Twentieth Century Europe: Revolution and Reaction

It’s a well-worn trope that history is written by the victors. It can also be said that it is written by those in power. In Europe, the combination of these two statements means history is written by the corporations, banks and those who serve them in the universities and governments. What this means for us is that those who rule are presented as reasonable humans working for the good of all and that their wars are heroic and reasonable. Winston Churchill comes off as a sane human while Adolf Hitler is presented as a lunatic, when the actual truth is that both men were equally murderous and shared similar thoughts on communism, Jews, Romani, Africans and others around the world that were not part of the so-called master race. One is told in school that World War One was a good war and World War Two was an even better one. No mention is made in mainstream history books of their common roots in imperialist rivalry, but plenty is heard about the heroes who laid their lives down for king, queen and country. History books of this type play up the roles of leaders and bourgeois heroes while pretending that the bulk of humanity—the workers and the peasants—have little to no role in making history.

Occasionally however, a text comes along that is meant to counter the dominant narrative. A text that retells our understood history in a manner that emphasizes the role of working people and their lives in the making of the past. Raquel Varela’s A People’s History of Europe: From World War One to Today is just such a book. Varela lives, writes and teaches in Portugal. This in itself provides her with a perspective closer to the periphery of Europe than to that of London, Paris or Berlin. It is her leftist politics, however, that primarily inform the perspective of this text. In other words, this is a history that not only tells the story of Europe’s twentieth century from a working-class perspective, but from a perspective that understands it is the workers and peasantry who decide the course of history, not just the rulers be they aristocrats or the bourgeoisie.

Given the understanding that it is the workers and peasants who determine history (and the future), it is only natural that Varela’s point of reference would be the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia. After all, it was this revolution that truly changed all previous history. Not only was the aristocracy that had ruled Russia for centuries overthrown, but so was its budding bourgeoisie. The forces of humanity who had been under the boot of the nobility and the profit-driven world of the capitalist class were in control. It is this fact that determined much of what followed over the next one hundred years, not only in Russia but around the world. Communist movements would be determinants in the economies and politics for much of Europe and beyond. Likewise, the reaction to the successes of the communists would propel capitalist forces into accommodation with or extreme reaction to the masses of people identifying as communist and socialist. The most extreme reaction would be fascism. The more accommodating would be democratic socialism. Both political forms were meant to save the capitalist class.

As Varela describes it, the extreme nature of fascism—especially in its German form as nazism—exposed its contradictions. This caused the ruling classes in other capitalist nations to back away from their original support (both tacit and active) for European fascist regimes and ultimately led to their joining with the Soviet Union to defeat those regimes. Of course, this was after Moscow had originally signed a a non-aggression pact with Berlin, only to be invaded by Hitler anyhow. Varela, who is no fan of Stalin’s, avoids speculating as to Moscow’s motives in signing that agreement. Instead, she discusses the leftist composition and nature of the resistance movements (partisans) to fascism in those countries that fell under the fascist yoke. This approach once again places the focus on the true movers of history—the people.

It also provides a smooth segue into the history of postwar Europe. It was the partisans who established Yugoslavia as a communist state not tied to Moscow and it was the leftist partisans in Greece who saw their previous allies from Britain join up with the right wing paramilitaries to defeat what most certainly would have been a leftist popular government in Athens. In France, the Left forces experienced a brief but shining moment before the Gaullists took power, halting the fear in the rest of Europe and the United States that France would go communist. Similar machinations to prevent a left-dominated government took place in Italy. Instead of leftist governments installing socialist economies, Washington worked with elements of the old regimes and the postwar cliques to create what would become known as welfare states. As Varela points out, these were not socialist economies, just because parts of these economies were nationalized. Their role was to stimulate the growth of the largest capitalist firms, many of them in the United States. For example, the US Marshall Plan was not about giving money away to the European people, but about opening markets, exploiting labor and bolstering the capitalist classes in European nations.

The period when the welfare state was the dominant model in Europe lasted perhaps thirty years in most places. By the end of the 1960s, social and economic fissures had erupted into popular protests and even open conflict throughout much of Europe and the United States. Perhaps the most memorable of these events took place in France in May 1968. However, Germany, Britain, Greece, Italy, and even the fascist states of Spain and Portugal all experienced moments of national crisis. By the mid-1970s, both Spain and Portugal saw their fascist governments finally fall. Portugal ended its colonial claims to Mozambique and Angola and instituted civil and political freedoms generations of Portuguese had never known. Unfortunately, the capitalist classes in both nations recovered their strength and, despite what Varela calls a parallel government existing for a period, were able to restore the two nations into the capitalist sphere, albeit near the periphery not the economic center. Likewise, the Greek people finally removed the ruling rightist junta in 1973, but did not create a socialist government in its place.

In large part, the aforementioned failures to move beyond capitalism can be attributed to the intentional turn toward austerity (for the masses) undertaken by the economic and political leaders. This turn, which would become known as neoliberalism, was designed to restore higher profits to those at the top of the capitalist world economy. Understanding the nature of capitalism as well as any Marxist, these financial operators looked at union wages and benefits and understood they were getting less from labor’s surplus value than before. So they went after organized and unorganized labor, attacking benefits, wages, and jobs. When they had pushed workers about as far as they could they went after those collecting pensions, public assistance and medical care from the state. It seemed that what the masters of profit couldn’t privatize for the benefit of their class, they just eliminated. As most anyone who isn’t wealthy can tell you, that project continues to this day.

A People’s History of Europe is a fascinating book. Its take on the twentieth century reminds the reader how much one revolution can change history’s direction and that history truly is a dialectical phenomenon. The struggle between the rulers and the ruled is but one element of that dialectic. It is also perhaps the fundamental one. Weaving a number of the century’s key events into a narrative that flows into a seamless, occasionally stormy river, Raquel Varela’s text reminds us of the dialectical nature of human history.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com