Western Europe’s Democratic Age. 1945–1968

Conway, Martin
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Rezensiert für den Arbeitskreis Historische Friedens- und Konfliktforschung bei H-Soz-Kult von:
Julia Eichenberg, Universität Bayreuth

Democracy has returned as one of the major themes of historical research. Long taken for granted in Western European and North American societies and at their universities, the political events of the past couple of years have shaken the all-too-comfortable belief in democracy as the given form of politics in modern(ized) states. Long gone seem the times in which Francis Fukuyama could declare “The End of History” as supposedly everything and everyone moving toward peace and liberal democracy [1]. Recent events like the aftermath of the Arab spring 2010/12, the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election in 2016, the rise of radical parties, and the clear intention of some to undermine democratic systems by weakening the institutions that protect them (division of power, independent courts, etc.) have awakened the interest in how democracy came about and how it functions. This can be seen through a decisive rise in research on the topic, in sociology, legal and political science but also history.

Martin Conway’s book contributes an important and insightful study on what he sees as the “democratic age” of 1945 to 1968. The highly readable, well-written book is based on a vast selection of published primary sources and secondary literature, both consulted in multiple languages and with the expertise of several decades of research on European history.

The time period of 23 years as defined by Conway is, he argues, the high time of democracy in Western Europe, from the end of the Second World War to “the political and social upheavals of the later 1960s and early 1970s” (p. 11f.). His decision to set a new timeline as opposed to the dominating 1945–1990 narrative is commendable and corresponds to other arguments to define the 1970s as a decade of substantial political and social change.[2] At the same time, it opens up some questions about the beginning and end of this defined period: Can the post-war years in Germany (and Austria) really be described as the democratic age: still deeply impacted by the war, by occupation, and by a denazification campaign which has been proven mostly superficial by recent historical research on continuities in its ministries, institutions, enterprises (a problem Conway himself engages briefly, p. 81ff.)? Can a democratic age be described to end when it might in fact finally be fully established: students taking to the streets, challenging their parents’ and teachers’ generation about their past, about Nazism, about collaboration, and about colonialism, women’s movements and decolonisation movements claiming their place – and their space in politics. 1968 has been described as a European movement[3] – why would it be the end of a democratic age?

Seeing the 1970s as the end of a democratic age makes sense when understanding democratisation as a history of mostly elites, institutions, and institutionalisation. Accordingly, Conway focuses on the establishment of political systems, parliamentary democracy, election systems, representative democracy, and European integration of democratic states. Refreshingly, his expertise on the history of Belgium and the Benelux countries adds new insights into histories often told with an exclusive focus on the bigger European states like the UK, France, and Germany. Based on research expertise and language skills, Conway truly covers Western Europe as an entity, without glossing over the seemingly smaller states. At the same time, he pays justice to the fact that Belgium and the Netherlands, for example, were still colonial powers during the larger part of this period (see paragraphs on colonialism and decolonisation, pp. 153–156).

Conway develops his argument over five thematic chapters: „Making Democracy“, „Thinking Democracy“, „Debating Democracy“, „Living Democracy“, „Contesting Democracy“, and a conclusion entitled „Unmaking Democratic Europe“. Throughout these chapters, he displays the immediate post-war period as a time in which both a democratic order and an understanding of what constitutes Western Europe were constructed (chapter 1) amidst depoliticising chaos (p. 31). Conway sees parliamentary democracy as a sort of compromise to rebuild and start fresh at once: “Europeans, it seemed, wanted to enter into a new world, but without destroying the old, or engaging in the fratricidal civil wars of the recent past.” (p. 35) A “top-down democratic reconstruction” was deemed to provide stability and chance alike (p. 63). Chapter 2 on “Thinking Democracy” traces the sources of the new understanding of Western European Democracy. It integrates established narratives like that of Westernisation and influx of Anglo-American concepts but opens it to display a more inter-European development of democracy, partly pre-war discussions, partly developed in wartime exile. Conway explains the rise of parliamentarism with the longing for intermediaries instead of popular sovereignty in the post-war period (p. 134) and an understanding of democracy which from the start was international rather than only national (p. 142). That this intention has recently been criticised as neglect of democratic legitimation in European integration was, Conway claims, “more evident in retrospect than it was at the time.” (p. 145)

The different definitions of “Christian Democracy and Socialist Variants of Democracy” are discussed in the comparatively short Chapter 3 as having “looked more similar from the outside than they felt from the inside” (p. 162) and with the intention to introduce a dialectic history of this period (p. 196). Chapter 4 „Living Democracy“ introduces the bottom-up perspective to an overall mostly top-down establishment of democracy and describes new social interactions required to bridge the “gap between the social practice and the political reality of democracy” (p. 204). It focuses on negotiation and acceptance as essential aspects of the establishment of democratic states (p. 224). It also engages with the topics of class (pp. 224–236) and gender (pp. 237–247) and consumerism (pp. 247–254), although the first two here might have deserved more coverage through all chapters. Chapter 5 „Contesting Democracy“ engages with „Democratic Critique of Democracy“ and the challenges from within. Conway argues that it was a combination of an internal change of value and external political changes (economic, decolonisation) which furthered criticism of the newly established democracies and demanded new visions of democracy. With this, Conway makes his argument for the end of his timeline, claiming that “the underlying reality of the disjunctures that had developed between the state institutions, society, and the aspirations of the population were by the end of the 1960s undeniable. Western Europe had reached the end of its post-war democratic age.” (p. 293)

In his conclusions, Conway discusses the “return to the more confrontational politics” during the 1970s (p. 297) and challenges from the political left and right, as well as the “delayed victory of the neoliberal ideas” (p. 300), leading to an eventual shift from the “rather formal post-war hierarchy of state institutions, parliaments and parties […] to a more complex matrix of public and semi-public bodies – national but also increasingly European in scope” (p. 301). Increasingly, he claims, this led to a sentiment of “democratic loss” which, somehow ironically, mostly served the ascent of right-winged parties (p. 302). However, Conway concludes, the closer analysis of what he calls the democratic age in post-war Western Europe would prove that “Democracy owes its durability not to its principles but to its flexibility”. (p. 309)

Conway’s book contributes significantly to current discussions about European history and the emergence (and persistence) of democracy: his approach is truly transnational, covering a clearly defined period while engaging with a broad range of topics, in some cases hopefully inspiring further, more detailed research. Conway’s book stands out in adding a close analysis of the Western European process of democratisation, with its European origins, debates, and conflicts, to a still predominantly Anglo-American narrative of Westernisation. Furthermore, his reliance on sources and literature from a representative range of Western European sources and literature widens our understanding of the post-war period and the first steps of European integration beyond Anglo/Franco/German rapprochements. Conway’s depiction of Western Europe’s democratic age is a transnational Western European history at its best and will find its well-deserved readership beyond historians of the period.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York 1992.
[2] Niall Ferguson / Charles S. Maier et al. (eds.), The Shock of the Global. The 1970s in Perspective, Cambridge 2010; Anselm Doering-Manteuffel / Lutz Raphael, Nach dem Boom. Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, Göttingen 2008; Jeremy Black, Europe since the Seventies, London 2009.
[3] Timothy S. Brown, 1968. Transnational and Global Perspectives, Version: 1.0, in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 11.06.2012 (07.01.2022); DOI: (07.01.2022).

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