‘Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good’.
Harold Macmillan, July 20th 1957
‘Admass is my name for the whole system of an increasing productivity,
plus inflation, plus a rising standard of living, plus high-pressure
advertising and salesmanship, plus mass communications, plus cultural
democracy and the creation of the mass mind, the mass man’.
J. B. Priestley
‘Look at these people! Primitives!’
‘Where do they come from?’
‘Down at the bottom!’
Rocco and His Brothers, dir. Luchino Visconti (1960)
‘We’re going where the sun shines brightly,
We’re going where the sea is blue.
We’ve seen it in the movies—
Now let’s see if it’s true.’
Cliff Richard, from Summer Holiday (1959)
‘It’s pretty dreary living in the American age—
unless of course you’re American’.
Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger (1956)
In 1979, the French writer Jean Fourastié published a study of the social and economic transformation of France in the thirty years following World War Two. Its title—Les trente glorieuses: ou, La Révolution invisible de 1946 à 1975—was well chosen. In Western Europe the three decades following Hitler’s defeat were indeed ‘glorious’. The remarkable acceleration of economic growth was accompanied by the onset of an era of unprecedented prosperity. In the space of a single generation, the economies of continental Western Europe made good the ground lost in forty years of war and Depression, and European economic performance and patterns of consumption began to resemble those of the US. Less than a decade after staggering uncertainly out of the rubble, Europeans entered, to their amazement and with some consternation, upon the age of affluence.
The economic history of post-war western Europe is best understood as an inversion of the story of the immediately preceding decades. The 1930s Malthusian emphasis on protection and retrenchment was abandoned in favor of liberalized trade. Instead of cutting their expenditure and budgets, governments increased them. Almost everywhere there was a sustained commitment to long-term public and private investment in infrastructure and machinery; older factories and equipment were updated or replaced, with attendant gains in efficiency and productivity; there was a marked increase in international trade; and an employed and youthful population demanded and could afford an expanding range of goods.
The post-war economic ‘boom’ differed slightly in its timing from place to place, coming first to Germany and Britain and only a little later to France and Italy; and it was experienced differently according to national variations in taxation, public expenditure or investment emphasis. The initial outlays of most post-war governments went above all on infrastructure modernization—the building or upgrading of roads, railways, houses and factories. Consumer spending in some countries was deliberately held back, with the result—as we have seen—that many people experienced the first post-war years as a time of continuing, if modified, penury. The degree of relative change also depended, of course, on the point of departure: the wealthier the country, the less immediate and dramatic it seemed.
Nevertheless, every European country saw steadily growing rates of per capita GDP and GNP—Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product—the newly sanctified measures of national strength and well-being. In the course of the 1950s, the averageannual rate at which per capitanational output grew in West Germany was 6.5 percent; in Italy 5.3 percent; in France 3.5 percent. The significance of such high and sustained growth rates is best appreciated when they are compared with the same countries’ performance in earlier decades: in the years 1913-1950 the German growth rate per annum was just 0.4 percent, the Italian 0.6 percent, the French 0.7 percent. Even in the prosperous decades of the Wilhelminian Empire after 1870, the German economy had only managed an annual average of 1.8 percent.
By the 1960s the rate of increase began to slow down, but the western European economies still grew at historically unusual levels. Overall, between 1950 and 1973, German GDP per head of the population more than tripled in real terms. GDP per head in France grew by 150 percent. The Italian economy, starting from a lower base, did even better. Historically poor countries saw their economic performance improve spectacularly: between 1950 and 1973 per capita GDP in Austria rose from $3,731 to $11,308 (in 1990 dollars); in Spain from $2,397 to $8,739. The Dutch economy grew by 3.5 percent each year from 1950-1970—seven times the average annual growth rate for the preceding forty years.
A major contributory factor in this story was the sustained increase in overseas trade, which grew much faster than overall national output in most European countries. Merely by removing impediments to international commerce, the governments of the post-war West went a long way towards overcoming the stagnation of previous decades.116 The chief beneficiary was West Germany, whose share of the world’s export of manufactured goods rose from 7.3 percent in 1950 to 19.3 percent just ten years later, bringing the German economy back to the place it had occupied in international exchange before the Crash of 1929.
In the forty-five years after 1950 worldwide exports by volume increased sixteen-fold. Even a country like France, whose share of world trade remained steady at around 10 percent throughout these years, benefited greatly from this huge overall increase in international commerce. Indeed, allindustrialized countries gained in these years—the terms of trade moved markedly in their favor after World War Two, as the cost of raw materials and food imported from the non-Western world fell steadily, while the price of manufactured goods kept rising. In three decades of privileged, unequal exchange with the ‘Third World’, the West had something of a license to print money.2
What distinguished the western European economic boom, however, was the degree of de facto European integration in which it resulted. Even before the Treaty of Rome, the future member states of the European Economic Community were trading primarily with one another: in 1958, 29 percent of Germany’s exports (by value) were going to France, Italy and the Benelux countries, and a further 30 percent to other European states. On the eve of the signing of the Rome Treaty, 44 percent of Belgian exports were already going to its future EEC partners. Even countries like Austria, or Denmark, or Spain, which would not officially join the European Community until many years later, were already integrated into its trading networks: in 1971, twenty years before it joined the future European Union, Austria was taking more than 50 percent of its imports from the original six EEC member states. The European Community (later Union) did not lay the basis for an economically integrated Europe; rather, it represented an institutional expression of a process already under way.3
Another crucial element in the post-war economic revolution was the increased productivity of the European worker. Between 1950 and 1980 labor productivity in western Europe rose by three times the rate of the previous eighty years: GDP per hour worked grew even faster than GDP per head of the population. Considering how many more people were in work, this points to a marked increase in efficiency and, almost everywhere, much improved labour relations. This, too, was in some measure a consequence of catching-up: the political upheavals, mass unemployment,under-investment and physical destruction of the previous thirty years left most of Europe at a historically low starting point after 1945. Even without the contemporary interest in modernization and improved techniques, economic performance would probably have seen some improvement.
Behind the steady increase in productivity, however, lay a deeper, permanent shift in the nature of work. In 1945, most of Europe was still pre-industrial. The Mediterranean countries, Scandinavia, Ireland and Eastern Europe were still primarily rural and, by any measure, backward. In 1950, three out of four working adults in Yugoslavia and Romania were peasants. One working person in two was employed in agriculture in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary and Poland; in Italy, two people in every five. One out of every three employed Austrians worked on farms; in France, nearly three out of every ten employed persons was a farmer of one kind or another. Even in West Germany, 23 percent of the working population was in agriculture. Only in the UK, where the figure was just 5 percent, and to a lesser extent in Belgium (13 percent), had the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century truly ushered in a post-agrarian society.117
In the course of the next thirty years vast numbers of Europeans abandoned the land and took up work in towns and cities, with the greatest changes taking place during the 1960s. By 1977, just 16 percent of employed Italians worked on the land; in the Emilia-Romagna region of the northeast, the share of the active population engaged in agriculture dropped precipitately, from 52 percent in 1951 to just 20 percent in 1971. In Austria the national figure had fallen to 12 percent, in France to 9.7 percent, in West Germany to 6.8 percent. Even in Spain only 20 percent were employed in agriculture by 1971. In Belgium (at 3.3 percent) and the UK (at 2.7 percent) farmers were becoming statistically (if not politically) insignificant. Farming and dairy production became more efficient and less labor-intensive—especially in countries like Denmark or the Netherlands, where butter, cheese and pork products were now profitable exports and mainstays of the domestic economy.
As a percentage of GDP, agriculture fell steadily: in Italy, its share of national production slipped from 27.5 percent to 13 percent between 1949 and 1960. The chief beneficiary was the tertiary sector (including government employment), where many of the former peasants—or their children—ended up. Some places—Italy, Ireland, parts of Scandinavia and France—moved directly from an agricultural to a service-based economy in a single generation, virtually bypassing the industrial stage in which Britain or Belgium had been caught for nearly a century.118 By the end of the 1970s, a clear majority of the employed population of Britain, Germany, France, the Benelux countries, Scandinavia and the Alpine countries worked in the service sector—communications, transport, banking, public administration and the like. Italy, Spain and Ireland were very close behind.
In Communist Eastern Europe, by contrast, the overwhelming majority of former peasants were directed into labour-intensive and technologically retarded mining and industrial manufacture; in Czechoslovakia, employment in the tertiary, service sector actuallydeclined during the course of the 1950s. Just as the output of coal and iron-ore was tailing off in mid-1950s Belgium, France, West Germany and the UK, so it continued to increase in Poland, Czechoslovakia and the GDR. The Communists’ dogmatic emphasis on raw material extraction and primary goods production did generate rapid initial growth in gross output and per capita GDP. In the short run the industrial emphasis of the Communist command economies thus appeared impressive (not least to many Western observers). But it boded ill for the region’s future.
The decline of agriculture alone would have accounted for much of Europe’s growth, just as the shift from country to town, and farming to industry, had accompanied Britain’s rise to pre-eminence a century before. Indeed, the fact that there was no remaining surplus agricultural population in Britain to transfer into low-wage manufacturing or service employment, and therefore no gain in efficiency to be had from a rapid transition out of backwardness, helps explain the relatively poor performance of the UK in these years, with growth rates consistently lagging behind those of France or Italy (or Romania, come to that). For the same reason, the Netherlands outperformed its industrialized Belgian neighbor in these decades, benefiting from the ‘one-time’ transfer of a surplus rural workforce into hitherto undeveloped industrial and service sectors.
The role of government and planning in the European economic miracle is harder to gauge. In some places it appeared all but superfluous. The ‘new’ economy of northern Italy, for example, drew much of its energy from thousands of small firms—composed of family employees who often doubled as seasonal agricultural workers—with low overheads and investment costs, and paying little or no tax. By 1971, 80 percent of the country’s workforce was employed in establishments with fewer—often far fewer—than 100 employees. Beyond turning a blind eye to fiscal, zoning, construction and other infractions, the part played by the Italian central authorities in sustaining the economic efforts of these firms is unclear.
At the same time the role of the state was crucial in financing large-scale changes that would have been beyond the reach of individual initiative or private investment: non-governmental European capital funding remained scarce for a long time, and private investment from America did not begin to substitute for Marshall Aid or military assistance until the later fifties. In Italy, the Cassa per il Mezzogiorno , backed by a large loan from the World Bank, invested initially in infrastructure and agrarian improvements: land reclamation, road building, drainage, viaducts, etc. Later it turned to supporting new industrial plants. It offered incentives—loans, grants, tax concessions—for private firms willing to invest in the South; it served as the vehicle through which state holdings were directed to locate up to 60 percent of their new investment in the South; and in the decades after 1957 it established twelve ‘growth areas’ and thirty ‘growth nuclei’ spread throughout the southern third of the peninsula.
Like large-scale state projects elsewhere, the Cassa was inefficient, and more than a little corrupt. Most of its benefits went to the favored coastal regions; much of the new industry that it brought in was capital-intensive and thus created few jobs. Many of the smaller, ‘independent’ farms formed in the wake of agrarian reform in the region remained dependent on the state, making of Italy’s Mezzogiorno a sort of semi-permanent welfare region. Nevertheless, by the mid-1970s per capita consumption in the South had doubled, local incomes had risen by an average of 4 percent per annum, infant mortality had halved and electrification was well on the way to completion—in what had been, within the memory of a generation, one of the most forlorn and backward regions of Europe. Given the speed at which the industrial North was taking off—in some measure, as we shall see, thanks to Southern workers—what is striking is not the failure of the Cassa to work an economic miracle south of Rome, but the fact that the region was able to keep up at all. For this, the authorities in Rome deserve some credit.
Elsewhere, the role of government varied; but it was never negligible. In France, the state confined itself to what became known as ‘indicative planning’—using the levers of power to direct resources into selected regions, industries and even products, and consciously compensating for the crippling Malthusian under-investment of the pre-war decades. Government officials were able to exercise fairly effective control over domestic investment especially because, throughout these initial postwar decades, currency laws and the limited mobility of international capital held back foreign competition. Restricted in their freedom to seek out more profitable short-term returns abroad, bankers and private lenders in France and elsewhere invested at home.119
In West Germany, where the abiding inter-war memory was of conflict and instability (political and monetary alike), the authorities in Bonn were much less active than their French or Italian counterparts in designing or directing economic behavior, but paid far closer attention to arrangements aimed at preventing or mitigating social conflict, notably between employers and workers. In particular, they encouraged and underwrote negotiations and ‘social contracts’ designed to reduce the risk of strikes or wage inflation. As a consequence, private industries (and the banks with whom they worked or who owned them) were more disposed to invest for their future because they could count on long-term wage restraint from their workers. Shop-floor workers in West Germany, as in Scandinavia, were compensated for this comparative docility by the assurance of employment, low inflation and, above all, comprehensive public welfare services and benefits financed out of sharply progressive rates of taxation.
In Britain, the government intervened more directly in the economy. Most of the nationalizations undertaken by the Labour government of 1945-51 were left in place by the Conservative governments that succeeded it. But both parties foreswore long-term economic planning or aggressive intervention in labour-management relations. Such active involvement as there was took the form of demand-management—manipulating interest rates and marginal tax bands to encourage saving or spending. These were short-term tactics. The main strategic objective of British governments of all colors in these years was to prevent a return to the traumatic levels of unemployment of the 1930s.
Throughout Western Europe, then, governments, employers and workers conspired to forge a virtuous circle: high government spending, progressive taxation and limited wage increases. As we have seen, these goals were already inscribed in the widespread consensus, forged during and after the war, on the need for planned economies and some form of ‘welfare state’. They were thus the product of government policies and collective intention. But the facilitating condition for their unprecedented success lay beyond the direct reach of government action. The trigger for the European economic miracle, and the social and cultural upheaval that followed in its wake, was the rapid and sustained increase in Europe’s population.
Europe had seen demographic growth spurts in the past—most recently in the mid-nineteenth century. But these had not typically ushered in sustained population increases: either because traditional agriculture could not support too many mouths, or because of wars and disease, or else because the newly excess population, especially the young adults, emigrated overseas in search of a better life. And in the twentieth century, war and emigration had kept population growth in Europe well below what might have been expected from the increased birth rate of earlier decades.
By the eve of World War Two, the knock-on effects of the loss of a generation of young men in World War One, together with the economic Depression and the civil wars and political uncertainty of the 1930s, had reduced the birth rate in parts of Western Europe to historic lows. In the UK there were just 15.3 live births per thousand people; in Belgium 15.4; in Austria 12.8. In France, where the birth rate in 1939 stood at 14.6 per thousand, deaths exceeded births not only during World War One and in 1919 and again in 1929, but also for every year from 1935 to 1944. There, as in civil war-era Spain, the national population was steadily falling. In the rest of Mediterranean Europe and east of Vienna the birth rate was higher, sometimes double the rate of the West. But elevated levels of infant mortality and higher death rates in all age groups meant that even there population growth was unremarkable.
It is against this background, and that of the additional demographic calamity of the Second World War itself, that the post-war baby boom has to be understood. Between 1950 and 1970 the population of the UK rose by 13 percent; that of Italy by 17 percent. In West Germany the population grew in these years by 28 percent; in Sweden by 29 percent; in the Netherlands by 35 percent. In some of these cases the indigenous increase was boosted by immigration (of returning colonials to the Netherlands, of East German and other refugees to the Federal Republic). But exogenous factors played only a small role in France: between the first post-war census of 1946 and the end of the sixties, the French population grew by almost 30 percent—the fastest rate of increase ever recorded there.
The striking feature of Europe in the nineteen fifties and sixties—it can immediately be gleaned from any contemporary street scene—was thus the number of children and youths. After a forty-year hiatus, Europe was becoming young again. The peak years for post-war births in most countries were 1947-1949—in 1949 869,000 babies were born in France, compared to just 612,000 in 1939. By 1960, in the Netherlands, Ireland and Finland, 30 percent of the population was under fifteen years old. By 1967, in France, one person in three was under twenty. It was not just that millions of children had been born after the war: an unprecedented number of them had survived.
Thanks to improved nutrition, housing and medical care, the infant mortality rate—the number of children per thousand live births who died before reaching their first birthday—fell sharply in Western Europe in these decades. In Belgium it dropped from 53.4 in 1950 to 21.1 in 1970, with most of the change coming in the first decade. In Italy it fell from 63.8 to 29.6, in France from 52.0 to 18.2. Old people lived longer too—at least in Western Europe, where the death rate fell steadily over the same period. The survival rate of infants in Eastern Europe also improved, admittedly from a far worse starting figure: in Yugoslavia, child mortality rates fell from 118.6 per thousand in 1950 to 55.2 twenty years later.120 In the Soviet Union itself, rates fell from 81 per thousand in 1950 to 25 in 1970, though with wide variations among the different republics. But fertility rates in Communist states tailed off rather sooner than in the West, and from the mid-sixties they were more than matched by steadily worsening death rates (especially among men).
There are many explanations for the recovery of European fertility after World War Two, but most of them reduce to a combination of optimism plus free milk. During the long demographic trough of 1913-1945, governments had sought in vain to foster procreation: compensating through patriotic urging, family ‘codes’ and other legislation for the chronic shortage of men, housing, jobs and security. Now—even before post-war growth had translated into secure employment and a consumer economy—the coincidence of peace, security and a measure of state encouragement sufficed to achieve what no amount of pro-natal propaganda before 1940 had been able to bring about.
Demobilized soldiers, returning prisoners of war and political deportees, encouraged by rationing and allocation schemes that favored married couples with children, as well as cash allowances for each child, took the first opportunity to marry and start a family. And there was something else. By the early nineteen-fifties, the countries of western Europe could offer their citizens more than just hope and a social safety net: they also provided an abundance of jobs. Through the course of the 1930s the average unemployment rate in western Europe had been 7.5 percent (11.5 percent in the UK). By the 1950s it had fallen below 3 percent everywhere except Italy. By the mid-1960s the European average was just 1.5 percent. For the first time since records were kept, western Europe was experiencing full employment. In many sectors there were now endemic labor shortages.
In spite of the leverage this afforded to organized labor, trade unions (with the distinctive exception of Britain) were either weak or else reluctant to exercise their power. This was a legacy of the inter-war decades: militant or political unions never fully recovered from the impact of the Depression and Fascist repression. In return for their newfound respectability as national negotiating partners, union representatives through the fifties and early sixties often preferred to collaborate with employers rather than exploit labour shortages to their immediate advantage. In 1955, when the first ever productivity agreement in France was struck between the car workers’ representatives and the nationalized car manufacturer Renault, it was symptomatic of the shift in perspective that the workers’ major gain came not in wages but in the innovatory concession of a third week of paid holiday.121
Another reason why the old blue-collar unions were no longer so significant in Western Europe is that their constituency—skilled male manual workers—was in decline. Employment in coal, steel, textiles and other nineteenth-century industries was shrinking, though this did not become obvious until the sixties. More and more jobs were opening up in the tertiary sector, and many of those taking them were women. Some occupations—textile manufacture, domestic labor—had been heavily feminized for many decades. But after the war employment opportunities in both of these diminished sharply. The female labor force no longer consisted of single women working as servants or mill girls. Instead it was increasingly composed of older women (often married) working in shops, offices, and certain lowpaidprofessions: nursing and teaching in particular. By 1961, one-third of the employed labour force in the UK was female; and two out of every three employed women worked in clerical or secretarial jobs. Even in Italy, where older women had traditionally not joined the ranks of the (officially) employed, 27 percent of the labour force was female by the end of the 1960s.
The insatiable demand for labour in Europe’s prosperous northwest quadrant accounts for the remarkable mass migrations in the 1950s and early 1960s. These took three forms. In the first place, men (and to a lesser extent women and children) abandoned the countryside for the city and moved to more developed regions of their own country. In Spain over one million residents of Andalucia moved north to Catalonia in the two decades after 1950: by 1970, 1.6 million Andalucian-born Spaniards lived outside their native region, 712,000 of them in Barcelona alone. In Portugal a substantial percentage of the residents of the impoverished Alentejo region departed for Lisbon. In Italy, between 1955 and 1971, an estimated nine million people moved from one region of their country to another.
This pattern of population movement was not confined to the Mediterranean. The millions of young people who abandoned the German Democratic Republic for West Germany between 1950 and 1961 may have been opting for political freedom, but in heading west they were also seeking well-paid jobs and a better life. In this respect they differed little from their Spanish or Italian contemporaries—or the quarter of a million Swedes from the rural centre and north of their country who moved to the cities in the decade after 1945. Much of this movement was driven by income disparities; but the desire to escape hardship, isolation, the bleakness of village life and the hold of traditional rural hierarchies also played a part, especially for young people. One incidental benefit was that the wages of those who remained behind, and the amount of land available to them, increased as a consequence.
A second route taken by migrants involved moving from one European country to another. European emigration, of course, was nothing new. But the fifteen million Italians who left their country between 1870 and 1926 had typically departed across the ocean: for the United States or Argentina. The same was true of the millions of Greeks, Poles, Jews and others who emigrated in the same years, or the Scandinavians, Germans and Irish of an earlier generation. After World War One, to be sure, there had been a steady trickle of miners and farm workers from Italy and Poland into France, for example; and the 1930s saw political refugees fleeing west from Nazism and Fascism. But intra-European migration, especially in search of work, remained the exception.
By the end of the 1950s, all this changed. Cross-border labor movement had begun shortly after the end of the war—following an agreement of June 1946, tens of thousands of young Italian workers traveled in organized convoys to work in the mines of Wallonia, in return for a Belgian undertaking to supply coal to Italy. But in the course of the 1950s the economic expansion of northwest Europe was outrunning local population growth: the ‘baby-boom’ generation had yet to enter the workforce but demand for labor was peaking. As the German economy in particular began to accelerate, the Bonn government was forced to seek out cheap labour from abroad.
By 1956 Chancellor Adenauer was in Rome, offering free transport to any Italian laborer who would make the journey to Germany and seeking official Italian cooperation to funnel unemployed southerners across the Alps. In the course of the next decade the Bonn authorities would sign a series of accords not just with Italy but also encompassing Greece and Spain (1960), Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), Portugal (1964), Tunisia (1964) and Yugoslavia (1968). Foreign (‘guest’) workers were encouraged to take up employment in Germany—on the understanding that their stay was strictly temporary: they would eventually return to their country of origin. Like Finnish migrant workers in Sweden, or Irish laborers in Britain, these men—most of them under 25—came in almost every case from poor, rural or mountainous regions. The majority were unskilled (although some accepted ‘deskilling’ in order to get work). Their earnings in Germany and other northern countries played an important part in sustaining the economies of the regions they had left behind, even as their departure alleviated local competition for jobs and housing. In 1973, the remittances of workers abroad represented 90 percent of Turkish export earnings, 50 percent of export earnings in Greece, Portugal and Yugoslavia.
The demographic impact of these population transfers was significant. Although the migrants were officially ‘temporary’ they had in practice left their homes for good. If they returned, it would only be many years later, to retire. Seven million Italians left their country between 1945 and 1970. In the years 1950-1970 a quarter of the entire Greek labor force left to find work abroad: at the height of the emigration, in the mid-Sixties, 117,000 Greeks left their country every year.122 It is estimated that between 1961 and 1974, one and a half million Portugese workers found jobs abroad—the greatest population movement in Portugal’s history, leaving behind in Portugal itself a workforce of just 3.1 million. These were dramatic figures for a country whose total population in 1950 had been only eight and one third million. The emigration of young women in search of domestic employment in Paris and elsewhere had a particularly marked effect on the countryside, where the shortfall of young adults was only partly made good by the arrival of immigrants from Portugal’s colonies in the Cape Verde Islands and Africa. In one Portuguese municipality, Sabugal in the rural north, emigration reduced the local population from 43,513 in 1950 to just 19,174 thirty years later.
The economic benefit to the ‘importing’ country was considerable. By 1964, foreign (mostly Italian) workers were one quarter of the work force of Switzerland, whose tourist trade depended heavily upon cheap, seasonal labor: easily hired, readily fired. In West Germany, in the peak year of 1973, there were 2.8 million foreign workers, mostly in the building trades and in metalworking and car manufacture. They constituted one worker in eight of the national labour force. In France the 2.3 million foreign workers recorded that year were 11 percent of the total working population. Many of them were women in domestic work, employed as cooks, cleaners, concierges and babysitters—overwhelmingly of Portuguese origin.
Most of these men and women had no permanent rights of residence, and they were not included in the agreements signed by unions and employers providing for the security, welfare and retirement of local employees. They thus represented very little commitment or long-term cost to the employer and country to which they had come. Well into the 1980s, ‘guest-workers’ in Germany were held back at entry-level positions and wages. They lived as best they could, sending most of their earnings home: however little they were paid in marks or francs, it was worth many times their earning potential in their villages of origin. Their condition resembled that of the forlorn Italian waiter in Luzerne lightly caricatured in Franco Brusati’s 1973 film Pane e Cioccolata (Bread and Chocolate).
By 1973 in West Germany alone there were nearly half a million Italians, 535,000 Yugoslavs and 605,000 Turks.123 The Germans—like the Swiss, French, Belgians or British—did not especially welcome the sudden eruption of so many foreigners on their soil. The experience of living among so many people from unknown foreign lands was unfamiliar to most Europeans. If it was tolerated reasonably well, with only occasional outbreaks of prejudice and violence against communities of foreign workers, this was in some measure because the latter lived apart from the local population, in the drearier outer suburbs of the larger cities; because they posed no economic threat in an era of full employment; because at least in the case of Christians from Portugal, Italy and Yugoslavia they were physically and culturally ‘assimilable’—i.e. not dark or Muslim; and because it was widely understood that they would one day be gone.
Such considerations did not apply, however, to a third source of imported labour: immigrants from past and present European colonies. The number of people in this category was not initially significant. Many of the people who had returned to the Netherlands, Belgium and France from former imperial holdings in Asia, Africa, South America and the Pacific were white professionals, or else retired farmers. Even the Algerian nationals living in France by 1969 numbered just 600,000, less than the local population of Italians or Spaniards.
Even in Britain, where the governments of the 1950s had actively encouraged immigration from the Caribbean to staff the country’s trains, buses and municipal services, the figures were not especially striking. In the 1951 census there were 15,000 people from the West Indies (mostly Barbados) resident in the UK: 4,000 of them in London. By 1959 West Indian immigration to the UK was running at around 16,000 people per year. Immigration from other parts of the Commonwealth was even smaller—in 1959 there were just 3,000 immigrant arrivals from India and Pakistan. The numbers would increase in later years—notably when the British government reluctantly agreed to admit the East African Asians expelled by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin—but as late as 1976 there were still only 1.85 million ‘non-whites’ in the UK population, 3 percent of the total. And 40 percent of these had been born there.
What made the difference, of course, was that these people were brown or black—and, being Commonwealth citizens, had a presumptive right of permanent residence and eventually citizenship in the imperial metropole. Already in 1958, race riots in west London alerted the government to the perceived risk of permitting ‘too many’ immigrants to enter a historically white society. And so, even though the economic case for unskilled immigrants remained strong and the overall totals insignificant, the UK brought in the first of many controls on non-European immigration. The Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 introduced ‘employment vouchers’ for the first time, and placed rigorous controls on non-white immigration to the UK. A successor Act of 1968 tightened these still further, restricting UK citizenship to persons with at least one British parent; and in 1971 a further Act, overtly directed at non-whites, severely restricted the admission of the dependents of immigrants already in Britain.124
The net effect of these laws was to end non-European immigration into Britain less than twenty years after it had begun. Henceforth, the growing share of non-whites in the UK population would be a function of high African, Caribbean and South Asian birth rates within the UK. On the other hand, these drastic restrictions on the right of blacks and Asians to enter the UK were accompanied, in due course, by a considerable improvement in their life chances once there. A Race Relations Act of 1965 banned discrimination in public places, introduced remedies for job discrimination, and set out penalties for incitement to race hatred. A successor Act eleven years later finally outlawed all discrimination based on race and established a Commission for Racial Equality. In certain respects, the new, non-European populations of the UK (and, later, France) were more fortunate than the second-class Europeans who found work north of the Alps. English landladies could no longer display signs announcing ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’; but notices forbidding entry to ‘dogs and Italians’ were not unknown in Swiss parks for some years to come.
In northern Europe the situation of foreign labourers and other residents was kept deliberately precarious. The Dutch government encouraged workers from Spain, Yugoslavia, Italy (and later Turkey, Morocco and Surinam), to come and take up jobs in textiles, mines and shipbuilding. But when the old industries shut down, it was these workers who lost their jobs, often without any insurance or social safety net to cushion the impact on them and their families. In West Germany a Foreigners’ Law of 1965 incorporated within its text ‘Police Regulations for Foreigners’ first promulgated by the Nazis in 1938. Foreign workers were described and treated as a temporary presence, at the mercy of the authorities. By 1974, however, when the European economy had slowed to a crawl and many of the immigrant workers were no longer required, they had become permanent residents. In that year, 17.3 percent of all children born in West Germany were the children of ‘foreigners’.
The net impact of these movements of people is hard to overestimate. Taken all in all, they amounted to some forty million people in transit, moving within countries, between countries and into Europe from overseas. Without cheap and abundant labour in this vulnerable and mostly unorganized form, the European boom would not have been possible. The post-war European states—and private employers—benefited greatly from a steady flow of docile, low-paid workers for whom they frequently avoided paying the full social cost. When the boom ended and it came time to lay off excess labour, the immigrant and migrant workforce was the first to suffer.
Like everyone else, the new workers not only made things; they bought them. This was something quite new. Throughout recorded history, most people in Europe—as elsewhere in the world—had possessed just four kinds of things: those they inherited from their parents; those they made themselves; those they bartered or exchanged with others; and those few items they had been obliged to purchase for cash, almost always made by someone they knew. Industrialization in the course of the nineteenth century had transformed the world of town- and city-dwellers; but in many parts of rural Europe the traditional economy operated largely unchanged up to and even beyond the Second World War.
By far the largest expense in a traditional household budget was food and clothing, which together with housing took up much of a family’s earnings. Most people did not shop or ‘consume’ in the modern sense; they subsisted. For the overwhelming majority of the European population up to the middle of the twentieth century, ‘disposable income’ was a contradiction in terms. As recently as 1950, the average western European household spent more than half its cash outlay on necessities: food, drink and tobacco (sic). In Mediterranean Europe the figure was distinctly higher. Once clothing and rent were added, there was not much left over for non-essential items.
In the next generation, all this was to change. In the two decades after 1953, real wages almost tripled in West Germany and the Benelux countries. In Italy the rate of income growth was higher still. Even in Britain the purchasing power of the average citizen nearly doubled in these years. By 1965, food and clothing absorbed just 31 percent of consumer spending in Britain; by 1980 the average for northern and western Europe as a whole was less than one quarter.
People had money to spare and they were spending it. In 1950, West German retailers sold just 900,000 pairs of ladies’ nylon stockings (the emblematic ‘luxury’ item of the immediate post-war years). Four years later, in 1953, they moved 58 million pairs. In more traditional commodities the major impact of this revolution in spending came in the way goods were packaged and the scale on which they were sold. Supermarkets began to appear, notably in the 1960s, the decade when the impact of the increase in purchasing power was felt most dramatically. In the Netherlands, which boasted just seven supermarkets in 1961, there were 520 ten years later. In the same decade, the number of supermarkets in neighboring Belgium rose from 19 to 456; in France from 49 to 1,833.125
The rationale for supermarkets was that shoppers (housewives for the most part) would spend more in any one shopping trip if most of what they wanted—or could be tempted into wanting—was conveniently available in one place. But this in turn presumed that women had somewhere to put their food when they got it home; and that implied, increasingly, the presence of a fridge. In 1957 most west European households still did not possess a fridge (the figure ranging from 12 percent in West Germany to less than 2 percent in Italy). The reason was not so much technical (by the mid-1950s virtually all of western Europe had full electricity service, with the exception of parts of rural Norway and southern and upland regions of Italy) as logistic: until housewives could afford to buy a lot of perishable food at one outing, and could transport it home, there was not much point in spending large sums of money on a fridge.126
It is thus symptomatic of many other related changes that, by 1974, the absence of a fridge in most places would have been remarked upon: in Belgium and the UK, 82 percent of households had one; in France, 88 percent; in the Netherlands and West Germany, 93 percent. Most remarkable of all, 94 percent of Italian households now owned a fridge, the highest ratio in Europe. Indeed, Italy had become Europe’s largest manufacturer of refrigerators and other ‘white goods’. In 1951 Italian factories made just 18,500 fridges; two decades later Italy was producing 5,247,000 a year—almost as many as the USA, and more than the rest of Europe put together.
Like the domestic fridge, the washing machine made its appearance in these years. It too was aimed at easing the work of the newly affluent housewife and encouraging her to extend her range of purchases. The washing machine, however, took longer to catch on than the fridge—partly because in the mid-1950s running water had still not arrived in more than half of all households in Belgium, Italy, Austria, Spain and many parts of France and Scandinavia, partly because the electricity grid in many places could not support two large appliances in a single residence. 127 Even in 1972, by which time most west Europeans lived in homes equipped with indoor toilets and full plumbing, only two households in three owned a washing machine, a ratio that increased steadily but slowly with each decade. Washing machines remained for many years beyond the reach of the poor, especially large families that had greatest need of them. Partly for this reason, the washing machine—like dishwashers after the mid-1970s—remained associated in commercial imagery with the domestic accoutrements of the affluent middle class.
Washing machines and fridges were becoming cheaper. Like toys and clothes, they were being made on a far larger scale than ever before, as investment at one end and sustained high demand at the other brought prices down: even in France, where mass production always lagged a little behind, turnover in the toy industry increased 350 percent in the early baby-boom years 1948-1955. But the virtuous circle of millions of newly employed commodity-consumers had its most significant impact not in the home but outside. The greatest single measure of European prosperity was the revolution wrought by the family car.
Until the 1950s, the motor car was a luxury for most Europeans and in many parts was scarcely to be seen. Even in major cities its arrival had been very recent. Most people did not travel great distances for pleasure, and when travelling to work or school they used public transport: trains, trams and buses. At the beginning of the 1950s there were just 89,000 private cars (not counting taxis) in Spain: one for every 314,000 persons. In 1951, just one French household in twelve possessed a car. Only in Great Britain was car ownership a mass phenomenon: there were 2,258,000 private cars there in 1950. But the geographical distribution was uneven: nearly a quarter of all cars were registered in London—much of rural Britain was as empty of cars as France or Italy. And even so, many Londoners didn’t own a car and there were thousands of market traders, costermongers and others who still depended in their work upon a horse and cart.
Car ownership was to increase spectacularly in the next two decades. In Britain, where an initial take-off in the 1930s had been stalled by war and post-war shortages, it doubled in each decade from 1950 to 1980. From two and a quarter million vehicles in 1950, British car ownership had risen to 8 million by 1964, and reached 11.5 million by the end of the Sixties. Italians, who owned just 270,000 private cars at the outbreak of the war and 342,000 in 1950 (less than the number of cars in Greater London alone), had two million vehicles by 1960, five and a half million by 1965, over ten million in 1970 and an estimated 15 million five years later—two cars for every seven residents of the country.128 In France, car ownership rose from less than two million to nearly six million vehicles in the course of the 1950s, then doubled again in the next ten years. Symptomatically, parking meters were introduced at the end of the 1950s—beginning in Britain, then spreading through France and elsewhere in the course of the Sixties.129
If Europeans could buy cars for their personal use in such unprecedented numbers it was not merely because they had more money to spend. There were many more cars available to meet the pent-up demand of decades of Depression and war. Well before 1939, a number of European car manufacturers (Porsche in Germany, Renault and Citroën in France, Morris in Britain), anticipating a post-Depression lift in demand for private automobiles, had begun to think about a new kind of family car—analogous in function to Henry Ford’s Model T of twenty years before: reliable, mass-produced and affordable. The war delayed the appearance of these models, but by the early 1950s they were rolling off newly installed production lines in ever-increasing number.
In each Western European country there was a dominant local make and model of car, but in essence they were all remarkably alike. The Volkswagen Beetle, the Renault 4cv, the FIAT 500 and 600, the Austin A30 and the Morris Minor were tiny, two-door units of family transport: cheap to buy, cheap to run and easy to fix. They had thin, tinny frames; small, under-powered engines (designed to consume as little fuel as possible); and were equipped with the minimum of accessories and fixtures. The Volkswagens, Renaults and Fiats were rear-engined and had rear-wheel drive, leaving the compartment in front of the driver to accommodate a small amount of luggage, as well as the battery, spare wheel, crank handle and tools.
The front-engined Morris, like its contemporary and competitor the Ford Popular (American-owned but made at Ford’s UK plant in Dagenham, near London, for the domestic market), aspired to a slightly higher level of comfort—and would later spawn a four-door model, as befitted the rather greater prosperity of Britain in the years of its first appearance. Citroën of France introduced its utterly distinctive 2CV (initially marketed to farmers seeking to upgrade or replace their ox wagon), complete with four doors, removable roof and seats, and the engine of a medium-sized motorbike. Despite these cultural variations the little cars of the fifties had a common purpose: to render automobile ownership accessible and affordable for almost every west European family.
For some years after the start of Europe’s post-war transport revolution, the supply of cars could not keep up with demand (a situation that remained the case in Eastern Europe right up to 1989). Thus bikes, motorcycles and motorcycle-sidecar combinations flourished for a while—the latter as a makeshift family vehicle for those who could not afford a car or could not yet get hold of one. Motor scooters appeared on the scene—in France and especially Italy, where the first national motor-scooter rally, held in Rome on November 13th 1949, was followed by an explosive growth in the market for these convenient and reasonably priced symbols of urban freedom and mobility, popular with young people and duly celebrated—the Vespa model in particular—in every contemporary film from or about Italy.
But by the beginning of the sixties the car was firmly in command in Western Europe, displacing traffic from rails to roads and from public to private means of transport. Railway networks had peaked in length and user-volume in the years following World War One; now, unprofitable services were cut back and thousands of miles of track pulled up. In the UK the railways carried 901 million passengers in 1946, close to their historic peak. But thereafter the numbers declined each year. Elsewhere in Western Europe, train traffic held up rather better; in small, crowded countries with efficient networks—like Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark—it actually grew; but far slower than road traffic.
The number of people using buses also began to decline for the first time ever, as more and more people went to work by car. Between 1948 and 1962, in Britain’s congested capital, the overall passenger traffic on London Transport’s buses, trams, trolleys and underground network fell from 3,955 million people a year to 2,485, as commuters took to their cars instead. Despite the distinctly inadequate condition of Europe’s roads—outside of Germany there had been no significant upgrading of any national road network since the late 1920s—individuals and especially families used cars increasingly for discretionary travel: for shopping trips to hypermarkets newly situated at the edge of cities, and above all for weekend excursions and on annual holidays .130
Recreational travel in Europe was not new, though it had hitherto been confined first to the aristocracy and latterly to the better-heeled and more culturally ambitious middle classes. But like every other economic sector, ‘tourism’ had suffered through war and economic recession. The Swiss tourist industry in 1913 boasted 21.9 million nights of lodging; it would not recover such numbers until the mid1950s. And when it came, the tourist boom of the 1950s was different. It was facilitated and encouraged by the availability of private transport and above all by the growing number of people enjoying paid vacations: by 1960 most employees in continental Europe were legally entitled to two weeks of paid holiday (three in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and France) and increasingly they took that holiday away from home.
Leisure travel was becoming mass tourism. Coach companies blossomed, extending the tradition of factory and farm workers’ annual char-à-banc seaside trips into commercial services within and between countries. Fledgling airline entrepreneurs like Britain’s Freddie Laker, who had bought up surplus Bristol Brittania turbo-prop planes, developed charter services to newly opened summer vacation resorts in Italy, France and Spain. Camping—already popular before the war among less affluent vacationers and outdoor enthusiasts—became a major industry in the later Fifties, spawning coastal and pastoral camp-sites, camping equipment emporia, printed guides and specialized clothing outlets. Older holiday resorts—along the coasts and in the countryside of northern and western Europe—thrived. Freshly discovered (or re-discovered) locations emerged, gaining prominence in glossy brochures and popular mythology. The French Riviera, once a sedate wintering escape for Edwardian gentry, was given a seductive and youthful makeover in a new genre of ‘fun-in-the-sun’ movie: in 1956 Roger Vadim ‘invented’ St Tropez as a showcase for his new starlet Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu . . . créa la femme.
Not everyone could afford St Tropez or Switzerland—though the French and Italian coasts and mountains were still inexpensive for travelers from Britain or Germany, exchanging sterling and Deutschmarks for the undervalued francs and lire of the day. Butdomestic seaside holidays, still much sought-after by British, Dutch and Germans in particular, were now truly cheap. Billy Butlin, a Canadian fairground worker who opened his first operation at Skegness in 1936, went on in the Fifties to make a fortune selling ‘cheap and cheerful’, all-in family vacations in holiday camps strategically set along the seashore of industrial England: ‘Walmart with overnight accommodations’ as one critic dismissed them in cynical retrospect. But Butlin’s was immensely popular in its day—and was the unacknowledged institutional ancestor of France’s Club Med, the collective recreational preference of a later, more cosmopolitan generation: even down to the ‘gentils moniteurs’ (or ‘Redcoats’, as Butlin called them).
For the slightly more adventurous there were also the newly opened resorts of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, where visitors could choose between bed-and-breakfast establishments, pensións or modest seaside hotels block-booked by a new breed of package-tour operators. And all of these could now be reached by car. Dressed in summer leisure clothing (itself a new product—and evidence of the new affluence), millions of families would squeeze into their Fiats, Renaults, Volkswagens and Morrises—often on the same day, since official vacation dates tended to cluster around a block of weeks in August—and make their way to distant coasts, along narrow, inadequately serviced roads designed for an earlier age of travel.
The result was unprecedented and quite awful traffic jams that grew worse every year from the late 1950s. They followed predictable arteries: the A303 road south-west from London to Cornwall; the Routes Nationales 6 and 7 from Paris to the Mediterranean coast; the Route Nationale 9 from Paris to the Spanish border (from a few thousand tourists in 1955, French visitors to Spain numbered three million by 1962, seven million two years later—in Franco’s Spain even the French franc went a long way, especially after the Gaullist revaluation).131 German tourists followed the medieval trade route south, pouring through the Austrian Tyrol and over the Brenner Pass into Italy in ever increasing numbers. Many continued on into Yugoslavia which, like Spain, opened itself to foreign tourism in these years: already at 1.7 million in 1963, foreign travelers to the only accessible Communist country in Europe (blessed with a long and very cheap Adriatic coastline) numbered nearly 6.3 million per annum a decade later.
Mass tourism, it has been well observed, may be environmentally insensitive but it has distinct re-distributive benefits. As prosperous northerners flocked to hitherto impoverished Mediterranean lands, jobs opened up for building workers, cooks, waiters, chambermaids, taxi-drivers, prostitutes, porters, airport maintenance crews and others. For the first time, unskilled young men and women in Greece, Yugoslavia, Italy and Spain could find low-paying, seasonal work at home instead of seeking it abroad. Rather than migrate to the expanding economies of the north, they now serviced those same economies in their own lands.
Foreign travel may not have broadened the mind: the more popular a foreign destination, the quicker it came to resemble—in all essential features save climate—the tourist’s point of origin. Indeed, the success of large-scale tourism in the 1960s and after depended upon making Brits, Germans, Dutch, French and other neophyte travelers feel as comfortable as possible, surrounded by fellow-countrymen and insulated from the exotic, the unfamiliar and the unexpected. But the mere fact of going somewhere distant on a regular (annual) basis, and the novel means of transport used to get there—private car, charter flight—offered millions of hitherto insular men and women (and especially their children) a window onto a far bigger world.
Until the 1960s, the chief source of information, opinion and entertainment available to the overwhelming majority of Europeans was the radio. It was from the radio that people got the news, and if there was a common national culture it was shaped far more by what people heard than from what they saw or read. In every European country at this time radio was regulated by the state (in France the nationalbroadcasting network closed down at midnight). Broadcasting stations, transmitters and wavelengths were licensed and typically owned by national governments: symptomatically, the few radio stations transmitting from outside national frontiers were usually situated on ships or islands and colloquially referred to as ‘pirates’.
Ownership of radios, already widespread before the war, was near universal by 1960: in that year there was one radio for every five people in the USSR, one for every four people in France, Austria and Switzerland, one for every three people in Scandinavia and East Germany. In effect, almost every family owned a radio.132 Most domestic radio sets had evolved little from the large, unwieldy, valve-driven wireless units of the inter-war decades. There was usually one per family. It occupied a prime site in the parlor or kitchen and the family had perforce to listen to it while gathered in one place. Even car radios altered little in this respect—the family that traveled together, listened together, and parents chose the programs. Wireless radio was thus a naturally conservative medium, both in its content and in the social patterns that it encouraged and sustained.
Transistors would change all this. The transistor radio was still rare in 1958—in all of France, for example, there were just 260,000. But three years later, in 1961, the French owned two and a quarter million transistor radios. By 1968, when nine out of every ten people in France owned a radio, two thirds of those radios were portable models. Teenagers no longer needed to sit around with their families, listening to news and drama directed at the taste of adults and scheduled for ‘family listening hours’, usually following the evening meal. They now had their own programmes—‘Salut les Copains’ on French national radio, ‘Pick of the Pops’ on the BBC, etc. Individualized radios bred targetted programming; and when the state radio systems proved slow to adapt, ‘peripheral’ radio stations—Radio Luxemburg, Radio Monte Carlo, Radio Andorra, transmitting legally but from across state frontiers and financed by commercial advertising—seized the opportunity.
Battery-driven transistor radios were light and portable, and thus well adapted to an age of increasing mobility—their natural habitat was the tourist beach or public park. But radio was still an aural medium, and thus restricted in its capacity to adapt to what was an increasingly visual age. For older people radio remained a primary source of information, enlightenment and entertainment. In Communist states the radio set was also the only means of access, however inadequate, to uncensored news and opinion, from Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America and, above all, the BBC World Service. But young people everywhere now listened to radio above all for popular music. For everything else they turned increasingly to television.
Television service came slowly to Europe and in some places quite late. In Britain, regular transmitting began in the 1940s and many people watched Queen Elizabeth’s June 1953 coronation live on television. By 1958 more television licenses were issued than radio licenses: the country had ten million sets in domestic use even before the Sixties began. France, by contrast, boasted just 60,000 television sets in June 1953 (at a time when there were already 200,000 in West Germany and fifteen million in the USA); even in 1960 only one French family in eight owned a television, one-fifth the UK figure for a comparable population. In Italy the figures were smaller still.
In the course of the Sixties, however, television caught on almost everywhere—small black-and-white television sets had become an affordable and increasingly essential item of domestic furniture in even the most modest household. By 1970 there was on average one television set for every four people in western Europe—more in the UK, rather less in Ireland. In some countries at this time—France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy (Europe’s biggest manufacturer of television sets as well as fridges)—a family was more likely to own a television than a telephone, though by later standards they did not watch it very much: three quarters of Italian adults watched less than thirteen hours per week. Two East German households in three possessed a television (whereas less than half owned a fridge); Czechs, Hungarians and Estonians (who could watch Finnish television broadcasting from as early as 1954) were close behind.
The impact of television was complicated. Its subject matter was not, at first, especially innovative—state-owned television channels ensured that the political and moral content of programs for children and adults alike was strictly regulated. Commercial television began in Britain in 1955, but it did not come elsewhere until much later and in most European countries there was no question of allowing private television channels until well into the 1970s. Most television programming in the early decades of the medium was conventional, stuffy and more than a little patronizing—confirming rather than undermining traditional norms and values. In Italy Filiberto Guala, head of RAI (Radio Audizioni Italiane—the Italian national broadcasting network) from 1954-56, instructed his employees that their programs were ‘not to undermine the institution of the family’ or portray ‘attitudes, poses or particulars which might arouse base instincts’ .133
There was very little choice—one or at best two channels in most places—and the service operated only for a few hours of the afternoon and evening. Nevertheless, television was a medium of social subversion. It contributed hugely to ending the isolation and ignorance of far-flung communities, by providing everyone with the same experience and a common visual culture. Being ‘French’, or ‘German’ or ‘Dutch’ was now something shaped less by primary education or public festivities than by one’s understanding of the country as gleaned from the images thrust into each home. ‘Italians’, for good or ill, were forged more by the shared experience of watching sport or variety shows on RAI than by a century of unified national government.
Above all, television put national politics onto the domestic hearth. Until television, politics in Paris or Bonn, Rome or London were an élite affair, conducted by distant leaders known only from their disembodied voices on radio, lifeless newspaper photographs or brief, stylized appearances on formulaic cinema newsreels. Now, within the span of less than two decades, political leaders had to become television-friendly: capable of conveying authority and confidence while feigning egalitarian ease and warm familiarity to a mass audience—a performance for which most European politicians were much less well-prepared than their US counterparts. Many older politicians failed miserably when faced with television cameras. Younger, more adaptable aspirants stood to profit immensely. As the British Conservative politician Edward Heath was to remark in his memoirs, à propos the media success of his nemesis, the Labour Party leader Harold Wilson: television was ‘open to abuse by any charlatan who was capable of manipulating it properly. So it proved in the following decade.’
As a visual medium, television was a direct challenge to cinema. Not only did it offer alternative screen entertainment, but it could also bring feature films into people’s homes, obviating the need to go out to see anything but the latest releases. In the UK, cinemas lost 56 percent of their customers between 1946 and 1958. Numbers fell more slowly elsewhere in Europe, but sooner or later they fell everywhere. Cinema attendance held up longest in Mediterranean Europe—especially in Italy, where audience levels remained fairly constant until the mid-1970s. But then Italians not only went to see films on a regular (usually weekly) basis, they also made them: in mid-1950s Rome the film industry was the second largest employer after the construction trades, making not only classical films by famous auteurs, but also (and more profitably) a steady stream of forgettable movies starring beauty queens and evanescent starlets—‘le maggiorate fisiche’ (the ‘physically advantaged’).
Eventually, even the Italian film industry, and Italian cinema attendance, languished. European film producers, lacking the resources of Hollywood, could not hope to compete with American films in scale or ‘production values’ and confined themselves increasingly to ‘ordinary life’ cinema, whether ‘new wave’, kitchen sink or domestic comedy. Cinema in Europe declined from a social activity to an art form. Whereas audiences in the 1940s and 1950s had automatically gone to see whatever happened to be showing at the local cinema, they now went only if they were attracted by a particular film. For random entertainment, to see whatever was ‘on’, they turned instead to television.
Despite being a ‘young’ medium, television had a particular attraction for older audiences, especially in its early, state-regulated, culturally cautious years. Where once they would have listened to the radio, or else gone out to the cinema, mature men and women stayed at home and watched television instead. Commercial sport, especially traditional spectator sports like soccer or dog racing, suffered: firstly because their audience now had an alternative source of entertainment, more convenient and comfortable; and secondly because sport soon began to be televised, usually at the weekends. Only young people went out in large numbers. And their tastes in entertainment were starting to change.
By the end of the 1950s, the European economy was beginning to feel the full commercial impact of the baby boom. First there had been the explosion in products for babies, toddlers and children: baby carriages, cribs, diapers, baby food, children’s clothing, sporting equipment, books, games and toys. Then came a vast expansion in schools and education services, bringing in its wake a new market for school uniforms, desks, schoolbooks, school equipment and an ever-widening range of educational products (including teachers). But the buyers for all these goods and services had been adults: parents, relatives, school administrators and central governments. Around 1957, for the first time in European history, young people started buying things themselves.
Until this time, young people had not even existed as a distinct group of consumers. Indeed, ‘young people’ had not existed at all. In traditional families and communities, children remained children until they left school and went to work, at which point they were young adults. The new, intermediate category of ‘teenager’, in which a generation was defined not by its status but by its age—neither child nor adult—had no precedent. And the notion that such persons—teenagers—might represent a distinct group of consumers would have been quite unthinkable a few years before. For most people the family had always been a unit of production, not consumption. To the extent that any young person within the family had independent cash earnings, these were part of the family income and used to help defray collective expenses.
But with real wages rising rapidly, most families could subsist—and better—on the income of the primary wage-earner; all the more so if both parents were employed. A son or daughter who had left school at fourteen (the typical school-leaving age for most young west Europeans in these years), who was living at home, and who had a steady or just a part-time job, was no longer automatically expected to hand over all his or her earnings every Friday. In France, by 1965, 62 percent of all 16- to 24-year-olds still living with their parents were retaining all their own earnings to spend as they wished.
The most immediately obvious symptom of this new adolescent spending power was sartorial. Well before the baby-boom generation itself discovered miniskirts and long hair, its immediate predecessor—the generation born during the war rather than just after it—asserted its presence and its appearance in the gang cults of the late Fifties. Dressed in dark, skin-hugging outfits—sometimes leather, sometimes suede, always sharply cut and vaguely threatening—the blouson noirs (France), Halbstarker (Germany and Austria) or skinknuttar (Sweden), like the teddy boys of London, affected a cynical, indifferent demeanour, something between Marlon Brando (in The Wild One) and James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause). But despite occasional bursts of violence—most seriously in Britain, where gangs of leather-clad youths attacked Caribbean immigrants—the chief threat that these young people and their clothes posed was to their elders’ sense of propriety. They looked different.
Age-specific clothing was important, as a statement of independence and even revolt. It was also new—in the past, young adults had had little option but to wear the same clothes as their fathers and mothers. But it was not, economically speaking, the most important change wrought by teenage spending habits: young people were spending a lot of money on clothes, but even more—far more—on music. The association of ‘teenager’ and ‘pop music’ that became so automatic by the early Sixties had a commercial as well as a cultural basis. In Europe as in America, when the family budget could dispense with a teenager’s contribution, the first thing the liberated adolescent did was to go out and buy a gramophone record.
The long-playing record was invented in 1948. The first 45rpm ‘single’, with one song on each side, was marketed by RCA the following year. Sales in Europe did not take off as fast as in America—where turnover from record sales rose from $277 million in 1955 to $600 million four years later. But they rose nonetheless. In Britain, where young people were initially more exposed to American popular music than their continental contemporaries, observers dated the pop music explosion from the showing of the 1956 film Rock Around the Clock, starring Bill Haley and the Comets and the Platters. The film itself was mediocre even by the undemanding standards of rock music movie vehicles; but its eponymous title song (performed by Haley) galvanized a generation of British teenagers.
Working-class teenagers for whom jazz had never held much appeal were immediately attracted to the American (and in its wake, British) revolution in popular music: driving, tuneful, accessible, sexy and, above all, their own.134 But there was nothing very angry about it, much less violent, and even the sex was kept firmly under wraps by record company producers, marketing managers and radio broadcasting executives. This is because the initial pop music revolution was a Fifties phenomenon: it did not accompany the cultural transformation of the Sixties but preceded it. As a consequence it was frequently the object of official criticism. Disapproving local council watch committees banned Rock Around the Clock—as they did Elvis Presley’s decidedly superior rock musical,Jailhouse Rock.
The city fathers of Swansea in Wales thought the British skiffle player Lonnie Donegan ‘unsuitable’. Tommy Steele, a moderately energetic British rock singer of the late Fifties, was not allowed to perform in Portsmouth on the Sabbath. Johnny Hallyday, a half-successful French attempt to clone US rockers of the Gene Vincent or Eddie Cochran mould, inspired outrage among a generation of French conservative intellectuals when his first record appeared in 1960. In retrospect, the horrified response of parents, teachers, clerics, pundits and politicians across Western Europe appears quaintly disproportionate. Within less than a decade Haley, Donegan, Steele, Hallyday and their like would seem hopelessly outdated, relics of an innocent prehistory.
European teenagers of the late fifties and early sixties did not aspire to change the world. They had grown up in security and a modest affluence. Most of them just wanted to look different, travel more, play pop music and buy stuff. In this they reflected the behavior and tastes of their favorite singers, and the disc-jockeys whose radio programs they listened to on their transistors. But all the same they were the thin end of a revolutionary wedge. More even than their parents, they were the target of the advertising industry that followed, accompanied and prophesied the consumer boom. More and more goods were being made and purchased, and they came in unprecedented variety. Cars, clothes, baby carriages, packaged foods and washing powder all now came to market in a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes and colors.
Advertising had a long history in Europe. Newspapers, especially the popular newspapers that flourished from the 1890s, had always carried advertisements. Roadside hoardings and placards were a longstanding blight in Italy well before the nineteen fifties, and any traveler in mid-century France would have been familiar with the exhortations painted high up on the side of rural farmhouses and urban terraces to drink St Raphael or Dubonnet. Commercial jingles as well as still photographs had long accompanied newsreels and the second feature in cinemas across Europe. But such traditional advertising took little account of targeted product placement, or markets segmented by age or taste. From the mid-1950s, by contrast, consumer choice became a major marketing consideration; and advertising, still a relatively small business expense in pre-war Europe, took on a prominent role.
Moreover, whereas the cleaning products and breakfast cereals advertised on early commercial television in Britain were directed towards housewives and children, commercial breaks on Radio Monte Carlo and elsewhere were aimed above all at the ‘young adult’ market. Teenage discretionary spending—on tobacco, alcohol, mopeds and motor bikes, modestly-priced fashion clothing, footwear, make-up, hair care, jewelry, magazines, records, record-players, radios—was a huge, and hitherto untapped, pool of cash: advertising agencies flocked to take advantage of it. Expenditure on retail advertising in Great Britain rose from £102 million a year in 1951 to £2.5 billion in 1978.
In France, spending on magazine adverts aimed at adolescents rose by 400 percent in the crucial years 1959-1962. For many people, the world as depicted in advertisements was still beyond their reach: in 1957 a majority of young people polled in France complained that they lacked access to entertainment of their choice, the vacation of their imaginings, a means of transport of their own. But it is symptomatic that those polled already regarded these goods and services as rights of which they were deprived, rather than fantasies to which they could never aspire. Across the English Channel, in that same year, a group of middle-class activists, perturbed at the unmediated impact of commercial advertising and the efflorescence of commodities it was selling, published the first-ever consumer guide in Europe. Significantly, they named it not ‘What’ but Which?
This was the brave new world that the British novelist J. B. Priestley described in 1955 as ‘admass’. For many other contemporary observers it was, very simply, ‘Americanization’: the adoption in Europe of all the practices and aspirations of modern America. A radical departure though it seemed to many, this was not in fact a new experience. Europeans had been ‘Americanizing’—and dreading the thought—for at least thirty years.135 The vogue for US-style production lines and ‘Taylorized’ work rates, like the fascination with American films and fashions, was an old story even before World War Two. European intellectuals between the wars had bemoaned the ‘soulless’ world of American modernity that lay ahead for everyone; and Nazis and Communists both made great play with their role as the preservers of culture and values in the face of unrestricted American capitalism and a ‘mongrelized’ rootless cosmopolitanism symbolized by New York and its spreading example.
And yet, for all its presence in the European imagination—and the very physical reality of American soldiers based all over western Europe—the United States was still a great unknown for most Europeans. Americans spoke English—not a language with which most continental Europeans had any acquaintance in these years. The history and geography of the USA were not studied in European schools; its writers were unknown even to an educated minority; its political system was a mystery to all but a privileged few. Hardly anyone had made the long and expensive journey to the US: only the wealthy (and not many of them); hand-picked trade unionists and others paid from Marshall funds; a few thousand exchange students—and a number of Greek and Italian men who had emigrated to America after 1900 and returned to Sicily or the Greek islands in old age. East Europeans often had more links to the US than westerners, since many Poles or Hungarians knew a friend or relative who had gone to America, and many more would have gone if they could.
To be sure, the US government and various private agencies—notably the Ford Foundation—were doing their best to overcome the gulf separating Europe from America: the 1950s and early 1960s were the great age of overseas cultural investment,from America Houses to Fulbright Scholars. In some places—notably the Federal Republic of Germany—the consequences were profound: between 1948 and 1955, 12,000 Germans were brought to America for extended stays of one month or more. A whole generation of West Germans grew up in the military, economic and cultural shadow of the United States; Ludwig Erhard once described himself as ‘an American invention.’
But it is important to emphasize that this sort of American influence and example depended curiously little on direct American economic involvement. America in 1950 had three fifths of the capital stock of the West and about the same share of output, but very little of the proceeds flowed across the Atlantic. Post-1945 investment came above all from the US government. In 1956, US private investment in Europe amounted to just $4.15 billion. It then began to rise sharply, taking off in the 1960s (notably in Britain) and reaching $24.52 billion in 1970—by which time it had provoked a flurry of anxious publications warning of the rise of American economic power, notably J-J Servan-Schreiber’s 1967 essay, Le Défi Américain (The American Challenge).
The American economic presence in Europe was felt less in direct economic investment or leverage than in the consumer revolution that was affecting America and Europe alike. Europeans were now gaining access to the unprecedented range of products with which American consumers were familiar: phones, white goods, televisions, cameras, cleaning products, packaged foods, cheap colorful clothing, cars and their accessories, etc. This was prosperity and consumption as a way of life—the ‘American way of life’. For young people the appeal of ‘America’ was its aggressive contemporaneity. As an abstraction, it stood for the opposite of the past; it was large, open, prosperous—and youthful.
One aspect of ‘Americanization’, already noted, was popular music—though even this was not in itself a new pattern: ‘ragtime’ was first performed in Vienna in 1903 and American dance bands and jazz groups were widely circulating before and after World War Two. Nor was it a uniquely one-way process: most modern popular music was a hybridization of imported and local genres. ‘American’ music in Britain was subtly different from ‘American’ music in France or Germany. French taste in particular was influenced by black performing artists who made their way to Paris to escape prejudice at home—one reason why the idea of ‘America’ in French culture was markedly infused with the image of racism.
By the 1950s, the impact of American example on a European audience came overwhelmingly through the medium of film. European audiences had near-unrestricted access to anything Hollywood could export: by the later 1950s, the US was marketing about 500 films a year, to Europe’s collective output of about 450. American films suffered the disadvantage of language, of course (though in many places, notably Italy, they were simply dubbed en masse into the local tongue). And partly for this reason audiences above a certain age continued to prefer the domestic product. But their children felt otherwise. Younger audiences increasingly appreciated American feature films—often made by European directors who had fled Hitler or Stalin.
Contemporary critics worried that the smug conformism of American popular culture, combined with the manifest or subliminal political messages conveyed in films aimed at mass audiences, would corrupt or tranquilize the sensibilities of European youth. If anything, the effect seems rather to have been the opposite. Young European audiences filtered out the propaganda content of mainstream American movies—envying the ‘good life’ as depicted on screen, much as their parents had done twenty years before, but laughing out loud at the bathos and naiveté of American romance and domestic routine. Meanwhile, however, they paid very close attention to the often-subversive style of the performers.
The music that was played in American films would re-surface on radio, in cafés, bars and dance halls. The body language of rebellious American youth—as seen on film—became a fashion statement for their European contemporaries. Young Europeans began to dress ‘American’—when ‘genuine Levi’ jeans first appeared on sale in Paris, at the Marché aux Puces in May 1963, demand far outran supply. The American youth uniform of jeans and tee-shirts carried very little connotation of class (at least until both were appropriated by expensive high-end fashion designers, and even then the distinction that emerged was not of social rank but material resources); indeed, worn by middle class and working class alike, jeans were a revealing inversion of the traditional ‘trickle down’ development of dress style, having trickled up from a genuine item of work clothing. They were also distinctively young: like many other form-fitting fashions imitated from the films of the late 1950s, they did not flatter the older figure.
Within a very short time, jeans—like motorbikes, Coca-Cola, big hair (male and female) and pop stars—had spawned locally adapted variations across western Europe (both the films and the products they flaunted were unavailable further east). This was part of a broader pattern. Stock American film themes—science-fiction, detective stories, Westerns—were domesticated in stylized European versions. Millions of West Germans learned about cowboys from paperback novels written by local authors who had never been to America; by 1960 German-language ‘Western’ novels were selling at the rate of ninety-one million a year in the Federal Republic alone. The second most popular European cartoon character after the Belgian boy-detective Tintin was another Belgian product: Lucky Luke, a hapless and appealing cowpoke featured weekly in French- and Dutch-language comics. America, real or imagined, was becoming the natural setting for light entertainment of all genres.
The American impact on young Europeans contributed directly to what was already being widely bemoaned as the ‘generation gap’. Their elders observed and regretted the propensity of young Europeans everywhere to pepper their conversations with real or imagined Americanisms. One study estimated that such ‘Americanisms’ increased fourteen-fold in the Austrian and German press over the course of the sixties; in 1964 the French critic René Etiemble published Parlez-vous Franglais?, an entertaining (and, as some might now say, prophetic) account of the damage being done to the French language by anglophone pollution.
Anti-Americanism—the principled distrust and dislike of American civilization and all its manifestations—was typically confined to cultural elites whose influence made it appear more widespread than it was. Cultural conservatives like André Siegfried in France—whose 1954 Tableau des États-Unis reprised all the resentments and some of the anti-semitism of inter-war polemics—agreed with cultural radicals like Jean-Paul Sartre (or Britain’s Harold Pinter in later decades): America was a land of hysterical puritans, given over to technology, standardization and conformism, bereft of originality of thought. Such cultural insecurities had more to do with the pace of change in Europe itself than with the challenge or threat posed by America. Just as European teenagers identified the future with an America they hardly knew, so their parents blamed America for the loss of a Europe that had never really been, a continent secure in its identity, its authority and its values, and impervious to the sirens of modernity and mass society.
These sentiments were not yet widely encountered in Germany or Austria, or even Italy, where many older people still regarded Americans as liberators. Conversely, anti-Americanism was more frequently espoused in England and France, the two former colonial powers directly displaced by the rise of the United States. As Maurice Duverger informed the readers of the French weekly L’Express in March 1964, Communism was no longer a threat: ‘There is only one immediate danger for Europe, and that is the American civilization’—‘a civilization of bathtubs and frigidaires’, as the poet Louis Aragon had dismissed it thirteen years before. But notwithstanding the haughty disdain of Parisian intellectuals, a civilization of bathtubs and frigidaires—and indoor plumbing and central heating and television and cars—was what most Europeans now wanted. And they wanted these commodities not because they were American but because they represented comfort and a degree of ease. For the first time in history, ease and comfort were now within the reach of most people in Europe.