Europe’s Postwar Consensus: A Golden Age of Social Cohesion and Social Mobility?

The Institute for Social Movements of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum hosts the research project “Europe’s Postwar Consensus: A Golden Age of Social Cohesion and Social Mobility?”. This five-year project (2019-24) will be led by Prof. Dr. Jan De Graaf, recipient of the 2019 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung and the Federal Ministry for Education and Research.


The research group will study European society in ‘the long 1950s’, the period between the onset of the Cold War in 1947/48 and the (re-) emergence of socio-political contestation in the mid-1960s, from a social history perspective. In recent years, this era has been attracting increasing nostalgia in historiography and the public debate. Historians and commentators now look back with fondness on what is often called the ‘postwar consensus’. In their view, there was a deep-seated consensus among politicians and populations that, after the misery of the Great Depression and the horrors of the Second World War, more caring, inclusive, and equal societies had to be constructed. The result of this profound sense of common purpose was the creation of ‘great societies’, founded on reciprocal trust, job and social security, and increased life chances. In fact, many of the ills of contemporary Europe – e.g. rising socio-economic inequality, mounting political polarization, and the re-appearance of xenophobia and racial hatred – have been attributed to the demise of the postwar consensus from the late 1960s onwards.


The project aims to challenge conventional wisdom on the postwar era as a ‘golden age’ for European society. To that end, it focuses on the two key themes that have come to dominate the imagery associated with the postwar consensus: social cohesion and social mobility. The working hypothesis of the project is that the postwar consensus was built on struggle and knew clear winners and losers. The project and its four sub-projects will deal with five struggles in particular: struggles between traditional and newly-emerged elites, struggles between men and women, struggles between young and old, struggles between new arrivals and established communities, and struggles between rural and urban interests. By studying postwar Europe through the prism of these five struggles, rather than placing the category of social class front and central, the project seeks to demonstrate that postwar social cohesion was often exclusionary and upward mobility remained out of reach for many.


The major innovation of the project is it pan-European approach. The postwar consensus was long viewed as an exclusively Western European construct, which saw Socialists and Christian Democrats, and the social constituencies upon which their movements were built, abandon their interwar feuds and coalesce around parliamentary democracy, the welfare state, and Keynesianism. If the communist regimes in Eastern Europe could of course never command the popular legitimacy of the democratic governments in the West, more recent studies have applied key dimensions of the postwar consensus to Eastern Europe as well. This project goes further and systematically compares how the postwar consensus came into being in East and West. Such a comparison is illuminating because state actors in communist Eastern Europe and capitalist Western Europe initially sponsored opposite groups in the struggles that shaped the postwar consensus. With its pan-European scope, therefore, the project not only analyzes the results of two very different approaches to social cohesion and social mobility but also probes to what extent there still existed a properly European society across the Iron Curtain.


Project 1 (PhD) (1 May 2020 – 30 April 2023)


This project explores the social cohesion of postwar European societies on the basis of an integrated comparison between two coal mining communities: the Ruhr in West Germany and Upper Silesia in Poland. As sites of hard and fair work, job security, and close-knit local communities, pit villages occupy a special place in the imagery of the postwar consensus. More importantly, both the Ruhr and Upper Silesia had emerged from the war as ethnically largely homogeneous regions and the cohesion of postwar Europe has often been attributed to this newfound ethnic homogeneity.


Nevertheless, both regions experienced successive waves of inward migration as governments were desperate to attract manpower to the coal mines. In contrast to earlier migration waves, most of the postwar newcomers were of the same ethnicity as and spoke the language of the local population. This project analyzes the effects that postwar migration had on the cohesion and broader social fabrics of these coal basins and how, in the struggle for scarce resources, xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiments were quick to rear their head.




  • Excellent MA degree in History or a neighboring discipline
  • Very good command of written and spoken English, at least reading knowledge of German and Polish
  • Experience conducting research in (local) archives
  • Strong interest in social history and labor history


Project 2 (1 May 2020 – 30 April 2023)


This project investigates how a career in the police or the security services constituted a vehicle of upward mobility for youngsters from a disadvantaged rural background. Where most of the research on postwar police forces has focused on continuities among higher police functionaries, the lower ranks of the police were going through massive personnel changes. As fascist and collaborationist police forces were purged or disbanded altogether, new recruits were selected first and foremost on the basis of their political credentials. In practice, that primarily meant former Resistance activists, often Communists or Socialists, joining the police. For a variety of professional and political reasons, however, national governments quickly found many of them unsuitable for police work. A series of fresh recruitment drives in the late 1940s, therefore, mostly targeted younger and more malleable elements for a career in the police.


The opportunities that these successive rounds of hiring and firing generated have received little systematic scholarly attention. This project seeks to fill that void by comparing two police forces in East and West. In Western Europe, it will turn its attention towards Italy, which assembled the largest police force anywhere in postwar Europe in its bid to see off the strongest communist movement in the West. The Eastern European case study is for the doctoral researcher to decide, but it should be one of its more rural societies (i.e. not Czechoslovakia or the German Democratic Republic).


If you have any questions please contact Jan De Graaf: