America's Gateway to the British Isles since 1996


History Directories
British Monarchs
Sources & Texts
Church History
Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Contemporary Europe

Dissent and Disorder
One of the most obvious European developments of the last two decades, but particularly of the 1970s, has been the increase in expression of political unrest. Extending from intellectual dissent in the Soviet Union to violent terror in Italy, this far-ranging dissatisfaction suggests a postwar domestic political turbulence even deeper and more persistent than the student rebellion of 1968.

The outspoken attitude of Soviet intellectuals was a concomitant feature of de-Stalinization. Criticism of the oppression and ineptness of Stalin's rule was first publicly made by Nikita Khrushchev at the Communist Party Congress of 1956. From that date until the official denunciations of the work of the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1964, the Soviet Union seemed to be entering a period of liberalization, of self-criticism. Poets, novelists, and artists gave expression to this new freedom in what appeared to be an intellectually pluralistic world, where ideas other than those officially promulgated might be tolerated.

However, a sharp turn away from this liberalization was evident shortly after the publication of Solzhenitsyn's first major work, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" ( 1962) . A description of political prison life under Stalin, the work was initially praised, but then roundly condemned by 1964. When Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, the decision was officially denounced in the Soviet Union as an expression of anti-communism.

Once again, the Russian leadership had been reorganized, with Khrushchev removed, and Leonid Brezhnev taking his place in late 1964. The change in leadership was the most obvious indication that the brief period of official, political self-examination was terminating, and a reinforcement of older restraints on criticism of the government beginning. Yet intellectual dissent was not silenced. On the contrary, it took on new proportions after the signing of the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Officially entitled the "Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe," this meeting in Helsinki of representatives from thirty-five nations chiefly resulted in American recognition of the postwar political status quo in Eastern Europe. However, this recognition was given in return for expected Soviet relaxation of restrictions on travel, personal freedom, information, and international commerce. The failure ofsuch a relaxation to occur has, in the last few years, led to increased intellectual protest and this, in turn, has officially been greeted by a series of arrests and trials that in 1978 aroused international concern.

In Western Europe, protest of quite a different sort gained in notoriety, also in 1978, when one of Italy's leading political figures, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped in March and executed in May. Moro, several times premier and foreign minister of Italy, and the leading figure in the Christian Democratic Party, was the victim of a terrorist group, the Red Brigades. Pledged to the overthrow of the state, denouncing Italian society as corrupt, and espousing a rhetoric of violence and radicalism, the Red Brigades have become the most significant of the terrorist groups now operating in Europe.

Postwar terrorism first attracted world attention when a number of hijackings of European civilian aircraft occurred in the early 1960s. Perpetrated by dissatisfied nationalist groups, of which the Palestinian Liberation Organization was the major one, the hijackings were a political tactic designed to alert world opinion to the plight of minorities incapable of changing the political order by their own means and, therefore, seeking support from without, even if by the device of hostages and ransom.

Within Western Europe itself, there was a variety of terrorist organizations operating in more traditionally clandestine and disruptive ways. In Northern Ireland, the Irish Republican Army in 1969 began a series of terrorist attacks, notably bombings and assassinations, in an effort to dislodge the British and the dominant Protestant majority from control of the territory. Although denounced by the Irish government, IRA terrorism has extended to bombings in England and has not yet abated in Northern Ireland. In the Netherlands, South Moluccan refugees from the former Dutch East Indies have, in the late 1970s, seized trains in protest against the lack of support of the Dutch for the freedom of the Moluccan homeland from Indonesia. And in Spain, Basque terrorist forces have assassinated Spanish officials.

Yet the most striking development in terrorism is the emergence of "transnational" groups, those which operate without a regional or nationalist purpose, which often lend support to similar groups in other countries, and which - in contradistinction to "international" terrorists - receive no support from outside nations. The two most important of the European "trans-national" groups have been the Baader-Meinhof Gang, named after its two leaders; and the Red Brigades. The former has been active in Germany since 1972, when they were held responsible for the killing of five American soldiers. In 1977 they gained international notoriety with the assassination of a well-known German industrialist and the seizure of a German aircraft, which they forced to fly to East Africa. Although both Baader and Meinhof were imprisoned and subsequently committed suicide, the influence of the group is still considered pervasive.

In 1977 and 1978 the Red Brigades made terrorism the major Italian problem, creating a condition of "civil war," according to one politician. With over two thousand terrorist attacks recorded in 1977 alone, the domestic situation was already precarious when the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro shook the nation.

Critics who have attempted to analyze the new terrorism of the 1970s have frequently seen it as a reflection of the economic conditions of the time. Many of the terrorists come from middle-class families and are or have been university students. They belong to that social segment which Italians call the "marginal ones," those who do not have jobs, or do have jobs that pay poorly. Self-declared victims of the economic system, the terrorists are thus directing their revolt against capitalism and what they consider to be the politically compromised state that supports it. In this interpretation, the terrorism of 1978 may be a newer manifestation of the student rebellion of 1968: general discontent with the present social system and its economic inequities. Certainly, it is evident that a small segment of discontented youth is responding bitterly and viciously to what they interpret ideologically as a corrupt society, or to what they see as a social and economic order in which they cannot find a suitable role.

Whether this modern terrorism will become the "key problem of the so-called liberal societies," as one French critic has suggested, or whether it will eventually be seen as a minor social phenomenon projected by the communications media to undue proportions, as some other critics have asserted, it does remain a serious consideration of the present and an indication of the vulnerability of modern society to violent action by clandestine groups.

It is worth noting that the new form of terrorism has intensified during the same period in which the domestic politics of Western Europe have been changing with the appearance of Eurocommunism, a form that publicly eschewed revolution.

The leader of the Spanish Communist party, Santiago Carrillo, remarked in 1976: "For years Moscow was our Rome, the Great October Revolution was our Christmas. Today we have grown up." What he meant was that each national Communist party had matured so that it could enjoy the right to pursue its own policy in light of its own political needs. Eurocommunism has thus come to mean many communisms, each tailored to the nation in which it is situated. But Carillo carried the idea further, insisting in 1978 that communism no longer meant perpetration of revolution, but participation in parliamentary practices. And most Eurocommunists generally agree with him in asserting that their intention is to guide their parties along the lines followed by the more traditional European parties: engaging in elections, supporting foreign policy, and even leaving office if voted out.

This obvious deviation from the former international practice in which Moscow dictated policy is an indication of the further fracturing of the Communist "bloc." Not only did ideological disputes with China cause initial trouble for the Soviet Union, but also the practices that state followed in attempting to prevent independence within the system of European political satellites had disturbing effects.

Ever since Marshal Tito led Yugoslavia away from Soviet control through his policy of national independence in 1948, Moscow has been concerned with the possibility of other such acts of defiance. When a revolt against Soviet control broke out in Hungary in 1956, following upon de- Stalinization, the Soviet leadership responded quickly and forcefully with tanks and troops.

More significant was the Prague invasion of 1968. In that turbulent year throughout all of Europe, the Czech government, under the new leadership of Alexander Dubcek, sought a policy of liberation, of what Dubcek called "socialism with a human face." Dubcek's reforms included certain basic freedoms, like those of the press, assembly, and travel. While the response to his efforts was favorable in some Communist countries, notably Yugoslavia and Romania, Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union viewed the reforms with grave displeasure. After efforts at political maneuvering proved unsuccessful, the Russians made a firm decision. In August of 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and ended any further "socialism with a human face." Dubcek resigned and soon retired to private life.

It was against this background of harsh Soviet interference and in light of their growing belief that parliamentary success might soon be theirs, that many of the Communist party chiefs in Western Europe grew bold. The occasion for their affirmation of independence was a meeting in East Berlin in July 1976 with Brezhnev and the Eastern European heads of state. Despite his efforts to achieve solidarity and his attempt to find acceptance for his concept of "proletarian internationalism" (the official justification for intervention in Czechoslovakia), Brezhnev was unable to prevent a public declaration of the new national policy, which would soon be labeled "Eurocommunism."

Since 1976 the Eurocommunists have refined their ideology and program. They have dropped the term "dictatorship of the proletariat," and, in 1978, Carrillo even called the notion of class warfare outdated for Western Europe. It would appear that the French cry of "socialism decked out in the national colors of France" is a clear description of the new approach.

Yet the sincerity of Communist intentions is still doubted by many people in Europe and warily assessed by the American government. To date, Eurocommunism seems only clearly successful in Italy, where the Communist party has long had a strong following. Elections in France in the spring of 1978 resulted in a stunning defeat for the parties of the Left, with both Socialists and Communists doing poorly.

Whatever its less than successful showings in general elections, Eurocommunism gives further proof of the political fermentation in contemporary Europe.

What was recently called the "postwar era" has already become part of a dimming past for Europe. A new generation that was born after 1945 and introduced to the benefits - and problems - of a materialistically directed and highly regulated society is now taking over. It is confronted with the major issues of inflation and unemployment, but also cannot ignore the equally persistent difficulties of pollution.

Yet even if hampered by these conditions, European economic recovery has brought to a hitherto unimaginable number of citizens a new standard of living and a new style of life which clearly distinguish Europe today from all the Europes of yesterday.

There exists a new Europe, one in which history is a part of tradition, not an active force in daily life.

NEXT:  Epilogue

Copyright ©2015, LLC   Questions? Comments!