The three decades after World War I were a time of prolonged
political, economic, and cultural crisis for Western
civilization. After 1945, new sources of dynamism produced a
new West. Despite economic challenges from Asia and the end
of colonialism, the West's position in the twentieth century
has slipped only relatively.
- The Disarray in the West, 1914-1945
The economic and demographic devastation of World War I
unsettled Western Europe. Central Europe lost its
traditional structure with the collapse of the German and
- The Roaring 20's
A period of apparent peace reduced internal political
tensions in Europe during the early 1920s. Extremist groups
on the right and left, which had appeared in the aftermath of
World War I, seemed to lose popularity by the middle years of
the decade. Industrialization boomed on the back of growing
consumer demand. Cultural creativity during the 1920s
resulted in new artistic styles and the growing popularity of
the moving picture. Women across Europe and in the United
States gained the right to vote and other social liberties.
- The Impact of the Depression
With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the buoyant
optimism of the 1920s disappeared. Western governments
raised tariffs, which weakened trade and dampened the economy
Political radicalism once again became a popular solution to
government inadequacy in dealing with depression. In
Scandinavia and the United States, governments chose to
intervene more actively in the economy with generally
positive results. The price was a more powerful national
government. In most cases, however, parliamentary forms of
government were weakened. In France, a Popular Front
government dominated by socialist groups won the election in
1936. Opposed by more conservative groups, the Popular Front
was unable to enact effective policy.
- The Challenge of Fascism
In Germany, the depression was a contributing factor to the
rise of a fascist regime. Fascists offered solutions to
political weakness and economic dislocation through a
strongly centralized state with a vigorous foreign policy.
They attacked socialist groups, including labor. The first
fascist government took power in Italy in 1922. The rise of
Adolf Hitler in Germany made fascism a major force. Middle-
class and conservative groups were drawn to Hitler's assault
on the left and accepted his condemnation of the Jews. The
promise of conquest gave Hitler the largest electoral vote in
1932 and led to his legal accession to power in 1933.
Once in power, Hitler dismantled parliamentary government and
established a totalitarian state. The government invaded all
aspects of the economy and culture. Hitler's extreme
nationalism was combined with his genocidal hatred of the
Jews. After 1940, Hitler's policies created the Holocaust,
in which six million Jews died. Hitler's constitutional
revisions were intended to create the necessary war machine
that would catapult Germany into control of Europe. His war
effort began in 1939.
- After World War II: International Setting for
World War II devastated Europe in the same fashion as World
War I. With the creation of a bipolar world divided between
the United States and the Soviet Union, Europe seemed to
diminish in power. Despite its decline, Europe was able to
recover significantly in the decades after the war.
- Europe and Its Colonies
It became obvious to European powers after World War II that
colonies could only be maintained at great expense. France
attempted to hold its colonies in Vietnam and Algeria, but
both were lost after prolonged struggles. In most cases, the
European nations provided more peaceful transitions to
colonial independence. Despite abandoning direct colonial
control, Western economic influence in the former colonies of
Africa and Asia remained strong. Europe's direct power in
the world, as demonstrated in the Suez crisis of 1956, was
- The Cold War
The cold war linked the United States with Western Europe and
other allies against the Soviet Union and the communist
allies. The U.S. pushed for higher European military
expenditures and German rearmament. The Soviet Union,
through its support for European communist movements and
perceived aggressive position, also influenced European
policy. Despite some
alterations, the basic outline of the bipolar alliance system
remained in place until the 1990s.
Most Western European nations were content to rely on U.S.
military might against the possibility of Soviet invasion.
Given the relatively minimal European investment in military
armament, the United States increased its budgetary
commitment to nuclear armament. The dominance of the United
States as the primary Western European ally brought the U.S.
into closer relationships with Canada, New Zealand, and
- New Directions in the West
New leaders in Western Europe helped to extend democratic
governments, diminished nation-state rivalries, and committed
their nations to economic growth.
- The Spread of Liberal Democracy
World War II discredited most right-wing political movements.
Left-wing political groups were committed to democracy. The
new Christian Democratic movement that became popular in some
European countries wedded democratic policies to moderate
social reform. In defeated Germany, the regions occupied by
the Allies coalesced into the Federal Republic of Germany. A
new republic emerged in France after the war. In most
European countries, elected parliamentary regimes endured
following the conclusion of World War II.
Political crises in Western Europe were limited to France
following the Algerian War. Greece, Spain, and Portugal also
shifted to more democratic governments in the 1970s.
- The Welfare State
Following World War II, Western nations moved to establish
government programs for economic planning and social
engineering. By 1948, the welfare state had been created.
In the 1960s, the United States under Lyndon Johnson also
created programs for social welfare as part of the Great
Society. Medical care, unemployment insurance, public
housing, and family assistance were all part of the welfare
state. The welfare states continued to recognize and protect
private investment and initiative. The new government
programs were hybrids that cushioned citizens from
catastrophes but did not attempt to overhaul the social
structure. Welfare states remained popular, although they
were expensive to maintain.
Increased government economic planning resulted in some
industrial nationalization and public capitalization of some
industries. Of all the Western nations, only the United
States refused to establish an economic planning office.
American economic growth after World War II tended to rely on
military development. After the 1940s, governments played a
large role and spawned bureaucrats whose existence depended
on the growing state structure required to manage welfare
- Political Stability and the Question Marks
By the 1950s, more conservative governments were elected in
much of Western Europe. Conservative governments were
generally content to limit the growth of welfare programs
rather than dismantle them. A decade of student protest
movements beginning in the 1960s in both the United States
and Europe disrupted political stability. Green political
movements in the 1970s tended to replace student unrest. The
economic setback of the oil crisis and terrorism produced a
new conservatism in the later 1970s. In Britain and in the
United States, more conservative political parties gained
electoral victories. Despite some slight variations, the
basic lines of postwar governments remained unchanged into
- The Diplomatic Context
Both the United States and politicians within the Christian
Democratic movement wanted to reduce national conflict within
Western Europe. American economic aid through the Marshall
Plan required international coordination, reduction of
tariffs, and the partial rearmament of Germany.
European leaders contemplated linking German economic
resuscitation to an international framework to prevent a
recurrence of German aggression. In 1958, West Germany,
France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands set
up the European Economic Community, or Common Market. Free
movement of goods, labor, and investment was encouraged.
Continued disputes between member nations hindered the growth
of the Common Market. In the 1980s, agreements were finally
reached to unify currency and to complete economic unity.
Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, and Portugal were
induced to join. In the mid-1990s Finalnd, Sweden, and Austria joine as well. Economic unification reduced tensions in Western Europe.
- Economic Expansion
The Common Market and the welfare state contributed to
economic recovery in postwar Europe. By the 1950s,
agricultural production was sufficient to supply the Western
European population with some surplus. Gross national
product figures surpassed all previous levels, a remarkable
recovery from the prewar economic malaise. Improved
technology allowed economic expansion to take place using
As in the United States, most new employment was in the
service sector of the economy. Unemployment levels dropped
to such an extent that some European countries began to
import labor from southern Europe, Africa, the Middle East,
and Asia. Standards of living for most Europeans improved
dramatically. Consumer goods rapidly made their way into
households of an "affluent society." Advertising and
investment in leisure time through vacations were typical of
the new economy. There were some disturbing developments.
Immigrant workers did not share in the general affluence.
Oil crises in the 1970s slowed the rate of economic expansion
and produced significant unemployment. Conservation and
development of nuclear energy resources permitted Western
Europe to survive the temporary setback. Another recession
during the 1990s caused governments to cut back on welfare
- Society and Culture
The West developed the first example of an advanced
- Postindustrial Social Structure
Social mobility and more general affluence blurred lines
between classes in the West. Immigrants supplied much of the
unskilled labor. There remained discrepancies in class
wealth. Increased crime rates and racial disturbances
reflected continued social tensions. An advanced industrial
society began to develop a new social structure. Most people
in the labor force were in service sectors, not industrial
- The Women's Revolution
One of the most significant postwar social changes was the
change in women's status and the nature of the family. The
clearest change in family patterns was the increased entry of
women into the work force. From the 1950s, the numbers of
married women working constantly increased. The numbers of
unmarried women in the work force dropped as younger women
tended to stay in school. Women's pay lagged behind that for
males and many jobs reserved for women were at the lower end
of the pay and status scales.
Women also achieved the right to vote in postwar Europe.
Women also found greater access to European university
systems. Family rights improved as women were able to
divorce more easily and had access to varieties of birth
control and abortion. As a result of the different position
of women within families, birth rates fell. Collective child
care often replaced maternal care in the household.
Pressures on the new concept of family resulted in higher
rates of divorce. Changed status for women also produced a
new wave of feminism. Women demanded economic and social
equality. The movement reflected attempts to redefine women
in the new industrial society as earlier attempts had
redefined male roles during the first stage of
- Western Culture: Creativity and Uncertainty
The culture of the West in the new industrial age reflected
innovation and departure from older cultural traditions.
Science became increasingly arcane and the ability to
synthesize waned as both the sciences and the arts became
increasingly specialized. Continued advances in scientific
research expanded through the university system, and general
belief in the positive aspects of scientific advance
continued. Scientific research resulted in the development
of the atomic bomb, lasers, space satellites, and refinements
in the theory of relativity. Scientific advances generated
new technology and industries.
In contrast, the new theories assaulted the idea that the
natural world could be neatly regulated, or even understood
apart from random change. In the social sciences,
quantitative methodology became critical to economics. Like
the sciences, social sciences became more specialized and
more geared to production of practical applications.
In contrast, many twentieth-century artists turned away from
representational art toward abstraction and disharmony.
These approaches reflected the trend toward relativity within
the sciences. Initially rejected, abstraction in art
eventually gained greater public acceptance. The use of new
technology also allowed architecture to abandon traditional
structural techniques and designs. Urban space was
transformed by new architectural visions.
Of traditional cultural practices, the one that declined most
in terms of popular practice was religion. Only in the
United States did high levels of religious participation
remain common. Secularism was a more common aspect of
- Conclusion: Will the Real West Please
Modern Western society reflected tensions between new
industrial values and cultural traditions from the past. While Western attitudes continued to foster individualism, the workplace was typified by routine and repetitive tasks
strictly controlled by supervisory apparatus. Leisure also
implied participation in mass activities. By the 1950s, the
leading leisure activity was watching television. Collective
protest against bureaucratization such as union protests and
strikes declined. Western society seemed fragmented by youth
protest, gaps in wealth and poverty, and rising rates of
suicide and mental illness. Through it all, the West
remained committed to the political form of representative
democracy. The shift to the new industrialization based on a service
economy involved a transformation as basic as the initial
industrialization of the later eighteenth century. The
advent of the computer heralded the post industrial idea of
transmission of information as the key to growth. The
changing position of women seemed to announce the formation
of the postindustrial family with two wage-earners. Environmental and feminist politics produced new types of political agitation. Despite the suggestion that a new
society has emerged, there remain strong elements of earlier
social and cultural forms.