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  • A Social History of Twentieth Century Europe by Béla Tomka
  • Mark Gabbert
Tomka, Béla – A Social History of Twentieth Century Europe. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. 526.

Béla Tomka has set himself the daunting task of producing a social history of twentieth century Europe that covers all of the continent’s geographical regions, provides as much comparative analysis among regions and nations as feasible, and attempts to grasp general trends without neglecting the national and local specificities that call into question general explanations of contemporary social development. He explicitly eschews adopting particular theoretical perspectives or grand narratives, preferring to let the data either support or call in question existing approaches, as the case may be. He finds this self-denial to be appropriate to what he refers to as a “post paradigmatic world” (p. 6) where the myriad exceptions to general trends must be allowed to emerge.

Tomka largely succeeds in his attempt to be as geographically comprehensive and as comparative as possible within the framework of a single volume and the limits of the data. Europe’s Northwestern, Scandinavian, Central, and Southern [End Page 723] regions are carefully distinguished for differences in the pace of social development and treatment of the East Central and Southeastern zones, in both their capitalist and non-capitalist phases, is included in the analysis. Considerations of space and a shortage of adequate comparative data lead him to exclude the USSR and Baltic states.

The book is divided into ten chapters, including an introduction and conclusion. The central chapters each constitute a separate essay tracing the shifts in a particular realm of social reality from before the First World War to the turn of the twenty-first century. Beginning with population, Tomka notes that, by the century’s end, falling birth and death rates had signalled a demographic transition from the higher mortality and birth rates of the first half of the century. One is especially struck by the stunning decline in infant mortality and rise in life expectancy over this period. Family and household structure were transformed, the nuclear family dominating over more extended versions after the Second World War, but accompanied after 1960 by the remarkable increase in divorces and the rising frequency of unmarried cohabitation and increasing numbers of children born out of wedlock. Issues of social mobility, shifts in class structure, and distribution of wealth and income are extensively analyzed, with Tomka arguing that class remains more fundamental than factors like gender as a determinant of inequality. For Tomka, one of the central social realities in Europe has been the creation of the welfare state, which from its beginnings in the nineteenth century and interwar years became a central feature of European life after the Second World War. He finds that while the expansion of social provision tapered off after the 1970s, it mostly endured at the century’s end despite some fraying and the challenges globalization posed to the national state. The century also saw the transformation of work and living standards: the hours of work in a calendar year declined significantly, offering more leisure to working people, though women only gradually came to enjoy some measure of the leisure available to their partners. Benchmarks of the progress of living standards and consumption over the century are exemplified by the near universality of bathrooms by 1990 (for example, 99.5% in Britain compared with 62.4% in 1950 (p. 230)) and by the widespread consumption of such items as cars, radios, and television. Politically, after the setbacks of the interwar years, parliamentary democracy prevailed, the Stalinist zone and the authoritarian regimes in Spain and Portugal eventually making the transition. The political importance of class waned after the Second World War and new social movements based on identity politics came to the fore after 1960. Urbanization grew, accompanied by sub-urbanization and re-urbanization. Education expanded at all levels, including the post-secondary, where by 1995 women often constituted half of the students; yet, educational opportunity remained adversely affected by social inequality. Europe also became increasingly secular, at least as indicated by declining church attendance and numbers of baptisms and marriages, though there...


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