From hope to fear: Europe during the reign of Elizabeth II | International
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If we could go back, with a time machine, to the Europe (and England) of 1952, the year of George VI’s death and Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne, we would surely feel like aliens. Everything —or almost— has changed in these seven decades. Minus the queen, “a stable center in a whirlwind of chaos”, as she has written in Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland.
This is the story of two Europes: the one of 1952 and the one that in September 2022 bid farewell to the British monarch and, with her, to an era. The one at that time was a Europe divided by the iron curtain and subjected, in its eastern half, to Soviet totalitarianism; today is another: reunified. Once upon a time there was a Europe governed exclusively by men born in the 19th century, men who were already adults in World War I and who survived World War II; now another in which the leaders are men and women —but still mostly men— who have not known wars and have not even done military service, and many do not know what it is like to live under a dictatorship.
A Europe, that of 70 years ago, where the ruins of the bombings were still visible, but whose economic engine had started up and which allowed itself to look to the future with optimism; the current one is richer, with more welfare and social protection, with freedom and more equal rights for men, women and minorities, but it is a Europe in which economic inequality and the financial disaster of 2008 have undermined faith in a prosperous future and in which war has returned. A Europe, that of 2022, in which, as in 1952, the threat comes from Moscow, and a Europe in which words such as price control or rationing, common 70 years ago on the continent and the islands, have ceased to be exotic.
“In 1952, the predominant emotion was hope”, explains Dominique Moïsi, essayist, geopolitical scientist and author of The geopolitics of emotion. “Today is fear.” Europe was objectively worse off then, but it was sticking its head out of the water after what Moïsi calls “30 years of civil war”, including both world wars. Europeans live infinitely better today, but there is a widespread fear of collapse: climatic, economic, war; there is where to choose.
“Europe”, says the veteran sociologist Dominique Schnapper, “still had the illusion of being an important actor in the march of the world. Today Europe is a region in decline against which the rest of the world is asserting itself. The problem, she adds, “is more serious in the UK than in continental Europe, because England was built on the idea of her victory in the war and the heroism of 1940″. “And it is an obsolete image”, continues Schnapper, “but it has served to maintain the illusion”.
“The past is a foreign country: there they do things differently”, began The messenger, an English novel published in 1953, when Elizabeth’s coronation was celebrated. The author, LP Hartley, spoke of his childhood at the beginning of the 20th century, but it also produces a disconcerting effect to look at the chronicles and stories of the years of the queen’s accession to the throne, and discover the ambivalence of the moment: between the hardships of then and the first signs of the economic miracle in Western democracies.
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“The main concern of most people of all ages in post-war Europe was to make do with what they had,” historian Tony Judt wrote in Postwar: a history of Europe since 1945 (Taurus, in Spanish). Judt explains that in 1950, in West Germany that was about to star in the economic miracle, 17 of the 47 million inhabitants were classified as “needy”, because they had nowhere to live. In Britain, he adds, “rationing went on longer” than in other industrial democracies. And in the case of meat and other foods, it lasted until 1954, “although it was temporarily suspended for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953, when everyone was allotted an extra pound of sugar and four ounces of margarine”.
It was a world, Judt continues, that portrayed neorealist cinema in Italy or English comedies like Passport to Pimlico: family dramas, hustlers, ruined cities. But it was a world, too, that turned the page of the war and its misfortunes: forget and rebuild. Because 1952 is the year in which the Marshall Plan ends, the colossal and effective project of economic aid from the United States to Europe that, according to an article published that same year in the magazine foreign affairs, had supposed “impressive positive achievements, without comparison in history”. At the end of 1951, the economist John H. Williams recalled in the article, industrial production in Western Europe was 41% higher than before World War II; agriculture, by 9%, and the gross domestic product had grown by 25% in the previous four years and was 15% higher than before the war.
It was Europe and the West that created the institutions that would structure the planet in the following decades: from the IMF to NATO. And European integration: 1952 was the year in which the Treaty of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the embryo of the current European Union, and the European Defense Community (EDC) entered into force, which on 7 February 1952 shared the front page of the newspaper Le Monde with the new queen Elizabeth. The CED, the embryo of the never-realized Europe of defense, then died because of the French veto. The UK did not participate in either initiative.
There was, of course, another Europe, “a hijacked West”, as the Czech novelist Milan Kundera would call it years later. While Elizabeth Windsor became monarch, Stalin still imposed his iron fist on half a continent. Judt documents that, in the same 1952, 1.7 million people lived locked up in Soviet labor camps, 800,000 in “labor colonies” and 2.7 in “special settlements”. In Czechoslovakia, out of a population of 13 million inhabitants, 100,000 were political prisoners. “The scale of punishment inflicted on the citizens of the USSR and Eastern Europe in the decade after World War II,” reads Postwar“It was monumental.”
reunification of Europe
It would take almost four decades for the Soviet bloc to collapse and Europe to be reunited. Earlier, the British and French colonial empires had disintegrated. Western societies lived through years of boom economic. The youth became an actor in the consumer society, popular culture and politics in 1968. Later, the rise in oil prices gave a first warning signal about the society of abundance. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan revolutionized the economy by deregulating the free market and giving birth to global capitalism. Political Islam awoke in the Middle East and would end up hitting Western countries at the beginning of the millennium. Societies became multicultural and women and homosexuals won civil rights and equality quotas that would have seemed like science fiction in 1952. And Europe, hit by crisis and with the United Kingdom ―with one foot in and the other out, or completely was as it is now after Brexit – advanced towards its integration.
“We are not driving on the same side of the road, but we are going in the same direction,” Isabel II summed up on one of her visits to the Elysée Palace. The queen – unlike Margaret Thatcher, or Mikhail Gorbachev, another giant of her time who died this summer – never participated in these historical leaps; at most, she with her perennial presence accompanied them.
Dominique Schnapper, daughter of the great French liberal intellectual Raymond Aron, was schooled in England during World War II and remembers Elizabeth’s speeches to children and her role in those years. “She was admirable,” she says. “Her death of her”, she comments, “signifies the end of the illusions in which the United Kingdom lived since the end of the war. It’s sad: we wanted to believe in that illusion.”
A few days ago, before the death of Isabel II, someone who treated her offered, during a lunch in small committee, a photograph of the world that —that day no one knew— the queen was preparing to abandon. It was former French President François Hollande: “We came out of a decade with a series of crises and a common thread: there is no longer any regulation in the world. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a form of balance of terror. Then came the American superpower. But starting in 2012, a bloc was forged between China and Russia. At the same time, and after the disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is withdrawing from the scene. And others enter: Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia.”
The idea, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, that democracies would advance inexorably – the democracies that, with the United States and the United Kingdom at the head, won in 1945 – “revealed an illusion”, says the less monarchist, in his way of exercising power, of the French heads of state of the last half century. And these principles “disintegrate” within democracies, as the assault on the Washington Capitol in 2021 showed. Added to this are leaders such as a leader in Russia, Vladimir Putin, who stirs up the atomic threat “to impress”, although “he knows that the fear of the nuclear is real in [las] public opinions [europeas] and that it can be a factor of intimidation”.
For Dominique Moïsi, 2022 has the disturbing aspect of an “anti-1989″. “I remember that from May 1989 the Soviet systems begin to sink. Every month there was good news: Hungary opens up, Poland opens up, Czechoslovakia opens up… It seemed like the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama said”, says Moïsi. “Today it is the opposite. We are waiting for bad news.”
the author of The geopolitics of emotion refers to the funeral of King Edward VII in 1910. The who’s who of the royal houses of Europe attended, including Kaiser William. It was perhaps the pinnacle of European, imperial, colonial, monarchical power. Four years later, the congregated declared war. “In a way, the burial of the queen can now be the culmination of the burial of a positive phase in Europe,” reflects Moïsi. “Will it be a new funeral for Europe?”
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