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Europe In Retrospect

by Raymond F. Betts


Toward a New Social Order
As never before, the dimensions of the European world were altering and expanding, bringing the excitement of possible material prosperity for some, the anxiety of industrial unemployment and overcrowded living for many more. Economic and political power were concentrating in the city and, accordingly, the most obvious social change of the time was the decline of the rural base of European society. The pronounced industrial advantage of England was measurable by mid-century when half of that nation's total population lived in cities. By the end of the century the same could be said of Belgium, Holland, and Germany. Only France persisted in its old rural ways, not reaching a comparable urban percentage until between the world wars.

This demographic shift was the result of both general population increase and internal migration. First, the tendency toward marriage at an earlier age and the reduction of infant mortality through new medical techniques were important factors in the expansion of the European population. Second, the factory replaced the farm as the center of manpower. With the commercialization of farming, the use of chemical fertilizers and, later in the century, the employment of mechanical devices, increased productivity made the small-scale farm a marginal operation and the individual farmer rather obsolete. For many youth, opportunity seemed to be situated in the city. Whereas 21.2 percent of the English working population was engaged in agriculture in 1871, only 11.5 percent was in 1911.

The passing of country life was a condition that did not go unnoticed and unregretted by contemporary Europeans. In England, the decline of the self-sufficient farmer, the yeoman, was cause for nostalgic reflection and romantic writing. In Germany, youth movements took to the woods and the mountains to pursue a brief existence in the out-of-doors and to find mystical communion with the soil. And in France, a small number of individuals who found urban, bourgeois life stultifying looked to the colonial world, but North Africa in particular, as a "school of energy" similar to the American Far West.

Moreover, social thinkers expressed concern over the social polarity they now detected: the concept of "community" (the German Gemeinschaft ), of a small-scaled rural social order held together by religion, tradition, trust, and mutual interdependence, was placed in opposition with "society" (Gesellschaft ), a large-scaled urban social order, held together by money, rational structure, and competition. For many literary figures and social critics the city came to mean corruption, not inspiration.

It was true that the awesome dimensions of the urban scene were frightening to many. Crowds gave way to masses, large and undifferentiated numbers of people, related only by place of work and need of wages. Charles Dickens had described this new, concentrated order in "Hard Times", where Coketown appeared as a number of streets all alike and "inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound on the pavements."

As a result of their population density, the masses presented a new set of problems for local government. In the first place, none of the European municipal governments was initially prepared to leave the limited, eighteenth-century legal base of their authority to encounter the new and pressing demands: effective sanitation systems, pure water supplies, sufficient housing. Government had to be reformed and extended so that its functions went beyond public order to public services. Notable reforms directed against urban blight were undertaken in the second half of the century. During the reign of Napoleon III, the city of Paris was provided with an incredibly effficient sewage system--a visitor to Paris can still travel through a portion of it without the slightest offense to his or her nose--that was greeted with enthusiasm and awe. Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of Birmingham, England between 1873 and 1875, introduced a series of reforms that were referred to as "municipal socialism." The gas and water supplies were made public services, controlled by the government. The clearance of slums and the introduction of a city park system were also hallmarks of Chamberlain's administration.

Municipal reform was one of the most important activities of the very late nineteenth century, at which time most European governments provided legislation to grant the city power to raise the monies necessary to offer a range of local services. Gas, water, garbage collection were in the forefront, but so were new experiments in municipal housing, with the city of Vienna in the lead. Imperial Germany became a model of municipal reform and efficiency, a major result of the rise of the Social Democratic party there.

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