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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts

Europe in the Contemporary World

To celebrate the first anniversary of the end of the war, the city of Paris sponsored a grand ball at the Opera House. Despite the fine quality of the Parisian night and the elegance of the participants, this was no real occasion for rejoicing, either in Paris or in any other capital of Europe.

The first year of the postwar era was a very bleak one, characterized by a bad harvest, a very cold winter, a shortage of capital funds, and a still barren urban landscape of demolished buildings. The term "recovery," already widely used as descriptive of the first order of business, seemed a mockery. In 1946 peace was only the absence of war.

Yet within two decades Europe would be transformed, endowed with one of the world's most impressive industrial establishments, enjoying one of the highest standards of living, and cleansed of the worst wounds of the war. By the 1970s German schoolchildren no longer knew who Hitler was, and the name of Porsche, formerly associated with the design of Royal Tiger tanks, was now affixed to one of the world's most popular sports cars.

The economic development of the postwar era has been called a "miracle," not because it happened mysteriously, but because it happened with unanticipated rapidity. And the economic "miracle" was the basis for a number of other quite remarkable changes, often described as the "Americanization" of Europe, or, in more sedate and prophetic economic terminology, the "post-industrial" era.

Alongside economic progress traveled an unusual social development in general demography. European populations grew in number so that the Old Continent became youthful in terms of its median-age population. Youth culture was as much a European as an American phenomenon, as witness three of England's most important exports of the 1960s: the miniskirt, the Beatles, and the hard rock of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. More recently, youth gangs and youth revolutionary groups have added a deeply disturbing element to contemporary European social life, but still more pronounced in the last decade has been the youth-defined notion of fun: skiing, sunning, dancing have all altered the tertiary sector of the economy. The discotheque replaced the bistro; blue jeans have replaced the blue serge suit; the transistor radio has replaced the briefcase as hand baggage.

New economic wealth has meant the end of old class distinctions. Today the Marxist social structure of modern industrial society is as much a museum piece as is each of the estates on which the aristocrats used to live. The variety of economic activities, the redistribution of wealth, and the greater social mobility characteristic of contemporary Europe have altered both the conditions and the perceptions of social structure. It used to be said that the difference between an American worker and a French worker was this: when the American worker saw an expensive automobile, he longed for the day when he would be driving a similar one; however, the French worker longed for the day when he could pull the driver out of the car. Today French roads are crowded with worker-owned automobiles.

Europe has left its past behind. It has entered a global political system and a global economy. What more simple symbol of the passing of the old order can be found at random than a Bic pen. This French writing instrument, mass-produced, world-marketed, comes from a nation whose literary tradition is only matched, perhaps exceeded, by its military tradition. Now the French have learned that the "pen is mightier than the sword." France, like every other state of Western Europe, is decidedly modern.

NEXT:  Chapter 13: The Decade of European Recovery

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