6.2 Social Programs

Postwar Society

Another aspect of the new world created post-World War II, was the adoption by most of Europe of the Welfare State.

Key Takeaways

Watch these film clips on Great Britain’s welfare programs and consider how would answer the following questions:

  • What areas of the citizen’s life were affected by the experiments in the welfare state adopted by Western democracies after World War II? What are the benefits and problems of the welfare state?
  • What were the major developments in Western culture – art, music, philosophy – between 1945 and 1965? In particular, what were the major American influences on Europe and rest of the world?
  • How would you describe Germany’s attempt to establish a place in the European community of nations after the war? What difficulties did it face, and how well did it deal with them? What accounts for its “economic miracle?”

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. Britain opted not to join, and tellingly its growth rates lagged significantly. Regardless, Britain joined the other Western European countries in achieving unprecedented affluence by the mid-1950s. While the memory of immediate postwar rationing and penury was still fresh, fueled by coordinated government action and Marshall Plan loans the 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 one decade: 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, the parallel of that of the United States at the same time. Increasingly, only the very poor were not able to buy consumer goods that they did not need for survival. 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 US, 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 change that came out of Vatican II was that the mass was increasingly conducted in vernacular languages instead of in Latin – over four centuries after that practice had first emerged during the Protestant Reformation.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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