This article is the twentieth of an ongoing series from EuroClio providing teachers with ideas and practical resources for teaching a range of topics in their classrooms. You can find a wealth of additional resources including units, source collections and eLearning activities on the Historiana website and you can read the other articles in the series here.
Life in the 1950s is not so often taught in school curricula. Yet, how can we understand our modern world without understanding this decade? In Europe it is the decade when economic growth returned and the social changes were felt by many people. It is the decade when western and eastern Europe were much influenced by culture from the two Cold War superpowers, USA and USSR. It is an era by which many of our students’ grandparents were directly impacted. We teach events from the 1950s, from the 1956 Hungarian Uprising to the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the election of de Gaulle in 1959. By teaching our students about life in the 1950s we can help them to a sense of the period in which these key events took place. We can also ensure that our teaching of the post-war period is not always about leaders and high politics.
There were millions of different people making their lives in the 1950s and they are as important a part of the past as Khrushchev, Churchill, Adenauer and Eisenhower. It was also a time when many European countries experienced large-scale migration from former colonies as people came to make their homes in Europe, often in response to requests for workers to power the booming European economies. There were many perspectives and European society was perhaps less nationalistic and more open than before. Cultural influences spread across borders and, with full employment and a sense of future possibility, it was perhaps one of the best times to be young in the whole 20 th century in some parts of the continent. At the same time, Europe was divided, Spain and Portugal remained under authoritarian rule and a controlling conservative society was also part of European citizens’ everyday life. This source collection aims to give an idea of what life in Europe in the Fifties was like, highlighting both promising and worrying developments that influenced people’s daily lives.
Ideas to consider when exploring life in the 1950s
It is, of course, impossible to portray the lives of millions of people using a few picture sources. The source collection presented on Historiana here is designed to suggest themes and to raise more questions than it answers. When teaching life in the 1950s there are big substantive themes, including:
- The development of the Cold War, including the impact of the death of Stalin, uprisings in Poland and Hungary, fear of nuclear war and the start of the space race.
- Increasing prosperity leading to greater levels of disposable income for more people and consumer goods we now regard as essential becoming more widely available, from refrigerators to washing machines.
- The formation of the EEC via the Treaty of Rome in 1957 between the original six member states.
- The continuation of inequality (accepted by most European people) for women and groups who were in the minority among Europe’s people, including people of colour. On the one hand increased prosperity brought freedoms for some, while most were expected to remain in servile roles and abuse was often regarded as acceptable.
- A process of rebuilding Europe after the ravages of war was still ongoing. That included building housing, as well as changing cityscapes.
- Europe was divided between a USSR dominated east and a USA dominated west, with few neutral countries and the dividing line right down Germany. Spain and Portugal were still under the control of fascist dictators.
- Changing demographics as people migrated to and from Europe, largely driven by economic opportunities.
- Continued divisions between rich and poor, but with many governments focused on providing more state aid than ever before, for example in health and social care to all citizens.
Students could be asked to think about how much change and continuity their seems to be in this period and that balance of these in different aspects of the period. They could also consider the historical significance of the period for our own times. Students could be given a historian’s interpretation of the period and asked how far it can be supported by using the sources in the collection as evidence. You could use this source collection in conjunction with the series of life stories from across Europe for the period 1945-50 that are available in the Historiana Changing Europe Unit. Students could be asked to hypothesise about the perspectives the different characters could have taken on the 1950s, using the evidence available.
Teaching about Life in the 1950s using the e-learning activity
The e-learning activity uses the Historiana source collection to introduce students to the period of the 1950s. As such, it could be set as preparation work before starting to learn about some of the key events of the 1950s. The activity acknowledges that ‘Life in Europe in the 1950s’ is a very large topic indeed. Millions of people of different ages and experiences had been born and lived in Europe. Many more people from across the world were moving to Europe to build their futures.
Europe was a place with a big past and a sense of a big future. Europe was divided – between east and west, between rich and poor, between men and women. The activity is designed to provoke more questions than it answers. Students watch a 15-minute film clip about West Germany made by a US travel company. They are then asked to think about how the origins and purposes of the film shaped the selection of the images and narration of the film. Students next study the source collection images and sort them into two groups; images that agree with the film’s interpretation and images that give a different interpretation of the 1950s. They are asked to reflect on how the images extend their knowledge further and what questions they raise for them about the period.
Students move on to consider one image in more depth, by reading a text that accompanies it. From the text they gain contextual knowledge and this exercise demonstrates to students now contextual knowledge improves our understanding of an image. Students next use two sources and two short texts to compare similarities and differences in experiences of women in the 1950s. Finally, students are asked to think what else they would like to know about the 1950s and how they might go about gaining that knowledge, including talking to older family members about their recollections. In summary, this is therefore an introductory e-activity designed to give a flavour of the 1950s and to make explicit some of the ways that historians approach sources as evidence to draw provisional conclusions.
Historiana would not be possible without the efforts and generous contributions of historians and educators from Europe and beyond, and the support of the Connecting Europe Facility of the European Union.