The 20th century has told us many lessons. History does not repeat itself, but it appears that new variants of old themes keep coming back. Slowly passing the century like a movie in decades instead of episodes, we witness socio-emotional tides. The first decade, the 00s intensify the beginning of urban planning and social revolutions. The 10s show the arousal and subsequent extinction of masses of people in trenches. The 20s were described as the Carefree Twenties. In the 30s we observed the rising tides of fascist organisations followed shortly afterwards by the disastrous 40s. After the Shoah and the World War the 50s were fabulous viewed from the U.S. and Western Europe. The 60s propagated sex, drugs and rock n’ roll spreading across continents. The wild 70s became almost inescapable through the continued rise of mass media. The 80s were depicted as the colourful 80s as the 2 previous decades had set the scene for psychedelic colours. The 1990s have been coined as the gay 90s by some. Coming out as a gay person became easier and Western societies more sensitive and open to diversity. The back cover of the recent publication by Aurélien Bellanger “Le vingtième siècle” (The 20th century) speaks of the book as “roman polyphonique virtuose”. I look back on the 20th century as “polyphone” in many respects. It would be an illusion to believe we can only keep the nice sounding harmonies without the tensions or dissonances.
The fifties are remembered as the prosperous and booming years in the 20th century, worthy of nostalgy for some. Indeed, after the 2nd world war and its destruction the time of re-construction had come already some way, thanks to the Marshall plan of the late 1940s. Most countries had to turn huge military equipment industries into civil uses. After the Schumann Declaration, the European Coal and Steel Community was a first successful and lasting institution building in Central Europe. A mass production boom of cars, civil aircrafts, radio and the beginning of public television were landmark changes in the relationship of technology and society. The U.S. became a leading force in this evolution pushing for free trade between countries and consumerism. The deprived generations of the war period in the 40s welcomed the “fabulous fifties” (Arleen Kelin, 1978) as a dynamic and prosperous decade, despite dramatic speed to innovate new more deadly weapons. The atomic bombs were tested from superpowers and nuclear energy started to surface. Solar cells and optic fibres were also inventions of the mid-50s. Strange that we had to wait for another 70 years and multiple crises before these resource-efficient technologies achieved popular success. Integrated circuits, micro-chips, the laser, Tupperware, Coke, Lego, Mickey Mouse and global cinema came upon us during the 50s. The Sputnik effect re-opened an arms race as part of the cold war including outer space beyond airplane reach.
Families longed for and indulged in an as normal as possible family life. Unfortunately, this meant for many women, who had worked outside home during wartimes, to return to a role of housekeeping. Rock n Roll and increasing consumption of mass produced products could compensate for some of this deprivation. Higher divorce rates in the 60s and/or lack of own pensions were the dire consequences for many women. Showtime, and showing-off were the mantra of the 50s. Glamour (Magazine) rose to cult status and prepared popular culture and art. Following fashion and awareness of design spread across societies enabled by the easier access to “sewing machines” allowing more home production for the middle-class persons. The “people of plenty” (Andrew Dunar, 2006 p.167-8, referring to David Potter, 1954) were effectively sold a car culture with the automobile as an agent of change.
The atomic era was believed to continue prosperity for more decades (Expo 58 in Brussels) and a delicate, but relatively stable balance of power restricted open wars. “The End of Ideologies” during the fifties (Daniel Bell, 1960) lead to focus on Realpolitik and a race for prosperity, oblivious of the ecological consequences for many decades to come.