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How can we write the history of urban societies in Europe after 1945? This article offers an interpretative overview of key developments in both Eastern and Western Europe, while also discussing some key conceptual issues. Along the way, it takes stock of the relevant historiography (much of which is very recent) and introduces a selection of papers from a cycle of three international workshops held between 2011 and 2013. The papers range geographically from Britain to the Soviet Union and cover topics as diverse as post-war reconstruction and alternative communities in the 1970s. Their respective approaches are informed by an interest in the way societies have been imagined in discourses and reshaped in spatial settings. Moreover, the papers move beyond case studies, urban history's classic genre, and can therefore facilitate synthetic reflection. It is our hope that, in so doing, we can make urban history more relevant to contemporary European historians in general.
This article explores the divisions created by the Great Patriotic War, its aftermath and the reconstruction of Russian cities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It examines the conflicts created by rebuilding housing, infrastructure, restoring communities and allocating resources in cities where war's painful legacy continued to be felt. The war's impact varied enormously between cities on the frontlines and in the rear. Contrary to official propaganda rebuilding was a protracted process, which created divisions rather than unity.
This article examines the transfer of Swedish concepts of urban modernity to British cities after 1945. It shows how an affinity between design and architecture elites facilitated the transfer of key concepts that were mediated in cities. Moreover, it argues that the often contested transfer of Swedish modern architecture and design to northern English cities initially meshed with municipal ambitions to improve working-class housing and culture. Thereafter the influence of Swedish modern was continued in altered form by the preponderance of Swedish prefabrication techniques in the construction of new poured concrete and high-rise estates during the 1960s. These aspirations to improve the urban environment with Scandinavian examples of good living often magnified the difficulties of modernising the industrial conurbations of the north.
The current historiography of the Dutch urban renewal order focuses on an elite of audacious planners and technocratic civil servants, who allegedly embraced the comprehensive redevelopment of inner cities along functionalist lines. However, professional pamphlets and minutes from the 1950s and 1960s reveal a much more ambivalent and uncertain state of mind in the field of urban renewal, especially in the views put forward by local administrators. This article will demonstrate that insecurity about the dawn of the modern age was crucial for the swiftness with which Dutch planning and political elites abandoned comprehensive redevelopment in the early 1970s.
Concentrating on the production of knowledge of poverty and homelessness, this article discusses how particular spatial settings influenced the construction of social problems in the 1960s and 1970s. Exploring the practices of three kinds of knowledge producers – social scientists in academic circles, ‘practitioners cum activists’ engaging in advocacy research and experts in governmental committees – the analysis focuses on the early stages of a rediscovery of poverty in Western Europe as it was debated in international fora as well as in West Germany and France. It shows that the way in which poverty was represented as a new challenge to Western ‘affluent societies’ was in many respects an urban story, as the ongoing housing crisis and newly defined problem areas served as major points of reference for the revived interest in social deprivation. Moreover, urban actors – locally active NGOs and municipal authorities – played a preeminent role in launching debates on the apparent paradox of poverty in affluence. With their own work often grounded in particular urban problem zones, many contemporary observers tended to spatialise poverty. For them, poverty was bound to particular places; it was an exceptional sphere that helped generate a particular behaviour that made it difficult for ‘the poor’ to rise. While a growing part of the population had access to housing of a standard previously reserved to the middle class and had become able to choose where to live, life in peripheral shantytowns or dilapidated inner cities became the ultimate signifier of a social position beyond the established class structure.
This article discusses the meanings and effects of personal choice and elective affinities in Western European cities from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. The first section shows how the notion of choosing one's surroundings and relations underpinned the development of ‘modern’ apartment buildings, suburban homes and road networks but also attracted significant criticism. The second section argues that this notion soon was not only criticised, but came under pressure by New Left activists, whose emphatically different elective affinities led them to create alternative spaces such as communal apartments and squatted houses. In so doing, they reinvigorated urban life, but also diluted their initial political project and triggered a conservative counter-reaction.
The provision of social welfare and the shape of the Soviet city profoundly influenced each other, especially in the post-Stalin period. This article explores the relationship between welfare and city in the USSR after 1953 by focusing on four particular urban or exurban spaces: the company town, the microdistrict, the pensions office and the city's rural hinterland. After the ideological visions of the Khrushchev era faded, welfare moved even closer to the heart of Soviet urban life. It determined some of the contours of urban form, while the resulting urban spaces contributed fundamentally to the way that people understood Soviet power and the nature of their citizenship.
Europe's history since 1945 has most commonly been seen through the prism of international politics and economic change, from post-war reconstruction to late twentieth-century deindustrialisation. Urban history has been tangential to these accounts. Hence Leif Jerram's call to arms in his book Streetlife, published in 2011: ‘it is time to put the where into the what and why of history’. The history of Europe's twentieth century, Jerram declared, happened ‘in the streets and factories, cinemas and nightclubs, housing estates and suburbs, offices and living rooms, shops and swimming baths of Europe's booming cities’.
In an article published in September 1939, in the very eye of the storm of twentieth-century Europe's ‘age of extremes’, the British historian Christopher Dawson attempted to get to grips with the temper of his times. Opining on what he saw as the failure of nineteenth-century liberal individualism and its deleterious encroachment on spiritual values, he wrote:
Now the coming of the totalitarian state marks the emergence of a new type of politics which recognises no limits and seeks to subordinate every social and intellectual activity to its own ends. Thus the new politics are in a sense more idealistic than the old; they are political religions based on a Messianic hope of social salvation. But at the same time they are more realist since they actually involve a brutal struggle for life between rival powers which are prepared to use every kind of treachery and violence to gain their ends.
When not researching medieval Christian encounters with the Mongols, Dawson wrote history with a grand narrative sweep such as he admired in the work of the German historian Oswald Spengler. His output has recently sparked a revival of interest, with claims that he was one of most significant Catholic historians of the century. Yet this Augustinian pessimist was only one of a broader band of contemporary intellectuals – not all of them religious apologists – to brandish the label of ‘political religion’ as a descriptor, and as a moral warning. Seventy years on, the same moral seriousness characterises several of the books under review here, especially those addressing the more terrifying consequences of political religion in its various forms. For as A. James Gregor declares when introducing his intellectual history of Totalitarianism and Political Religion, ‘the unnumbered dead of the past century’ are surely owed some posthumous explanation:
Amid all the other factors that contributed to the tragedy, there was a kind of creedal ferocity that made every exchange a matter of existential importance. The twentieth century was host to systems of doctrinal conviction that made unorthodox belief a capital affront, made conflict mortal, and all enterprise sacrificial (Gregor, xi).
In many respects, and certainly with regard to his educational ideas, Rudolf Steiner was a child of his time. Trust in the natural goodness of the child that became more and more central, belief in an evolutionist development of both individuals and humanity as a whole, the emphasis on a holistic education realised through a community of teachers, parents and children; all of these were ideas that Steiner shared with other key figures of the progressive education movement, which began in the late nineteenth century. In line with the existing historiography on progressive education (Reformpädagogik) in general, historical research on the figure of Steiner, and particularly on the development of the schools and the educational system named after him, is characterised by paying considerable attention to the years of foundation in the interwar period on the one hand and to current practices on the other, in that way largely neglecting the developments during the second half of the twentieth century.