Europe’s Postwar Consensus: A Golden Age of Social Cohesion and Social Mobility?

The Institute for Social Movements of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum hosts the research project “Europe’s Postwar Consensus: A Golden Age of Social Cohesion and Social Mobility?”. This five-year project (2019-24) will be led by Prof. Dr. Jan De Graaf, recipient of the 2019 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the Federal Ministry for Education and Research.  


The research group will study European society in ‘the long 1950s’, the period between the onset of the Cold War in 1947/48 and the (re-) emergence of socio-political contestation in the mid-1960s, from a social history perspective. In recent years, this era has been attracting increasing nostalgia in historiography and the public debate. Historians and commentators now look back with fondness on what is often called the ‘postwar consensus’. In their view, there was a deep-seated consensus among politicians and populations that, after the misery of the Great Depression and the horrors of the Second World War, more caring, inclusive, and equal societies had to be constructed. The result of this profound sense of common purpose was the creation of ‘great societies’, founded on reciprocal trust, job and social security, and increased life chances. In fact, many of the ills of contemporary Europe – e.g. rising socio-economic inequality, mounting political polarization, and the re-appearance of xenophobia and racial hatred – have been attributed to the demise of the postwar consensus from the late 1960s onwards.


The project aims to challenge conventional wisdom on the postwar era as a ‘golden age’ for European society. To that end, it focuses on the two key themes that have come to dominate the imagery associated with the postwar consensus: social cohesion and social mobility. The working hypothesis of the project is that the postwar consensus was built on struggle and knew clear winners and losers. The project and its four sub-projects will deal with five struggles in particular: struggles between traditional and newly-emerged elites, struggles between men and women, struggles between young and old, struggles between new arrivals and established communities, and struggles between rural and urban interests. By studying postwar Europe through the prism of these five struggles, rather than placing the category of social class front and central, the project seeks to demonstrate that postwar social cohesion was often exclusionary and upward mobility remained out of reach for many.       


The major innovation of the project is it pan-European approach. The postwar consensus was long viewed as an exclusively Western European construct, which saw Socialists and Christian Democrats, and the social constituencies upon which their movements were built, abandon their interwar feuds and coalesce around parliamentary democracy, the welfare state, and Keynesianism. If the communist regimes in Eastern Europe could of course never command the popular legitimacy of the democratic governments in the West, more recent studies have applied key dimensions of the postwar consensus to Eastern Europe as well. This project goes further and systematically compares how the postwar consensus came into being in East and West. Such a comparison is illuminating because state actors in communist Eastern Europe and capitalist Western Europe initially sponsored opposite groups in the struggles that shaped the postwar consensus. With its pan-European scope, therefore, the project not only analyzes the results of two very different approaches to social cohesion and social mobility but also probes to what extent there still existed a properly European society across the Iron Curtain.


Project 1 (PhD)(1 February 2020 – 31 January 2023)


This project explores the social cohesion of postwar European societies on the basis of an integrated comparison between two coal mining communities: the Ruhr in West Germany and Upper Silesia in Poland. As sites of hard and fair work, job security, and close-knit local communities, pit villages occupy a special place in the imagery of the postwar consensus. More importantly, both the Ruhr and Upper Silesia had emerged from the war as ethnically largely homogeneous regions and the cohesion of postwar Europe has often been attributed to this newfound ethnic homogeneity.


Nevertheless, both regions experienced successive waves of inward migration as governments were desperate to attract manpower to the coal mines. In contrast to earlier migration waves, most of the postwar newcomers were of the same ethnicity as and spoke the language of the local population. This project analyzes the effects that postwar migration had on the cohesion and broader social fabrics of these coal basins and how, in the struggle for scarce resources, xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments were quick to rear their head.    




-          Excellent MA degree in History or a neighboring discipline

-          Very good command of written and spoken English, at least reading knowledge of German and Polish

-          Experience conducting research in (local) archives

-          Strong interest in social history and labor history

Project 2 (postdoc) (1 February 2020 – 31 January 2024)


This project studies how Social Democratic politicians and parties sought to regain and retain control over society in postwar Europe. The postwar consensus has frequently been attributed to the unique sense of mission among postwar political elites. This applies in particular to Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties, which turned the page on their (sometimes bloody) interwar struggles and decided to work together to build more egalitarian and cohesive societies. In recent years, such rosy accounts have been challenged for the Christian Democratic parties. A new revisionist literature has pointed to strong continuities with interwar authoritarian Catholic thought and argued that postwar Christian Democrats used a rhetoric of democracy and human rights to re-assert social and economic hierarchies, enforce conformism, and marginalize opponents. This found its reflection in their efforts to curtail popular sovereignty and circumvent society by delegating key socio-economic and political powers to unelected bodies like constitutional courts, various corporatist and technocratic organs, and later also the European institutions.


This project probes to what extent Social Democratic parties, which, after all, were in governmental coalitions alongside Christian Democrats in many Western European countries, shared these misgivings about postwar society. To that end, it focuses on three Social Democratic parties in postwar Europe, including at least the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ) and the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) – the two Social Democratic parties that most clearly embodied close long-term cooperation with Christian Democrats. The third case study is for the Postdoc-researcher to decide: this could be a party with similar (if more interrupted) experience of governing with Christian Democrats, parties that remained in opposition to governments led by Christian Democrats for most or all of the postwar period, or even (one of) the short-lived Social Democratic parties in Eastern Europe.  




-          Excellent PhD in History or a neighboring discipline

-          Very good command of written and spoken English, at least reading knowledge of German and Dutch (and of the language(s) required for the third case study)

-          Experience conducting research in (local) archives

-          Strong interest in social history and political history (or how pressure from below shaped political outcomes)

-          A strong publication record and/or successful funding applications

    Project 3 (postdoc) (1 February 2020 – 31 January 2024)


This project analyzes the ideology behind and the reality of social mobility in the new towns that sprang up across postwar Europe. In most cases, after all, these towns were built on highly ideological blueprints that envisioned class integration and upward mobility for disadvantaged groups. Often conceived as blank slates upon which to construct better and more equal societies, the new towns thus offer miniature versions of the postwar consensus. Yet, for all of the scholarly attention that these new towns have received in recent years, the historiography of postwar urban construction remains firmly rooted in architectural and intellectual history. The only proper social histories of the postwar new towns deal with communist Eastern Europe and explain how state efforts to promote upward mobility for disadvantaged groups (e.g. women and ethnic minorities) encountered significant opposition in the rural and traditional societies of Hungary and Poland.


This project explores the phenomenon of state-sponsored social mobility in the postwar new towns on a pan-European level. That means it also focuses on more industrial and modern societies in East and West and tests whether societal responses to social engineering ran primarily along geographical or developmental lines. The project deals with three cases of postwar urban construction, including at least the new towns in the United Kingdom and urban development around the major industrial centers in Czechoslovakia. The third case study is for the Postdoc-Researcher to decide: this could be new urban construction in a) a modern and industrial society similar to Great Britain or Czechoslovakia; b) a more rural society where urbanization only started in earnest after the Second World War (though Hungary and Poland are advised against in the light of the body of work that already exists on its new towns) or even a case of urban reconstruction in an existing town.            




-          Excellent PhD in History or a neighboring discipline

-          Very good command of written and spoken English, at least reading knowledge of Czech (and of the language(s) required for the third case study)

-          Experience conducting research in local archives

-          Experience of working with sociological sources (surveys etc.) would be an asset

-          Strong interest in social history and urban history

-          A strong publication record and/or successful funding applications



Project 4 (PhD) (1 February 2020 – 31 January 2024)


This project investigates how a career in the police or the security services constituted a vehicle of upward mobility for youngsters from a disadvantaged rural background. Where most of the research on postwar police forces has focused on continuities among higher police functionaries, the lower ranks of the police were going through massive personnel changes. As fascist and collaborationist police forces were purged or disbanded altogether, new recruits were selected first and foremost on the basis of their political credentials. In practice, that primarily meant former Resistance activists, often Communists or Socialists, joining the police. For a variety of professional and political reasons, however, national governments quickly found many of them unsuitable for police work. A series of fresh recruitment drives in the late 1940s, therefore, mostly targeted younger and more malleable elements for a career in the police.


The opportunities that these successive rounds of hiring and firing generated have received little systematic scholarly attention. This project seeks to fill that void by comparing two police forces in East and West. In Western Europe, it will turn its attention towards Italy, which assembled the largest police force anywhere in postwar Europe in its bid to see off the strongest communist movement in the West. The Eastern European case study is for the doctoral researcher to decide, but it should be one of its more rural societies (i.e. not Czechoslovakia or the German Democratic Republic).



If you have any questions please contact Jan De Graaf: 




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