondence relates to British and US disputes with the Soviet Union over the future government of Poland and over Marshal Tito’s reluctance to withdraw troops from the city of Trieste and the Istrian peninsular on the disputed north-eastern border of Italy with Yugoslavia [CHAR 20/218/75]. Churchill and President Truman also clashed with General de Gaulle over his reluctance to withdraw Free French troops from a corner of north-west Italy they had occupied at the end of the war [CHAR 20/220/107].
  • The situation in Poland was of particular concern. Churchill suggested that he and President Truman arrange a meeting with Stalin in some ‘unshattered town’ in Germany to try to resolve the issue [CHAR 20/218/84-5, CHAR 20/218/86-8]. Two telegrams to Truman also include early references to ‘an iron curtain drawn down upon the front’ between the areas occupied by the Soviet Union and the western Allies [CHAR 20/218/109-110, CHAR 20/220/72-73]. At times Churchill made use of colourful and decidedly undiplomatic language to make his point, such as references to a ‘Muscovite tentacle, of which Tito is the crook’, in a telegram instructing Field Marshal Alexander to assemble British forces in Italian territory disputed with the Yugoslavian forces, in case ‘unpleasantness arises’ [CHAR 20/218/7], and to ‘land grabbing’ by Marshal Tito, in an exchange of telegrams with Truman [CHAR 20/218/103-105, CHAR 20/220/45-6]. Stalin’s telegrams, on the other hand, are a model of diplomacy and the use of subtle argument, such as his conciliatory reply on the Yugoslav dispute [CHAR 20/219/116-117].
  • A memo from Orme Sargent, Deputy Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, headed ‘Stocktaking after VE Day’ highlighted the two main issues the Foreign Office believed that Britain faced in Europe: ‘the military occupation by Soviet troops of a large part of Eastern Europe’ and ‘the economic rehabilitation of Europe so as to prevent a general economic collapse’ [CHAR 23/14 (images 80-84)]. The problem of rebalancing the British economy in peacetime is illustrated by a directive from Churchill suggesting that the armed services no longer required the 640 airfields they had operated during the war, and could reduce the number to around 250 for use by the ‘peace time Royal Air Force’ [CHAR 23/14 (images 63-65)]. Concerns over food supplies are illustrated by a remarkably detailed memo prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture at the Prime Minister’s request, proposing measures to increase domestic production of ‘pork, bacon and eggs’ [CHAR 23/14 (images 51-52)]. Throughout this period government ministers were preoccupied with ‘the clatter of the general election’, while Churchill called on his ministerial colleagues for an ‘intensive effort’ during July 1945 to make ‘substantial progress’ on a ‘Programme for July’, from preparations for Terminal – the Potsdam conference – to demobilisation, housing, and legislation to introduce a ‘National Health Service’ [CHAR 23/14 (images 71-72)].

'Let German live'

How and why did British attitudes towards Germany, the former enemy, change after the end of the war? The Churchill Archive includes documents highlighting some of the problems the British faced in Germany in the immediate post-war period [CHAR 20], while Churchill’s own views on the subject can be found in his speeches [CHUR 5]. All Churchill’s speeches were widely reported in the press and his views both influenced and reflected evolving British attitudes.

  • The Potsdam conference from 17 July to 2 August 1945 was designed to resolve differences between the three great powers - the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union - over the future treatment of Germany [CHAR 20/222/39]. Churchill had originally hoped to stay until the conference finished, regardless of the outcome of the general election [CHAR 20/222/32], but had to leave before it ended, when the results of the General Election were announced on 26 July. Attlee returned to Potsdam as Prime Minister and on 2 August, the day the conference closed, he sent Churchill an advance copy of the communiqué released later that day to the press [CHUR 2/3 (images 65-97)]. The full, confidential, 326 page British record of the proceedings is also available in the Archive [CHAR 20/236].
  • At the time Churchill seemed reasonably content with the outcome of the Potsdam conference, which confirmed decisions made at the earlier summit at Yalta [CHAR 23/15], including the division of Germany into four zones of occupation and the payment of substantial reparations by Germany to the Soviet Union, but each of the Allies subsequently interpreted the agreement in different ways to suit their own interests. Even before the Potsdam conference opened, it was starting to become apparent that many of the more intractable problems the British faced in their zone of Germany were not those that had been anticipated in wartime planning for the occupation, such as shortages of food and coal, and the continued employment of German officials who had been ‘nominal’ members of the Nazi Party, in order to keep essential services running [CHAR 20/233, CHAR 20/220/31, CHAR 20/220/47].
  • Churchill’s first major speech on Foreign Affairs in the House of Commons as leader of the opposition demonstrates how far his thinking had evolved by June 1946 [CHUR 5/6A-C]. The file includes a typed draft of the speech with handwritten amendments, two sets of draft speaking notes, also with handwritten amendments, and the final version as delivered in the House, printed in Hansard [CHUR 5/6A-C (images 227-232)]. The speech concludes: ‘Let Germany live. Let Austria and Hungary be freed. Let Italy resume her place in the European system. Let Europe arise again in glory, and by her strength and unity ensure the peace of the world’ [CHUR 5/6A-C (image 232)]. The speaking notes include some words and passages that were later deleted or which he chose not to say in the House, for example because he may have run out of time. They are therefore not a fully accurate record of the speech as delivered in Parliament, but they do convey the rhythm and the force of his argument better than the comparatively bland printed Hansard transcript. For example: ‘The danger to European peace … is not, at the moment, Germany’ [CHUR 5/6A-C (image 188)],v his fear of Soviet expansion [CHUR 5/6A-C (image 190)], and his hopes for the future [(CHUR 5/6A-C image 194)] including the phrase ‘Let Germany live and thrive’.

The Campaign for a United Europe

The United Europe Movement was a major campaign, led by Churchill, with widespread popular support both in Britain and across Europe. It advocated greater unity between the countries in Europe, as a means of achieving political stability and economic reconstruction after the physical, economic, social, cultural and moral destruction of war. In addition to highlighting a belief shared by many people across Europe that the only way to recover from the destruction of war was to work together and cooperate with each other, the Archive can help answer a question that has been widely debated during and after the Brexit referendum of 2016: did Churchill’s vision for a United Europe include or exclude Britain, as part of Europe?

  • The origins of Churchill’s advocacy for a ‘United States of Europe’ can be traced back to an article he wrote in 1930 while on a trip to the US [CHAR 8/303 (images 4-12)], and to two early post-war speeches, in Brussels on 16 November 1945 [CHUR 5/2A-D (images 170-197)] and to the States General of the Netherlands on 9 May 1946 [CHUR 5/5A-B (images 311-336)], both of which concluded: ‘I see no reason why under the guardianship of the world organization [i.e. the United Nations] there should not ultimately arise the United States of Europe … which will unify this continent in a manner never known since the fall of the Roman Empire and within which all its peoples may dwell together in prosperity, in justice and in peace.’
  • Churchill first launched his campaign for a United Europe in a speech entitled ‘The Tragedy of Europe’ at Zurich University on 29 September 1946 [CHUR 5/8A-C (images 300-638)]. He gave two further important speeches on the subject at a United Europe rally at the Albert Hall, London on 14 May 1947 [CHUR 5/12/A-E (images 309-629)] and at the Congress of Europe, at The Hague, a year later in May 1948 [CHUR 5/18A-D (images 1-321)]. If you just want to read the speeches, the large volume of material in the CHUR 5 files, including typed drafts with handwritten amendments and multiple versions of Churchill’s speaking notes, can make it difficult to find the final version as delivered to the audience. The best source for the Zurich speech is probably the final speaking notes [CHUR 5/8/145-162] as there is no printed version available. For the Congress of Europe speech at The Hague, the best sources are the speaking notes [CHUR 5/18/23-53] or a printed version [CHUR 5/18A-D (images 68-72)]. The best source for the Albert Hall speech is probably the version printed in a United Europe pamphlet [CHUR 2/18 (images 23-28)], which includes Churchill’s speech [CHUR 2/18 (images 11-15)], the organisation’s ‘Statement of Policy’ [CHUR 2/18 (image 9)] and the other speeches given at the rally. However, a detailed reading of the larger files in CHUR 5 can show how Churchill’s thinking evolved as he worked on a speech, and also reveal interesting aspects included in early drafts but subsequently deleted.
  • At Zurich in September 1946 Churchill said he would ‘astonish’ his audience by advocating reconciliation between France and Germany [CHUR 5/8 (image 13)]. On whether Britain should be part of a united Europe, however, his wording was ambiguous. He implied that Britain would play a leading role: ‘if we are to form the U.S. of Europe … we must begin now’ [CHUR 5/8 (image 15)], but concluded that Britain and ‘mighty America’ would be the ‘friends and sponsors of the new Europe’, rather than that Britain would itself form part of a ‘United States of Europe’ [CHUR 5/8 (image 18)]. Following the formation of the United Europe Movement in January 1947, however, his rhetoric changed to a clear commitment that, rather than standing aside, ‘Britain is part of Europe and must be prepared to make her full contribution to European unity’ [CHUR 2/18 (image 9)]. In his speech at the Albert Hall rally the following May, Churchill emphasised that Britain should play a leading role, as an integral part of Europe: ‘the wholehearted efforts both of France and Britain will be needed from the outset. They must go forward hand in hand. They must in fact be founder partners in this movement’ [CHUR 2/18 (image 13)]. A year later at the Congress of Europe at The Hague in May 1948, he spoke in similar terms: ‘We must aim at nothing less than the union of Europe as a whole’ CHUR 5/18 (image 47), CHUR 5/18 (image 50).
  • Churchill’s official papers during his second term as Prime Minister, from October 1951 to April 1955 [CHUR 6] are relatively sparse compared to the wealth of information available in the Archive on his wartime premiership. You will have to look elsewhere for answers to questions such as why, despite Churchill’s advocacy of a United Europe, Britain did not participate more fully in early steps towards the creation of the European Union, including the European Coal and Steel Community, created by the Treaty of Paris in April 1951 (while a Labour Government was still in office) or the Messina conference in June 1955 (after Churchill had retired as Prime Minister in April 1955), which led to the Treaty of Rome and the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957.
  • Churchill’s extensive and wide-ranging correspondence with US President Eisenhower between February 1953 and March 1955 [CHUR 6/3A-C] provides an insight into his personal situation during his second term. In a letter dated 1 July 1953 he told Eisenhower that he had recently suffered a severe stroke which completely (though temporarily) paralysed his left side [CHUR 6/3A/92-93)]. He added that he had had another similar attack in 1949, but had been able to keep this secret. Churchill was born in November 1874, so was nearly 77 years old when his second term as Prime Minister started in 1951. Perhaps it is therefore not surprising that highly complex European relations were increasingly handled by his Foreign Secretary and later successor as Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. It was Eden who successfully negotiated the Paris Agreements of 1954 which created the Western European Union and brought Germany and Italy into an agreed security framework with Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, closely associated with NATO and the United States. In the final year of his second term, Churchill’s vision for a United (Western) Europe was thus realised in the field of mutual security. The economic integration of Western Europe came later in 1957, when he was no longer Prime Minister, with the Treaty of Rome and the creation of a European Economic Community that now excluded Great Britain.

See also...

‘Winston Churchill and the Cold War’ – Kevin Ruane