Social Transformation in Europe after World War II
Patterns of everyday life and the structure of Western society changed after the war, just as much as political and economic recovery had instituted dramatic changes. Among them:
Changes in Science and Technology:At the end of the war, theoretical science and technology, considered more practical were joined together. University scientists worked on top secret projects during the war, including the development of radar to detect enemy aircraft. Radar was particularly valuable to the British in defeating the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Other wartime technological developments included the development of jet aircraft and electronic computers which could calculate the mathematical relationship between a fast moving plane and anti-aircraft shells, so that gunners on the ground had a greater probability of shooting down the plane.
By far the greatest technological scientific development was the development of the Atomic Bomb. Its development was spurred by a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, in August, 1939, in which he stated that "it may be possible to set up a nuclear reaction in a large mass of uranium… [And construct] extremely powerful bombs of a new type. American development was spurred by the news that the Nazis were close to developing a "bomb" on their own.
The result of "directed research" during and after the war was the development of "Big Science." It could attack difficult problems, produce better products, even better weapons. It was very expensive, and required large-scale financing from governments or large corporations. The United States took the lead in this area, and "big science" became an issue of contention between East and West during the Cold War. Scientists remained a major part of the military establishment of both sides, and scientific research for defense included development of new and improved submarines, rockets, and spy satellites. After 1945, roughly 25% of all people trained in science in the west (perhaps more in the east) were employed full time in the development of weapons systems to kill other people.
The technology race led to the orbiting of the first earth satellite, Sputnik I by the Soviets in 1957. From there on, a "space race" between the U.S. and the Soviets was underway. Western Europe was effected, as many top scientists went to the U.S. to work; however Europe responded to the challenge, as evidenced by the development of the Concorde supersonic jet liner; something the American government had elected not to pursue.
Changing Class Structure:Class distinction became fuzzier (but did not altogether disappear) in Europe after the War. The most remarkable change was in the middle class, where managers and experts replaced traditional property owners as the leaders of middle class society. This change was largely the result of industrial and technological expansion which resulted in large corporations and government agencies which needed technologists and managers. The new middle class often had backgrounds in engineering or accounting and came from all social classes, even the former "working class." The opportunity for advanced education was often passed on to one’s children, although business positions themselves were not inheritable.
With changes in class structure came changes in government social security reforms. Old age pensions and increased unemployment benefits improved the system first engineered by Bismarck seventy five years earlier. National health systems were also introduced together with government grants to help parents raise children. The standard of living in Europe rose and the percentage of food spent on food and lodging declined precipitously. Car ownership became more widespread, and the European automobile industry boomed.
Europeans, like Americans, also became fascinated with "gadgets" such as televisions, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, and stereos, all of which was augmented by installment purchasing, which allowed people to buy expensive items on credit. Leisure time also flourished, Many European countries mandated that employees receive month long paid vacations each year as a result of which Europeans flocked to beaches and ski resorts. Getaways included everything from imitation Tahitian paradises built all over the world by a French company to Swedish nudist colonies on secluded West African beaches.
Youth and the Counterculture:Led by youth in the United States, European young people became increasingly oppositional in the 1960’s, often interacting with a revival of leftist thought. This consisted primarily of rebellion against parents, authority figures, and the status quo.
The music of youth was the primary sign of rebellion. While in America it was represented by Elvis Presley, in Europe the Beatles rocked establishment Europe with music that suggested personal and sexual freedom. Many adults were shocked by their music, and often forbade their children to listen. The Beatles’ primary form of rebellion was the length of their hair, which for the time was considered exceptionally long.
Sexual frankness and freedom also took a turn. A 1973 study reported that only 4.5 % pf West German youth born in 1945-46 had experienced sexual relations before their seventeenth birthday. For those born between 1953-54, the number was 32%. More and more young unmarried couples lived together with no thought of marrying or having children. Career became more important than children, and many became, in the words of one German observer, "Dinks." Short for "Double income; no kids."
The change in youth culture was largely the result of:
Mass communication and travel, which linked the U.S. and European youth together more easily.
The postwar baby boom resulted in more young people who exercised more influence on society as a whole.
Post war prosperity and greater equality gave young people more purchasing power than they had held before.
By the late 1960’s youth in Europe, as in America, embraced romanticism and revolutionary idealism as part of the "counterculture." They often cherished dreams of complete freedom and simpler, purer societies. They considered the West to be hopelessly spoiled but saw hope in newly independent countries in Asia and Africa. The war in Vietnam became a focal point of youth protest in both the U.S. and Europe.
Increasing college enrollments led to increased student unrest, as many felt that colleges no longer provided the education needed to survive in the world. Students in Europe rose up to challenge University officials and even governments. In Paris, students took over the University of Paris and called for workers to join them in a strike against an unfair government. Workers joined them in a massive strike in May, 1968 that threatened to bring down the Fifth Republic Government of Charles de Gaulle. In response, De Gaulle stiffened his opposition and said he would resist the "bedwetting" of undisciplined students and workers. He sent in troops and called for new elections. The rank and file voters of France were frightened that student protests might lead to a communist takeover, and voted overwhelmingly to return De Gaulle’s party to office. The mini-revolution collapsed, but the students had made their point. De Gaulle resigned a year later, and a major reform of French education followed.
The Changing Lives of Women:A strong and effective women’s movement appeared in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Long term changes in the pattern of motherhood and work outside the home had a major impact on women’s lives, as did the ideas of feminist thinkers who demanded gender equality.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, men and women married late; while substantial numbers never married. Once a woman was married, she often had children as long as she was fertile, although from one third to one half the children born to her would not survive through adulthood. With the advent of industrialization and higher incomes with better diets, more children survived and the population exploded. Contraception within marriage became common in the late nineteenth century.
After World War II, the typical European woman married at an earlier age and had children more quickly. Over 80 per cent of women had all their children before age thirty, and women had fewer children. Pregnancy and childbirth thereby occupied much less of a woman’s life than earlier. Now, without the demands of motherhood, more and more women became full time or part time wage earners outside the home.
A women’s movement soon followed. One of the more influential works of the women’s movement was The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir published in 1949, who had a longtime relationship with philosopher Jean-Paul Satre. She argued that women, like all human beings, were free but they had almost always been trapped by conditions. She inspired a generation of women intellectuals. Among those inspired by her was Betty Fredan who was largely responsible for the women’s movement in the United States.