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10-08-2015, 22:15

The Triumph of Democracy in Postwar Europe

With the economic aid of the Marshall Plan, the countries of Western Europe (see Map 9.1) recovered relatively rapidly from the devastation of World War II. Between 1947 and 1950, European countries received $9.4 billion to be used for new equipment and raw materials. By the late 1970s, industrial production had surpassed all previous records, and Western Europe experienced virtually full employment. Social welfare programs included affordable health care; housing; family allowances to provide a minimum level of material care for children; increases in sickness, accident, unemployment, and old-age benefits; and educational opportunities. Despite economic recessions in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, caused in part by a dramatic increase in the price of oil in 1973, the economies of Western Europe had never been so prosperous, leading some observers to label the period a “golden age” of political and economic achievement. Western Europeans were full participants in the technological advances of the age and seemed quite capable of standing up to competition from the other global economic powerhouses, Japan and the United States. At the end of World War II, confidence in the ability of democratic institutions to meet the challenge of the industrial era was at an ebb. The Western democracies had been unable to confront the threat of fascism until the armies of the Wehrmacht began their march across Europe at the end of the 1930s, and most succumbed rapidly to the Nazi juggernaut. As the war finally came to a close, many Europeans, their confidence shaken by bleak prospects for the future, turned their eyes to the Soviet model. In France and Italy, local Communist parties received wide support in national elections, raising fears in the United States that they might eventually be voted into power in Paris and Rome. By the late 1940s, however, confidence in democratic institutions began to revive as economic conditions started to improve. Even Spain and Portugal, which retained their prewar dictatorial regimes until the mid- 1970s, established democratic systems in the late 1970s. Moderate political parties, especially the Christian Democrats in Italy and Germany, played a particularly important role in Europe’s economic restoration. Overall, the influence of Communist parties declined, although reformist mass parties only slightly left of center, such as the Labour Party in Britain and the Social Democrats in West Germany, continued to share power. During the mid- 1970s, a new variety of communism, called Eurocommunism, emerged briefly when Communist parties tried to work within the democratic system as mass movements committed to better government. But by the 1980s, internal political developments in Western Europe and events within the Communist world had combined to undermine the Eurocommunist experiment.