Postwar Society

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

Social Democracy

In the aftermath of the war, the most important and noticeable political change in the west was the nearly universal triumph of democratic forms of government.  Whereas the democratic experiments of the interwar period had all too often ended in the disaster of fascism, stable democratic governments emerged in the postwar era that are still present today, albeit in modified forms in some cases like that of France.  All of the governments of Western Europe except Spain and Portugal granted the right to vote to all adult citizens after the war.  And, for the first time, this included women almost everywhere.  (Although one bizarre holdout was Switzerland, where women did not get the vote until 1971.)

There was a concomitant embrace of a specific form of democratic politics and market economics: “social democracy,” the commitment on the part of government to ensure not just the legal rights of its citizens, but a base minimum standard of living and access to employment opportunities as well.  Social democracy was born of the experience of the war.  The people of Europe had simply fought too hard in World War II to return to the conditions of the Great Depression or the bitter class struggles of the prewar period.  Thus, one of the plans anticipated by wartime governments in the west was recompense for the people who had endured and suffered through the war – this phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the “postwar compromise” between governments and elites on the one hand and working people on the other.

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

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

The Postwar Boom and Cultural Change

In 1957, the governments of central continental Europe came together and founded the European Economic Community (EEC), also known as the Common Market.  They created a free trade zone and coordinated economic policies in such a manner that trade between them increased fivefold in the years that followed.  Britain opted not to join, and tellingly its growth rates lagged significantly.

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

With the welfare state in place, many people were willing to spend on non-essentials, buying on credit and indulging in the host of new consumer items like cars, appliances, and fashion.  In short, the postwar boom represented the birth of the modern consumer society in Europe, the parallel of that of the United States at the same time.  Increasingly, only the very poor were not able to buy consumer goods that they did not need for survival.  Most people were able to buy clothes that followed fashion trends, middle-class families could afford creature comforts like electric appliances and televisions, and increasingly working families could even afford a car, something that would have been unheard of before World War II.

Part of this phenomenon was the baby boom.  While not as extreme in Europe as in the US, the generation of children born in the first ten years after WWII was very large, pushing Europe’s population from 264 million in 1940 to 320 million by the early 1970s. 

United States birth rate (births per 1000 population). The US Census Bureau defines baby boomers as those born between mid-1946 and mid-1964 (shown in red).
United States birth rate (births per 1000 population). The US Census Bureau defines baby boomers as those born between mid-1946 and mid-1964 (shown in red).

In the United States and Canada, the baby boom was among the highest in the world. In 1946, live births in the U.S. surged from 222,721 in January to 339,499 in October. By the end of the 1940s, about 32 million babies had been born, compared with 24 million in the 1930s. In 1954, annual births first topped four million and did not drop below that figure until 1965, when four out of ten Americans were under the age of 20.

France and Austria experienced the strongest baby booms in Europe.

A child born in 1946 was a teenager by the early 1960s, in turn fueling the massive explosion of popular music that resulted in the most iconic musical expression of youth culture: rock n’ roll.  The “boomers” were eager consumers as well, fueling the demand for fashion, music, and leisure activities.  

Meanwhile, the sciences saw breakthroughs of comparable importance to those of the second half of the nineteenth century.  Scientists identified the basic structure of DNA in 1953.  Terrible diseases were treated with vaccines for the first time, including measles and polio. 

Organ transplants became a reality in the 1950s.  Thus, life itself could be extended in ways hitherto unimaginable. 

Along with the growth of consumer society, postwar Europeans and Americans alike had cause to believe in the possibility of indefinite, ongoing progress and improvement.

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


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


The postwar era began in the shadow of the war and the fascist nightmare that had preceded it; the British writer George Orwell noted that “since about 1930, the world had given no reason for optimism whatsoever.  Nothing in sight except a welter of lies, cruelty, hatred, and ignorance.”  Some of the most important changes in art and philosophy in the postwar era emerged from the moral exhaustion that was the result of the war, something that lingered over Europe for years and grew with the discovery of the extent of the Holocaust.  There was also the simple fact that the world itself could not survive another world war; once the Cold War began in earnest in the late 1940s, the world was just a few decisions away from devastation, if not outright destruction. The quintessential postwar philosophy was existentialism. 

While existentialism is a flowery word, its essential arguments are straightforward.  First, there is no inherent meaning to life.  Humans just exist: they are born, they do things while alive, then they die.  During life, however, people are forced to constantly make choices – Sartre wrote that humans “are condemned to be free.”  Most people find this process of always having to make choices frightening and difficult, so they pretend that something greater and more important provides the essential answers: religion, political ideologies, the pursuit of wealth, and so on. 

There was no salvation in existentialism, but there was at least the possibility of embracing the human condition, of accepting the heroic act of choosing one’s actions and projects in life without hope of heaven, immortality, or even being remembered after death.  The existentialists called living in this manner “authenticity” – a kind of courageous defiance of the despair of being alive without a higher purpose or meaning.  Increasingly, the major existential philosophers argued that authenticity could also be found as part of a shared project with others, but only if that project did not succumb to ideological or religious dogmatism.  

Existential philosophy eventually went out of fashion in favor of various kinds of theory that were eventually loosely grouped together as “postmodernism.”

The Youth Movement, Cultural Revolution, and Protests

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

Carnaby Street, London, 1966
By the 1960s, Carnaby Street was popular with followers of the mod and hippie styles. Many independent fashion designers such as Mary Quant, Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin,[5] Lord John, Merc, Take Six, and Irvine Sellars had premises in the street and various underground music bars such as the Roaring Twenties opened in the surrounding streets. Bands such as the Small Faces, The Who, and The Rolling Stones appeared in the area to work (at the legendary Marquee Club round the corner in Wardour Street), shop, and socialise, it became one of the coolest destinations associated with 1960s Swinging London.
Carnaby Street, London, 1966
By the 1960s, Carnaby Street was popular with followers of the mod and hippie styles. Many independent fashion designers had premises in the street and various underground music bars such as the Roaring Twenties opened in the surrounding streets. Bands such as The Who and The Rolling Stones appeared in the area to work (at the legendary Marquee Club round the corner in Wardour Street), shop, and socialize, it became one of the coolest destinations associated with 1960s Swinging London.

There were essentially two distinct, but closely related, manifestations of the youth movement of the 1960s: a largely apolitical counterculture of so-called “hippies” and an active protest movement against various forms of perceived injustice.  Of course, many young people were active in both aspects, listening to folk music or rock n’ roll, experimenting with the various drugs that became increasingly common and available, but also joining in the anti-war movement, the second-wave feminist movement, or other forms of protest.

On the domestic front, many young people also chafed at what they regarded as outdated rules, laws, and traditions, especially those having to do with sexuality.

A key factor in the youth movement was the American war in Vietnam.  Despite Soviet control of the Eastern Bloc, the American government was a much more visible oppressor than was the Soviet Union to the more radical members of the youth movement.  American atrocities in Vietnam were perceived as visible proof of the inherently oppressive nature of capitalism and imperialism.  Vietnam thus served as a symbolic rallying point for the youth movement the world over, not just in the United States itself.

Vietnam War protestors march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 1967
Vietnam War protestors march at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 1967


In the United States, many members of the youth movement (black and white alike) campaigned for the end of both racist laws and the inherent racism of American culture in general.  A new feminist movement emerged to champion not just women’s rights before the law, but the idea that the objectification and oppression of women was unjust, destructive, and unacceptable in supposedly democratic societies.  In addition, for the first time, a movement emerged championing the idea that homosexuality was a legitimate sexual identity.

Protests happened all across the world during this time:


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

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Next: Toward the Present

Protest: By Frank Wolfe – Lyndon B. Johnson Library, Public Domain,

Baby boom:

Baby boom graph: By Saiarcot895 – Own work, CC0,

Carnaby Street:

Canby Street in London: By The National Archives UK – This file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record INF14/147. For high quality reproductions of any item from The National Archives collection please contact the image library., No restrictions,

This text was adapted (with permission) from:

  • Western Civilization: A Concise History – Volumes 1-3
    by Dr. Christopher Brooks
  • World History Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500
    by Eugene Berger, Ph.D, George L. Israel, Ph.D., Charlotte Miller, Ph.D., Brian Parkinson, Ph.D., Andrew Reeves, Ph.D, and Nadejda Williams, Ph.D.
    CC BY-SA
  • Modern World History
    by Dan Allosso, Bemidji State University and Tom Williford, Southwest Minnesota State University

I’ve taken excerpts from the above-mentioned resources and heavily edited and added to them for my intended audience. While I’ve received permission to use/adapt these books, none of the above endorses Guest Hollow or my use of their materials.

Information was also taken from Wikipedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License and other resources (listed in the individual page credits).

This online book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Beowulf the Fox Terrier dog and the Greek & Latin roots graphic © Jennifer Guest

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