Martin Conway Believes “Democracy Owes its Durability Not to its Principles but to its Flexibility.” Democracy in Western Europe from 1945 to 1968

Martin Conway
Martin Conway

Martin Conway is the author of the new book Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945—1968 and a Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oxford.

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Where you and I and, I think, many others start from an assumption that somehow there is a thing called democracy and we sort of know what it is. But the diversity within democracy is far larger than that. You know, there’s clear big institutional temperamental differences between visions of representatives ruling, people ruling, and so on. All these sorts of things are different models of democracy and therefore the word democracy in some respects becomes rather meaningless.

Martin Conway

Key Highlights Include

  • Why Democracy Became Part of Western Europe’s Identity
  • How Democracy was a Process of Continual Negotiation
  • The Distinct Characteristics of Democracy in Western Europe
  • An Account of the Transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic in France
  • Lessons for Democracy Today from Western Europe’s Past

Podcast Transcript

Last week Germany held elections. They drew international attention because Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany for the past 16 years, had already decided to step down. But these elections are just about politics. Nobody questions the future or the fate of German democracy. Unlike countries from around the world like Hungary, Tunisia, and even the United States, Western Europe is firmly committed to liberal democracy. 

For my part, I never wonder why Europe is proudly democratic, but I do wonder how it got there. Because when I think of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy, these do not come across to me as natural transitions to democracy. But after World War II they made a pivot and haven’t looked back. 

So, I invited historian Martin discuss European democracy during its period of consolidation. He is the author of the new book Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945—1968 and a Professor of Contemporary European History at the University of Oxford.

Our conversation is almost an extension on a previous one I had with Kurt Weyland about the period before World War II where we discussed fascism, communism, and authoritarianism in Europe during that period. This conversation explains how Europeans embraced democracy and allowed it to consolidate over a twenty year period. We discuss a few events, but we really focus on the ideas and attitudes during this period and how they changed as the era came to a close. 

So, before we get started, a full transcript is available at reach out to me directly by email with your thoughts and suggestions for the podcast at But for now… This is my conversation with Martin Conway…


Martin Conway, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Martin Conway

Good to be talking to you.


Well, Martin, your book, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968. I found it to be more than just a history of events. It’s almost a coming of age story for Western Europe. You write, “Democracy was not just a political regime. It became part of Europe’s identity.” So, how is democracy a part of Europe’s identity?

Martin Conway

That’s very kind of you for your warm comments. I think that’s a very interesting question that’s not being asked enough by historians. There’s been, for too long, a notion that Europe went through all these sort of Fascist and Communist moments and that therefore it was kind of inevitable. They would sober up, wake up, realize after the death of Hitler that somehow all these have been false gods and that they would adopt democracy.

But what I tried to argue in this book is that making of democracy as being part of Western Europe’s identity in the post-1945 period is a real historical phenomenon that isn’t necessarily very easy to explain. You know, it partly comes from the top down. It partly comes from the bottom up in terms of changes of popular attitudes. And it partly comes from just the way in which societies get themselves reorganized after the war. And none of that was part of a grand plan.

You know, this is something that gradually happens over the 20 or so years after the Second World War such that by the mid 1960s, the West Europeans think of democracy as being part of their identity as, you know, an established fact. And it has not fundamentally been questioned over the subsequent decades even if let’s say discontents with existing democracy are manifold and perhaps particularly manifest at the moment.


What I found interesting was that the origin of Western Europe’s democratizing age, that second wave of democracy as Huntington and others describe it, doesn’t begin with a real purpose towards achieving democracy for its own sake. There’s a sense of pragmatism behind it. There’s a sense that this just makes sense for the moment as if it’s almost temporary or could be fleeting. So why did Europe embrace democracy after World War II to begin with, because obviously there were other options available. Not all of Europe had been a democracy. Why did so many countries with limited democratic traditions adopt democracy without serious protest at the time?

Martin Conway

Yeah, you’re dead right. Well, partly, I mean, perhaps the most obvious answer to that is the communists didn’t play their cards very well. You know, the potential which probably existed for some slightly more radical version of a people’s democracy that communist regimes, parties, movements could have advocated, in fact, gets tied up in the Cold War, it gets tied up in loyalty to the Soviet Union. And, you know, to be honest, there’s never going to be majorities in West European states for that model of communism. So, that would be my first answer. But your more profound point is entirely the right one. That after the Second World War, democracy is embraced, if it’s embraced. It’s touched cautiously by political leaders and civil servants and others for whom the memories of past forms of democracy are predominantly very negative.

They think that actually Weimar had been a disaster. It had led to Hitler. The third Republic had led to the demise of France in 1940. That all the democratic regimes had been defeated by authoritarian regimes during the war. So, democracy wasn’t the obviously best product in town, but as you’re indicating, in some respects, it’s the only product in town and therefore the task was not to make a bigger, deeper, stronger democracy. But probably to make the opposite, a kind of smaller, more limited, and more stable democracy involving people working together with limited democratic choices, rather than simply a free for all of the sorts of 1789 revisited.


So, did Europe believe that they were making improvements or adjustments to democracy at the time. Did they think of this as a different type of democracy than they had experienced in the past?

Martin Conway

Yes, definitely. One word. Modern. And modern was a word that gets used an awful lot. And it basically means a democracy not like the ones of the past. So, they associated past democracies with political and social conflict, with crowds in the street, with, I don’t know, deputies in parliament shouting things at each other or hitting each other with things and a very volatile, unpredictable electoral process where you never knew who was quite going to win from one election to the other. All that had to be swept away. And you have to create something more predictable and something more secure. So, you reduce the power of parliaments. You certainly reduce the power of direct elections. You didn’t have directly elected presidents like Hindenburg being elected president of Germany in the 1920s. All that’s going to be replaced by lots of intermediate bodies who decide things.

And also, by, you know, something that’s perhaps slightly boring to talk about, but systems of proportional representation that mean that every vote counts. And therefore, you end up with governments and political regimes that find their place in the center ground rather than at the extremes. And you avoid what is, of course, the British habit of having rapid changes of political power from left to right. Which was very much rejected in Europe after the war.


So, what I found interesting too, was that as we’re moving from 1945 until 1968, the idea of democracy continues to change. And it’s continued to change beyond that. There’s a fascinating quote in your book where you write, “Democracy consequently became less a matter of victory or defeat than a process of continuous negotiation.” We’ve already hinted at it. But can you help us understand how was democracy, not just a decision to become democracy, it was really a negotiation that was a continual process during this time period in Europe?

Martin Conway

Yeah, where you and I and, I think, many others start from an assumption that somehow there is a thing called democracy and we sort of know what it is, even if we might argue about essentially very secondary aspects of it where powers are to parliaments or powers to presidents or something, but the diversity within democracy is far larger than that. You know, there’s clear big institutional temperamental differences between visions of representatives ruling, people ruling, and so on, intermediate bodies playing a role. All these sorts of things are different models of democracy and therefore the word democracy in some respects becomes rather meaningless.

You know, if somebody tells me we’re going to be a democracy, I would immediately reply, ‘Well, which democracy?’ And that mood was very apparent in Post-Second World War Europe, because of this dominant sense that most democracies of the past had been failures. They’d ended in tears or coups or revolutions. And therefore, if we were going to advance Europe towards a stable democracy, it had to be modern and new and had to be, as you described, a process of improvisation, trying things out, but above all the key word that you used negotiation.

This needed to be a kind of inclusive democracy where there weren’t particularly winners and losers, but where different political parties, especially Socialists and Christian Democrats could, in some sense, share power at a national level, at a local level. But also, where social institutions, trade unions, employers, farmers’ groups, women’s movements, that they too would have a say in the making of policy. Not because they sat in parliament, but because they had institutional roles in the negotiation of wages and social security deals and all the rest of it. And that is, I think, the story I’m telling in the book. I don’t think anybody planned it, but by the 1960s, everybody, nearly everybody, had been drawn into this game of democracy if that’s not too trivial. You know, it’s a game where everybody has some part to play.


Now Western Europe is large and diverse, especially in terms of the number of countries that we’re working through. And it’s easy to get caught up in the extremely large countries like Germany and France, and let the story focus on those two large dominant countries within Europe, but there’s other countries, especially within Northern Europe that fit into this same story, but have a longer story behind it of democracy succeeding such as Denmark. Did Denmark’s experience with democracy, did that influence the rest of Europe more or did Denmark get swept up into the new changes and the new vision of democracy throughout the rest of Western Europe?

Martin Conway

Yeah, the latter really. It’s quite interesting that the most successful, stable or long-lasting democracies in Europe are actually those in its Northern tier. You know, Denmark and Sweden, and Norway, but Finland, of course, is a much more contested case where there’s a strong civil war after the First World War and so on and democracy certainly doesn’t have a sort of stable hegemony there. But yeah, the point you make is a good one. What worked in Denmark was the way in which socialists and agrarians, farmers managed to find deals over all sorts of issues, trade unions and farming and all the rest of it in the 1930s.

And that set, let me say, a precedent for the democracy that emerges elsewhere in Europe after 1945, but not a model. Because for whatever reason, not many people kind of took seriously the Scandinavian democratic model. You know, Social Democrats by the 1950s and 60s are becoming rather idealistic about Sweden, which is thought to be the perfect welfare state, certainly one of the more comprehensive ones, but that’s the first time that you had people in the rest of Europe taking a strong interest in what you might call Northern experiments.

But your use of the example of Denmark is excellent because in January 1933 when the Germans were acquiring Hitler as chancellor, the Danes were much less dramatically acquiring a coalition government involving socialists and the farmers’ party who had reached agreement on a kind of improvised set of price guarantees and so on, in response to the Great Depression. So, there was a different way to go. Especially if you remember that Denmark and Germany have a land border, you know, so we are actually talking about adjoining corners of Europe. And the Nazis were doing very well in Schleswig-Holstein, the area of Germany just south of Denmark.

So, there’s no inevitability about all of this. This is about the particular models of democracy that are not so much seized upon as just discovered at particular moments. And what was discovered perhaps in Northern Europe in the 1930s is then picked up elsewhere in Europe. But I don’t think that people in Paris and Rome were reading about the Danish experiment, because I think perhaps that’s the arrogance of larger countries. They don’t seek inspiration from those small ones. They might’ve been looking for example to America and Roosevelt and the new deal and all of that. They weren’t really looking to Scandinavia,


But you note that they reject a lot of what’s going on in the United States. And in a lot of ways, they rejected the model of democracy within the United Kingdom. You tell the story of Western Europe as a single common identity. And obviously, there’s ways to parse that and talk about the distinctions between them. But you do write it as though there’s a common vision, a common direction between those countries. Why is it that they were able to come together in terms of a single vision of democracy that was distinct from some of the other models in places like the United States and Britain and possibly others throughout the world?

Martin Conway

Yeah, as you rightly suggested there’s a sense of slight overgeneralization in the book at times when I try and describe democratic movements in somewhere like Austria, Italy, and France, you know, you’re talking about such different political cultures, that there are obviously plenty of different nuances, but I wanted to do the lumping. I wanted to bring out the common element and the premise of your question, that there is actually a common walk towards democracy, a gradual improvisation, experimentation, negotiation is absolutely what I think is important.

How does it happen? Partly that the communists largely rule themselves out or are ruled out. Partly that the political right in Europe is of course massively fragmented after the war and after Nazism and Christian democracy can come to the fore as a consciously moderate and parliamentary right-wing political force. Didn’t mean that it was inevitably going to be that successful, but it was there as a right-wing product, which for example, in Italy means that people who might have been quite sympathetic to fascism can now move into this sort of new model.

And the other element, the last element of my story, would be that this is also a story about rather anonymous, unglamorous elites. This is about a civil servants and technocrats and engineers and people like that who might’ve been involved in authoritarian regimes in previous decades. But who after the war, having seen the failure of forms of authoritarian rule, actually want to give democracy a go and think that in different ways they know how to make it work by limiting the power of the people, by creating effective welfare packages, by ensuring economic growth. You know, none of these things succeed a hundred percent, but there is a real movement of elites into democracy. And that’s interesting because elites since the French revolution had been running away from democracy.


So, you already hinted at some of the distinctions, the cleavage within Europe, between Christian Democracy and Social Democracy. And as an American, it’s easy for us to just link it to our division between Republicans and Democrats. But I find that there are real differences within Europe between their political parties. It is on the right and the left, but they have distinctive ideologies. Let’s start with Christian Democracy. Can you explain a little bit about what it is and how it differs from traditional conservatism that we see in the United States or the United Kingdom?

Martin Conway

Yes. It’s a most surprising winner after the second world war. Although Christian Democrats themselves said that they could trace their heritage back to the end of the 19th century, if you look at sort of electoral maps of Europe in the interwar years, you’d struggle to find anybody who you could clearly call a Christian Democrats, but suddenly they’re winning thirty something percentage of the vote in most Western European countries. And that’s because there’s been a sort of gradual maturing here of a Catholic attitude to politics, because they’re largely Catholic parties though they have some Protestants in them.

And they are trying to develop what they think of as a Christian inspired model of how to do politics, but also more profoundly how to do society, how to do social negotiation, how to do charity, how to do inequality, but moderate inequality, how to do democracy, but moderate power to the people. And I think, perhaps, what I really learned as I was reading through the sources of my book is the extent to which actually the Catholic church in particular is very good at producing a certain sort of educated elite out of Catholic universities and so on who are people who identify with the Catholic religion, but for whom the religion is not the only thing. The religion is a starting point towards a much more mature and moderate approach to how postwar Europe is going to go.

And you’ve got to remember what they’ve lived through not just the war years, not just the experience of Nazi rule, but also before that the economic depression, the specter of communism and they’ve had very disruptive lives. And now finally, perhaps after 1945, if they’re cautious and moderate and try to provide benefits to many people, they can construct a new sort of politics, Christian democracy, which does do very well. It demolishes, it doesn’t demolish it, it beats soundly the Communists in the 1948 election and that election would seem to be the decisive one that decided not just the future course of Italy, but in many ways, the future course of Western Europe


I want to ask you about the link between Christian democracy and Catholicism. Because some of these countries were not predominantly Catholic. Germany is a perfect example where it has a large Catholic population, but has a large Protestant population as well

Martin Conway

And a large population who don’t believe in either or any.


Exactly. And a lot of people are voting for Christian Democrats, I’d imagine that are not necessarily Catholic. So, what is the link between the two and how deep does it actually run? Are Protestants typically voting for the left or are they also voting for Christian Democrats as well?

Martin Conway

Boring answer, it’s that it varies a bit from country to country. Certainly, in Germany and the Netherlands, Christian Democrats succeed in being both Catholic and Protestant. They draw elites from both camps into their party. Elsewhere, much less so. They are overwhelmingly Catholic parties. And that of course limits their electorate. They’re not going to get that many people who firmly reject Catholic moral values or Catholic teachings or whatever to vote for them.

But they’re quite good at getting the maybe votes. You know, the people who lie slightly between Catholicism and a more secular worldview. People who perhaps come from a Catholic heritage or had a bit of Catholic education when they were growing up. They may not go to church. They may not particularly listen to the Pope when the Pope says something, but they are interested in the kind of sense of security, the sense of coherence that Christian Democrats are able to convey.

So, the answer to your question is that there is a link between Catholicism and Christian democracy and we shouldn’t assume that it, you know, Catholicism was just forgotten about, but it’s a rather looser link than perhaps Catholics themselves might think, you know. And really what’s going on is a politics where what the Christian Democrats do in government, what they do in terms of child benefit or the price of milk matters as much as what the Pope to use a name or indeed just the Catholic Church in general is telling people to do.


So, let’s look at the opposite side of the political spectrum, which is social democracy.

Martin Conway



There’s been a lot of conversations about Social Democracy within recent years, about the decline of Social Democracy in Europe, but also about its resurgence, especially within the United States, people refer to Biden’s policies sometimes as being social democratic.

Martin Conway

Yes. Indeed.


Can you give us a better sense? What is Social Democracy and how did it differ with the liberalism within the United States, the idea of being on the left or being part of Labour within the United Kingdom?

Martin Conway

Yeah. It’s a response in many ways to failure, to electoral failure. The fact that by the mid 1950s there were very few leftwing governments or Social Democratic governments in power anywhere in Europe. So, there’s a sense that they have to change. And most famously the German Social Democrats had their conference at Bad Godesberg at the end of the 1950s in which they adopted… well they had a huge bonfire of their existing policies and adopted a whole range of other policies.

You know so, it’s a response to that sort of failure. but it’s also a response to the failure of a certain sort of socialist ideal of revolution that went back to say 1848 and so on with the emergence of a radical Soviet oriented communism, social Democrats turned themselves against that and they constructed an ideal of progressive left-wing government which was going to be much more gentle and incremental, and much more based around providing rewards to people than it was taking things away from people. So, the old ideal that somehow you might get rid of property rights and subordinate them to the rule of the general will.

That really disappears by the 1950s. And so, socialism is becoming perhaps more electorally successful by the 1960s, but it’s also quite obviously less socialist. And I think your analogy with people like Biden is probably a very good one, really, because although different labels are used on each side of the Atlantic, much of the social democracy that you see coming to the fore in Western European governments, including in Britain by the mid 1960s is a sort of version of activist government, social welfare, economic technocracy, the construction of a sort of modern society with human rights and so on.

It’s not exactly parallel by what happens in America, but there are real sort of family resemblances. And I do think that for many west Europeans the positive response to Biden’s election in 2020 and coming into office in 2021 is that they thought they could recognize in him certain values that they associated with a certain version of European social democracy.


Now, throughout your book, you emphasize, and you’ve emphasized even in this conversation, that democracy was very elite driven during this period. That the ideas and the direction that Europe was going was directed in many ways by the elites. How did citizens react to these new ideologies, Christian Democracy and Social Democracy? Did they feel that they actually represented the directions that they wanted to go or was there some dissatisfaction, because the elites were controlling the direction and the regular people didn’t have as much of a say within some of these political parties at the time?

Martin Conway

I feel that both halves of your question are equally true in many ways. You know, I think there is a real sense of disillusionment by the end of the 1940s that all the sacrifices and suffering of the war years and not really given birth or given rise to a political system in Western Europe that positively energized the people. There’s a return to a certain sort of old cynicism about elections, ‘Oh, they let us vote, because they don’t change anything.’ That sort of attitude. And I think that there is a disillusionment that somehow a new founding of a participatory democracy has not happened.

But at the same time, you know, there’s a very strong feeling after 1945 that I want to be left alone. The previous 10, 15 years had been, you know, a continuous ride of moments of elation at military victory and so on, but also long periods of economic suffering. And if you think of the family structures of Western Europe, so much bereavement and disruption. You know, so many children died on battle fronts somewhere far away that you never saw their bodies again. So much aerial bombing. So much material suffering. And therefore, the idea that actually this new government, although it may not be particularly brilliant is actually going to largely leave us alone is very welcomed, especially if it leaves us alone, but also sends us things. You know, sends us welfare benefits.

And something that West European governments did do very well after 1945 was also to build new forms of infrastructure, housing because there was such a vast shortage of housing, but also transport networks, schools, and the like, even bringing electricity into rural areas of Europe. These are things that don’t suddenly make people into democrats, but it influences how you see the political regime you’re living under.


So, I want to ask you about a very specific event which was De Gaulle’s creation of the Fifth Republic in France. When I read about that moment in history, it comes across as shocking to me for two reasons. One is because it feels like things could have turned out much differently in a very bad way.

Martin Conway

Yes definitely.


But secondly, it shocks me because it’s not something that is in the common zeitgeist, because things turned out so well. It’s almost sometimes forgotten about when we talk about democracy. So, I’d like to ask you about that moment in history, but also about how contemporaries viewed the end of the Fourth Republic and viewed De Gaulle’s actions at the moment while they were happening.

Martin Conway

Yeah, it is a slightly forgotten moment, isn’t it? Because it doesn’t fit in with almost everything I’ve said over the last half hour. The gradual sort of incremental acquiring of a democratic culture. What happens instead is that events get out of control in Algiers and in Algeria more generally and this spills over into mainland France and suddenly the government discovers that its writ does not carry that it cannot actually enforce its rule in Algeria. And at that point you’re looking at something like a sort of populist uprising or an army coup or something. And then the fortuitous figure of De Gaulle arrives, who’d been out of power, but he comes back and suddenly people can sort of say, ‘Well, you know, I’ve never particularly liked him, but he is the solution at this moment.’

And one of De Gaulle’s great political skills was doing nothing. He was very good at not actually indicating whether he was going to give independence to Algeria or keep Algeria in France. He just sort of said in different ways, ‘Trust me.’ And he said that not only to the French people, but he said it also to the French political elite and to the members of the Fourth Republic Parliament. And on the whole people were willing to grant him was it six months emergency powers in 1958 and he used that period essentially to demolish the Fourth Republic and set about building a Fifth Republic. A fifth Republic, which rather unsurprisingly reinforced his own personal power, very securely. And that’s why France still has, of course, this very presidential political system.

But let’s also remember that De Gaulle knew the limits of the possible. He didn’t try and get rid of parliament. He didn’t try and get rid of political parties. The Fifth Republic that he creates is one that works quite well for his own interests, but it’s not a massive departure from the preexisting forms of political democracy. So, almost as this is happening, this political crisis, it’s as if the French can reassure themselves that they are still in democracy, even though, you know, a legally elected parliament has been swept away and a president who doesn’t really have a clear mandate until he seeks election is in power.

There is a sense that still democracy rules, there’s a rule of law and that various other perils, such as a military coup have been averted and therefore France will remain within this rather sort of fragile form of democracy that existed at the time. And there’s a great deal of celebration around that, ‘We’ve worked out how to move from on regime to another within a democratic structure.’ And there is something that’s quite interesting about that. It shows the maturity of the political system in 1958 and it also shows how, in a way, French people, along with many other people in Europe, weren’t that easily manipulable. There are not massive crowds in 1958. We’re familiar with the crowds in Algiers because they had something to mobilize about.

But in mainland France, there’s a sort of, let me call it, a sort of spectatorship culture to this crisis. It’s a crisis that people follow in the newspapers and on the radio. Not many people had television, but anyway, you know, they follow it in that way through the media rather than actually being actively involved in it. And when people like generals in Algiers, rather hope that there’ll be a mass rising of the people in Paris to support their ideas, they are sorely disappointed. So, there’s also that maturity or shall we call it even indifference of people towards any political adventurism and because De Gaulle knows not to appear like an adventurer, but to appear like he’s the embodiment of everything sensible. He gets away with it.


How did people react in other parts of Europe like let’s say Germany or Northern Europe or even the United Kingdom? How did they react to the creation of the Fifth Republic and the collapse or the ending of the Fourth Republic?

Martin Conway

Well, very cautiously and they kept their heads too. There was partly a feeling, ‘Well, that’s what the French always do. They just keep going back to a kind of revolutionary instability that we are more sensible than to embrace.’ But there’s also a reading of this as being primarily a crisis of empire, of decolonization.

Which I don’t think it really was, because I don’t think Algeria could really be called part of the French empire. It’s part of France. It was a bit like Ireland and Britain in that respect. But anyway, at the time it was seen as being ‘Oh, these are the crises of decolonization, which quite a number of us have had to go through.’ After all the British had trouble getting out of Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, and so on, you know, so there’s been these equivalent problems elsewhere, if not so intensely.

But it’s interesting how people elsewhere in Europe reach out to De Gaulle. And for example, France is allowed to remain within the EEC, within the European Economic Community that subsequently becomes the European Union. It is allowed to remain within NATO until De Gaulle himself chooses to leave NATO in the mid 1960s. So, there’s a sense that actually we don’t want to lose France and we will allow it to go through this rocky period in the hope that we can achieve some sort of stabilization of it. And remember the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations in the U.S. also kept their nerve about what was happening in France, recognized that there was too much at stake simply to denounce constitutional errors, and let’s instead celebrate the fact we still have a government in Paris.


So, your book thinks of democracy as more than just a political regime, more than just a political system. It thinks of democracy also as something that affects society itself, that’s a part of society and a part of the way how people live and the way people behave. There’s a quote where you write, “The Cold War elevated democracy as the defining characteristic of Western Europe, while also restricting its exercise to those who were willing to subscribe to a particular definition of its values.” I’m drawn to that idea of values which implies political values, but also implies social values. So, tell us, what values did democracy require Europe to not just embrace, but also to set aside?

Martin Conway

Yeah, this is a theme that came to the fore as I was writing the book and I discovered I needed to have a chapter called, “Being Democratic,” which is not so much about the politics, but it’s about the way in which people’s behavior after the Second World War became more democratic in Western Europe. Not overnight, not absolutely and forever, but there’s a period in the postwar decades when people are sort of almost consciously dressing up as democratic, being democratic, because they see it as so much better than other things they’ve been through. But also, somehow see it as being the mature, modern thing to be. So, it’s about respecting that other people might have different opinions and not trying to shout them down or not trying to beat them up, I suppose at the worst of it, you know.

It’s about accepting diversity. It’s also about accepting a certain sort of equality. So, it’s, you know, you might be a lawyer and I might be a factory worker, but we are both democratic citizens and we have equal rights and perhaps even our wives do. You know, that sense of democracy being as much or as more for women as it is for men. These are new forms of democratic identity.

You want to know where it comes from? I think it’s complex and I’m not going to give you an instant answer, but I would talk about education, mass education, after the Second World War and in societies like Germany, a very deliberate attempt to educate people in democratic values. And I think it also just comes from examples. You know, I think it comes from that sort of development of a modern middle class, as you call it in Europe, of people who although they may be relatively privileged in society are not disrespectful of those below them. And that sense of social codes of behavior you even see in things like etiquette books, you know, how you should behave, how you should eat. Not, you shouldn’t shout, you shouldn’t, you know, sort of impose yourself on other people.

That is an interesting form of democracy. And I think it really becomes quite a dominant one, especially when it’s tied to forms of consumerism. So, being democratic was also about buying a washing machine and it was about buying a radio and perhaps having the ambition to take your children to the seaside. These became things that somehow were expressions of democracy and were part of the modern way of life. Now it doesn’t last forever, because I think throughout our discussion, there’s been a sense that somewhere at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s things changed quite a lot. But anyway, in the period, I’m just thinking of, that I’m saying these things to you, I think there is a sense that actually Europeans come to feel at home in those sort of democratic values.


I don’t think it’s just that things change when we get to the late sixties and the seventies. They changed throughout this entire period. You also write that, “What changed was that the debate about democracy became so to speak a debate within democracy.” And I found that to be an extraordinarily profound line. So, I think it helps to understand how democracy began a more radical transformation when we get to 1968, if we reflect on what it means for politics to become a debate within democracy. Can you help explain that?

Martin Conway

Yeah, well I think certainly in the 1960s there’s much more of a tone of debate. You know, people are finding things to argue about within democracy, but it is about different versions of democracy. They look to America. They see the events of Civil Rights in America. They see a much more sort of charismatic, in European terms, President in Kennedy and so on. And they see that person because now they’re seeing it on the television or in the cinema. So, there’s a visualization of this form of democracy. There’s also new forms of democracy coming from elsewhere in the world. People discover the Indians are quite good at running democracy. You know, these are obviously rival versions of democracy that might be presented to people. And so, they argue within democracy. Perhaps we should be more like x. We should be more like y.

So, there’s a sense that the frontier of democracy is being widened and that creates the scope for discussion within democracy. But to pick up on your point, it’s still a discussion within democracy because although it might be rather surprising how people end up being enthusiastic of Mao’s China or Cuba in the 1960s, on the whole people are staying very consciously within what they think is democracy and people are certainly not becoming Communist in the sense of being Soviet Communist.

And the attitude to the Soviet Union is very hostile. After the repression in Budapest in 1956, Communism is really being reduced to a residual movement in Europe. And let’s not forget that there’s no real shift towards an authoritarian right. If there is a moment when you suddenly get a sort of populous right coming to the fore in Europe, it is in the 1980s with somebody like Le Pen. So that’s still a long way off. In the period I’m talking about people are very consciously situating themselves within democracy, but they’re having a much more frank and to some extent rather noisy debate about which form of democracy. And that is what I think you see in 1968.

Put away the picture books about 1968 which show young, relatively privileged student youth running around, looking extravagant, smoking things, and making a lot of noise about Mao’s China. That’s where the cameras were. Look at the broader picture and you have a huge general strike, lots of workers demanding more democracy in the factory. You have lots of middle-class people wanting more social rights for themselves, women’s movements and so on. These are more moderate languages and they’re more clearly democratic languages and they’re ones that are compatible with a version of the status quo and they’re not trying to remake the world in 10 days. But they are really trying to create a new debate within democracy. And the solution to that debate is not easy to find.

And that’s why all the way through the seventies, there you have an increasingly, probably angry and frustrated social and political climate with lots more strikes and women’s movements. And at the end of the 1970s antinuclear movements and so on, these are all symptoms of how people aren’t really content with the existing democratic system.


I find that there’s a shift that occurs as democracy matures where early on people are more concerned about protecting the regime, making sure democracy is stable, ensuring that it exists to begin with. And so, there’s a lot more willing to work across the aisle, work with different people because they don’t want the system to just fall apart. I think one of the big differences that happens as we get into the seventies and eighties and beyond is that people take the system for granted a lot more. That they think that they can push the envelope and push policies a little bit farther. That it’s okay to be more radical and to push for radical change on occasion because democracy is going to survive it because democracy has always survived.

I’m not taking a normative stance on either side. What I think is important is the idea that the period that you’re documenting feels that as we begin this period, everybody is walking on eggshells in terms of the idea of democracy. That we’ve got to make sure this work. When we get to 68, it feels like that’s a moment where people believe it’s going to work and withstand, if they push the envelope more and try to produce bigger change. Am I reading this right?

Martin Conway

Yes. I’m utterly agreeing with and there’s a phrase that’s quite fashionable with historians at the moment which is emotional regime. And it seems to me there’s a distinctive emotional regime in postwar Europe that is essentially postwar. It’s about getting over the traumas of the war years. Now there’s been generational change by 68 and into the seventies there were people coming of age for whom the memory of the war was, well, it might be vaguely located in their childhood or it doesn’t exist at all. And for them, the emotional regime is very different. They’re actually wanting to have conflict, not death and murder, but, you know, they don’t mind noisy disputes in the street. They don’t mind really quite aggressive industrial conflicts over wages and working conditions. And suddenly there’s a sort of harder edge to democratic politics in this period.

I would come back to my point that I don’t think they’re rejecting democracy. They’re rejecting often their rulers. You know, they’re saying that somehow the center-right political leaders such as Giscard d’Estaing in France is not somebody with who I think is any good, you know, and I’m going to say that loudly and intensely. And perhaps if I say it loudly and intensely enough and I organize a strike that will force him from office. But then what? Not a revolution and some new political regim. Just a better ruler in power. And that surely is a sense that actually democracy has succeeded when the extent of your ambition in some ways is simply to replace one ruler with another.


No, it’s definitely not a rejection of democracy. And in 1968, that is an actual moment. And you draw a hard line where you see the eras changing. Can you talk a little bit more about 1968 and what was actually going on? I know you mentioned the strikes. I know you mentioned a little bit about the protests. Paint more of a picture for us. And what specific events happened that make you feel like this is really a shift in the era in this exact year?

Martin Conway

Yeah, well, it’s often referred to more as a festival than being a revolution because it’s difficult to spot quite what the revolutionary purpose would be. You know, you can’t go and find the manifesto of ‘68 and discover a particular alternative vision of what things are going to be. Instead, you’ve got a kind of a festival. A bit like a music festival where there’s different bands playing in different parts of the festival. And you’re walking between these different bands and you’re hearing different tunes. And that seems very characteristic of ‘68 and people’s engagement, ordinary people’s engagement with these things is rather intermittent. You know, they might respond to certain slogans. They certainly respond to certain sort of visual prompts.

And what happens in ‘68 is a feeling that a postwar political order that is now populated largely by men, white men in their sixties, is not representative of the ambitions of most European populations. And especially not the large number of people who are aged around 20, perhaps between 18 and 25, who are essentially the children born after the Second World War and for whom, you know, this is not their world. And so, there’s this generational conflict aspect to the events, but that doesn’t mean that it’s at the heart of it. What’s at the heart of it is a desire to create new forms of democracy which are more at a local level.

So, what is wrong in people’s minds with the existing structure of democracy is it is too hierarchical and too representational. So, let’s make democracy in our own lives. Let’s make democracy in the family. Stop following the orders of parents. Let’s make democracy in the school. Stop following the orders of headmasters or whatever, have a school council instead. And, of course, in universities much the same. And perhaps slightly more seriously, let’s also have proper worker representation in factories. Not some rather tame sort of product of negotiation, but actually about people sitting around and saying, ‘How should our factory be organized?’ And in most European factories in the 1960s power was exercised in a really quite brutal and authoritarian way.

So, the idea that you might break, let’s say the dictatorship of the foreman, and replace it with workers actually making their own decisions. It was really quite radical and in many ways very stimulating, especially when new groups of workers such as immigrants also got involved in this. And you could begin to sort of imagine a Europe that would be made up of more democratic practices. I feel obliged to add, but that doesn’t mean changing the political regime at the top, but it does mean about changing so much more that was going on in democracy in the late 1960s. And so far, as you know, most school books would teach students that 1968 was a failure that’s kind of slightly too obvious and not really enough just to say that.

Because although clearly political regimes don’t change, many of the things that people try out in 68 become much more consensual forms of practice by the end of the 20th century. You think about moral behavior, divorce, abortion, and so on that become such socially accepted practices in Europe. You think also of movements like the women’s movement actually acquiring real equality with men. And you know as I mentioned a minute ago, also immigrant groups being accepted, not as some temporary presence in European society, but as permanent and, in many ways, absolutely a great thing. Because this is about making Europe less white and more diverse and so on.

You know, those sorts of languages they don’t just come out of thin air in 1968, but 1968 is a very important moment in terms of giving those ideas this ability and then gradually, because it always takes time building support for them.


So, the 1968 protests remind me a lot of the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States. And those happened throughout the world. And people have looked on those protests as being very much a failure because nothing immediately happened after them. Even in the United States, we elected Trump not long after the Occupy Wall Street protests which it appears to be the exact opposite of what the protest would have demanded. Do you think that we’ll look back on the Occupy Wall Street protests differently as being a moment that actually did produce change decades later?

Martin Conway

Too soon to tell. but I’m interested by your premise that somehow Occupy Wall Street and Trump are opposite. I mean, they are obviously in terms of their social values and so on and their attitude to capitalism perhaps. But let’s also recognize that there is a strong democratic agenda within Trumpism. This isn’t about trying to create some sort of authoritarian regime. It’s about taking back control as those people said in Britain at the time of the Brexit referendum. And you see this in so many places in the early 21st century about people actually trying to articulate a demand that they should have more control over their lives be it in the domain of capitalism or the environment or in the workplace or education.

And in a sense in Trumpism what you see is a very strong, slightly confused language about how you will actually want your people in the swamp in Washington to actually listen to you and pay more attention to you. And that gets dismissed perhaps too easily by people like me as populism as if that implies that they don’t know what they want. No. I think that they do know what they want and they probably didn’t entirely find it in Trump who probably is the weak link in Trumpism in a way. But I think that the energies that go into Trumpism and that go into Occupy Wall Street and then go into various unconventional political movements in contemporary Europe too.

You know, you think about what’s going to happen in the French presidential election next year. A lot of people are going to vote for some really quite unusual political parties. This is all part of an expanding, and in some respects, slightly worrying fracturing of democratic norms whereby all sorts of new languages are now coming within democracy. I don’t think it means that the era that I described in my book is dead and buried, but I think that we are living through a period when democracy is a moving target. And it’s obviously remaking itself. And I don’t think you, I, or anybody else can entirely predict where that will end up.


I find it interesting when we were talking about Trumpism and Occupy Wall Street as different types of demands for a new form of democracy, a revision of democracy that could become something that’s a thicker version of democracy, or perhaps it could go a tragic direction at the same time. But again, democracy is undergoing a possible change at this moment. In your book, you write, “Democracy owes its durability, not to its principles, but to its flexibility.” So, as we’ve undergone change both in 1968 and maybe we’re undergoing a similar change today. There’s a lot of tension in the air. There’s a lot of talk about breakdown of democracy. Do you believe that democracy continues to remain flexible in Western Europe, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other places, or has it become too rigid as it matures?

Martin Conway

Once again, I feel obliged not to choose between your two theses. It seems to me both are true. You know, certainly I’m not one of those people who wants to join the sort of contemporary crisis of democracy type stuff which you sometimes find in leader columns in serious newspapers saying, you know, somehow we’re losing democracy. It’s going away. No. What I think is that actually governments are losing a lot of their power in the new sort of marketized, globalized economies, their ability actually to deliver what people want has diminished markedly. And that, is a problem then because people find that governments are not satisfying their needs, their crises, their problems.

And you see that, of course, in America with prices over healthcare and so on. So, I think there’s a real problem of governability of European society. Is there a problem with democracy? Less so. There is a sense that actually various forms of representative government, perhaps especially at the national level in Washington or in Paris or somewhere are developing rigidities which means that people aren’t interested. Voter turnout falling markedly in some European states, but in other ones like Poland or Hungary, we may not like the rulers, but they have somehow managed to achieve a sort of democracy that cuts through to ordinary people and binds them into the political system. I think that really what’s going to happen with a European democracy over the coming years is that you have to find new, more flexible, and probably more local forms of doing democracy.

And I think one big loser of all of that will be the European Union. You know, we always thought, or at least people in my generation thought, the only future for Europe was ever greater integration. It was the sensible thing to do. And yet, I think it’s now obvious that that sort of particular late 20th century model of a single government for Europe, you know, it’s running out of road and that if we want to retain European integration, certainly want to avoid a return to international conflicts of the past, we’re simply going to have to rethink European integration. We’re going to have to rethink governability. And we’re going to have to get a good, healthy dose of democracy into how we make those decisions.


It’s definitely a turning point for not just the United States, but also for Europe right now, especially with the German elections that just happened recently. So, we’re going to see new leadership within Europe. Again, a new French president possibly within another year is definitely a turning point where we could see a new vision for what the European Union, what European democracy will become.

Martin Conway

You know and the big event next year in the UK is probably some sort of unavoidable referendum in Scotland on independence which would also change things. And what’s going to happen in Ireland. There’s a sense a lot is up for grabs at the moment. Well for historians it’s a slightly scary feeling of living on the edge of one era and going into another one. But, you know, for us as citizens, there are possibilities as well as dangers.


Well, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been an excellent conversation and I definitely want to take a second just to recommend your book, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968. Thanks so much for joining me.

Martin Conway

It’s been a pleasure and thank you very much for your intelligent questions, which led me to think of a lot of new things. Thank you very much. Cheers for now.

Key Links

Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 by Martin Conway

Learn more about Martin Conway at Balliol College at the University of Oxford

Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe by Sheri Berman

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Kurt Weyland Distinguishes Between Fascism and Authoritarianism

Michael Hughes on the History of Democracy in Germany

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