An Era of Value Change. The Seventies in Europe

From 14th to 16th of March 2019, the conference “An Era of Value Change. The Seventies in Europe” took place at the Max Weber Foundation’s German Historical Institute in London. The conveners Fiammetta Balestracci (London), Martin Baumeister (Rome) and Christina von Hodenberg (London) had put together a conference program that focused on the Seventies in Europe, which are generally considered as a turning point in Western historiography. Aspects such as micro and macro history, national traits, and the experiences of different social groups, generations, and genders were taken into consideration. We have talked to Fiammetta Balestracci about the proceedings and results of the conference.

Why are values and their change suitable for explaining the Seventies in Europe and how does it help to understand today’s Europe?

Value change has characterized every decade and historical period to some extent. However, during the Seventies this change was particularly marked and involved the majority of society. After the demographic shift caused by the decimation of the male population due to WWII , and followed by the so-called baby boom of the postwar period, European society consisted mostly of young people and women from the mid Sixties onward. This new social composition led to a crisis in the old society, which was organized by and for implicitly heterosexual adult men. The affluence generated during the postwar reconstruction and subsequent economic growth further offered new possibilities for social mobility. There was more possibility of cultural criticism deriving from the spread of mass consumerism and education, and the role played by new media in popularizing cultural and political debate among previously uninvolved social groups. In this scenario the new generation of young people and women enjoyed an enhanced level of political and social protagonism, developing original forms of criticism of western rationalism and the consequences of the affluent society. We find evidence for this change in the implementation of different family structures and models, new sexual lifestyles and identities, and a widespread criticism of conventional work structures, in particular Fordism and marxism. There was also an acceleration in the expression of secularization, both as criticism of institutional religions, and as a quest for alternative forms of spirituality and bodily existence. The deconstruction of certain mental and ethical frameworks during this period has had lasting effects on the organization of European society, obviously with differences related to the diverse national and regional contexts and traditions. I think for instance on the equalisation and interchangeability between men and women at work and in the family, the progressive approach to a unisexual conception of the male and the female body, the end of obligated social paths for women and men with fixed steps, i.e. family with marriage and children as the only possibility of social legitimation particularly for women.

Which transregional approaches did you pursue with the conference?

One of the aims of the conference was to promote national and regional comparison and study processes of transnationalism at different levels – cultural, political, and economic – in the European framework. The conference program was designed to offer the possibility of examining regional differences and similarities, and to consider the connection between micro and macro areas. The latter embraces both regional peculiarities in national contexts, and different developments across European macro regions. The empirical results of the conference have revealed an entanglement of macro processes of transformation that involve the whole of Europe, starting from the economic interdependence and globalization that led to a crisis in national sovereignty and the idea of the nation-state.  According to James Mark’s keynote speech on the Seventies in Eastern Europe, these processes can be considered to have initiated the globalization and early Europeanization of the East. At the same time, some apparently typical factors of cultural globalization during this decade, for example experts and their institutional roles, had different influences in West and East. In Western Europe they contributed to the reconceptualization of social parameters in a way that has not yet been demonstrated for the East. I think that studies in this area, and comparing Eastern and Western Europe in general, should be intensified. The historical evidence for a link between global and national dimensions in this period, and the empirical research presented during the conference, suggests a need to proceed along diversified methodological lines, combining global and transregional history with national comparisons.

Preceding the conference you have put forward the hypothesis that the Seventies represented a moment of transformation and discontinuity in the history of European society. To what extend would you argue that this was the case now that the conference has taken place?

I think the conference confirmed the hypothesis that the Seventies represent a period of discontinuity for a large part of European society. This was a consequence of the structural transformations that occurred in European society after WWII, and the economic growth in the late 50s and early 60s of enduring effect. In this new social and economic framework it was possible for diversified social groups, actors, and new generations to implement innovative lifestyles, alternative conceptions of time and the body, while demanding unorthodox interpersonal relations in different forms and contexts. The conference showed how individual behavior became political during this period, and how politics and institutional experts tried to pilot this cultural and ethical shift in each country, contributing towards a reconceptualization and social reorganization of the world.

What was the most astonishing outcome of your conference?

The conference underlined the importance of considering the Seventies as a historical period in sé e per sé, [in and for itself] if you will allow me to use this Italian expression, rather than simply a period of transition towards a new historical epoch (Sattelzeit), the present time. This was also the intellectual stance taken by Detlev Peukert regarding the history of the Weimar Republic. He suggested considering the fourteen years from 1919 to 1933, the first German attempt to run a democratic state, not only as a preliminary to the affirmation of the Third Reich, but as a specific period with its own unique historical features. This is what we tried to do at our conference in London. I think that if the Seventies were indeed a period of change and discontinuity in 20th century European history, then the historical profile of the period still remains largely to be defined.

Did the conference raise new questions that you will continue to research?

I think the evidence for the central role assumed by the individual in the organization of society during this decade represents an interesting starting point for further research in social, political, and institutional history. We still need to understand how individual European states, which continued to play a major role in the organization of society, reacted in the years following the social and cultural transformations of the Seventies. How did they deal with the emergence of new social figures who actively contested old collective and state institutions and social structures? I wonder to what extent we might consider the present period to have originated in the Seventies, and conversely how and where were additional social and cultural transformations added to the mix. We still have to unravel the threads of continuity and discontinuity between the Seventies and the present time.


About the Convener

Fiammetta Balestracci held a position as a Marie Curie Research Fellow at the Queen Mary University of London until April 2019 and is currently working at the German Historical Institute in London. She has specialized in the history of Germany and the cultural and political relations between Italy and Germany in the 19th and 20th century. She holds a PhD from the Università degli studi di Milano and has worked at the University of Turin and various research institutions in Italy and abroad. Since 2011, she is the deputy chairwoman of the Italian Society for the History of the German-Speaking Areas. Her main interest is the social and cultural history of the 1970s in Europe.


Citation: Fiammetta Balestracci, An Era of Value Change. The Seventies in Europe, in TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.06.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18642.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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