The European Economy between the Great War and the Great Recession: Paths to Prosperity from Laissez-Faire Capitalism to Neoliberalism

History 103B.005

Fall 2018
3205 Dwinelle
Day & Time: 
W 12-2
Class Number: 

During the twentieth century, a dizzying variety of economic regimes emerged across Europe. The First World War ushered radical communist and fascist solutions for achieving modern economic growth as the classic liberal model, based on international trade and the gold standard lost legitimacy. The Superpowers directed the reconstruction of their respective spheres of influence after the Second World War, giving rise to the welfare states across Western and Northern Europe and transforming Eastern and Southern Europe into urbanized industrial societies. During the 1970s, institutions and policies promulgated during the Great Depression, and economic planning in general, rapidly lost legitimacy across Europe. During the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher epitomized a renewed political commitment to market-based solutions, a commitment that also informed privatization schemes across Eastern Europe in the 1990s. Yet, by the end of the century, the European Union appeared a success story of coordinated capitalism, and not of the invisible hand, while the Great Recession raises serious questions about the Euro’s demise and the efficacy of austerity and stimulus spending alike.

In this reading seminar, we will examine the main economic regimes across Europe, and try to understand their successive attempts to achieve, or to maintain, what has proven to be singularly elusive prosperity. In the relentless, often violent, search for sustained economic growth thought be necessary for increasing living standards, how did different regimes see the proper role of the market and the state, of the collectivity (family, class, etc.) and the individual, and how did regimes decide on how much redistribution, and of what, should take place? To trace continuity and change among economic regimes, we will examine recent synthetic historical writing about the European economy as well as country-specific and thematic studies.