A photographic perspective on the 1950s in Europe 3

Living apart together – Collectivism versus individualism
While the notions of communism and capitalism seem to suggest otherwise, the relationship between the individual and the collective in fifties-Europe was by no means a simple case of opposites. While Eastern Europe saw the emergence of its very own countercultures (e.g. the ‘Stilyagi’), the West experienced state intervention in matters such as housing, transport, industry and trades, and was prone to propaganda and mass crazes as much as its antipode. In postwar Germany, the previously centralized radio was dismounted into nine regional networks in addition to those of the allied forces. While in East Berlin listening to the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) was discouraged, the station continued to be “a free voice of the Free World”, providing news and commentaries unavailable in other media outlets. Another illustration of the intricate intertwining of individualism and collectivism, was the globalization of fashion and music trends. Many of these originated in America and received wide acclaim within Europe’s emerging teen culture. Teenagers embraced the “violent and noisy” rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley, often to the despair of their parents, who preferred the milder style of artists such as Paul Anka. Seen in this press photograph is Anka – only a teenager himself – during his first performance on Finnish soil, to which his female fans reportedly greeted him with “a sound stronger than a million swifts”.

Garden with radio, Germany, 1950s / United Archives. In Copyright
Paul Anka performs at Linnanmäellä, August 1959 – UA Saarinen / Finnish Heritage Agency. In Copyright.

Climate of fear – Countercultures and contingency plans
With the devastating impact of the atomic bomb fresh in mind, postwar Europe was left with the terrifying knowledge that mankind held the power to destroy the planet. While experiments with nuclear energy shift ed toward the production of steam and electricity, the development of weapons continued on both sides of the divide. Throughout the 1950s, public protest grew more organized, resulting in marches, sit-ins and other actions. Depicted here is the forced removal of an activist of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War from a site in Swaffham, Norfolk, that was destined to become a missile base jointly operated by the United States and the United Kingdom. A silent killer of which the destructive powers were becoming more apparent too, asbestos continued to be used in house insulation, textured paint and vinyl tiles. Notwithstanding the fact that its detrimental effects were known since the 1900s, asbestos remained attractive as an aff ordable, naturally occurring and extremely fire-resistant material – as demonstrated here by a journalist testing an asbestos suit. A continuous and inescapable danger to health was the smog that covered industrial and metropolitan cities across Europe. The most devastating case was that of London and the ‘Great Smog’ of December 1952. Th e worst of all ‘pea soupers’ was caused by pollutants resulting from the use of coal, combined with cold weather and a lack of wind. Th ousands of people succumbed and approximately 100,000 more fell ill, urging the government to issue new regulations (e.g. the Clean Air Act of 1956) and citizens to be at their most resourceful for the sake of self-protection.

Policemen break the protest of the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War, December 1958 / TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright
Smog mask made from an old war time gas cape, November 1953. TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright
Journalist Matti Jämsä tests an asbestos suit, 1957 – UA Saarinen / Press Photo archive JOKA, Finnish Heritage Agency. In Copyright

(Un)bound – At liberty, in captivity
Advancements in transport, better wages, paid holidays and the window on the world off ered by television, sparked off the golden age of mass tourism in the 1950s. While in the west a shift occurred from domestic to international travel, the Eastern bloc’s favorite destination was Bulgaria, where commodities such as chocolate and cigarettes were easy to obtain. Europe was on the move, but not only for enjoyment and adventure. An unprecedented number of people left their countries in search of a job, among which 1.5 million ‘Ten Pound Poms’: British citizens opting in on the assisted passage scheme off ered by the Australian government to help solve its ‘populate or perish’-issue. Entering the ‘doorway to a bright future’ costed no more than £10 and a commitment to remain in Australia for at least two years. Moving in the opposite direction, c. 500,000 workers from former British colonies relocated following the 1948 British Nationality Act. The ‘Windrush generation’ – named after the ship that transported the first Jamaican immigrants – changed the face of postwar Britain. Yet relocating was not always a voluntary move. In Italy, poverty and epidemics forced people out of rural areas in the South. In Hungary over 200,000 people fled after the 1956 revolt. In Greece, thousands were evacuated to Eastern bloc countries following the Civil War. And in Russia, countless opponents of the Soviet regime were imprisoned in labor camps. The cautious smiles and ill-fitting clothes of these Lithuanian prisoners serve as a powerful reminder of the fact that, in Europe too, personal freedom and liberty of speech were never a given but a costly amenity.

Lithuanian political prisoners in Inta, c. 1956 / Kaunas IX Fort Museum. CC BY
To the land of promise, May 1954 / TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright
Leaving from London to Brisbane, July 1959 / TopFoto.co.uk. In Copyright

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