Did the Second World War fundamentally affect the history of Belgium, France and the Netherlands? Was it a turning point, an experience that created something substantially new? Seen from a continental perspective, this seems doubtful. The war did not redraft the frontiers of these countries. Most of their displaced populations returned to the places from which they came. There were casualties, but their numbers did not exceed 2 per cent of the population. Some groups were hit harder than others, particularly the Jewish community, but they did not constitute numerically large segments of pre-war society. Material damage was repaired quickly in Belgium, more slowly in France and slower still in the Netherlands, but these countries did not lie entirely in ruins. The power balance between political parties changed little, tilted perhaps slightly to the left, but no substantially new political forces emerged, and – apart from the fascists — no substantial old political forces disappeared. The constitution was unchanged in Belgium and the Netherlands. In France, at least in the eyes of many contemporaries, and certainly in the eyes of those who voted for its thorough reform in 1958, the Fourth Republic differed only slightly from its predecessor.
The same question applied to the countries of Eastern Europe elicits a different answer. Frontiers were redrafted. Death rates reached double figures, with peaks in Poland and the Soviet Union. Population displacement to different countries was permanent. The genocide of the Jews implied the destruction of a centuries-old culture of Yiddishland, representing entire social strata of urban culture, and locally affecting 40–60 per cent of the population. Jews continued to flee Eastern Europe after the war. So did eight million ethnic Germans and hundreds of thousands of political refugees, leaving the eastern part of Europe demographically transformed and in a state of complete social and political turmoil. Democracy and industrialisation had never really taken root, and modernisation of the eastern half of the continent was left to new communist regimes.
Observers who propose that the Second World War changed the