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A People's History of Europe: From World War I to Today

A People's History of Europe: From World War I to Today

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A People's History of Europe: From World War I to Today

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20 de fev. de 2021


This concise people's history of Europe tells the story of the last hundred years of a very old continent and the ordinary people that shaped the events that defined it from World War I to today.

From the Russian Revolution, through May '68 and the Prague Spring, to the present day, we hear from workers, trade unionists, conscientious objectors and activists and learn of revolutions, labour movements, immigration struggles and anti-colonial conflicts. Cutting against the grain of mainstream histories, this is a history of Europe told from below.
Containing new and fascinating insights, Raquel Varela paints a different picture of the European story; one where ordinary Europeans are active agents of their own history.
20 de fev. de 2021

Sobre o autor

Raquel Varela is a labour historian, researcher and Professor at New University of Lisbon, and Honorary Fellow at the International Institute for Social History. She is also president of the International Association of Strikes and Social Conflicts and co-editor of its journal. She is the author of A People's History of the Portuguese Revolution (Pluto, 2018).

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A People's History of Europe - Raquel Varela


A People’s History of Europe

People’s History

History tends to be viewed from the perspective of the rich and powerful, where the actions of small numbers are seen to dictate the course of world affairs. But this perspective conceals the role of ordinary women and men, as individuals or as parts of collective organisations, in shaping the course of history. The People’s History series puts ordinary people and mass movements centre stage and looks at the great moments of the past from the bottom up.

The People’s History series was founded and edited by

William A. Pelz (1951–2017).

Also available:

A People’s History of Tennis

David Berry

Long Road to Harpers Ferry

The Rise of the First American Left

Mark A. Lause

A People’s History of the German Revolution


William A. Pelz

Foreword by Mario Kessler

A People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution

Raquel Varela

A People’s History of Europe

From World War I to Today

Raquel Varela

Foreword by Kevin Murphy

Translated by António Simões do Paço


First published by Bertrand Editora as Breve História da Europa – Da Grande Guerra aos Nossos Dias

English language edition first published 2021 by Pluto Press

345 Archway Road, London N6 5AA


Copyright © Bertrand Editora and Raquel Varela 2021

Translated by António Simões do Paço

The English translation was funded by Portuguese national funds through FCT (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia, I.P.) under the projects UID/04209/2019.


The right of Raquel Varela to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 978 0 7453 4134 7 Hardback

ISBN 978 0 7453 4135 4 Paperback

ISBN 978 1 7868 0653 6 PDF eBook

ISBN 978 1 7868 0655 0 Kindle eBook

ISBN 978 1 7868 0654 3 EPUB eBook

Typeset by Stanford DTP Services, Northampton, England


Foreword by Kevin Murphy


1. The War of Wars, the Revolution of Revolutions, 1917

2. ‘Man, Controller of the Universe’: The Crisis of 1929, the Revolutions of the 1930s and Nazism

3. Midnight in the Century: The Second World War

4. The 1945 European Social Pact

5. Anti-Colonial Revolutions

6. Crisis and Revolution: From May 68 to the Carnation Revolution

7. The End of the Social Pact (1981–2018)





Kevin Murphy

The volume in your hands is in the very best radical tradition of history. It is a modern social history of Europe ‘from below’, written not only about, but also for those people often neglected from standard academic texts. Raquel Varela’s avowed intellectual debt to the outstanding social historians, Edward Palmer Thompson and Howard Zinn, is hardly accidental. The author is an unabashed advocate of writing history ‘against the grain’, from the perspective of the ‘oppressed and combative’ classes.

Having written the seminal study of the Portuguese Revolution and as activist in many contemporary social movements, Varela is eminently qualified to survey recent history from the vantage point of those who have dedicated their lives to transforming the world in which we live. Her fabulous People’s History of the Portuguese Revolution details one of the most important and often neglected rebellions of the latter half of the twentieth century – the Carnation Revolution – a coalition of working-class and social movements, which also incited struggles for independence in Portugal’s African colonies, the rebellion of the young military captains in the national armed forces and the uprising of Portugal’s long-oppressed proletarian masses. It was through the organising power of these diverse movements that a popular-front government was instituted and Portugal withdrew from its overseas colonies. Cutting against the grain of mainstream accounts, Raquel Cardeira Varela explores the role of trade unions, women, and even artists in the rebellion, providing a rich account of the challenges faced and the victories gained through revolutionary means.

Varela has an impressive list of publications, leadership positions in labour and social history projects and awards as author and editor of some 32 volumes on labour history, social movements, the welfare state, and European and global history. Among her many awards is the prestigious Santander Prize for Internationalization of Scientific Production in 2013 and Public Intellectual of the Year Prize (Mais Alentejo) in 2014. Varela has also led many social history and labour projects, including the European Social Science History Conference and the Network for Global Labor Studies.

Varela’s vast experience and expertise places her in a unique position to write this historical text. The study illuminates the main events and processes in Europe between 1914 and 2018, with a vivid analysis on the structure and dynamics of the twentieth century. Understandably, the two world wars and those who resisted imperialism receive special attention. Starting with the rising militarism and first Great War and the subsequent rebellions that it fostered in ‘The War of Wars, The Revolution of Revolutions, 1917’, Varela devotes particular attention to the Russian Revolution and its eventual defeat, admirably placing the revolution in its European wide context. The historic defeat of the world revolution on the European continent, particularly in Germany, Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, helps to explain the context for the rise of Stalinism.

The essay then turns to the tumultuous 1930s in ‘The Crisis of 1929, the Revolutions of the 1930s and Nazism’. Varela deftly explains the causes of world economic crisis of 1929, the ensuing depression, and the rise of the fascist ‘solution’, particularly the Nazi movement in Germany. The most important popular challenge to fascism during the Spanish Revolution merits special attention. In ‘Midnight in the Century’, Varela shows that this was indeed a global confrontation and insists that ordinary people not only defeated the fascists but also pointed to an alternative when the popular resistance emerged near the end of the war.

In ‘The 1945 European Social Pact’, Varela posits a provocative argument about the post-war European social contract. This was not some construction benevolently handed down from above by the European powers, but was forged because workers were armed in 1945–47 and the ruling class feared revolution. The author also discusses the new Cold War, including the Warsaw Pact, the erection of the Berlin Wall and the missile crisis.

The focus then shifts to the ‘Anti-Colonial Revolutions’ and how these rebellions not only challenged and often defeated imperialist powers in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In ‘Crisis and Revolution: From May 68 to the Carnation Revolution’, Varela illustrates the connections between the anti-colonial revolutions and the spectacular May 1968 revolts and how the spirit of rebellion even crossed over to the Soviet bloc during the Prague Spring. Varela provocatively traces the impact of the Carnation Revolution as it spread to the ‘Red Mediterranean’ in Spain and Greece, and then helped set the parameters for all of Western Europe. These movements helped delay the imposition of neoliberal policies during the 1980s. Once again, workers are the transformative agents in each of the European revolts. Finally, in ‘The End of the Social Pact’, Varela traces the dismantling of the social contract and the implementation of neoliberal policies. Trade unions largely accepted the labour restructuring process in the core centres of industrial production in Europe and the dismantling of welfare states.

What connects all these seemingly disparate events is Varela’s Marxism. Her emphasis on ordinary workers – their political and social relations – is at the centre of the great changes that have occurred in the last 100 years. This is a book that raises provocative questions and gives serious and rigorous answers. Was the apocalypse of the Second World War – the most brutal episode in human history, with the loss of 80 million people – the political response of a suicide class to the crisis of 1929? And did the twentieth century, which began – although not officially – in 1914–17, end in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall? Or in 2008, with the financial crisis and the imposition of austerity finally signalling the end of the European social contract?

The timing of this European ‘history from below’ could not be more imperative. We are writing these lines in an unprecedented social emergency and catastrophe not seen in over 70 years; we are witnessing a new people’s history of contemporary Europe in the making. The crisis in Europe and the entire world caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic does not allow for any simple parallels with anything we have ever seen before, but the general contours with earlier world crises that Varela describes are striking. On the one hand, political states and prime ministers have proven incapable of responding to the epical proportion of the catastrophe. We do know that Trump, Wall Street and some European politicians have openly stated their preference for maintaining profits over human lives and that the ‘optimistic’ variant gives a death toll in even the richest country in the world at 200,000 lives lost with tens of thousands in New York City alone. We can only imagine the impending scale of horror in cities such as Mumbai where social distancing is simply impossible for all but the tiny minority of the most wealthy.

And yet, on the other hand, we have also seen fantastic reports of bravery, self-sacrifice and camaraderie, especially by health care workers in Europe and around the world. We have also witnessed workers in many industries, utilising their collective strength to insist on better safety conditions and protective gear and, in some places, risking their jobs by refusing to work and endangering themselves and others. Ordinary workers in every sector are showing bold class consciousness about their own vital importance to the system. This contrast between the interests of capital and those with the collective power to change the world is why this book is so vital during this tumultuous era. Thank you to Raquel Varela for providing so many reminders that there is indeed hope in desperate times, and we can surely use the lessons from the past to guide our praxis today and in the coming battles before us.


In 1870, a report on the Condition of the Industrial Classes of Foreign Countries1 was presented to the British parliament, by order of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. A group of consular and diplomatic agents sent a detailed report from around the world on the working conditions that British capitalists would encounter in each country, from Portugal to the Ottoman Empire, from the USA to Greece. One can read there the number of people available to work, their average formation, family size, eating habits, housing, hygiene and which jobs could be done by women or children.

In the Ottoman Empire, there is a detailed description of the organisations of artisans and how much they earn by category. The report from the Valencia region, in Spain, explains, in addition to the number, that they earn more in summer than in winter, probably due to scarcity of the available workforce, since many would be working on their own crops and gardens. The report on Portugal recommends Portuguese workers because they do not drink a lot on Sunday and therefore can work on Monday – and because ‘they are content with little’.

What today would be a modern human resources management system, probably carried out by an international consultant, was already very detailed in industrialised Europe in the nineteenth century. It is a vision of the European continent as a simple labour market. How many are there, how much do they earn, what do they know, how do they live, how much do you need to pay them? And how much can you not pay.2

In 1880, La Revue Socialiste published another survey, ‘A Workers’ Inquiry’, this one more famous (it is the precursor to many academic sociological surveys of the world of labour), carried out by a man who would soon be known worldwide: Karl Marx.3 The inquiry was conducted by the magazine itself and contained 100 questions about the ‘physical, intellectual and moral conditions of the lives of working men and women’ and was meant to be part of a scientific inquiry into the living conditions of the working class, in this case, French. Because, they argued, governments and official entities made inquiries about everything – agriculture, finance, trade – without any interest in knowing in what conditions those who worked lived:

When Queen Victoria died at the very outset of the twentieth century one person in five could expect to come to this, a solitary burial from the workhouse, the poor-law hospital, the lunatic asylum … something like a quarter of the whole population was in poverty…4

In London alone, 30 per cent of the population was unable to sustain themselves. In 1900, in Balkan Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, the average life expectancy at birth was 35 years.5

In Europe, social classes were not, at the turn of the twenty-first century, like castes (without social mobility, as in the feudal world), but society was clearly divided into classes: working classes, the poor, the peasants, a minority middle class, the aristocracy and the financial-industrial upper class. As the American historian, Robert O. Paxton, put it, ‘most Europeans could expect to end their lives in exactly the same social position in which they started’.6

There were only effective reductions in working time as concessions to workers after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and after the struggles of the 1960s. And only after the strikes of 1945–47 and the death of 80 million people in the Second World War, did Europe go through a unique period of guaranteeing universal social rights. During the post-war years, a significant proportion of Europeans experienced job security, protection in health and old age, and access to knowledge. The degree of self-determination has increased. But by the beginning of the twenty-first century, social mobility was already a mirage – the proletarianisation of large chunks of the middle classes marked Europe’s entry into the new millennium.

This book is a brief history of these social dynamics, of Europe’s advances and retreats. In other words, it concerns the measures taken by the rich and powerful to secure accumulation by businesses, as expressed in Her Majesty’s reports, and the struggle to improve the living conditions of the working classes, which has in Marx its main theoretical-political father. This has been the history of Europe, from the First World War to the present day.


The War of Wars, the Revolution of Revolutions, 1917

aquí encaja la ejecución de mi oficio: deshacer tuertos y socorrer y acudir a los miserables [here fits the execution of my trade: to mend wrongs and help the miserable]

Don Quijote de la Mancha1

The war of wars (1914–18)

In 1914, England had an empire 114 times its size; Belgium, 80 times its size; The Netherlands, 60 times its size; France, 20 times its size; and Portugal, more than 20 times its size. In today’s Portugal, the older generation still remember being taught during the dictatorship with a famous map hanging on the walls of their primary schools that showed Portugal with its colonies projected over the entire European continent. ‘Portugal is not a small country’, the caption said.

Between 1850 and 1911, the whole world was virtually conquered by the European empires. In Africa, only Liberia and Ethiopia were left out of division by the central powers. If we look at the map of Africa, we find the borders drawn by the great powers at the 1884–85 Berlin Congress with long straight lines, crossing rivers, cutting mountains and suppressing the livelihood of shepherds and farmers who were left without access to their means of production.2 In China and Indochina, the dispute began over spheres of influence, in a regime of protectorate and/or conquest.3 In these years, ‘the broad current of human history flowed through a narrow channel designed by a few European countries.’4

Central and Balkan Europe were under the boots of empires, Western Europe was fighting for colonies and markets. The European scenario was, therefore, of a crisis that would lead to ‘revolution or barbarism’; the dichotomy was equated by the socialists at the beginning of the century.5 The Austro-Hungarian Empire disputed territories with Serbia. And, on its way, it crushed several oppressed nationalities: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Czechs, Slovaks and Bulgarians. In 25 years, France had lost its population supremacy to Germany and demanded the fertile territories of Alsace and Lorraine, which had been lost in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, the outcome of which had then propelled the first working-class government in history, the Paris Commune.6 British capitalism could not survive with a strong Germany that defeated France in the mainland. The bulk of the wealth in dispute between Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire laid in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Finland. But, for Germany, a strong Russia was a threat.

Russia competed with the Austro-Hungarian Empire for its western territories, which were the most industrialised and the source of taxes for the empire. The Hermitage Palace would symbolically concentrate the spaces of war and revolution – there we find the rooms filled with semiprecious stones, gold, floors made of noble woods and chandeliers, all accumulated over 400 years of serfdom that, still in 1914, kept 40 per cent of the peasants on the edge of survival. Besides this, led by the Bolsheviks, Russian workers seized power in October 1917, storming the Winter Palace, a scene immortalised by the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein in the film October (1928).

In one word, imperialism, that is, the phase of capitalist accumulation in which no single capitalist entity could survive without trying to expand at the expense of others.7 We will see that during a short period of post-war 1945, the ‘golden years’ in Europe would allow for an unusual balance between imperialisms without wars in their territories (until the 1992–95 Bosnian War and the Ukrainian war since 2014).

The nineteenth century begins with a crisis of colonialism – of the old empires – and ends with the ‘victory of colonial imperialism, which leads to a division of the world among the European powers – joined later by the United States and Japan – the intensification of international tensions, and finally the First World War.’8 As the historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, ‘the most striking consequence’ of the ‘dual revolution’ – the French Revolution of 1789 and the contemporaneous (British) Industrial Revolution – ‘was to establish a domination of the globe by a few western regimes (and especially by the British) which has no parallel in history.’9 We can relativise this statement if we think that the rule of the Roman Empire was only over one part of the world, but it was the essential world at the time and it was more stable and lasting.

John Reed, a journalist and revolutionary, author of the sublime book on the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World,10 is also the writer of a series of reports on the Balkans, shortly before the revolution, in the midst of the First World War (1915). In one passage, chaos stands out when a Russian ‘captain Martinev’ describes the apocalyptic carnage. They are called to Poland, where they arrive five days later because of the lack of trains, supplies and organisation:

We went in at ten in the morning and stood particularly heavy fire all day so heavy that the cook-wagons couldn’t reach us until midnight, so there was nothing to eat. The Germans attacked twice in the night, so there was no sleep. Next morning heavy artillery bombarded us. The men reeled as if they were drunk, forgot to take any precautions, and went to sleep while they were shooting. The officers, with blazing eyes, muttering things like men walking in their sleep, went up and down beating the soldiers with the flat of their swords … I forgot what I was doing, and so did everybody, I think; indeed, I can’t remember what followed at all but we were in there for four days and four nights. Once a night the cook-wagons brought soup and bread. At least three times a night the Germans attacked at the point of the bayonet. We retired from trench to trench, turning like beasts at bay though we were all out of our heads … Finally on the fifth morning they relieved us. Out of eight thousand men two thousand came back, and twelve hundred of those went to the hospital.11

On 2 January 1916, the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg12 wrote:

Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls. International law, treaties and alliances, the most sacred words and the highest authority have been torn in shreds. Every sovereign ‘by the grace of God’ is called a rogue and lying scoundrel by his cousin on the other side. Every diplomat is a cunning rascal to his colleagues in the other party. Every government sees every other as dooming its own people and worthy only of universal contempt. There are food riots in Venice, in Lisbon, Moscow, Singapore. There is plague in Russia, and misery and despair everywhere.13

The First World War began on 28 July 1914. In that month of 1914, everyone was talking about a quick war: ‘It will all be over by Christmas!’, people said.14 It was the most ‘popular’ of the imperialist wars.

Victor Serge was a revolutionary and a writer born in Belgium to a couple of Russian exiles; he was arrested in France at the beginning of the war and wrote:

Vehement Marseillaises were heard in prison, sung by crowds accompanying the convoys of soldiers. We also heard: ‘To Berlin! To Berlin!’ This delusion, incomprehensible to us, was the consummation of the height of the imminent social catastrophe.15

War was not that popular. The French socialists even hypothesised a general strike against a European war in July 1914;16 in Germany, strikers were sent to the front as punishment; historical sources show that the working class of the powerful Ruhr region – still today the strongest and most unionised region of the European industrial working class – was not keen on patriotic demonstrations.17 Across the Atlantic, in the USA, the government called for the voluntary recruitment of 1 million troops – but in the first six weeks after the declaration of war, only 70,000 had been enlisted.18

Recruitment for the First World War was relatively easy, however, because the peasants lived in isolated villages and because the experience of such a war was hitherto unknown. There is a geographical and social isolation in the rural world, even in the already industrialised England, Germany and France, which makes organised resistance very difficult. In fact, the peasants become resistants, deserters, only after being incorporated into a collective organisation – the army, and at war.

Nationalism thrives rapidly as an ideology. Novelists such as H.G. Wells called for support to ‘a war to end war’, Anatole France made ‘little speeches to the soldiers’.19 However, the main support came from the organised labour movement. The war was supported by the majority of German social democracy, Austrian social democracy, the English Labour Party, the French Socialists, the large unions, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and the Indian pacifist Mahatma Gandhi. The ‘unity of the nation’, the ‘sacred union’, the appeal of the national bourgeoisies to the leaders of the popular strata was magnetic – and catastrophic: 10 million dead according to some sources,20 20–22 million dead including civilians according to different sources.

Those who were against the war were only a few: the Bolsheviks and the Serbian socialists. And there were many individual heroes – Jean Jaurès, the French socialist leader who opposed the war, was assassinated by a French nationalist on 31 July 1914.

War has revolved the bowels of society: women have entered the labour market en masse. It was this shift from isolated housework to concentrated factory work, from unpaid housework to wage labour, and the Russian Revolution – the achievement of broad social rights – that allowed for the first breath of gender equality in contemporary history. Although female suffrage was on the agenda in the early twentieth century, having already been conquered in Australia in 1902 and Finland in 1906, for example, only the First World War would break down the first major barrier to gender equality in England and Germany.21 And, in the case of Italy and France, this would only happen after the Second World War. In the southern countries, which became urbanised in the 1960s, the major change in gender relations occurred only with the Portuguese revolution of 1974 and 1975.

An economic cataclysm, the war and a social revolution, the Russian Revolution, are the factors that drove one of the most important social changes of the twentieth century – the increasing of gender equality and the gradual path to free union.22 Later, with the rise of fascism and Stalinism, many of these rights would be reversed until the victory of the resistance, both socialist and democratic, post-1945.

The middle classes join the ranks of those discontent with governments; there is hunger, deprivation and a shortage of supplies because production is aimed at serving war, and because many workers leave the factories and join the belligerent armies. Production turns to weapons of destruction. There is no bread because there are no bakers. There are soldiers. In Germany, only two-thirds of the calories needed to stay alive were guaranteed and there were 750,000 deaths due to malnutrition.23 Vienna was probably the hardest hit city: ‘by 1917, a quarter of million people stood daily in one of 800 food lines spread throughout the city.’24 The black market expands, fuelled by inflation.

This was the irrational but predictable conclusion of the first total war in history. The war wasn’t over by Christmas and it was devastating. It spread to Mesopotamia, Greece and Turkey with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and North Africa.

Although the number of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in Northern and Western Europe increased from 22 to 120 between 1800 and 1900,25 the massification of urban life, the exponential growth of the population, is a phenomenon that changes Europe only in the twentieth century. It is the century of population increase. Europe went from 279 million people in 1850 to 408 million in 1900 and then to 740 million in 2012. This would become one of the most important features of the last 100 years: the consolidation, even in southern countries, of the transition from rural to urban societies. This event radically changed life in society. Family unity was definitely swept away by industrialisation and war (though different, the family has nonetheless held a high place to this day, as Therborn has shown in his monumental global family history).26

Next to it, two other units evolve, which will play a central role in the European twentieth century: the political, conscious and organised collective; and the masses.27 Gramsci, the intellectual leader of the Italian Communist Party, reflects on the masses and parties, in the first case about the 1919–20 Italian workers’ uprising in the light of the Bolshevik socialist victory of 1917, and in the second about the Spanish historical defeat. In both cases, the relationships between leadership / consciousness / party and movement / spontaneity / masses are historically approached from a political horizon whose strategic focus is the constitution of a collective subject of social transformation.28 The experience of bureaucratisation (of separation between base and leadership) was also (more pessimistically) analysed by Robert Michels.29 It remains today as one of the most challenging aspects of society: how to avoid the bureaucratisation of the structures of social organisation?

Let’s get back to war. At the time, even with villages separated by only a few miles, the peasants had little contact with one another – the absence of roads, transport and communications could mean that what is today a small journey would then take hours. Far more distant was the contact with central power – with the state – which they only met in the form of the tax collector, or forced recruitment for wars, or looting during conflicts. During the storm of war, these peasants would experience the first sense of belonging to a larger collective of their lives. Moreover, in 1917, they would defect en masse in many of the belligerent armies, and support the revolution in Russia – because they wanted to return to their plot, because their families could not survive without their work.

The masses and the factory: the twentieth century would be the century of Fordism.30 There

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