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Global Affairs

A Modern Social History Classic

by Ferenc Laczó

During the early years of post-communism in Hungary, social history emerged as perhaps the most innovative subfield of historical studies.[i] In more recent years, Hungarian társadalomtörténet has also proven to be a peculiarly inclusive pursuit that partially incorporated – rather than being largely replaced by – new cultural historical trends.[ii] In the course of these years, University of Szeged-based historian Béla Tomka has not only established himself as one of the key representatives of this flourishing subfield but has – rather unlike highly esteemed local colleagues of his such as Gábor Gyáni, György Kövér, or Tibor Valuch – gradually broadened his horizons way beyond the borders of his country of origin.[iii] The release of A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe is doubtlessly the most significant result of Tomka’s sustained efforts to systematically compare social historical trends in an all-European frame that, however, consciously refrains from covering the territories of the former Soviet Union. Drawing on a plethora of studies in diverse fields beyond the more narrow confines of historiography such as demography, political science, economics and, above all, sociology, Béla Tomka’s overview amounts to no less than the major single-author social history of the continent’s past century.[iv]


Rector’s Building at University of Szeged, photo by McAnt, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Consisting of a brief introduction, eight extended thematic chapters and a substantial conclusion, A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe offers an impressive amount of quantitative evidence on long-term general trends as well as regional and country specifics. The book aims to cover all major aspects of social life – such as population; families and households; stratification and mobility; welfare states; work, leisure and consumption; politics and society; urbanization; education, religion and culture – and inquiries into the major causes and determinants of change in all these areas. What is more, A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe provides summary presentations and brief assessments of various foundational theories in the study of each. However, the author does so without proposing a strong central thesis or articulating a single grand narrative – Tomka may recurrently draw on certain elements of modernization theory but clearly does not aim to depict social transformation as linear or irreversible. His choice of a rather fragmented line of argumentation is essentially meant to enable the presentation of more substantial information on all his various topics.

Even if A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe, by and large, has the character of a textbook, in several respects it may nonetheless be described as a pioneering achievement. Tomka provides an unprecedented comparative treatment of all major European regions – beyond the specifics of Western Europe, including the rather unique patterns of Scandinavia, East Central Europe, Southern Europe, and Southeast Europe all receive sustained attention here. At the very same time, Tomka highlights the notable internal diversity of each of these regions, offering especially thorough analyses of Western Europe – by far the most populous and influential of his European regions – in this regard.

A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe thus constitutes an important extension of – and partly also serves as a corrective to – works such as Hartmut Kaelble’s A Social History of Western Europe, 1880-1980 and Sozialgeschichte Europas: 1945 bis zur Gegenwart, Goran Therborn’s European Modernity: The Trajectory of European Societies, 1945-2000 and Beyond or Colin Crouch’s Social Change in Western Europe.[v] One of its greatest merits indeed is that, in full accordance with its author’s expertise in the social history of East Central Europe and his native Hungary in particular, it bridges the East-West divide without thereby underestimating regional specificities, let alone attempting to forcibly impose a convergence narrative on the social historical patterns of the two halves of the continent. A crucial instance of such a differentiated approach is that – even as the mid-century is identified as a true watershed in numerous areas – Tomka presents communist takeovers as resulting in marked patterns of East European divergence. Contesting the interpretation of United Kingdom-based Swedish sociologist Goran Therborn in particular, A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe may thus also be seen as a contribution to post-communist attempts at revising inherited historical understandings especially regarding the supposedly notable successes of communist-era modernization.

George Grosz: Café (1919); commemorative stamp issued in 1993 by Deutsche Bundespost, public domain. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

George Grosz: Café (1919); commemorative stamp issued in 1993 by Deutsche Bundespost, public domain. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

More generally, considerations on the processes that have given rise to European unity and disunity in the past as well as identification of key characteristics of contemporary European society and its future perspectives lie very much at the heart of Béla Tomka’s endeavour. Even if the book shows how the early postwar processes of convergence in Western and even Southern European societies came to a halt during the 1970s and may even have been replaced by rather divergent trends in a number of areas since, Tomka ultimately maintains that Europe displays stronger patterns of cultural and social coherence than could be expected in the case of an entity with such a complicated geographical structure and high levels of ethnic diversity. In his conclusion, the author portrays the extensive welfare states, the rather moderate levels of social inequalities, the distinct quality of urban life as well as the dominant patterns of family formation as the most important distinguishing characteristics of European societies in a global frame.

Whereas A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe does a great service by synthesizing an immense amount of primarily statistical data in an accessible manner, a more reflexive approach to such sources, including a more thorough consideration on their constructed nature, might have further refined some of its central arguments. The author’s clear preference for comparable statistical data throughout the book also implies that mentalities and values – or historical agency, for that matter – receive no more than marginal treatment. Even when recent topics in cultural history – such as, for example, the use of urban spaces or the history of tourism – are addressed, their discussion still relies, above all, on quantitative indicators.

The approach of A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe thus closely resembles that of social history classics: Indeed, Béla Tomka explicitly identifies the study of the characteristics and relations of various social groups or classes and institutions as the central tasks of social history. His unique synthesis thus not only qualifies as a towering achievement of European social history writing but is also a major – and perhaps the ultimate, in both senses of the wordsynthesis based on a profoundly objectivist and therefore quintessentially modern conception of society.

Béla Tomka: A Social History of Twentieth-Century Europe
ISBN-13: 978-0-415-62845-7
Price: £24.99
London: Routledge 2013, 526 pages, paperback. 


[i] See Balázs Trencsényi and Péter Apor, “Fine-tuning the Polyphonic Past: Hungarian Historical Writing in the 1990s” in Sorin Antohi, Balázs Trencsényi and Péter Apor (eds.) Narratives Unbound: Historical Studies in post-Communist Eastern Europe (Budapest: CEU Press, 2007). For the major introduction to this field of study in Hungarian, see Zsombor Bódy and József Ö. Kovács (eds.), Bevezetés a társadalomtörténetbe (Budapest: Osiris, 2006).

[ii] For some details of this process, see Ferenc Laczó and Máté Zombory, “Between Transnational Embeddedness and Relative Isolation. The Moderate Rise of Memory Studies in Hungary” in Acta Poloniae Historica, 106 (2012).

[iii] In English, see their Gábor Gyáni, György Kövér, and Tibor Valuch, Social History of Hungary from the Reform Era to the End of the Twentieth Century (Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs, 2004).

[iv] The English version draws heavily on Béla Tomka’s 2010 Hungarian-language Európa társadalomtörténete a 20. században (Budapest: Osiris, 2009).

[v] Hartmut Kaelble, A Social History of Western Europe, 1880-1980 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1989). Hartmut Kaelble, Sozialgeschichte Europas: 1945 bis zur Gegenwart (München: C.H. Beck, 2007). Goran Therborn, European Modernity and Beyond: The Trajectory of European Societies, 1945-2000 (London: Sage, 1995). Colin Crouch, Social Change in Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).


Ferenc Laczó completed his doctorate in History at Central European University, Budapest, in 2011 and is now a research fellow at the Imre Kertész Kolleg, Jena, Germany, and guest lecturer at the University of Basel, Switzerland.

(c) 2015 The Berlin Review of Books.


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