Who decides what counts as “civilization”? After the destruction that Europe faced during World War II, the answer seemed less obvious than it once was. For centuries, Europeans had forced their conception of what makes a superior civilization onto their colonies. But after seeing the horrors of fascism during the war and enduring an Allied occupation in the postwar era, it was harder for Europeans to argue that theirs was the most civilized society in the world.
Paul Betts’s Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II examines how, as Europeans physically rebuilt after the war, they sought to craft a new European identity. In both the Eastern and Western blocs, the survivors of World War II reckoned with the reasons the war occurred, the ways it transformed society, and what kind of Europe should emerge from the rubble. Christian democrats, communists, humanitarians, pacifists, and many others fought to stake their claim on the emerging postwar order. At the heart of these debates, Betts writes, was the question of who should define “civilization.” Betts’s narrative traces these intellectual clashes between the Eastern and Western blocs over the course of the Cold War, and he details their repercussions not only for Europe but also for the parts of the world that Europe had governed.
Betts begins his analysis with the understudied role of humanitarians working in Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Western Allies and the Soviet Union collaborated through the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to provide aid to Europeans regardless of national origin. The aid workers whom UNRRA deployed to find displaced peoples, provide aid, and console those who had lost loved ones were mainly religious officials. Europe found itself at the center of global missionary activity, and Betts argues that its presence laid the ideological foundations for the Christian Democratic coalitions in Germany and Italy. But before too long, humanitarian aid became politicized. Within two years, Soviet leadership viewed UNRRA religious officials as potential spies and threats to secular communism, and they rejected UNRRA aid in favor of their own humanitarian vision.
In addition to the Christian missionary efforts, the Allied powers carried out the Nuremberg Trials in hopes of providing a new foundation for “civilization” in Europe: justice. In an effort to show a dedication to accountability in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Europe, American, British, French, and Soviet legal teams cooperated to prosecute those who were complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. But tensions over the definition of justice created a rift between the Eastern and Western blocs. Betts points to the politically motivated trial of Cardinal József Mindszenty for treason as an example of how communist Hungary weaponized the desire for justice, using it to silence religious and political dissent and consolidate political control. The Western media published pictures of Mindszenty during his trial and charged Hungarian officials with drugging and beating the cardinal to obtain his confession. In the face of religious persecution by communists, citizens of the Western bloc saw defending religious principles as their duty. European concepts of “civilization” became divided, and foundational principles such as humanitarianism and justice were subject to politicization from both the United States and the Soviet Union.
This civilizational debate between the East and West eventually spilled over into European colonies. Watching their colonizers plunge into a second world war, African nations increased their calls for more autonomy or outright independence, and many gained it in the 1940s. By the next decade, the United States had claimed the mantle of defender of Western civilization and sought to export the benefits of democracy and free-market capitalism to Africa while limiting the spread of communism. Betts analyzes the efforts of organizations such as the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to create a concept of “World Civilization” friendly to Western interests. As a gesture to mend the tensions from decolonization, Western members of the UN sought to designate cultural sites throughout the decolonized world, but many of these countries’ leaders viewed this gesture with suspicion. Instead, African nations formed their own ideas about what a decolonized Africa should look like. Borrowing from Western liberal traditions, leaders like Kwame Nkrumah encouraged Africans to engage in political-liberation efforts in the famous “Declaration to the Colonial Peoples of the World.” Nkrumah was elected as Ghana’s first president, and he aimed to peacefully guide the country through nation-building and cultural development independent of its previous British overlords. But not all African nations had a peaceful transition to decolonization. Algerians built their country’s identity through the violent overthrow of their French colonizers. Many Algerian intellectuals encouraged a return to the region’s Islamic history, and in some cases Islamic fundamentalism, to create a national identity. Although French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir took an active stance against the war in Algeria, the conservative French media portrayed the conflict as an existential struggle between Western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism. As these newly-formed nations gained their independence, Western Europe could no longer force its influence upon these former colonies, and as a result, the centuries-long established narrative that European “civilization” was superior to its African subjects no longer held sway.