Europe's Postwar Generations

December 18, 1981

Report Outline
Rising European Activism
The Successor Generations
Age Gaps and Continuities
Special Focus

Rising European Activism

Recent Peace Protests in European Cities

Europe's cycles of youth activism and pacifism have always tended to confuse Americans. In February 1933, one month after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, students at Oxford University adopted a pledge not to fight “for King and Country.” But before World War I, when young people might have been expected to protest against the naval arms race and fratricidal colonial rivalries, Europe's youth was silent. Now, after more than a generation of peace secured by the Atlantic Alliance, hundreds of thousands of Western Europeans — mostly young people — have taken to the streets to demonstrate against nuclear weapons. Who are these people? And why, at a time when Americans are increasingly alarmed about Soviet military intentions in Poland and elsewhere, are they criticizing the United States?

The last time European young people took to the streets, in the late 1960s, it was easy to dismiss their political activism as a mere echo of protest movements in the United States. “Blue-jeaned and long-haired youths” demonstrated everywhere in the 1960s, Italian journalist Luigi Barzini wrote recently, “in imitation of American students against the Vietnam War, which was scarcely their business. Now they all jog….” The European youth protests of that decade were short-lived, and eventually they came to be seen, here if not abroad, as just another aspect of Europe's fascination with everything American, from music to fast food.

But suddenly, a movement has swept Europe without any obvious spark from the United States, and in contrast to the situation during the Vietnam War, the things the Europeans are protesting against are arguably more their business than anybody else's: a December 1979 decision by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to begin deploying new nuclear missiles in Europe starting in 1983; general NATO defense strategy; and, beyond that, U.S. reluctance to conclude arms control treaties with Russia or continue policies of East-West détente. Already, the European peace movement has come to match — in scope if not duration — anything seen on either side of the Atlantic during the last two decades. Almost everywhere, the Parisian paper Le Monde noted Oct. 27, “the big demonstrations … have … exceeded the hopes of their organizers.”

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
World War II Aftermath
Dec. 2009  Rewriting History
Dec. 18, 1981  Europe's Postwar Generations
Apr. 06, 1949  Occupation Feeding
Jun. 12, 1946  Compromise
May 22, 1946  Treaties of Alliance
May 01, 1946  European Peace Settlements
Apr. 17, 1946  International Information
Nov. 10, 1945  Nationalization
Sep. 26, 1944  The Great Powers and the Dardanelles
Feb. 23, 1944  International Cartels
Sep. 04, 1942  World Organization After the War
Protest Movements
Regional Political Affairs: Europe