Saturday, Dec. 07, 1996

Finding a Middle Way

One by one, the venerable political leaders who had guided Western Europe through its early postwar turmoil gave way during the '60s to a new generation. In 1963 West Germany's crusty Konrad Adenauer (der Alte) resigned at the age of 87 after 14 years as Chancellor. That same year, Harold Macmillan, an old reliable blueblood of Britain's Conservative Party, resigned as Prime Minister at 69, officially because of poor health. (A subsidiary factor: the scandal caused by his War Minister, John Profumo, who had lied to Commons about his affair with a call girl.) Death claimed the widely beloved Pope John XXIII, 81, who had opened the Roman Catholic Church to winds of change by summoning the Second Vatican Council. At decade's end even the seemingly indestructible Charles de Gaulle was dead at 79, 18 months after he had resigned as President of France, having weathered a near revolution only to lose a referendum on regional reform.

Until then, De Gaulle had been Western Europe's most formidable — and most unpredictable — political force. At terrible cost and at great personal risk he had extracted France from the morass of the eight-year Algerian civil war in 1962, earning the enmity of colonialist right-wingers. His Europe-focused foreign policy was based on forging a strong alliance with West Germany, the former enemy. De Gaulle was loftily indifferent to former ally Britain, and it was largely at his instigation that the country was denied admission to the European Economic Community in 1963 (Britain was accepted as a member 10 years later). Wary about the depth of America's commitment to the defense of Europe, he withdrew France from NATO in 1966 and spent billions of francs to maintain a French nuclear force de frappe.

Politically, Europe faced years of troubling uncertainty and continuing cold war jitters. The erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 had reminded the West that Moscow would use whatever means it took to keep the East bloc satellites under key and lock. Proof came in 1968, when the Soviets and their allies invaded Czechoslovakia to oust the reform-minded regime of Alexander Dubcek. A chilling frost ended what had been heralded as the "Prague spring," an experiment in humanized communism.

Yet it was a time of resurgence for the left in Western Europe, in the form of democratic socialist parties. Conservatives feared — unfairly, for the most part — that the socialist successes might lead to a softening of resistance to Moscow's siren calls. A case in point was the Ostpolitik of Social Democrat Willy Brandt, the dynamic former mayor of West Berlin who became West Germany's Chancellor in 1969. In fact, the goal of Brandt's opening to the East was not appeasement but the lifting of East-West tensions. Ironically, for all the conservative concerns in the West, Ostpolitik was seen in Moscow and other East bloc capitals as a subtle form of Western aggression.

Nonetheless, there were a few promising signs that East-West detente could be made to work. In 1963 Britain, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the nuclear test-ban treaty. Also that year, emergency hot lines were installed in the White House and the Kremlin, thereby measurably reducing the possibility of an accidental nuclear holocaust. That likelihood was further reduced in 1964 when the Soviet leadership ousted the impulsive, belligerent Nikita Khrushchev in favor of the equally tough-minded but more phlegmatic Leonid Brezhnev. It was during Brezhnev's reign, however, that the Soviets began a massive military buildup that would ultimately lead to the regime's undoing.

The real threats to West European stability in the '60s came not from the East but from within. In November 1967, sociology professors and their students at the University of Nanterre went on strike for a seemingly trivial reason: an end to visiting restrictions at single-sex dormitories. Protests by French students, of course, were hardly new; thousands had rioted in sympathy with their American counterparts who were opposed to the deepening U.S. military involvement in Vietnam; before that, they had protested against the Algerian war. Yet by May 1968, the cause of university reform in France had become a national crusade supported by 10 million striking workers. On a lesser scale, similar riots by the children of Marx and Coca-Cola (as French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard called them) rocked Italy and West Germany. Not since 1848 had Western Europe been quite so caught up in the spirit of vague, libertarian revolution.

What made the riots so contagious was the unstoppable spread of a new, global pop culture that was at once naively idealistic and astoundingly hedonistic. "Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three," wrote the British poet Philip Larkin. That was the year of the Beatles' first major hit single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand". London gained a reputation as a city of young swingers, symbolized by blond birds with long, lank hair, tripping down the streets of Chelsea in Mary Quant's pert minis. And it wasn't just London: soon nearly all Europe's youth pulsed to the driving rhythms of rock. Thanks to that problematic new medium, television, a trend in music, fashion, art or literature that began in one nation almost instantly became Europe's common denominator. The generation gap took on new meaning.

Eventually the students went back to class — or most of them did. The '70s, however, produced a far more ominous threat to law and order: terrorist gangs of both right and left, the hard core of the evanescent revolutionary moment. What made them so dangerous was not their numbers but their daring unpredictability. All Europe was shocked when the Red Brigades in 1978 kidnapped and murdered Italy's former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. West Germany's trial of the century involved Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, whose Red Army Faction had been responsible for a series of murders, bombings and bank robberies. Basque separatists and the I.R.A. carried out sporadic wars of attrition against their Spanish and British "oppressors." Palestinian extremists targeted Israelis and Americans as enemies — most spectacularly at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes were held hostage and killed by Black September terrorists.

Conversely, the '60s and early '70s were years of uncommon prosperity for much of Western Europe. Inflation was moderate and unemployment low, except in Britain and Spain. Prosperity spawned a new demographic phenomenon: the so-called guest workers from poor countries like Turkey, Greece and Portugal, who migrated by the millions to France and both Germanys in quest of hard currency. A symbol of Europe's economic and technological assurance was the sleek, needle-nosed British-French supersonic Concorde, which made its first flight in 1976. The U.S. had nothing to match it, nor did the Soviet Union.

This golden age, as some have called it, came to a shuddering halt after the Middle East war of 1973. The Arab nations imposed an oil embargo on the U.S. and most of Western Europe that resulted in a fourfold increase in crude prices within a year. The cost of other raw materials also rose. Food prices soared, thanks to massive Soviet purchases of Western wheat and corn that pushed up the cost of feed grains. Even after the embargo ended, oil prices continued to rise as OPEC, the producers' cartel, displayed its newfound muscle. Recession and inflation spread worldwide.

The oil crises of the '70s revealed the fragility of Western Europe's economies and created new preoccupations with scarcity. But there were some salutary side effects. Energy conservation took hold, at least for a time, inspired in part by a new political force: the ecology-centered environmental movement known as the Greens.

Despite their fresh vision of old problems, the Greens did not set the agenda for Europe in the '80s. That role was played primarily by two remarkable — and remarkably disparate — leaders. A onetime actor and quarry laborer under the Nazis, Cracow's strong-willed Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope John Paul II in October 1978. He was the first non-Italian Pontiff in 41 1/2 centuries. The following spring, an Oxford-educated shopkeeper's daughter, the equally strong-willed Margaret Thatcher, became Prime Minister of Britain. She was the first woman to hold that office. In their personalities and their messages, both leaders embodied steadfastness, discipline and an unwavering sense of purpose in redirecting the entities they served and governed. Their dynamic conservatism was oriented to the future, not the past.