Alexis de Tocqueville once remarked, "There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. . . . Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world." He wrote this prophetic passage in 1835. More than one hundred years later, and following the devastation resulting from two world wards, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two superpowers, larger perhaps than any the world has ever known. Before the Second World War ended, these two Great Powers engaged in marked disagreements over the future of Europe, and the world. When the battles ended, a new war, a Cold War, emerged on the world scene. It was a war of words and ideologies, spheres of influence, and containment. Both sides had "the bomb." Would anyone dare use it again? It seemed that the only way world peace could be made a reality was through the threat of nuclear holocaust.
Josef Stalin died in March 1953. His political associates bemoaned his loss but perhaps breathed a sigh of relief at the same time. Power fell into the hands of Nikita Khrushchev. In 1956 he gave his famous "secret speech," in which he denounced the excesses of the Stalinist regime (of which he was a part). Khrushchev was careful, however, to admit that communism was here to stay. Ever since World War II came to an end, Stalin had been busy building up his spheres of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, making satellite states loyal to Moscow in every possible way. Meanwhile, the United States aided the economic recovery of Europe with funds provided through the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Germany was the nexus of activity, and in an odd bit of geometrical planning, it was divided into four zones of influence. Berlin was divided as well. It was a division that would last until November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The impact of thirty years of war was not easily forgotten in Europe. The Depression, Hitler, and the Holocaust had an indelible long-term impact on the European psyche. Recovery was necessary, and it came so quickly that historians still speak of the economic miracle of the 1950s. All of this took place in the context of the Cold War. It seemed to most people that better days had finally come.
One of the distinctive features of the last fifty years was the rapid disintegration of European empires. The British perhaps had the most to lose from their loss of empire, since their empire had been one of the most extensive before the Great War began in 1914. From the perspective of the West, the post-colonial period meant that the populations of entire continents have regained some form of self-government. The process of decolonization was uneven and unique to each colonial powersome European nations simply withdrew from their colonies, while others demanded new constitutional arrangements. In a third instance, the Western powers were drawn into complicated and violent struggles, characterized notably by the French struggle in Algeria and the French and American struggle in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, George Orwell and Hannah Arendt cautioned everyone against totalitarianism, which came in a number of disguises. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus exited the war with a "dreaded freedom." How shall man know what to do in a world without God and without meaning? The only way out of "bad faith" was total commitment. Yet Europeans still needed to cope with the realities of war, atomic weapons, and Nazi genocide. The responses ranged from repressing the past to mythologizing it.