Welfare State in Postwar Europe the Aftermath

Welfare State in Postwar Europe

The aftermath of World War II saw massive changes in the global political climate philosophically, theoretically, and practically speaking. The era of direct imperialism was largely over (though this assertion would certainly be disputed by certain populations today, and with legitimate reason), and the era of nation building had, for better or worse, begun. The effects were not limited to far-flung reaches of the globe or struggling Eastern European nations, however. There was also a major shift in the styles of government utilized in Western European powers. Though in no way comparing to the excesses, abuses, and extremes of the Stalinist Soviet Union, a program of social democracy spread throughout Western Europe effected the rise of the welfare state in most of these countries which persist today.

The reasons for this shift are quite complex and not easily discernible. In his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt brings his unique historical and ideological perspective to bear on this issue in an attempt to shed light on the reasons and processes by which this welfare state was effected in such a large and seemingly instantaneous (in governmental terms) manner. In one telling phrase, when referring to the social democracy programs that became prevalent in the decades following the Second World War, he calls the emerging welfare state a "child of anxiety." He is referencing the fears and insecurities that many Europeans felt after having witnessed -- in many cases first hand -- the destruction and death that war brought with it, and the uncomfortable proximity of the various nations who had found themselves on opposite sides of the war only increased these fears. Though Europe has never been a fully peaceful place in recorded history, the nature of the warfare was different, with cities and civilian populations targeted instead of controlled military skirmishes.

This led to a basically Europe-wide belief that clear definition and control of boundaries in both the physical and theoretical worlds had to be accomplished in order to maintain and ensure security and prosperity for the individual countries of Western Europe. This led to a radical change in domestic policy that reflected an increased democratization with a very definite purpose. As Judt puts it, the architects of the new European welfare state believed that "if democracy was to work, if it was to recover its appeal, it would have to be planned."

Planning was justified in many ways, not the least of which was the practical consideration that a population that was better cared for would have less desire to radically change governments and start wars. Less cynical philosophies had been pushing for an increase in social programs and wealth redistribution for over a century, and the Soviet experiment itself -- though fatally and very observably flawed -- had lasted for a generation based on principles far more radical than those upon which the welfare states of postwar Western Europe were founded. These justifications were more than ample, and the will of a people who had become disillusioned by man's inhumanity to man did not stand in the way of social progress.

The countries of Western Europe had by this time established at least limited democracies and republics, making the processes by which such major institutional shifts at once more achievable and more complex. Increased taxes carried the financial burden of increased social programs, and the government response to ongoing demands and inefficiencies is a continuing process even today.

Communism in Postwar Europe

The red Scare was a common feature of the 1950s, not only in America -- though sentiments appear to have been stronger here -- but throughout much of the Western world. Many individuals and governments in Europe were greatly concerned about the Communist "threat" which existed very close to their own borders, and even in pockets within them. Yet by the close of the 1950s, Communism had ceased to be a very potent political force in Europe. As in most major historical and social trends, the reasons for this are complicated, and have to do both with the changing face of Communism and the attitudes and actions of Communist countries, as well as with shifts that were happening in the ostensibly socially democratic and truly capitalist countries of Western Europe. Many governments, despite popular fears, had Communist and increasingly Socialist factions in their governments, and these forces began to have a significant impact on policy making and the direction of European governance.

This is one of the reasons Communism began to lose its potency -- it was being assimilated and watered down in the halls of government to the point that the threat was largely scene for the baseless panic which it was. In fact, though the word "Communism" still has the ability to inspire distaste and distrust in many, the word itself lost its potency due to its acceptance (which as any good Orwellian can tell you is as good as making the concept lose its own power). Fear is a very powerful motivator, and without this factor the Communist specter simply became to diminished in size and shadow for it to be of much political notice or use. In addition, there is the purely practical fact that Western European countries were adopting Communist principles, and the active form of government cannot be seen as particularly relevant political force; movements fade away when their goals are accomplished.

This was not the only reason that Communism ceased being relevant throughout most of Western Europe in the 1950s. Though countries were becoming increasingly socialized, which has many commonalities with Communist social programs, fiscally speaking Western Europe remained staunchly capitalist. Increasing commercialization in the years of prosperity that followed the war wiped thoughts of Communism out of most people's minds. In grinding poverty, fears of encroachment and desire for complete financial equality are higher than in prosperous times, and Western Europe in the postwar era provides much evidence to attest to this fact.

One exception to this treatment of Communism in 1950s Europe was Italy, which had emerged from a fascist dictatorship in the middle of the Second World War and thus had a very different starting point than most of Europe in that decade. In fact, Communist and Socialist parties were banned in Italy in 1948 and 1949, and in many ways the Communist movement in that country were reactionary movements that gained strength from such persecution and what many perceived as the continuation of the totalitarian and politically controlling doctrines of Mussolini. In fact Stephen Gundle, the author of the film studies/political science book Between Hollywood and Moscow: The Italian Communists and the Challenge of Mass Culture, maintains that the totalitarian crackdown in the years immediately following the war led to a 1950s that "witnessed a profound transformation in the pattern of economic and social life underlying it." Given the extreme limitations of the conservative governments they had been subjected to, it is little wonder that many Italians reacted with equally extreme movements towards the left and Communism.

Postwar Italy and Spain

The consumerism that spread throughout most of the Western world in the decades following World War II had many profound and complex effects on the social life of all of the countries involved. Spain and Italy, with their traditionally and staunchly Catholic backgrounds, these effects were arguably even more complex, as the social progression often came at odds with Catholic values. Though Spain and Italy had very different governments, histories, and traditions, many of the effects of the consumerism that occurred in the 1950s in the two countries were very similar. Catholicism had led to pronounced respect and obedience to authority by many individuals in these two countries, with equally strong reactionary views that rejected Catholic dogma specifically in addition to authoritarianism in general. This carried over into the realms of politics and nationalism as well, with strong totalitarian factions in both countries clashing with equally fervent social and Communist groups.

In addition, Spain had the issue of its barely generation-old civil war still very much in play in the country. Divisiveness here was, if anything, sharper than it was in Italy, but it was certainly strong in both countries. Because of the unique similarities between these two countries, they were shaped along remarkably similar lines despite their other differences. Consumerism also meant Americanism, which was as attractive to many as it was dangerous and abhorrent to others. The gaudy consumption in both countries was offset by increased crackdown on other aspects of society, including the freedom of artistic and political expression. In many ways, the conflict between consumerism and traditionalism mirrored and even paralleled the social conflict between Catholicism and greater social freedoms, and the political conflicts of totalitarianism vs. An increasingly frustrated and expressive population.

The conflict in both of these countries was especially complex and often bitter for the women. Traditional Catholic values demanded that these women focus on domestic and maternal roles, while at the same time consumerism…