VII. The Contemporary Period, 1945–2000 > B. Europe, 1945–2000
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Economic and Social Changes)
B. Europe, 1945–2000
1. Economic and Social Changes
As in 1918, Europe after the Second World War was in ruins. Estimates of the dead range as high as 50 million, although national tolls varied greatly, from 20 million Russians to 460,000 British and Commonwealth subjects. Overall, the losses in Central and Eastern Europe far outnumbered those in Western Europe. As for the survivors, roads and major cities were clogged with displaced persons, resulting in great migrational flows. Throughout the Continent material costs were also staggering: cities had been reduced to rubble, transportation networks had been destroyed, and farms and coal mines were wastelands. Finally, the war left a divided Europe in its wake. The course of reconstruction and the features of the postwar economy and society thus differed between Western and Eastern Europe.  1
Despite such destruction, Western Europe experienced virtually unprecedented prosperity within 15 years; by 1963 it was producing more than two and a half times as much as it had before the war. Economic growth rates soared for almost two decades, particularly in Germany, France, and Italy, and standards of living reached unprecedented levels. France, for example, attained an 8 percent annual growth rate by the end of the 1950s, continued at a somewhat slower rate during the 1960s, and rose again, to 7 percent, in the early 1970s. Meanwhile real wages in France experienced a sixfold increase between 1950 and 1980. The base of this growth was consumer goods—cars, radios, televisions, and the like—prompting many to label this period in European history the consumer society. Much of this economic growth developed out of the European Recovery Program, or the Marshall Plan. The plan, announced by the United States in June 1947, provided billions of dollars to European nations to help them rebuild their economies. By 1959, the United States had spent more than $74 billion in aid. This represented both a desire to avoid the errors of post–World War I Europe and an acceptance of Keynesian economics (See Intellectual and Religious Trends). Governments became more active in economic planning, and a number of key industries were nationalized. Moreover, as a precondition to receiving U.S. aid, Western European nations began to coordinate their economic activities for maximum effectiveness. This led to the establishment of the Organization of European Economic Cooperation, the first step toward European unity.  2
Not all of Europe benefited from the Marshall Plan, however. The nations of Eastern Europe, those under Soviet domination, followed Stalin's lead and refused U.S. aid. Instead the Soviet Union and its allies founded COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) in 1949 (See 1949, Jan. 25). Designed to align socialist economies, in reality the satellite economies of Eastern Europe were all geared to the reconstruction of the Soviet Union first, and then of their own country. In keeping with socialist thought, Eastern Europe witnessed mass nationalizations of private industry. Agriculture was also collectivized, with the exception of Poland. While a measure of prosperity did rise in Eastern Europe, unlike in Western Europe, it was not built on consumer goods. The economies of the Soviet Union and its allies remained predominantly geared for heavy industry and defense.  3
The devastation of two world wars within 30 years brought forth new ideas about the state, especially about its relations with other states and with its citizenry. The end of the war ushered in a new push toward European unity, especially in Western Europe. The first steps were taken with the OEEC and the Council of Europe, but such attempts at attaining European federalism via a direct political approach foundered. The economic approach was more successful. Under the auspices of the French politicians Jean Monnet (1888–1979) and Robert Schuman (1886–1963), six European nations (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) began to integrate their economies through the European Coal and Steel Community, founded in 1951, and, with the Treaties of Rome signed in 1957, through the European Economic Community (See March 25). The goal of the Common Market, as it became known, was just that, the creation of a single free-trade area, with free movement of goods, capital, and workers. This goal was attained in 1992, after the Common Market had grown to 12 member states.  4
The rise of European unity brought with it a decline in the power of individual states to control the hearts and minds of their citizens. Nationalism, seen as a major cause of destruction in European history, began to wane. Indeed, most Europeans gave up their old dreams of glory and empire as a wave of decolonization swept through Asia and Africa. Instead, what bound citizens to their state was the vast array of services the new welfare states provided for their citizens in need. These services ranged from old-age pensions and unemployment insurance to free health services and low-income housing. In demanding such services, citizens came to accept not only larger government bureaucracies, which also provided many white-collar jobs, but also the fact that government was a much larger presence in their lives. In a short time, Europeans came to expect the government to provide services deemed necessary to daily living, making it difficult in the 1980s for those governments forced to implement austerity plans and for the citizens of Eastern Europe, who had come to expect a greater range of social services from their now-defunct communist states.  5
In all of Europe these economic and political changes accompanied social change. In Western Europe the class structure changed significantly as the importance of the nobility declined due to high taxes, and the peasantry virtually disappeared with further urban migration and new, commercial practices among the remaining farmers. The middle classes grew more diversified, open, and democratic as bureaucracies developed, and education, rather than property, became the basis of social and economic position. Thus, while businesses and governments became more complex, allowing middle-class managers to rise to positions of importance, the middle class lost the ability to pass these positions on to their children like capital. Meanwhile the traditional manufacturing working classes ceased to expand, due to technological change. Instead, the number of workers in service and white-collar positions grew rapidly, creating a large segment of the working class that had many similarities to members of the middle classes. Overall, Western European society became more mobile and more democratic as rigid social divisions softened.  6
There were limits on mobility, however. Education, the key to mobility, fell short of the egalitarian ideal. Although the number of university students had risen sharply to 24 percent of the 20 to 24 age group in Western Europe in 1978, up from less than 4 percent in 1950, children from the lower strata continued to be underrepresented in higher education. In France the proportion of university students from working-class families actually fell from 13 percent in 1974 to 9 percent in 1979. A similar division could be found in secondary education. Despite increasing enrollments, in most countries secondary education remained sharply divided into vocational and academic tracks. Immigrants were another group for whom mobility was difficult. In the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of economic prosperity, Western European nations welcomed immigrants (from Turkey, North Africa, Pakistan, the West Indies), but this came to an end in the 1970s. The children of these immigrants, not immigrants themselves, often faced the prospect of poverty, underemployment, discrimination, police harassment, and inadequate housing and schooling. They also became the object of a renewed xenophobic, anti-immigrant movement on the far Right.  7
In Eastern Europe, the social structure was altered by communist policy. The nobility lost its influence and property, as did all property owners, while most peasants became either collectivized agricultural workers or industrial workers. Officially, the middle class ceased to exist. Yet even in the presumably classless society, social distinctions developed. Instead of property, the distinguishing factor became relation to the party. Party members became the new elite, while government bureaucrats became a quasi-middle class.  8
Europeans also experienced alterations in their family life. From 1945 to the early 1960s Europe experienced a baby boom, with populations growing by 1 percent to 1.5 percent per year in many countries. These rates dropped sharply in the 1960s, however, and most countries experienced zero population growth. On the other side of the aging spectrum, Europeans were urged to think of their later years as a “third age,” in which they expected to be healthy and to engage in a host of activities they had been too busy to enjoy during their working years. This became possible as life expectancies rose and the old-age pensions provided a measure of security. But rising numbers of elderly citizens burdened the welfare state.  9
Women became more central to the economy, as both consumers and workers. Whereas it used to be that working-class women left the workforce after childbirth, taking only work they could do at home, women in postwar Europe remained in the workforce. This was due mainly to the fact that women were marrying and having all their children earlier than their mothers and grandmothers had. By the late 1960s the age at marriage for European women had dropped to 23. At the same time, women were having 80 percent of their children before they were 30. This helps to account for growing feminist dissatisfaction by the late 1960s and 1970s; women found that their traditional role as mother no longer absorbed the energy of a lifetime, yet new roles in the male-dominated world outside the family were slow to open. Nevertheless, even for middle-class wives, work outside the home became more common.  10
These economic and social developments in Western and Eastern Europe brought, for the most part, a period of stability and prosperity that lasted throughout much of the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1960s new forms of protest began to emerge, however. Older protest movements, such as trade unionism, had periodically mounted large (and usually short) strikes to win concessions from business and government, and left-wing parties led demonstrations, but none of these forms of protest did much to disturb a Western Europe remarkable for its political stability and rapid economic recovery. Class divisions ceased to be a major source of protest. Disaffection grew, however, in the late 1960s, blossoming into student protests, feminist demonstrations, and, in the 1970s, terrorism. Student movements called into question the structure of authority and the materialism of advanced industrial societies. Feminism rejected conventional assumptions about gender. By the 1970s an environmentalist movement had gathered considerable strength in several countries, as had a surprising new wave of regional and ethnic activism, which disputed the authority of central governments and in some cases even long-standing assumptions about the immutability of existing nation-states. Racial and ethnic conflict also gave rise to riots, racial attacks, antiracist demonstrations, and divisive debate over citizenship rights and immigration, especially in the 1980s.  11
While none of these developments led to the kind of general political crisis that toppled regimes in the interwar years, they signaled the end of a period of postwar complacency. This was followed shortly by economic crises in 1973 and 1979 caused by European dependence on foreign, especially Arab, oil. Most Western European nations suffered from a combination of economic stagnation and rapid inflation dubbed “stagflation.” Unemployment rose while productivity and living standards declined. Governments responded at first by borrowing, to maintain the vast systems of social services implemented after the war, but in the 1980s they turned increasingly to austerity measures. It is important to note, however, that the welfare measures implemented after the war were effective, by and large, in preventing the mass suffering that might have occurred earlier in similar circumstances. After a brief economic upswing in the mid-1980s, Europe continued to deal with sluggish national economies and their social implications.  12
In Eastern Europe, protest came earlier, and while it had economic and social undercurrents, it remained primarily political in nature. The overriding focus of discontent was Soviet domination. To be sure, not all nations experienced Soviet-brand communism similarly. After its 1956 uprising, Hungary, for example, experimented with an economy based more on consumer goods. Poland, too, took a separate path, with little collectivized agriculture and a strong Roman Catholic presence. Yet discontent emerged regularly. In Poland, the Soviet-supported government faced popular demonstrations in the 1950s and, more seriously, in the 1980s. Troops were called on to quell protests in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Despite such protest, real change came only after the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union in 1985 (See 1985, March 10). His policies of glasnost and perestroika led to far-reaching economic, social, and political reforms. By 1989 these policies had given the satellite nations of Eastern Europe enough security to break their bonds with the Soviet Union. One by one, they toppled their communist-led governments and instituted democratic reforms. Most of these revolutionary transformations were peaceful; Romania was the notable exception. This period of “revolution” came to an end in 1992 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  13
Europe clearly entered a new and uncertain period in 1989. East and West Germany were unified, but many former East Germans lost their jobs. The other nations of Eastern Europe sought economic aid in building market economies. Meanwhile, old national and ethnic rivalries long suppressed by the communists resurfaced; these caused the most damage in the former Yugoslavia. In Western Europe, economic problems muted the promise of 1992, when the 12 member nations of the Common Market became one free-trade zone and curtailed their ability to help the struggling states in the East. Finally, immigration became a problem as unemployment spurred discontent among European nationals who competed for jobs with the descendents of immigrants who had first arrived in Europe in the 1950s, when governments had eagerly accepted this needed influx of labor.  14
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.