The 1914–45 period was littered with civil wars, famines, economic depression, population displacements, ethnic cleansings, and World Wars, and yet a clear long-term demographic trend can be discerned. The total population of Europe rose from nearly 500 million in 1913 to nearly 600 million by 1950, a result of mortality falling more than fertility. In 1913 there were still very large differences in birth and death rates across Europe's regions, with the highest in eastern and southern Europe. Despite massive short-term shocks, the next thirty years were marked by huge overall declines in mortality and fertility and by a considerable narrowing of the differences across countries. One task of this chapter is to explain these developments.
A second distinctive feature of the period was the great movements and displacements of population within Europe. The underlying economic force was a large shift from agriculture to industry, matched by the move from villages to towns which is analyzed in a later section. Equally important were political forces linked to the collapse of the three multicultural empires (Ottoman, Russian, Austrian–Hungarian) which, together with the military expansions and contractions of the German Reichs in the two world wars (see Chapter 6 in this volume), led to huge population displacements, ethnic cleansings, and deaths from war, famine, and deportation.
What effect did these massive changes have on living standards? Over the whole period, real incomes rose, as did life expectancy, literacy, and education levels.