‘The important thing for Government is not to do things which
individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little
worse; but to do those things which at present are not done at all’.
John Maynard Keynes (1926)
‘The challenge is not going to come from the U.S, . . . from Western
Germany or from France; the challenge is going to come from those
nations who, however wrong they may be—and I think they are wrong in
many fundamental respects—nevertheless are at long last being able to
reap the material fruits of economic planning and of public ownership’.
Aneurin Bevan (1959)
‘Our nation stands for democracy and proper drains’.
‘I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out
and the people can see in’.
Pope John XXIII
‘Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second’.
The 1960s saw the apogee of the European state. The relation of the citizen to the state in Western Europe in the course of the previous century had been a shifting compromise between military needs and political claims: the modern rights of newly enfranchised citizens offset by older obligations to defend the realm. But since 1945 that relationship had come increasingly to be characterised by a dense tissue of social benefits and economic strategies in which it was the state that served its subjects, rather than the other way around.
In later years the all-encompassing ambitions of the Western European welfare states would lose some of their appeal—not least because they could no longer fulfill their promise: unemployment, inflation, ageing populations and economic slowdown placed insuperable constraints upon the efforts of states to deliver their half of the bargain. Transformations in international capital markets and modern electronic communications hamstrung governments’ capacity to plan and enforce domestic economic policy. And, most important of all, the very legitimacy of the interventionist state itself was undermined: at home by the rigidities and inefficiencies of public-sector agencies and producers, abroad by the incontrovertible evidence of chronic economic dysfunction and political repression in the Socialist states of the Soviet bloc.
But all of this lay in the future. In the peak years of the modern European welfare state, when the administrative apparatus still exercised broad-ranging authority and its credibility remained unassailed, a remarkable consensus was achieved. The state, it was widely believed, would always do a better job than the unrestricted market: not just in dispensing justice and securing the realm, or distributing goods and services, but in designing and applying strategies for social cohesion, moral sustenance and cultural vitality. The notion that such matters might better be left to enlightened self-interest and the workings of a free market in commodities and ideas was regarded in mainstream European political and academic circles as a quaint relic of pre-Keynesian times: at best a failure to learn the lessons of the Depression, at worst an invitation to conflict and a veiled appeal to the basest human instincts.
The state, then, was a good thing; and there was a lot of it. Between 1950 and 1973, government spending rose from 27.6 percent to 38.8 percent of the gross domestic product in France, from 30.4 percent to 42 percent in West Germany, from 34.2 percent to 41.5 percent in the UK and from 26.8 percent to 45.5 percent in the Netherlands—at a time when that domestic product was itself growing faster than ever before or since. The overwhelming bulk of the increase in spending went on insurance, pensions, health, education and housing. In Scandinavia the share of national income devoted to social security alone rose 250 percent in Denmark and Sweden between 1950 and 1973. In Norway it tripled. Only in Switzerland was the share of post-war GNP spent by the state kept comparatively low (it did not reach 30 percent until 1980), but even there it stood in dramatic contrast to the 1938 figure of just 6.8 percent.
The success story of post-war European capitalism was everywhere accompanied by an enhanced role for the public sector. But the nature of state engagement varied considerably. In most of continental Europe the state eschewed direct ownership of industry (though not of public transport or communications), preferring to exercise indirect control; often through notionally autonomous agencies, of which Italy’s tentacular IRI was the biggest and best known (see Chapter 8).
Conglomerates such as IRI serviced not just their employees and consumers, but also a variety of political parties, trade unions, social service agencies and even churches whose patronage they dispensed and whose influence they enhanced. Italy’s Christian Democrat Party ‘colonised’ at every level from village to national capital a protean range of public services and state-controlled or state-subsidized products: transport, electronic media, banks, energy, engineering and chemical industries, the building trades, food production. The primary beneficiaries, after the Party itself, were the millions of children and grandchildren of landless peasants who found secure employment in the bureaucracies that resulted. The Italian National Institute for War Orphans employed 12 people for every 70 orphans and spent 80 percent of its annual budgetary allocation on salaries and administration.
In a similar way, control of public-sector companies in Belgium allowed the national government in Brussels to buffer local resentments and bribe contending regional and linguistic interests with services, jobs and costly infrastructure investment. In France the post-war nationalizations established long-lasting networks of influence and patronage. Electricité de France (EDF) was the country’s primary energy provider. But it was also one of the country’s largest employers. By an agreement dating from the initial post-war legislation, one percent of EDF’s French turnover was handed annually to a social fund managed by the then-dominant trade union movement, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). The vacation and other benefits paid from this fund (not to mention the employment opportunities for its staff) represented for decades to come a lucrative and politically significant lever of patronage for the CGT’s own patron, the French Communist Party.
The state thus lubricated the wheels of commerce, politics and society in numerous ways. And it was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the employment and remuneration of millions of men and women who thus had a vested interest in it, whether as professionals or bureaucrats. Graduates from Britain’s leading universities, like their contemporaries in French grandes écoles, typically sought employment not in private-sector professions, much less industry and commerce, but in education, medicine, the social services, public law, state monopolies or government service. By the end of the 1970s, 60 percent of all university graduates in Belgium took up employment in the public services or publicly subsidized social sector. The European state had forged a unique market for the goods and services it could provide. It formed a virtuous circle of employment and influence that attracted near-universal appreciation.
Doctrinal differences over the ostensible goals of the state might noisily oppose Left and Right, Christian Democrats and Communists, Socialists and Conservatives, but almost everyone had something to gain from the opportunities the state afforded them for income and influence. Faith in the state—as planner, coordinator, facilitator, arbiter, provider, caretaker and guardian—was widespread and crossed almost all political divides.138 The welfare state was avowedly social, but it was far from socialist. In that sense welfare capitalism, as it unfolded in Western Europe, was truly post-ideological.
Nevertheless, within the general post-war European consensus there was a distinctive vision, that of the Social Democrats. Social Democracy had always been a hybrid; indeed, this was just what was held against it by enemies to the Right and Left alike. A practice in lifelong search of its theory, Social Democracy was the outcome of an insight vouchsafed to a generation of European socialists early in the twentieth century: that radical social revolution in the heartlands of modern Europe—as prophesied and planned by the socialist visionaries of the nineteenth century—lay in the past, not the future. As a solution to the injustice and inefficiency of industrial capitalism, the nineteenth-century paradigm of violent urban upheaval was not only undesirable and unlikely to meet its goals; it was also redundant. Genuine improvements in the condition of all classes could be obtained in incremental and peaceful ways.
It did not follow from this that the fundamental nineteenth-century socialist tenets were discarded. The overwhelming majority of mid-twentieth-century European Social Democrats, even if they kept their distance from Marx and his avowed heirs, maintained as an article of faith that capitalism was inherently dysfunctional and that socialism was both morally and economically superior. Where they differed from Communists was in their unwillingness to commit to the inevitability of capitalism’s imminent demise or to the wisdom of hastening that demise by their own political actions. Their task, as they had come to understand it in the course of decades of Depression, division and dictatorship, was to use the resources of the state to eliminate the social pathologies attendant on capitalist forms of production and the unrestricted workings of a market economy: to build not economic utopias but good societies.
The politics of social democracy were not always seductive to impatient young people, as later events were to show. But they were intuitively appealing to men and women who had lived through the terrible decades since 1914, and in certain parts of Western Europe social democracy by the mid-Sixties was no longer so much a politics as a way of life. Nowhere was this more evident than in Scandinavia. Between 1945 and 1964 the Danish Social Democratic Party’s share of the vote in national elections rose from 33 percent to 42 percent; in the same years the Norwegian Labour Party won between 43 and 48 percent; as for the Swedish Social Democrats, their share of the post-war vote never fell below 45 percent. In the elections of 1968 it even exceeded 50 percent.
What was remarkable about these voting figures was not the numbers themselves—the Austrian Socialist Party did almost as well on occasion and in the British general elections of 1951 Clement Attlee’s Labour Party had won 48.8 percent of the vote (though the Conservatives, with a smaller overall vote, got more parliamentary seats). It was their consistency. Year in, year out, Scandinavian Social Democratic parties secured over two-fifths of their countries’ votes, and the result was decades of unbroken control of government, occasionally at the head of a coalition of small and compliant junior partners but usually alone. Between 1945 and 1968, eight out of ten Danish governments were led by Social Democrats; in the same years there were five Norwegian governments, three of them Social Democratic, and four Swedish governments, all Social Democratic. There was consistency in personnel, too: Norway’s Einar Gerhardsen led two Social Democratic governments for a total of fourteen years; in Sweden, Tage Erlander ruled both his party and his country for twenty-three years, from 1946-1969.139
Scandinavian societies inherited certain advantages. Small and socially homogenous, with no overseas colonies or imperial ambitions, they had been constitutional states for many years. The Danish constitution of 1849 had introduced limited parliamentary government but extensive press and religious freedom. The Swedish (and at the time Norwegian) constitution of 1809 established modern political institutions, including proportional representation and the exemplary system of the ombudsman—the latter adopted throughout Scandinavia in later years—and provided the stable framework within which the party political system could develop. It would remain in force until 1975.
But Scandinavia was historically poor—a region of forests, farms, fisheries and a handful of primary industries, most of them in Sweden. Labour relations in Sweden and Norway especially were chronically troubled by conflict—the strike rate in both countries was among the highest in the world during the first decades of the twentieth century. During the Depression of the 1930s unemployment in the region was chronic. In 1932-33 one third of the Swedish labour force was out of work; in Norway and Denmark 40 percent of the adult workforce had no jobs—figures comparable to the worst years of joblessness in Britain, Weimar Germany or the industrial states of the US. In Sweden the crisis led to violent confrontations, notably at Ådalen in 1931 where a strike at a paper-mill was suppressed by the army (memorably recalled by Swedish director Bo Widerberg in a 1969 film, Ådalen 31).
If Scandinavia—and Sweden in particular—did not follow the path of other economically depressed societies on the European margin between the wars, much of the credit belongs to the Social Democrats. After World War One the Scandinavian socialist parties largely abandoned the radical dogma and revolutionary ambitions they had shared with the German and other Socialist movements of the Second International; and in the course of the 1930s they moved towards a historic compromise between capital and labour. At Saltsjöbaden in 1938, representatives of Swedish employers and labour signed a Pact that was to form the basis of the country’s future social relations—a foretaste of the neo-corporatist social partnerships formed in Germany and Austria after 1945, but which were virtually unknown before the war, except under Fascist auspices.140
Scandinavian Social Democrats were open to such compromises because they had no illusions about the putative ‘proletarian’ constituency on whom other socialist parties relied for their core support. Had they depended upon urban working-class votes alone, or even working-class votes allied to middle-class reformers, the Socialist parties of Scandinavia would forever have remained in the minority. Their political prospects rested upon extending their appeal to the overwhelmingly rural populations of the region. And thus, unlike almost every other socialist or social-democratic party of Europe, Scandinavian social democrats were not scarred by the instinctive antipathy to the countryside that characterized much of the European Left, from Marx’s remarks about the ‘idiocy of rural life’ to Lenin’s distaste for ‘kulaks’.
The embittered and destitute peasants of inter-war central and southern Europe formed a ready constituency for Nazis, Fascists or single-issue Agrarian populists. But the equally troubled farmers, loggers, crofters and fisherman of Europe’s far north turned in growing numbers to the Social Democrats, who actively supported agrarian cooperatives—especially important in Denmark, where commercial farming was widespread and efficient, but very small-scale—and thereby blurred the longstanding socialist distinctions between private production and collectivist goals, ‘backward’ country and ‘modern’ town that were so electorally disastrous in other countries.
This alliance of labour and farming—facilitated by the unusual independence of Scandinavian peasants, conjoined in fervently Protestant communities unconstrained by traditional rural subservience to priest or landlord—was to form the long-term platform on which Europe’s most successful social democracies were built. ‘Red-green’ coalitions (at first between Agrarian and Social Democratic parties, later within the latter alone) were unthinkable everywhere else; in Scandinavia they became the norm. The Social Democratic parties were the vehicle through which traditional rural society and industrial labour together entered the urban age: in that sense Social Democracy in Scandinavia was not just one politics among many, it was the very form of modernity itself.
The Scandinavian welfare states that evolved after 1945 had their origins, then, in the two social pacts of the 1930s: between employees and employers, and between labour and farming. The social services and other public provisions that came to characterize the Scandinavian ‘model’ reflected these origins, emphasizing universality and equality—universal social rights, equalized incomes, flat-rate benefits paid from steeply progressive taxation. They thus stood in marked contrast to the typical continental European version in which the state transferred or returned income to families and individuals, enabling them to pay in cash for what were, in essence, subsidized private services (insurance and medicine in particular). But except for education, which was already universal and comprehensive before 1914, the Scandinavian system of welfare was not conceived and implemented all at once. It came about incrementally. Health care in particular lagged behind: in Denmark, universal health coverage was achieved only in 1971, twenty-three years after Aneurin Bevan’s National Health Service was inaugurated across the North Sea in the United Kingdom.
Moreover, what looked from the outside like a single Nordic system was in reality quite varied by country. Denmark was the least ‘Scandinavian’. Not only was it critically dependent upon an overseas market for farm produce (dairy and pork products especially) and thus more sensitive to policies and political developments elsewhere in Europe; but its skilled work force was much more divided by traditional craft-based loyalties and organisations. In this respect it resembled Britain more than, say, Norway; indeed, Denmark’s Social Democrats were constrained on more than one occasion in the Sixties to emulate British governments and seek to impose price and wage controls on an unstable labour market. By British standards the policy was a success; but by more demanding Scandinavian measures, Danish social relations and Denmark’s economic performance were always somewhat troubled.
Norway was the smallest and most homogenous of all the Nordic societies (save Iceland). It had also suffered most from the war. Moreover, even before oil was discovered off the coast, Norway’s situation was distinctive. A front-line state in the Cold War and therefore committed to much greater defense outlays than tiny Denmark or neutral Sweden, it was also the most elongated of the northern countries, its tiny population of less than four million people strung along a 1,752 kilometre coastline, the longest in Europe. Many of the farther-flung towns and villages were and are utterly dependent on fishing for their livelihood. Social Democratic or not, the government of Oslo was bound to apply the resources of the state to social and communal objectives: subsidies flowing from centre to periphery (for transport, communications, education and the supply of professionals and services, notably to the third of the country lying north of the Arctic Circle) were the lifeblood of the Norwegian nation state.
Sweden, too, was distinctive—though its peculiarities came over time to be thought of as the Scandinavian norm. With a population almost the size of Norway and Denmark combined (greater Stockholm alone was home to the equivalent of 45 percent of Norway’s inhabitants), Sweden was by far the richest and most industrialized of the Scandinavian societies. By 1973 its output of iron ore was comparable to that of France, Britain and West Germany put together and was almost half that of the USA. In paper production, wood pulp and shipping it was a world leader. Where Norwegian social democracy consisted for many years in marshalling, rationing and distributing scarce resources in a poor society, Sweden was by the 1960s already one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Social democracy there was about allocating and equalizing wealth and services for the common good.
Throughout Scandinavia, but in Sweden especially, the private ownership and exploitation of the means of production were never put into question. Unlike the British Labour movement, whose core doctrine and program ever since 1918 rested on an ineradicable faith in the virtues of state ownership, Swedish Social Democrats were content to leave capital and initiative in private hands. The example of the UK’s British Motor Corporation, a helpless guinea pig for government experiments in centralized resource allocation, was never followed in Sweden. Volvo, Saab and other private businesses were left free to flourish or fail.
Indeed, industrial capital in ‘socialist’ Sweden was concentrated into fewer private hands than anywhere else in western Europe. The government never interfered either with private wealth accumulation or with the marketplace for goods and capital. Even in Norway, after fifteen years of Social Democratic government, the directly state-owned or state-run sector of the economy was actually smaller than that of Christian Democratic West Germany. But in both countries, as in Denmark and Finland, what the state did do was ruthlessly and progressively tax and redistribute private profits for public ends.
To many foreign observers and most Scandinavians the results appeared to speak for themselves. By 1970 Sweden (along with Finland) was one of the world’s four leading economies, measured by purchasing power per head of the population (the other two were the USA and Switzerland). Scandinavians lived longer, healthier lives than most other people in the world (something that would have amazed the isolated, impoverished Nordic peasantry of three generations before). The provision of educational, welfare, medical, insurance, retirement and leisure services and facilities was unequalled (not least in the US and indeed Switzerland), as were the economic and physical security in which the citizens of Nordic Europe pursued their contented lives. By the mid-1960s, Europe’s ‘frozen north’ had acquired near-mythic status: the Scandinavian Social Democratic model might not be replicated readily elsewhere, but it was universally admired and widely envied.
Anyone familiar with Nordic culture, from Ibsen and Munch through Ingmar Bergman, will recognise another side of Scandinavian life: its self-interrogating, incipiently melancholic quality—popularly understood in these years as a propensity to depression, alcoholism and high suicide rates. In the 1960s and at times since, it pleased conservative critics of Scandinavian politics to blame these shortcomings on the moral paralysis induced by too much economic security and centralised direction. And then there was the concurrent propensity of Scandinavians to take off their clothes in public (and on film) and—so it was widely rumoured— make love with perfect strangers: further evidence, to some observers, of the psychic damage wrought by an over-mighty state that provides everything and forbids nothing.141
If this was the worst that could be said against the Scandinavian ‘model’ then the Social Democrats of Sweden and elsewhere could be forgiven for laughing (or, as it were, complaining) all the way to the bank. But the critics had a point: there was indeed a darker side to the all-embracing state. Early-twentieth-century confidence in the capacity of the state to make a better society had taken many forms: Scandinavian Social Democracy—like the Fabian reformism of Britain’s welfare state—was born of a widespread fascination with social engineering of all kinds. And just a little beyond the use of the state to adjust incomes, expenditures, employment and information there lurked the temptation to tinker with individuals themselves.
Eugenics—the ‘science’ of racial improvement—was more than an Edwardian-era fad, like vegetarianism or rambling (though it often appealed to the same constituencies). Taken up by thinkers of all political shades, it dovetailed especially well with the ambitions of well-meaning social reformers. If one’s social goal was to improve the human condition wholesale, why pass up the opportunities afforded by modern science to add retail amelioration along the way? Why should the prevention or abolition of imperfections in the human condition not extend to the prevention (or abolition) of imperfect human beings? In the early decades of the twentieth century the appeal of scientifically manipulated social or genetic planning was widespread and thoroughly respectable; it was only thanks to the Nazis, whose ‘hygienic’ ambitions began with ersatz anthropometrics and ended in the gas chamber, that it was comprehensively discredited in post-war Europe. Or so it was widely supposed.
But, as it emerged many years later, Scandinavian authorities at least had not abandoned an interest in the theory—and practice—of ‘racial hygiene’. Between 1934 and 1976 sterilization programmes were pursued in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, in each case under the auspices and with the knowledge of Social Democratic governments. In these years some 6,000 Danes, 40,000 Norwegians and 60,000 Swedes (90 percent of them women) were sterilized for ‘hygienic’ purposes: ‘to improve the population’. The intellectual driving force behind these programmes—the Institute of Racial Biology at the University of Uppsala in Sweden—had been set up in 1921, at the peak of the fashion for the subject. It was not dismantled until fifty-five years later.
What, if anything, this sad story tells us about Social Democracy is unclear—distinctly unsocialist and undemocratic societies and governments have done more and worse. The legitimacy of the state in post-war Scandinavia, the authority and initiative accorded it by a mostly unquestioning citizenry, left government free to act in what it took to be the common interest with remarkably little oversight. It does not seem ever to have occurred to an ombudsman to investigate abuse of those who stood outside the rights-bearing community of tax-paying citizens. The line separating progressive taxation and paternity-leave from forcible interference in the reproductive capacities of ‘defective’ citizens seems not to have been altogether clear to some post-war governments in Social Democratic Scandinavia. If nothing else this suggests that the moral lessons of World War Two were not as clear as was once supposed—precisely (and not perhaps coincidentally) in countries like Sweden whose collective conscience was widely presumed clear.
Outside of Scandinavia, the closest approximation to the Social Democratic ideal was achieved in another small, neutral country on the edge of Western Europe: Austria. Indeed, the superficial similarities were such that observers took to referring to the ‘Austro-Scandinavian model’. In Austria as in Sweden or Norway, an overwhelmingly rural, historically poor country had been transformed, as we have seen, into a prosperous, stable, politically tranquil oasis of state-furnished well-being. In Austria, too, a de facto pact had been agreed, in this case between the Socialists and the conservative People’s Party, to avoid any return to the open conflicts of the inter-war decades. But there the similarities ended.
Austria was indeed ‘social’ (and had, after Finland, the largest nationalized sector of any Western European democracy), but it was not particularly Social Democratic. It was only in 1970 that the country got its first post-war Socialist head of government, when Bruno Kreisky became Chancellor. Although Austria over time instituted many of the social services and public policies associated with Scandinavian Social Democratic society—child care, generous unemployment insurance and public pensions, family support, universal medical and educational provision, exemplary state-subsidized transportation—what distinguished Austria from Sweden, for example, was the near-universal allocation of employment, influence, favours and funds according to political affiliation. This appropriation of the Austrian state and its resources to stabilize the market in political preferences had less to do with social ideals than with the memory of past traumas. In the wake of their inter-war experience, Austria’s socialists were more interested in stabilizing their country’s fragile democracy than in revolutionizing its social policies.142
Like the rest of Austrian society, the country’s Social Democrats proved remarkably adept at putting their past behind them. Social Democratic parties elsewheretook somewhat longer to abandon a certain nostalgia for radical transformation. In West Germany the SPD waited until 1959 and its Congress at Bad Godesberg to recast its goals and purposes. The new Party Program adopted there baldly stated that ‘Democratic socialism, which in Europe is rooted in Christian ethics, in humanism, and in classical philosophy, has no intention of proclaiming absolute truths.’ The state, it was asserted, should ‘restrict itself mainly to indirect methods of influencing the economy’. The free market in goods and employment was vital: ‘The totalitarian directed economy destroys freedom’.143
This belated acknowledgement of the obvious contrasts with the decision of Belgium’s Labour Party (the Parti Ouvrier Belge) the following year to re-confirm the Party’s founding charter of 1894, with its demand for the collectivisation of the means of production; and the refusal of Britain’s Labour Party, also in 1960, to follow the recommendation of its reformist leader Hugh Gaitskell and delete the identical commitment as enshrined in Clause IV of the Party’s 1918 programme. Part of the explanation for this contrast in behaviour lay in recent experience: the memory of destructive struggles and the close proximity of the totalitarian threat, whether in the immediate past or just across a border, helped focus the attention of German and Austrian Social Democrats—like Italian Communists—on the virtues of compromise.
Britain’s Labour Party had no such nightmares to exorcise. It was also, like its Belgian (and Dutch) counterparts in this respect, from its origins a labour movement rather than a socialist party, motivated above all by the concerns (and cash) of its trade union affiliates. It was thus less ideological—but more blinkered. If asked, Labour Party spokesmen would readily accede to the general objectives of continental European Social Democrats; but their own interests were much more practical and parochial. Preciselybecause of the built-in stability of British (or at least English) political culture, and thanks to its long-established—albeit shrinking—working-class base, the Labour Party showed little interest in the innovative settlements that had shaped the Scandinavian and German-speaking welfare states.
Instead, the British compromise was characterized by demand-manipulating fiscal policy and costly universal social provisions, supported by sharply progressive taxation and a large nationalized sector, and set against a background of unstable and historically adversarial industrial relations. Except for the Labourite emphasis on the intrinsic virtues of nationalization, these ad hoc arrangements were largely supported by the mainstream of the Conservative and Liberal Parties. If there was any sense in which British politics, too, were shaped by past shocks it came in the widespread, cross-party acknowledgement that a return to mass unemployment must be avoided at almost any cost.
Even after the new Labour leader Harold Wilson took his party back into power in 1964 after thirteen years of opposition, and spoke enthusiastically of the ‘white hot technological revolution’ of the age, very little changed. Wilson’s narrow margin of victory in the election of 1964 (a parliamentary majority of four) hardly disposed him to take political risks, and even though Labour did better in elections called two years later there was to be no radical departure in economic or social policy. Wilson himself was heir to the Attlee-Beveridge tradition of Fabian theory and Keynesian practice and showed little interest in economic (or political) innovation. Like most British politicians of every stripe he was deeply conventional and pragmatic, with a proudly myopic view of public affairs: as he once put it, ‘a week is a long time in politics.’
Nevertheless, there was a certain distinctiveness about the British Social Democratic state, beyond the insular refusal of all parties concerned to describe it thus. What the British Left (and, at the time, much of the Centre and Centre-Right of the political spectrum) were taken up with above all was the goal of fairness. It was the manifest injustice, the unfairness of life before the war that drove both the Beveridge reforms and the overwhelming vote for Labour in 1945. It was their promise that they could liberalize the economy while maintaining a fair distribution of rewards and services that brought the Conservatives to power in 1951 and kept them there for so long. The British accepted progressive taxation and welcomed universal health provision not because these were presented as ‘socialist’, but because they were more intuitively just.
In the same way, the curiously regressive workings of the British flat-rate systems of benefits and services—which disproportionately favoured the better-heeled professional middle class—were broadly acceptable because they were egalitarian, if only in appearance. And the most important innovation of the Labour governments of the nineteen sixties—the introduction of un-streamed comprehensive secondary education and the abolition of entrance examinations to selective grammar schools, a longstanding Labour commitment judiciously ignored by Attlee after 1945—was welcomed less on its intrinsic merits than because it was deemed ‘anti-elitist’ and thus ‘fair’. That is why the educational reform was even pursued by Conservative governments after Wilson’s departure in 1970, despite warnings from all sides of the perverse consequences such changes might have.144
The Labour Party’s dependence on trade union backing led it to postpone the sorts of industrial reforms that many (including some of its own leaders) knew to be long overdue. British industrial relations remained mired in adversarial shop-floor confrontations and craft-based piece-rate and wage disputes of a kind virtually unknown in Scandinavia, Germany, Austria or the Netherlands. Labour ministers made half-hearted attempts to break clear of this encumbering inheritance, but without much success; and partly for this reason the achievements of continental social democracy were never quite emulated in Britain.
Moreover, the universal features of Britain’s system of welfare, introduced two or even three decades before those of France, or Italy, for example, hid from view the very limited practical achievements of the British state even in the field of material equality: as late as 1967, 10 percent of the UK population still possessed 80 percent of all personal wealth. The net effect of the re-distributive policies of the first three post-war decades was to shift income and assets from the top 10 percent to the next 40 percent; the bottom 50 percent gained very little, for all the general improvement in security and welfare.
Any overall audit of the era of the welfare state in Western Europe will inevitably be side-shadowed by our knowledge of the problems it would face in later decades. Thus today it is easy to see that initiatives like the West German Social Security Reform Act of 1957, which guaranteed workers a pension keyed to their wage at the point of retirement and linked to a cost-of-living index, would prove an intolerable budgetary burden in changed demographic and economic circumstances. And with hindsight it is clear that radical income-levelling in Social Democratic Sweden reduced private savings and thus inhibited future investment. Even at the time it was obvious that government transfers and flat-rate social payments benefited those who knew how to take full advantage of them: notably the educated middle class, who would fight to hold on to what amounted to a new set of privileges.
But the achievements of Europe’s ‘nanny states’ were real all the same, whether introduced by Social Democrats, paternalist Catholics, or prudentially disposed conservatives and liberals. Beginning with core programmes of social and economic protection, the welfare states moved on to systems of entitlement, benefits, social justice and income redistribution—and managed this substantial transformation at almost no political cost. Even the creation of a self-interested class of welfare bureaucrats and white-collar beneficiaries was not without its virtues: like the farmers, the much-maligned ‘lower middle class’ now had a vested interest in the institutions and values of the democratic state. This was good for Social Democrats and Christian Democrats alike, as such parties duly noted. But it was also bad for Fascists and Communists, which mattered rather more.
These changes reflected the demographic transformations already noted, but also unprecedented levels of personal security and a new intensity of educational and social mobility. As west Europeans were now less likely to remain in the place, the occupation, the income bracket and the social class into which they had been born, so they were less disposed to identify automatically with the political movements and social affiliations of their parents’ world. The generation of the 1930s was content to find economic security and turn its back on political mobilization and its attendant risks; their children, the much larger generation of the 1960s, had only ever known peace, political stability and the welfare state. They took these things for granted.
The rise in the influence of the state upon the employment and welfare of its citizens was accompanied by a steady reduction in its authority over their morals and opinions. At the time this was not seen as a paradox. Liberal and Social Democratic advocates for the European welfare state saw no reason in principle why government should not pay close attention to the economic or medical welfare of the population, guaranteeing citizens’ well-being from cradle to grave, while keeping its nose firmly out of their views and practices on strictly personal matters like religion and sex, or artistic taste and judgement. The Christian Democrats of Germany or Italy, for whom the state still had a legitimate interest in the manners and mores of its subjects, could not so readily make this distinction. But they too faced growing pressure to adapt.
Until the early 1960s, public authorities throughout Western Europe (with the partial exception of Scandinavia) had exercised firm and mostly repressive control over the private affairs and opinions of the citizenry. Homosexual intercourse was illegal almost everywhere, and punishable by long prison terms. In many countries it could not even be depicted in art. Abortion was illegal in most countries. Even contraception was technically against the law in some Catholic states, albeit often condoned in practice. Divorce was everywhere difficult, in some places impossible. In many parts of Western Europe (Scandinavia once again being a partial exception) government agencies still enforced censorship of theatre, cinema and literature, and radio and television were public monopolies almost everywhere, operating as we have seen under strict rules as to content and with very little tolerance for dissent or ‘disrespect’. Even in the UK, where commercial television was introduced in 1955, it too was strictly regulated and carried a publicly mandated obligation to provide ‘enlightenment and information’ as well as entertainment and advertisements.
Censorship, like taxation, was driven forward by war. In Britain and France some of the most stringent constraints on behaviour and the expression of opinion had been introduced during the First or Second World Wars and never repealed. Elsewhere—in Italy, West Germany and some of the countries they had occupied—post-war regulations were a legacy of Fascist laws that democratic legislators had preferred to maintain in place. Relatively few of the most repressive ‘moral’ powers still in force by 1960 dated back beyond the nineteenth century (the most obviously anachronistic being perhaps the Office of the Lord Chamberlain in Britain, responsible for pre-censorship of the theatre, where the posts of Examiner and Deputy Examiner of Plays were created early in 1738). The outstanding exception to this rule, of course, was the Catholic Church.
Ever since the First Vatican Council of 1870, held under the influence and auspices of the avowedly reactionary Pope Pius IX, the Catholic Church had taken an all-embracing and decidedly dogmatic view of its responsibilities as moral guardian of its flock. Precisely because it was being steadily squeezed out of the realm of political power by the modern state, the Vatican made uncompromising demands upon its followers in other ways. Indeed, the long and—in retrospect—controversial papacy of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) not only maintained its spiritual claims, but actually brought the official Church back into politics.
Avowedly on the side of political reaction, from the Vatican’s close ties to Mussolini and ambivalent response to Nazism to its enthusiasm for Catholic dictators in Spain and Portugal, Pacelli’s papacy also took an uncompromising line in the domestic politics of the democracies. Catholics in Italy especially were left in no doubt as to the spiritual impropriety, and worse, of voting against the Christian Democrats; but even in relatively liberal Belgium or Holland the local Catholic hierarchy was under strict instructions to turn out the Catholic vote for the Catholic parties and only them. Not until 1967, nine years after the death of Pius XII, did a Dutch bishop dare suggest in public that Dutch Catholics might vote for a non-Catholic party without risking excommunication.
In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the post-war Catholic hierarchy also took an uncompromising line in questions having to do with the family, or moral behavior or inappropriate books and films. But younger Catholic laymen, and a new generation of priests, were uncomfortably aware that by the end of the 1950s the Vatican’s authoritarian rigidity in public and private matters alike was both anachronistic and imprudent. Back in 1900, most marriages in Italy had lasted around twenty years, before being dissolved by the death of a spouse. By the end of the third quarter of the century marriages lasted in excess of thirty-five years, and demand for the right to divorce was steadily growing.
Meanwhile, the post-war baby boom had undercut the demographic case against contraception, isolating the ecclesiastical authorities in their uncompromising opposition. Attendance at mass was down everywhere in western Europe. Whatever the reasons—the geographical and social mobility of hitherto acquiescent villagers, the political emancipation of women, the declining importance of Catholic charities and parochial schools in the age of the welfare state—the problem was real and, as it seemed to the more perceptive Catholic leaders, could not be addressed by appeals to tradition and authority, or suppressed by invoking anti-Communism in the style of the late 1940s.
Upon Pacelli’s death, his successor Pope John XXIII called a new Vatican Council, to attend to these difficulties and bring up to date the attitudes and practices of the Church. Vatican II, as it became known, convened on October 11th 1962. In the course of its work over the next few years it transformed not only the liturgy and language of Catholic Christianity (quite literally—Latin was no longer to be used in daily Church practice, to the uncomprehending fury of a traditionalist minority) but also, and more significantly, the response of the Church to the dilemmas of modern life. The pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council made it clear that the Church was no longer frightened by change and challenge, was not an opponent of liberal democracy, mixed economies, modern science, rational thought and even secular politics. The first—very tentative—steps were taken towards reconciliation with other Christian denominations and there was some (not much) acknowledgement of the Church’s responsibility to discourage anti-Semitism by re-casting its longstanding account of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. Above all, the Catholic Church could no longer be counted upon to support authoritarian regimes—quite the contrary: in Asia, Africa and especially Latin America, it was at least as likely to be on the side of their opponents.
These changes were not universally welcomed even among the Catholic Church’s own reformers—one delegate to Vatican II, a young priest from Crakow, would later rise to the papacy and see it as his task to restore the full weight of moral authority and influence of an uncompromising Catholic hierarchy. Nor did Vatican II achieve a reversal of the steady fall in religious practice among European Catholics: even in Italy, attendance at mass fell from 69 percent of all Catholics in 1956 to 48 percent twelve years later. But since the decline of religion in Europe has by no means been confined to the Catholic faith, this was probably beyond their powers. What Vatican II did achieve—or at least facilitate and authorize—was the final divorce between politics and religion in continental Europe.
After the death of Pius XII, no pope and almost no bishop again presumed to threaten Catholics with serious consequences should they fail to vote the correct way; and the once-close link between Church hierarchy and Catholic or Christian Democratic parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany, Austria and Italy was prised open.145 Even in Franco’s Spain, where the local Catholic hierarchy had enjoyed unusual privileges and powers, Vatican II wrought dramatic changes. Until the mid-sixties the Spanish leader forbade all outward manifestations of non-Catholic religious belief or practice. But in 1966 he felt constrained to pass a law allowing other Christian churches to subsist, though still privileging Catholicism, and within four years full freedom of (Christian) worship was authorized. By lobbying successfully for this belated ‘disestablishment’ of the Catholic Church in Spain and thus putting daylight between the Church and the regime during Franco’s lifetime, the Vatican was to spare the Spanish Church at least some of the consequences of its long and troubling association with the ‘ancien régime’.
This rupture culturelle, as it became known in Belgium and elsewhere, between religion and politics and between the Catholic Church and its recent past, played a crucial role in the making of ‘the sixties’. There were, of course, limits to the Vatican’sreforming mood—for many of its participants the strategic impulse behind Vatican II was not to embrace radical change, but to head it off. When the rights to abortion and the liberalization of divorce were put to the vote a few years later, in predominantly Catholic countries like Italy, France or West Germany, the ecclesiastical authorities vigorously if unsuccessfully opposed them. But even on these sensitive issues the Church did not go to the wall, and its opposition no longer risked fragmenting the community. In a society well on the way to being ‘postreligious’, the Church accepted its reduced place and made the best of it.146
In non-Catholic societies—which meant Scandinavia, the UK, parts of the Netherlands and a minority of German-speaking western Europe—the liberation of the citizen from traditional moral authority was necessarily more diffuse, but even more dramatic when it came. The transition was most striking in Britain. Until the end of the 1950s, British citizens were still forbidden to gamble; to read or to see anything that their betters judged ‘obscene’ or politically sensitive; to advocate (much less engage in) homosexual acts; to practice abortions on themselves or others; or to get divorced without great difficulty and public humiliation. And if they committed murder or certain other major offences, they could be hanged.
Then, beginning in 1959, the skein of convention began to unravel. Following the Obscene Publications Act of that year, an uncensored work of adult literature could be shielded from charges of ‘obscenity’ if it was deemed to be ‘in the interests of science, literature, art or learning’. Henceforward, publishers and authors could defend themselves in court by invoking the worth of the work as a whole, and could invoke ‘expert’ opinion in their defense. In October 1960 came the notorious test case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which Penguin Books were prosecuted for publishing in Britain the first unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s otherwise unremarkable novel. The Chatterley case was of particular interest to the British not just because of the hitherto illicit passages to which they were now exposed, but also thanks to the inter-class eroticism on which its notoriety rested. Upon being asked by the prosecuting counsel whether this was a novel he would let his ‘wife or maidservant’ ( sic) read, one witness replied that this would not trouble him in the least: but he would never let it into the hands of his gamekeeper.
Penguin Books were acquitted of obscenity, having called thirty-five expert witnesses in their defense, and the decline of the moral authority of the British Establishment can be dated from that acquittal. In the same year gambling was legalized in the United Kingdom. Four years later the death penalty was abolished by the incoming Labour Government, and under the leadership of Roy Jenkins, a remarkable reforming Home Secretary, Labour oversaw the introduction of state-financed family planning clinics, reform of the law on homosexuality and the legalization of abortion in 1967, and the abolition of theatre censorship in the following year. In 1969 there followed the Divorce Act, which did not so much precipitate a dramatic transformation in the institution of marriage as reveal its extent: whereas in the last year before World War Two there had been just one divorce for every fifty-eight marriages in England and Wales, forty years later the ratio would approach one in three.
The liberal and liberalizing reforms of 1960s Britain were emulated across northwest Europe, albeit with varying delays. The Social Democratic-led coalition governments of West Germany, under Willy Brandt, introduced similar changes there in the course of the later Sixties and Seventies, constrained in their case less by law or precedent than by the reluctance of their coalition partners—notably the economically liberal but socially conservative Free Democrats. In France, abolition of the death penalty had to await the arrival in power of François Mitterrand’s Socialists in 1981, but there—as in Italy—the laws on abortion and divorce were rewritten in the course of the early Seventies. In general, with the exception of Britain and Scandinavia, the liberated ‘Sixties’ did not actually arrive in Europe until the Seventies. Once the legal changes were in place, however, the social consequences flowed rapidly enough: the crude divorce rate in Belgium, France and the Netherlands tripled between 1970 and 1985.
The diminishing standing of public authorities in matters of morality and personal relationships in no way supposed a decline in the role of the state in the cultural affairs of the nation. Quite the contrary. The broad Western European consensus of the age held that only the state had the resources to service the cultural needs of its citizens: left to themselves, individuals and communities would lack both means and initiative. It was the responsibility of a well-run public authority to deliver cultural nourishment no less than food, lodging and employment. In such matters Social and Christian Democrats thought alike, and both were heir to the great Victorian-era improvers, though with far greater resources to hand. The aesthetic revolt of the Sixties changed little in this respect: the new (‘counter-’) culture demanded and obtained the same funding as the old.
The 1950s and 1960s were the great age of the cultural subsidy. Back in 1947 the British Labour government added sixpence to local taxes to pay for local artistic initiatives—theatres, philharmonic societies, regional opera and the like: a prelude to the Arts Council of the 1960s, which spread public largesse across an unprecedented range of local and national festivals and institutions, as well as arts education. The financially strapped French Fourth Republic was less forthcoming, except to traditional, prestige venues for high culture—museums, the Paris Opéra, the Comédie Française—and the state-monopolized radio and television stations. But after De Gaulle returned to power and installed André Malraux as his Minister for Culture, the situation there was transformed.
The French state had long played the part of mécène. But Malraux conceived of his role in a wholly new way. Traditionally, the power and purse of the royal Court and its republican successors had been deployed to bring artists and art to Paris (or Versailles), sucking the rest of the country dry. Now the government would spend money to place performers and performances in the provinces. Museums, galleries, festivals and theatres began to sprout across provincial France. The best known of these, the Avignon summer festival under the direction of Jean Vilar, began in 1947; but it took flight in the course of the fifties and sixties when Vilar’s productions played a major part in the transformation and renewal of French theatre. Many of France’s best known actors—Jeanne Moreau, Maria Casarès, Gérard Philipe—worked in Avignon. It was there, as well as in such unlikely venues as Saint-Étienne, Toulouse, Rennes or Colmar, that the French artistic renaissance began.
Malraux’s encouragement of provincial cultural life depended of course on centralized initiative. Even Vilar’s own project was typically Parisian in its iconoclastic objectives: the point was not to bring culture to the regions but to break with the conventions of mainstream theatre—‘to bring life back into theatre, into collective art . . . to help it breath free again, released from cellars and drawing rooms: to reconcile architecture and dramatic poetry’—something that could be more easily accomplished away from Paris, but with central government funds and ministerial backing. In a genuinely decentralized country like the Federal Republic of Germany, on the other hand, culture and the arts were a direct outgrowth of local policy and regional self-interest.
In Germany, as elsewhere in Western Europe, public spending on the arts expanded quite dramatically in the post-war decades. But because cultural and educational matters in West Germany fell under the authority of the Länder, there was considerable duplication of effort. Every Land and most significant towns and cities had an opera company, orchestra and concert halls, a dance company, subsidized theatre and arts groups. By one estimate there were 225 local theatres in West Germany by the time of reunification, their budget subsidized by an amount varying from 50-70 percent, either by Land or by city. As in France, this system had its roots in the past—in Germany’s case the pre-modern micro-principalities, duchies and ecclesiastical fiefs, many of which had maintained full-time court musicians and artists, and regularly commissioned new works.
The benefits were considerable. Despite the cultural self-doubt of post-Nazi West Germany, the country’s generously financed cultural institutions became a Mecca for artists of all kinds. The Stuttgart Ballet, the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, the Cologne Opera and dozens of smaller institutions—the Mannheim National Theatre, the Staatstheater of Wiesbaden and so on—offered steady work (as well as unemployment benefits, medical coverage and pensions) to thousands of dancers, musicians, actors, choreographers, theatre technicians and office staff. Many of the dancers and musicians especially came from abroad, the US included. They, no less than the local audiences who paid subsidized rates to watch and hear them perform, benefited hugely from the flourishing European cultural scene.
Just as the 1960s never really happened in many places until the early seventies, so the stereotyped 1950s—staid, stuffy, sterile, stagnant—were largely mythical. In Look Back in Anger, John Osborne has Jimmy Porter revile the phoniness of post-war prosperity and self-satisfaction; and there is no doubt that the veneer of polite conformity that was not swept away until the end of the decade was intensely frustrating to many observers and especially the young.147 But in fact the 1950s saw much original work—a lot of it, in theatre, literature and cinema especially, of more enduring interest than what was to follow. What Western Europe had lost in power and political prestige it was now making up for in the arts. Indeed, the late fifties were something of an Indian summer for the ‘high’ arts in Europe. The circumstances were unusually propitious: ‘European quality’ (the scare quotes had yet to acquire the ironic deprecation of later decades) was being underwritten for the first time by large-scale public funding, but was not yet exposed to populist demands for ‘accessibility’, ‘accountability’ or ‘relevance’.
With the premiere in Paris’s Théâtre de Babylone of Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot, in March 1953, European theatre entered a golden age of modernism. Across the Channel, the English Stage Company at London’s Royal Court Theatre adopted Beckett and East Germany’s Berthold Brecht, as well as performing works by John Osborne, Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, all of whose plays married stylistic minimalism to aesthetic disdain in a technique that was often hard to place on the conventional political spectrum. Even mainstream British theatre became more adventurous. In the late fifties an unparalleled generation of English theatrical knights—Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Redgrave, Guinness—was joined by younger performers fresh from the universities (Cambridge for the most part) and a remarkable pool of innovative directors and producers including Peter Brook, Peter Hall and Jonathan Miller.
First proposed in 1946, Britain’s National Theatre was formally established in 1962 with Lawrence Olivier as its founding director and the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan as his adviser and assistant, though its permanent home on London’s South Bank was not opened until 1976. Together with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre—which was to become the leading sponsor and venue for new British drama—was a prime beneficiary of Arts Council munificence. That did not mean, it should be noted, that theatre became a more popular form of entertainment. On the contrary: ever since the decline of the music halls, theatre had been the purview of the middling sort—even when the subject matter was ostensibly proletarian. Playwrights might write about working-class life, but it was the middle class that came to watch.
Just as Beckett and his work migrated readily to Britain, so British theatre and its leading figures worked very comfortably abroad; after making his reputation in London productions of Shakespeare (most famously A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Peter Brook would establish himself permanently in Paris, straddling aesthetic and linguistic frontiers with ease. By the early 1960s it was becoming possible to speak of a ‘European’ theatre, or at least a theatre that took as its material controversial, contemporary European themes. Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy, first performed in Germany in 1963 and shortly afterwards in Britain, attacked Pope Pius XII for his wartime failure to help the Jews; but in his next work, Soldiers (1967), Hochhuth turned on Winston Churchill for the wartime fire-bombing of German cities, and the play was initially banned in the UK.
It was in the 1950s, too, that the European arts were swept by a ‘new wave’ of writers and film directors whose break with narrative convention and attention to sex, youth, politics and alienation anticipated much of what the generation of the Sixties came to think of as its own achievement. The most influential west European novels of the Fifties—Alberto Moravia’s Il Conformista (1951), Albert Camus’s La Chute (The Fall), published in 1956, or Günter Grass’s Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum, 1959)—were all in various ways more original and certainly more courageous than anything that came later. Even Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse (1953) or Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1956), narcissistic accounts of post-adolescent self-absorption (coloured in Wilson’s case with more than a hint of authoritarian misanthropy), were original in their day. Written when their authors were respectively eighteen and twenty-four years of age, their subject matter—and their success—anticipated the ‘youth revolution’ of the sixties by a full decade.
Notwithstanding the decline in cinema attendance already noted, it was in the course of the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s that European films acquired a lasting reputation for artistry and originality. Indeed, there was probably a connection, as cinema in Western Europe graduated (or declined) from popular entertainment into high culture. Certainly the renaissance of European cinema was not driven by audience demand—had it been left to viewers, French cinema would have remained confined to the ‘quality’ costume dramas of the early fifties, German cinemas would have continued to show romantic ‘Heimat’ films set in the Black Forest, and British audiences would have thrived on a diet of war films and increasingly suggestive light comedy. In any case, European mass audiences continued to show a marked preference for American popular films.
Ironically, it was their own admiration for American films, particularly the sombre, unadorned film noir style of the late 1940s, which stimulated a revolution among a new cohort of French cinéastes. Despairing of the thematic clichés and rococo décor of their elders, a group of young Frenchmen—dubbed ‘The New Wave’ in 1958 by the French critic Pierre Billard—set out to re-invent film-making in France: first in theory, then in practice. The theoretical aspect, adumbrated in the new journal Cahiers du Cinéma, centred around the notion of the director as ‘auteur’: what these critics admired in Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks, for example, or in the work of the Italian neo-realists, was their ‘autonomy’—the way they had managed to ‘sign’ their own films even when working within studios. For the same reason they championed—then neglected—the films of an earlier generation of French directors, notably Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir.
While all this suggested intuitive good taste, the theoretical penumbra in which it was packaged was of little interest—indeed often incomprehensible—beyond a very restricted circle. But the practice, at the hands of Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Agnès Varda and above all François Truffaut, changed the face of film. Between 1958 and 1965, French studios turned out an astonishing body of work. Malle directed Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Les Amants, both in 1958; Zazie dans le métro (1960); La Vie privée (1961) and Le Feu follet (1963). Godard directed À bout de souffle (1960), Une femme est une femme (1961), Vivre sa vie (1962), Bande à part (1964) and Alphaville (1965). Chabrol’s oeuvre from the same years includes Le Beau Serge (1958), À double tour (1959), Les bonnes femmes (1960) and L’Oeil du malin (1962).
Rivette’s more interesting work came a little later. Like Varda, best known in these years for Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) and Le Bonheur (1965), he often lapsed into self-indulgence; but this was never true of Eric Rohmer, the oldest of the group, later to become internationally famous for his elegiac ‘moral tales’, of which the first two, La Boulangère de Monceau and La Carrière de Suzanne, were both made in 1963. But it was the incomparable François Truffaut who would come to incarnate the style and impact of the New Wave. Renowned above all for a series of films starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s autobiographical ‘hero’)—notably Les Quatre cents coups (1959), L’Amour à vingt ans (1962), and Baisers volés (1968)—Truffaut was not only the main theorist behind the revolution in French cinema, he was also by far its most consistently successful practitioner. Many of his individual films—Jules et Jim (1962), La Peau douce (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966) or Le dernier Métro (1980)—are classics of the art.
It was one of the strengths of the best New Wave directors that, while they always looked upon their work as intellectual statements rather than diversionary entertainment (contributors to Cahiers du Cinéma frequently invoked their debts to what was still referred to as ‘existentialism’), their films entertained all the same (no-one ever said of Truffaut or Malle—as it was whispered of later work by Godard and Rivette—that viewing their films was like watching paint dry). And it was this combination of intellectual seriousness and visual accessibility that was so important for foreign emulators. As the response to Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959) suggests, French film had become the preferred vehicle for international moral debate.
Thus, when a group of 26 young German film directors gathered at Oberhausen in 1962 to proclaim ‘the collapse of the conventional German film’ and declared their intention to ‘create the new German feature film . . . free from the conventions of the established industry, from the control of special interest groups’, they openly acknowledged the influence of the French. Just as Jean-Luc Godard had eulogized Ingmar Bergman in a famous 1957 Cahiers du cinéma essay entitled “Bergmanorama”, in which he claimed that the Swedish ‘auteur’ was ‘the most original film-maker of the European cinema’, so Edgar Reitz and his colleagues in Germany, like young film directors all across western Europe and Latin America, took their cue from Godard and his friends.148
What Truffaut, Godard and their colleagues had admired in the black-and-white American films of their youth was a lack of ‘artifice’. What American and other observers envied in the French directors’ own riffs on American realism were their subtlety and intellectual sophistication: the uniquely French ability to invest small human exchanges with awe-inspiring cultural significance. In Eric Rohmer’s Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969) Jean-Louis—a provincial mathematician played by Jean-Louis Trintignant—spends a snow-bound night on the sofa at the home of Maud (Françoise Fabian), the seductively intelligent girlfriend of an acquaintance. A Catholic, Jean-Louis agonises over the ethical implications of the situation and whether or not he should/should not have slept with his host, occasionally pausing to swap moral reflections with a Communist colleague. Nothing happens and he goes home.
It is hard to imagine an American or even a British film director making such a film, much less getting it distributed. But to a new generation of Euro-American intellectuals, Rohmer’s film captured everything that was sophisticated, world-weary, witty, allusive, mature and European about French cinema. Contemporary Italian films, though quite widely distributed abroad, did not have the same impact. The more successful products played too self-consciously off the new image of Italy and Italians as rich and ‘sexy’—often built around the corporeal attributes of Sophia Loren or the comic roles assigned to Marcello Mastroianni as a disabused roué: e.g. in Divorzio all’Italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961) or Matrimonio all’italiana (Marriage Italian Style, 1964).
Mastroianni had first played this role, but in an altogether more sombre key, in Federico Fellini’s Dolce Vita (1960). Fellini himself had a loyal following in many of the same circles as Truffaut and Godard, notably following the appearance of 81⁄2 (1963) andGiulietta degli spiriti (1965). An older generation of gifted Italian directors had not yet left the scene—Vittorio De Sica directed I Sequestrati di Altona (1962), from Sartre’s play, co-directed Boccaccio ’70 (1962) with Fellini and would go on to direct Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini at the end of the decade—but their work never recaptured the political and aesthetic impact of the great neo-realist films of the 1940s with which De Sica above all was forever linked. More influential were men like Michelangelo Antonioni. InL’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse (1962) and Il Desserto rosso (1964), all starring Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s hard-edged cinematography and unappealing, cynical, disabused characters anticipated the disaffectedand detached world of later sixties art, self-consciously captured by Antonioni himself in Blow Up (1966).
Italian cinema lacked the seductive intellectuality of French (or Swedish) films, but what they shared in abundance was style. It was this European style—a variable balance of artistic self-confidence, intellectual pretension and cultivated wit—that distinguished the continental European scene for foreign (especially American) observers. By the end of the 1950s western Europe had not merely recovered from depression and war; it was once again a magnet for aspiring sophisticates. New York had the money and perhaps, too, the modern art. But America was still, as it seemed even to many Americans, a little raw. Part of the attraction of John F. Kennedy, as candidate and as President, was the cultivated cosmopolitanism of his Washington entourage: ‘Camelot’. And Camelot, in turn, owed much to the European background and continental self-presentation of the President’s wife.
If Jacqueline Kennedy imported European style to the White House, this was hardly surprising. European ‘design’ in the later Fifties and Sixties flourished as never before, the imprimatur of status and quality. A European label—attached to a commodity, an idea or a person—ensured distinction, and thus a price premium. This development was actually quite recent. To be sure, ‘articles de Paris’ had a longstanding place in the luxury goods trade, dating at least to the late eighteenth century; and Swiss watches had been well regarded for many decades. But the notion that cars made in Germany would ipso facto be better crafted than others, or that Italian-designed clothing, Belgian chocolates, French kitchenware or Danish furniture were unquestionably the best to be had: this would have seemed curious indeed just a generation before.
If anything, it was English manufacture that had until quite recently carried this reputation, a legacy of Britain’s nineteenth-century industrial supremacy. British-made domestic goods, vehicles, tools or weapons had for long been highly prized on foreign markets. But in the course of the 1930s and 1940s British producers had so successfully undermined their own standing in almost every commodity save men’s clothing that the only niche left to Britain’s retail merchants by the 1960s was high profile, low quality ‘trendy’ fads—a market they were to exploit ruthlessly in the following decade.
What was remarkable about European commercial style was its segmentation by product as well as country. Italian cars—FIAT, Alfa Romeo, Lancia—were notoriously shoddy and unreliable; yet their embarrassing reputation did no discernible harm to Italy’s elevated standing in other markets, such as leather goods, haute couture and even, in a less exalted sector, domestic white goods.149 International demand for Germanclothing or food products was all but non-existent, and deservedly so. But by 1965, anything turned on a German lathe or conceived by German-speaking engineers could walk out of a British or American showroom at a price of its own asking. Only Scandinavia had acquired a general reputation for quality across an eclectic range of products, but even there the market had distinctive variations. Well-heeled foreigners filled their homes with high-styled Swedish or Danish furniture, even if it was a little fragile, because it was so ‘modern’. But the same consumer would be attracted to Sweden’s Volvo cars, despite their resolute lack of style, precisely because they appeared indestructible. Both qualities, however—‘style’ and ‘value’—were now inextricably identified with ‘Europe’: often in contrast with America.
Paris remained the capital of high fashion in women’s clothing. But Italy, with lower labour costs and unconstrained by textile rationing (unlike France or Britain), was already a serious competitor as early as 1952, when the first international Men’s Fashion Festival was staged in San Remo. However innovative its styling, French haute couture—from Christian Dior to Yves St Laurent—was quite socially conventional: as late as 1960, magazine editors and columnists in France and elsewhere not only wore hats and gloves when attending annual fashion shows, they wore them at their desks too. So long as middle-class women took their clothing cues from a handful of Parisian designers and fashion houses, the latter’s status (and profits) remained secure. But by the early sixties European women—like men—were no longer wearing formal hats, styled outer garments or evening wear as a matter of routine. The mass market in clothing was taking its cues as much from below as from above. Europe’s reputation as the capital of style and chic was secure, but the future lay with more eclectic vogues, many of them European adaptations of American and even Asian prototypes, something at which Italians proved especially adept. In clothing as in ideas, Paris dominated the European scene and would do so for a little while to come. But the future lay elsewhere.
At a March 1955 gathering in Milan of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, Raymond Aron proposed as a topic for discussion ‘the End of the Ideological Age’. At the time some of his audience found the suggestion a touch premature—after all, across the Iron Curtain, and not only there, ideology appeared all too alive and well. But Aron had a point. The western European state, as it emerged in those years, was increasingly detached from any doctrinal project; and, as we have seen, the rise of the welfare state had defused the old political animosities. More people than ever before had a direct interest in the policies and expenditures of the state, but they no longer came to blows over who should control it. Western Europeans seemed to have arrived rather sooner than anticipated at the ‘broad, sunlit uplands’ (Churchill) of prosperity and peace: where politics was giving way to government, and government was increasingly confined to administration.
However: the predictable consequence of the nanny state, even the post-ideological nanny state, was that for anyone who had grown up knowing nothing different it was the duty of the state to make good on its promise of an ever better society—and thus the fault of the state when things did not turn out well. The apparent routinization of public affairs in the hands of a benevolent caste of overseers was no guarantee of public apathy. In this respect, at least, Aron’s prognosis was off target. Thus it was that the very generation which came of age in the Social Democratic paradise of its parents’ longings was most irritated and resentful at its shortcomings. A pregnant symptom of this paradox can be seen—quite literally—in an area of public planning and works in which the progressive state on both sides of the Cold War divide was unusually active.
The post-World War Two combination of demographic growth and rapid urbanization placed unprecedented demands upon urban planners. In Eastern Europe, where many urban centers had been destroyed or half abandoned by the end of the war, twenty million people moved from the countryside into towns and cities in the first two post-war decades. In Lithuania by 1970 half the population lived in towns; twenty years before the figure had been just 28 percent. In Yugoslavia, where the agricultural population declined by 50 percent between the liberation and 1970, there was a great surge of migration from the countryside to the cities: between 1948 and 1970 the Croatian capital, Zagreb, doubled in size, from 280,000 inhabitants to 566,000; likewise the national capital, Belgrade, which grew from 368,000 to 746,000.
Bucharest grew from 886,000 to 1,475,000 between 1950 and 1970. In Sofia the number of inhabitants rose from 435,000 to 877,000. In the USSR, where the urban population overtook the rural one in 1961, Minsk—the capital of the Belorussian Republic—went from 509,000 in 1959 to 907,000 just twelve years later. The result in all these cities, from Berlin to Stalingrad, was the classic Soviet-era housing solution: mile upon mile of identical gray or brown cement blocks; cheap, poorly-constructed, with no distinguishing architectural features and lacking any aesthetic indulgence (or public facilities).
Where the inner city had survived undamaged (as in Prague), or had been carefully rebuilt from old plans (Warsaw, Leningrad), most of the new building took place on the edge of the city, forming a long string of suburban dormitories reaching into the countryside. Elsewhere—in the Slovak capital Bratislava, for example—the new slums were erected in the very heart of the town. As for smaller towns and rural villages, constrained to absorb the tens of thousands of former peasants now recycled as miners or steelworkers, they had nothing to preserve and were transformed, virtually overnight, into industrial dormitories, lacking even the grace of a remnant of an old town. Collective farm workers were forced into agro-towns, pioneered in the 1950s by Nikita Khrushchev and later perfected by Nicolae Ceauşescu. Such new public architecture as there was—Technical School, Culture House, Party offices—was carefully modeled on the Soviet precedent: sometimes consciously Socialist Realist, always oversize, rarely attractive.
Forced industrialization, rural collectivization and an aggressive disdain for private needs help explain the calamity of Communist town planning. But Western European city fathers did not do much better. In Mediterranean Europe especially, the mass migration from countryside to cities placed comparable strains on urban resources. Greater Athens grew from 1,389,000 people in 1951 to 2,540,000 in 1971. Milan’s population rose from 1,260,000 to 1,724,000 in the same period; Barcelona’s from 1,280,000 to 1,785,000. In all these places, as in smaller towns across northern Italy and in the rapidly expanding outer suburbs of London, Paris, Madrid and elsewhere, planners could not keep up with demand. Like their contemporaries in Communist city offices, their instinct was to construct large blocks of homogenous housing—either on space cleared by war and urban renewal, or else on green-field sites at the edges of cities. In Milan and Barcelona in particular, where the first generation of migrants from the south began moving from shanty towns into high-rise apartments in the course of the 1960s, the result was depressingly reminiscent of the Soviet bloc—but with the additional handicap that many would-be tenants could not afford to rent anywhere near their place of work. They were thus forced into long daily journeys on inadequate public transport—or else in their newly-acquired cars, further straining the urban infrastructure.
But the distinctive ugliness of urban architecture in Western Europe in these years cannot be attributed to demographic pressures alone. The ‘New Brutalism’ (as it was dubbed by the architectural critic Rayner Banham) was not an accident or oversight. In West Germany, where many of the country’s major cities were rebuilt with a breathtaking lack of imagination and vision; or in London—where the Architect’s Department of the London County Council authorized mass housing projects like the aggressively linear, windswept, Le Corbusier-inspired Alton estate in Roehampton—ugliness appeared almost deliberate, the product of careful design. Milan’s awful Torre Velasco, a reinforced concrete skyscraper built between 1957 and 1960 by a private Anglo-Italian consortium, was typical of the aggressive hyper-modernism of the age, in which the point was to break all attachments to the past. When, in March 1959, the Council of Buildings of France approved the design for the future Tour Montparnasse, their report concluded: ‘Paris cannot afford to lose herself in her past. In the years to come, Paris must undergo imposing metamorphoses. ’
The result was not just the Tour Montparnasse (or its natural child, the hideous complex of buildings at La Défense) but a rash of new towns: ultra-high density, multiple housing block-units (‘grands ensembles’, as they were symptomatically designated), bereft of employment opportunities or local services, parked at the edge of greater Paris. The earliest and therefore best known of these, at Sarcelles, north of Paris, grew from a population of just 8,000 in 1954 to 35,000 seven years later. Sociologically and aesthetically it was rootless, resembling contemporary worker-dormitory suburbs in other countries (like the remarkably similar settlement of Lazdynai at the edge of Vilnius, in Lithuania) far more than anything in indigenous French housing design or urban tradition.
This break with the past was deliberate. The European ‘style’ so much admired in other spheres of life was here nowhere in evidence. Indeed, it was consciously and carefully eschewed. The architecture of the 1950s and, especially, the 1960s was self-consciously ahistorical; it broke with the past in design, in scale and in materials (steel, glass and reinforced concrete being much the most favoured).150 The result was not necessarily any more imaginative than what had gone before: on the contrary, the ‘urban redevelopment’ schemes that transformed the face of so many European towns in these decades were a colossal missed opportunity.
In Britain as elsewhere, urban ‘planning’ was at best tactical, a patch-up: no long-term strategies were worked out to integrate housing, services, jobs or leisure (hardly any of the new towns and housing complexes had cinemas, much less sports facilities or adequate public transport).151 The goal was to clear urban slums and accommodate growing populations, quickly and cheaply: between 1964 and 1974, 384 tower blocks were thrown up in London alone. Many of these would be abandoned within twenty years. One of the most egregious, ‘Ronan Point’ in London’s East End, actually had the good taste to fall down of its own accord in 1968.
Public architecture fared little better. The Pompidou Center (a 1960s design, though not opened until January 1977)—like the Halles complex to its west—may have brought an assortment of popular cultural resources to central Paris but it failed miserably in the longer run to integrate with the surrounding district or complement the older architecture around it. The same was true of London University’s new Institute of Education, ostentatiously installed on Woburn Square, at the heart of old Bloomsbury—‘uniquely hideous’, in the words of Roy Porter, the historian of London. In a similar vein, London’s South Bank complex brought together an invaluable assortment of performing arts and artistic services; but its grim, low elevations, its windswept alleys and cracking concrete facades, remain a depressing testimony to what the urban critic Jane Jacobs called ‘the Blight of Dullness’.
Just why post-war European politicians and planners should have made so very many mistakes remains unclear, even if we allow that in the wake of two world wars and an extended economic depression there was a craving for anything fresh, new and unlinked to the past. It is not as though contemporaries were unaware of the ugliness of their new environment: the occupants of the giant housing complexes, tower blocks and new towns never liked them, and they said so clearly enough to anyone who cared to enquire. Architects and sociologists may not have understood that their projects would, within one generation, breed social outcasts and violent gangs, but that prospect was clear enough to the residents. Even European cinema—which only a few years before had paid loving, nostalgic attention to old cities and city life—now focused instead on the cold, hard impersonality of the modern metropolis. Directors like Godard or Antonioni took an almost sensuous pleasure in filming the tawdry new urban and industrial environment in films like Alphaville (1965) or The Red Desert (1964).
A particular victim of post-war architectural iconoclasm was the railway station, the lapidary incarnation of Victorian achievement and often a significant architectural monument in its own right. Railway stations suffered in the United States, too (the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1966 is still remembered by many as the defining moment of official hooliganism); but American city planners at least had the excuse that, squeezed between the car and the airplane, the prospects for rail travel appeared grim. But in the overcrowded circumstances of a small continent, the future of train travel was never seriously in question. The stations that were torn down in Europe were replaced by insipid, unappealing buildings performing the identical function. The destruction of Euston Station in London, or Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, or the elegant Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin had no practical purpose and was aesthetically indefensible.
The sheer scale of urban destruction, the pan-European urge to have done with the past and leap in one generation from ruins to ultra-modernity, was to prove its own nemesis (thankfully aided by the recession of the 1970s, which trimmed public and private budgets alike and brought the orgy of renewal to a halt). As early as 1958, even before the paroxysm of city renovation had peaked, a group of preservationists in Britain founded the Victorian Society. This was a typically British volunteer organization, devoted to identifying and saving the country’s threatened architectural heritage; but similarly inspired networks emerged all across Western Europe in the following decade, pressing residents, academics and politicians to act in concert to avert further loss. Where they were too late to save a particular district or building, they at least managed to preserve whatever was left—as in the case of the façade and inner cloister of the Palazzo delle Stelline on Milan’s Corso Magenta: all that remains of a seventeenth-century city orphanage, the rest of which was torn down in the early 1970s.
In the physical history of the European city, the 1950s and 1960s were truly terrible decades. The damage that was done to the material fabric of urban life in those years is the dark, still half-unacknowledged underside of the ‘thirty glorious years’ of economic development—analogous in its way to the price paid for the industrial urbanization of the previous century. Although certain amends would be made in later decades—notably in France, where planned modernization and heavy investment in roads and transport networks brought a distinct improvement in the quality of life to some of the grimmer outer suburbs—the damage could never be wholly undone. Major cities—Frankfurt, Brussels, London above all—discovered too late that they had sold their urban birthright for a mess of brutalist pottage.
It is one of the ironies of the 1960s that the ruthlessly ‘renewed’ and rebuilt cityscapes of the age were deeply resented above all by the young people who lived there. Their houses, streets, cafés, factories, offices, schools and universities might be modern and relentlessly ‘new’. But except for the most privileged among them, the result was an environment experienced as ugly, soulless, stifling, inhuman, and—in a term that was acquiring currency—‘alienating’. It is altogether appropriate that when the well-fed, well-housed, well-educated children of Europe’s benevolent service states grew up and revolted against ‘the system’, the first intimations of the coming explosion would be felt in the pre-fabricated cement dormitories of a soulless university ‘extension campus’, heedlessly parked among the tower blocks and traffic jams of an overspill Parisian suburb.