Societal & Demographic Changes in Europe after World War II

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

World War II changed a lot about Europe. This lesson highlights notable social trends like feminism, youth culture, immigration, class and more. We'll also explore the causes and effects surrounding them.

The War that Shook the World

The pivotal event of the 20th century, World War II shook the world. The deadliest war in human history resulted in a staggering loss of life: an estimated 50 to 80 million people were killed because of it.

The war devastated the landscape of Europe. Fields were made barren and industrial centers were left in ruins. But the war also had a profound impact on society: the postwar world teemed with possibility, even as undercurrents of anxiety and regression ran through it.

Let's explore the way the war affected European society and demographics.

Class and Politics

While the U.S. historically had blurred lines between social classes, Europe's class distinctions were far more pronounced. However, World War II helped erode class structures and contributed to the rise of a vibrant middle class.

In many cases, the destruction wrought by war prompted greater government initiatives in the immediate Postwar Era. Along with government-backed rebuilding plans came other types of liberal reforms.

In many cases, the growth of the welfare state led to higher wages and greater leveling of social classes. Though not to the extent of the Soviet Union, many European countries came to embrace left-wing policies.

In Great Britain, for example, healthcare was nationalized in 1948 as the National Health Service. Forms of socialism were common throughout Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

Great Britain nationalized healthcare in 1948.

Social classes did not disappear altogether, but they did become more blurred following World War II. Historians continue to debate the causes of this social leveling.

It's fair to consider the impact technology played in the rise of the modern European middle class, as technological advances led to new work patterns. Throughout the continent, industrial and manufacturing jobs were increasingly replaced by jobs in finance, services, communication, and other ''modern'' fields.

Gender Roles

World War II violently disrupted gender roles worldwide. As in the U.S., many European women took war production jobs while the men fought. While some returned to the home following the war, women increasingly experienced greater independence and more chose to work outside of the home.

In 1949, French feminist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, published The Second Sex, a treatise on feminism and a work that has become a pillar of feminist philosophy. Many scholars point to the wartime disruptions in society as leading cause of second-wave feminism.

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was important feminist work.
second sex

Baby Boomers

At the same time, Europe as a whole experienced a ''baby boom'' in the aftermath of World War II. A ''baby boom'' is a time when a significant number of babies are born. With peace secured and men returning home, many young couples decided to settle down and begin a family.

Two world wars had had a devastating impact on European populations and citizens of many countries almost felt an obligation to have children. In the case of France, the population jumped from 40.5 million in 1945 to almost 50 million in 1960.


Postwar immigration patterns help explain some of the diversity throughout Europe today. After the war, decolonization proceeded at a rapid pace, notably in Africa. The British and French empires were especially affected.

Many French colonists chose to return to France rather than live in newly independent (and sometimes unstable) nations. France became a popular destination for Africans and Asians as well.

Additionally, the 1950s and 1960s saw many Turks immigrating to Germany as Gastarbeiter, or ''guest workers.''

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