Once the Cold War began in 1947, Europe was just one of the stages on which it was played out around the world. Cold War divisions were perhaps stronger in Europe than anywhere else, however, because the European subcontinent was geographically divided along the lines of the Cold War: in the west the prevailing political and economic pattern was a combination of democracy and a regulated market capitalism, while in the east it was of Soviet-dominated communist rule and command economies. The contrast was all the more striking in that both sides of the Cold War divide began in similar circumstances – devastated by World War II – yet within a decade the west was in the midst of an unprecedented economic boom while the east remained in relative economic stagnation.


A map showing the division of Europe during the Cold War (Source: Wikimedia)

Social Democracy

In the aftermath of the war, the most important and noticeable political change in Europe was the nearly universal triumph of democratic forms of government. All of the governments of Western Europe, except Spain and Portugal, granted the right to vote to all adult citizens after the war. And, for the first time, this included women. The last European nation to grant women the right to vote was Switzerland (1971).

Europeans embraced a specific form of democratic politics and market economics known as “social democracy.” This is defined as a commitment on the part of government to ensure not just the legal rights of its citizens, but also a base minimum standard of living and access to employment opportunities as well. Social democracy was born of the experience of the war. The people of Europe had simply fought too hard in World War II to return to the conditions of the Great Depression, or the bitter class struggles of the prewar period.


A photograph of Alva Myrdal, a prominent figure in the Swedish Social Democratic Party in the 1930s and a pioneer in the development of the welfare state in Sweden in the post-War years (Source: Wikimedia)

With this commitment to social democracy, the modern welfare state came into being. The principle behind the welfare state is that it is impossible to be happy and productive without certain basic needs being met. Among the most important of those needs are adequate healthcare and education, both priorities that the governments of postwar Western Europe embraced. By the end of the 1950s, 37% of the income of Western European families was indirect, subsidies “paid” to them by their governments in the form of housing subsidies, food subsidies, health care, and education. European governments devoted four times more income to social services in 1957 than they had in 1930.

The results of state investment in citizen welfare were striking. By the end of the 1960s, most Western European states provided free high-quality medical care, free education from primary school through university, and various subsidies and pensions. In part because of the strength of postwar leftist (both communist and socialist) parties, trade unions won considerable rights as well, with workers entitled to pensions, time off, and regulated working conditions. Thus, as the economies of the Western European states expanded after the end of the war, their citizens enjoyed standards of living higher than any generation before them, in large part because wealth was distributed much more evenly than it had ever been.

The welfare state was paid for by progressive taxation schemes and a very large reduction in military spending; one of the benefits of western Europe’s alliance with the US, and European commitment to the UN, was that it was politically feasible to greatly reduce the size of each country’s military, with the understanding that it was the US that would lead the way in keeping the threat of a Soviet invasion in check. For instance, even as military spending skyrocketed for the US and the Soviet Union, it dropped to less than 10% of the GDP of Great Britain by the early 1960s and steadily declined from there in the following years. Likewise, as we will see in future sections in this chapter, with the long-term trend of decolonization, there was no longer a need for large imperial armies to control colonies. Instead, “control” shifted to a model of economic relationships between the former colonial masters and their former colonial possessions.

Watch and Learn

To learn more about Social Democracy and the rebuilding of Europe after World War II, watch Crash Course in European History, #42.


Also, in stark contrast to the political situation of the interwar years was the power of the political center. Simply put, the far right had been completely compromised by the disastrous triumph of fascism. Just about all major far-right parties had either been fascistic themselves or allied with fascism before the war, and in the war’s aftermath far-right politicians were forced into political silence by the shameful debacle that had resulted in their prewar success. Fascistic parties did not re-emerge in earnest until the 1960s, and even then they remained fringe groups until the 1990s.

At the same time, the far left, namely communists, were inextricably tied to the Soviet Union. This was a blessing for communist parties in the immediate aftermath of the war, but became a burden when the injustices of Soviet society became increasingly well known in the west. The problem for western communists was that communist parties were forced to publicly support the policies of the Soviet Union. In the immediate postwar period that was not a problem, since the USSR was widely admired for having defeated the Nazis on the eastern front at tremendous cost to its people. In the postwar period, however, the USSR quickly came to represent nothing more than the threat of tyranny to most people in the west, especially as it came to dominate the countries of Eastern Europe.

Thus, with the right compromised by fascism and the left by communism, the parties in power were variations on the center-left and center-right, usually parties that fell under the categories of “Socialists” (or, in Britain, the Labor Party) and “Christian Democrats.” In turn, at least for the thirty years following the war, neither side deviated significantly from support for social democracy and the welfare state. The ideological divisions between these two major party categories had to do with social and cultural issues, of support or opposition to women’s issues and feminism, of the stance toward decolonization, of the proper content of the state-run universities, and so on, rather than the desirability of the welfare state.

The Postwar Boom and Cultural Change

With the governments of Western Europe sharing these fundamental characteristics, they sought to ease trade across their borders, forming federalist bodies meant to make economic cooperation easier. In 1957, the governments of central continental Europe came together and founded the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the Common Market. They created a free trade zone and coordinated economic policies in such a manner that trade between them increased fivefold in the years that followed.

While the memory of immediate postwar rationing and penury was still fresh, fueled by coordinated government action and Marshall Plan loans, Western European countries were able to vault to higher and higher levels of wealth and productivity less than a decade after the end of the war. Real Wages grew in England by 80% from 1950 to 1970, French industrial output doubled between 1938 and 1959, and West Germany’s exports grew by 600% in the 1950s. The years between 1945 and 1975 were described by a French economist as the trente glorieuses: the thirty glorious years. It was a time in which regular working people experienced an enormous, ongoing growth in their buying power and standard of living.

With the welfare state in place, many people were willing to spend on non-essentials, buying on credit and indulging in the host of new consumer items like cars, appliances, and fashion. In short, the postwar boom represented the birth of the modern consumer society in Europe. Most people were able to buy clothes that followed fashion trends, middle-class families could afford creature comforts like electric appliances and televisions, and increasingly working families could even afford a car, something that would have been unheard of before World War II.

Part of this phenomenon was the baby boom. While not as extreme in Europe as in the United States, the generation of children born in the first ten years after WWII was very large, pushing Europe’s population from 264 million in 1940 to 320 million by the early 1970s. A child born in 1946 was a teenager by the early 1960s, in turn fueling the massive explosion of popular music that resulted in the most iconic musical expression of youth culture: rock n’ roll. The “boomers” were eager consumers as well, fueling the demand for fashion, music, and leisure activities.

Meanwhile, the sciences saw breakthroughs of comparable importance to those of the second half of the nineteenth century. Scientists identified the basic structure of DNA in 1953. Terrible diseases were treated with vaccines for the first time, including measles and polio. Organ transplants became a reality in the 1950s. Thus, life itself could be extended in ways hitherto unimaginable. Along with the growth of consumer society, postwar Europeans and Americans alike had cause to believe in the possibility of indefinite, ongoing progress and improvement.

One stark contrast between American and European culture at this time was the dramatic differences in church attendance. American religious culture was not significantly impacted by consumerism, while consumerism (in a way) replaced religiosity in Europe. The postwar period saw church attendance decline across the board in Europe, hovering around 5% by the 1970s. In an effort to combat this decline, Pope John XXIII called a council in 1958 that stretched on for five years. Known as “Vatican II,” this council revolutionized Catholic practices in an effort to modernize the church and appeal to more people. One of the noteworthy changes that came out of Vatican II was that the Mass was conducted in vernacular languages instead of in Latin – over four centuries after that practice had first emerged during the Protestant Reformation.


Pope John XXIII explained the purpose of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in his opening address to the gathered bishops on October 11, 1962. The following excerpts explain his vision for the Council:

What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council. What is needed, and what everyone imbued with a truly Christian, Catholic and apostolic spirit craves today, is that this doctrine shall be more widely known, more deeply understood, and more penetrating in its effects on men’s moral lives. What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else … Such, venerable brethren, is the aim of the Second Vatican Council. It musters the Church’s best energies and studies with all earnestness how to have the message of salvation more readily welcomed by men. By that very fact it blazes a trail that leads toward that unity of the human race … With the opening of this Council a new day is dawning on the Church, bathing her in radiant splendor. It is yet the dawn, but the sun in its rising has already set our hearts aglow. All around is the fragrance of holiness and joy.

You can read the entire Address here.

Philosophy and Art

Ironically, some of the major intellectual movements of the postwar period focused not on the promise of a better future, but on the premise that life was and probably would remain alienating and unjust. Despite the real, tangible improvements in the quality of life for most people in Western Europe between 1945 – 1975, there was a marked insecurity and pessimism that was reflected in postwar art and philosophy. Major factors behind this pessimism were the devastation of the war itself, the threat of nuclear war between the superpowers, and the declining power of Europe on the world stage. New cultural struggles emerged against the backdrop not of economic uncertainty and conventional warfare, but of economic prosperity and the threat of nuclear war.

The quintessential postwar philosophy was existentialism. The great figures of existentialism were the French writers and philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Sartre and Beauvoir were products of the most elite schools and universities in France, while Camus was an Algerian-born French citizen who took pride in his “provincial” background.

While existentialism is a flowery word, its essential arguments are straightforward. First, there is no inherent meaning to life. Humans just exist: they are born, they do things while alive, then they die. During life, however, people are forced to constantly make choices. Most people find this process of always having to make choices frightening and difficult, so they pretend that something greater and more important provides the essential answers: religion, political ideologies, the pursuit of wealth, and so on. Sartre and Beauvoir called this “bad faith,” the pretense that individual decisions are dictated by an imaginary higher power or higher calling.


A photograph of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1939 (Source: Wikimedia)

A large part of the impetus behind not just the actual theories of the existentialists, but its popular reception, was the widespread desire for a better, more “authentic” social existence after the carnage of the war. Appropriately, existentialism had its heyday from 1945 until about 1960. It enjoyed mainstream press coverage and even inspired self-styled “existentialists” in popular culture who imitated their intellectual heroes by frequenting cafes and jazz clubs on the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris. While the existentialists themselves continued to write, debate, and involve themselves in politics, existential philosophy eventually went out of fashion in favor of various kinds of theory that were eventually loosely grouped together as “postmodernism.”


In the following passage excerpted from Existentialism is a Humanism (1946), Jean-Paul Sartre explains the existential approach to life:

What is at the very heart and center of existentialism, is the absolute character of the free commitment, by which every man realises himself in realizing a type of humanity – a commitment always understandable, to no matter whom in no matter what epoch – and its bearing upon the relativity of the cultural pattern which may result from such absolute commitment …

Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realization, that man can realize himself as truly human.

You can read the entire document here.

The idea of postmodernism is complex; it is a term that has been used to describe many different things and it often lacks a core definition or even basic coherence. That noted, the basis of postmodernism is the rejection of big stories, or “meta-narratives,” about life, history, and society. Whereas in the past intellectuals tried to define the “meaning” of history, or Western Civilization, or of “mankind,” postmodern thinkers exposed all of the ways in which those “meanings” had been constructed, usually in order to support the desires of the people doing the storytelling. In other words, to claim that history led inevitably to greater freedom or plenty or happiness had almost always been an excuse for domination and some kind of conquest.

Perhaps the most famous and important postmodern philosopher was the Frenchman Michel Foucault. Foucault’s work analyzed the history of culture in the West, covering everything from the concept of insanity to state power, and from crime to sexuality, demonstrating the ways that ideas about society and culture had always been shaped to serve power. Foucault’s most evocative analyses had to do with how the definition of crime and the practices of punishment had changed in the modern world to justify a huge surveillance apparatus, one set to monitor all behavior. In this model, “criminality” was an invention of the social and political system itself that justified the system’s police apparatus.


A photograph of Michel Foucault (Source: Wikimedia)

The Youth Movement and Cultural Revolution

What existentialism and postmodernism had in common was that, in very different ways, they critiqued many aspects of western culture, from the progressive narrative of history to traditional religious beliefs. There is some irony in that forms of philosophy that were often radical in their orientation flourished in the midst of the growing affluence of postwar consumer society: discontentment with popular values and a demand for greater social freedom grew along with, even in spite of, the expansion of economic opportunity for many people.

Much more significant in terms of its cultural and social impact than postwar philosophy was the global youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The baby boom generation came of age in the 1960s, with unprecedented numbers of young people reaching adolescence right at the height of postwar prosperity. Enormous numbers of young people from middle-class or even working-class backgrounds became the first in their families to ever attend universities, and the contentious political climate of the Cold War and decolonization contributed to an explosion of discontent that reached its height in the late 1960s.

The focus of the youth movement, and a radical philosophical movement called the New Left associated with it, was on the life of individuals in the midst of prosperity. Leftist thinkers came to reject both the obvious injustices of Soviet-style communism as well as the injustices of their own capitalist societies. The key term for many New Left theorists, as well as rank-and-file members of the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s, was “liberation” – sexual, social, and cultural. Liberation was meant to break down social mores as much as effect political change. A new feminist movement emerged to champion not just women’s rights before the law, but the idea that the objectification and oppression of women was unjust, destructive, and unacceptable in supposedly democratic societies. In addition, for the first time, a movement emerged championing the idea that homosexuality was a legitimate sexual identity, not a mental illness or a “perverse” threat to the social order.

The youth movement reached its zenith in May of 1968. From Europe to Mexico, enormous uprisings led mostly by college students temporarily paralyzed universities, infrastructure, and even whole countries. What was to become the most iconic uprising against authority by the European youth movement began in a grungy suburb of Paris called Nanterre. There, the newly opened and poorly designed university faced student protests over a policy forbidding male students to visit female dormitories. When a student leader was arrested, sympathetic students in Paris occupied the oldest university in France: the Sorbonne. Soon, the entire Latin Quarter of Paris was taken over by thousands of student radicals (many of whom flocked from outside of Paris to join the protest), wallpapering buildings with posters calling for revolution and engaging in street battles with riot police. Workers in French industry instituted a general strike in solidarity with the students, occupying their factories and in some cases kidnapping their supervisors and managers. Students traveled to meet with workers and offer support. At its height, French infrastructure itself was largely paralyzed.


A photograph by George Garrigues of a classroom at the University of Lyon (France) with markings on wall reading “DE L’HISTOIRE KARL MARX,” made during student occupation of parts of the campus as part of the May 1968 events (Source: Wikimedia)

The “Events of May” (as they became known in France) were the emblematic high point of the European youth movement itself, at least in its most radical manifestation. The “thirty glorious years” of the postwar economic boom ended in the early 1970s, and the optimism of the youth movement tended to ebb along with it. Likewise, the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, while understandably welcomed by the youth movement, did rob the movement of its most significant cause: opposition to the war.

That being noted, the youth movement’s legacy was profound. While no country in Western Europe witnessed a genuine political revolution along the lines imagined by radicals at the time, there is no question that European culture as a whole became much more accepting of personal freedoms, especially regarding sexuality, and less puritanical and rigid in general. Likewise, the youth movement’s focus on social justice would acquire momentum in the following decades, leading to the flourishing of second-wave feminism, anti-racist movements, and a broad (though far from universal) acceptance of multiculturalism and blended cultures.

Second-Wave Feminism

One movement of particular importance to emerge from the protest culture of the late 1960s was second-wave feminism (the first was that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). From the end of World War II until the late 1960s, there were only small feminist movements in most western countries. While women had won the vote after the war (with some exceptions such as Switzerland), and most of the other legal goals of first-wave feminism had been achieved as well, the postwar social order still operated under the assumption that women were to focus on domestic roles. Women were taught as girls that the world of politics and paid work was for men, and that only in motherhood and marriage could a women find fulfillment. In the process, women as a social category were largely cut off from the sense of political solidarity that had sustained first-wave feminism a generation earlier.

The problem for women in the postwar period, however, was widespread dissatisfaction and unhappiness with the social role into which they were forced, along with both overtly sexist laws and oppressive cultural codes. To cite a few examples, it was perfectly legal (and commonplace) for men to discriminate in hiring and workplace practices based on a woman’s appearance – flight attendants (“stewardesses” in the parlance of the time) were routinely fired at age 30 for being too old to maintain the standards of attractiveness enforced by airlines. Pregnancy was also grounds for termination, and unmarried women were generally paid fair less than men since it was assumed they would eventually marry and quit their jobs. Rape charges were routinely dismissed if a victim had “asked for it” by being alone at night or being “inappropriately” dressed, and there was no legal concept of marital rape. Domestic violence remained commonplace, and husbands were generally only held accountable by the law if the violence seemed excessive from the perspective of police and judges. In short, while the first-wave feminist movement had succeeded in winning key legal battles, a vast web of sexist laws and cultural codes ensured that women were held in a subordinate position.

In response, starting in the mid-1960s, the second-wave feminist movement came into existence to precisely combat these forms of both legal and cultural oppression and discrimination. Most of the women who joined the new movement were inspired by the broader anti-establishment counterculture described above, but they arrived at feminism in part because most male “rebels” were just as sexist and repressive as the conservative politicians they detested (e.g. women at gatherings of self-proclaimed revolutionaries were expected to do the dishes and clean up after the men).

Everywhere that second-wave feminism emerged as a movement, its goals were the creation of laws that expressly forbid sexual discrimination in the workplace and schools and a broader cultural shift that saw women treated as true social equals of men. This latter focus on equitable culture distinguished it from first-wave feminism, which while certainly cognizant of sexist cultural norms, had focused on overcoming the most serious legal restrictions on women rather than cultural shifts. For second-wave feminists, the movement was not simply about women having access to the same forms of employment and equal wages as men (although those were obviously very important goals), but about attacking the sexual objectification and sexual double standards to which women were held. For instance, why were promiscuous women the subject of shaming and mockery, while promiscuous men were celebrated for their virility? The essential injustice of sexual double standards was a key issue that second-wave feminists raised.


In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir, one of the seminal existentialist philosophers mentioned above, wrote an enormous (over 1,000 pages long) book about the status of women in Western societies. This book is considered to be the founding document of the second wave of feminism. In the following passage, Simone de Beauvoir explains the position women have been forced to occupy by men:

A man would never set out to write a book on the peculiar situation of the human male. But if I wish to define myself, I must first of all say: ‘I am a woman’; on this truth must be based all further discussion. A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man. The terms masculine and feminine are used symmetrically only as a matter of form, as on legal papers. In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: ‘You think thus and so because you are a woman’; but I know that my only defense is to reply: ‘I think thus and so because it is true,’ thereby removing my subjective self from the argument. It would be out of the question to reply: ‘And you think the contrary because you are a man’, for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity. A man is in the right in being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong. …

Thus humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. … Man can think of himself without woman. She cannot think of herself without man.’ And she is simply what man decrees; thus she is called ‘the sex’, by which is meant that she appears essentially to the male as a sexual being. For him she is sex – absolute sex, no less. She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’

You can read the full introduction to The Second Sex here.

The demand for sexual liberation was part of the Youth Movement in general, and members of the counterculture fought against the idea that sexuality was inherently sinful and “dirty” (an attitude that had only come of age in earnest in the nineteenth century, incidentally). Second-wave feminists took the demand for liberation a step further and advocated for reliable, legal contraception and legalized abortion. Both were illegal almost everywhere in the western world through the 1950s, and even in countries like Britain and the Netherlands where contraception was legally available, it was difficult to come by and associated with promiscuity. Aided by major advances in related fields of medicine, second-wave feminists fought a successful campaign for the legalization of contraceptives and abortion by the end of the 1970s.


It cannot be overstated how much cultural change occurred in Europe in the decades following World War II. Perhaps the most important changes had to do with the extension of liberal democratic ideas to their logical conclusion: everyone in a democracy was supposed to have equal rights, to be treated with essential dignity, and to possess the right to protest the conditions of their education, employment, or even their simple existence (in the case of women facing misogyny and harassment, for example). The legacy of the cultural revolution that began with the youth movement of the 1960s remains strong to the present day.


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