Month: November 2013

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Geopolitics of youth policy in post-war Western Europe (1945-1967)

This article was published in a first version in the Coyote Magazine of the Council of Europe and After in the Anthology of the European Youth Forum
David Wirmark (former Secretary General of the World Assembly of Youth) with Fidel Castro
David Wirmark (former Secretary General of the World Assembly of Youth) with Fidel Castro

The genesis of the institutional landscape of European youth movements is a fascinating field of research still to be completely disclosed and ready to open up interesting reflections in various fields: from the history of European integration to the evolution of social movements, from the rise of a transnational civil society at continental and global level to the changing notion of citizenship. The list could be longer.

In this short article, I sketch out an approach that combines history with political geography. In particular, I outline how the emergence of a European Youth Policy field has been influenced by the power relations embedded in the system of international relations. At the same time I describe how, almost paradoxically, this geopolitical situation laid the basis for the consolidation of an independent youth civil society as one of the main features of the youth policy landscape in Europe.

This is only a first attempt to approach this issue from this perspective. In this regards it constitutes mostly a seminal work that would require further intellectual and historical investigations.



The initial youth organisations, which emerged in Germany towards the end of the XIX Century as marginal social movements in reaction to the problems of Wilhelminian society but without a political agenda for reform, gradually became in the first half of the XX Century, under influence of the more disciplinary British youth movements, engaged in the national politics of societal reform. As they became powerful elements of mass culture, their political importance culminated in the 1930s with their adoption by the modern state. In their efforts to influence society through the practices of hiking and camping, the youth movements in pre-World War II Europe can be understood as key elements in the project of modern governance, employing the cultural meanings of landscape and community to mobilise youth at national level, and to eventually reproduce them as governable subjects.

This incorporation by the modern nation state of youth movements led to political distortions and manipulations that became evident after World War II. Lessons were drawn from the most evident cases of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, but also with the incorporation of youth movements in the Soviet regime and its satellites. In this context, it is not surprising that most of the Western European governments pulled out from active engagement in youth policy development, and left the field to youth organisations themselves.

At the same time, something was happening at international level: the incorporation of youth organisations by the system of international relations. In London in 1945, the youth movements  from the states signatories of the United Nations Charter formed the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY). The dream of a unified world youth constituency, however, suddenly collapsed with the beginning of the Cold War. Almost all Western organisations pulled out of WFDY due to its association with Soviet-aligned socialist and communist parties. In 1948, a World Assembly of Youth (WAY) was established, this time only with the movements that were outside the Soviet sphere of influence. This clearly set two sides in international youth affairs and tied them up with the geopolitical reality of the time. International youth work was definitely in the realm of foreign policy and youth organisations became sensitive actors and forerunners in keeping the channels of communications between the two sides open.


Campaigning for Europe

The big absent actor of this first period was Europe. Europe was a construction site (and still is). First of all, it was divided, thus entirely immersed in the Cold War logic. However, the European project was about to take its first steps, and from the European Movement International and the World Assembly of Youth itself came the first big wave of Europeanisation of youth organisations: The European Youth Campaign.

This campaign, launched in 1951, supported a series of conferences, cultural events, and support to youth organisations aimed at promoting a European identity among youth from all over the (Western) part of the continent. The campaign was funded as a part of the post-war reconstruction, by the American Committee for a United Europe, again in the context of the Cold War to consolidate Western European democracies and co-operation within the “free” Europe. The campaign was definitely a success, not only for the dissemination of books, events and creating a cultural humus for European cooperation, but also because it created the conditions for the creation of the first European Youth Platform.

The Council of European National Youth Committees (CENYC) was founded on 23 March 1963 in London as a voluntary association of eleven National Committees of the World Assembly of Youth (WAY) (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom) and the two National Youth Councils of France and Luxembourg. Italy and Switzerland participated at the founding meeting, but only decided later to participate in the CENYC.

The principal tasks of CENYC were to serve as a forum for the exchange of information, to collect and study material concerning youth problems, to co-operate and obtain assistance from organisations and institutions active in the field of youth work and education, and to support national youth committees in activities aiming at European unification.

The creation of CENYC constitutes the bridge towards the next phase of development of European youth policy. If on the one hand it allowed the achievement of a coordination among “western” National Youth Platforms in the frame of the WAY, it also crystallised two important principles. Firstly, the independence of national youth councils from their governments; which was to become one of the constituting pillars of the youth sector of civil society. Secondly, the institutional dialogue towards the new European institutions; one of the first resolutions of CENYC, already in 1964, asked the Council of Europe for the creation of a European Youth Centre.

The young, the student and the C.I.A.

By the mid of the 1960s, the system was quite consolidated. But this was soon shaken. On 15th  February 1967, the New York Times published a short but explosive article with a self-explanatory title “Foundations linked to C.I.A. are found to subsidise 4 other youth organisations”. Nothing really new was revealed, but it was now public. In particular, the article showed how the “Foundation for Youth and Students Affairs” subsidised the World Assembly of Youth, the United States Youth Council and the International Student Conference (western counterpart of the soviet-led International Student Union).

The echo of the revelations of the New York Times crossed the ocean very fast. Both European governments and youth organisations could not stay silent on the matter.

Most youth organisations wanted to clearly mark the distance and their independence from the C.I.A. funding. This resulted in a first disempowerment of the WAY and the consolidation of CENYC as an independent self-funded platform.

European governments, which so far had pulled out from mixing too much with international youth policy, started to seriously play a more proactive role. Youth was suddenly re-discovered as a crucial actor. This was not only the consequence of the confrontation between East and West and the role played by youth groups. Only few months after the C.I.A. affair, students and young people were marching on the streets in 1968. The “youth issue” was definitely a priority for internal policy as well.

These years were a turning point towards a new phase. A European Youth Policy was about to be set up (with different approaches) by the Council of Europe and, a bit later on, by the European Communities. However, the Cold War continued to play crucial role until the end of the 1980s. East/West relations were one of the main focuses of the pan-European youth dialogue that was developed after the Helsinki Agreement in the mid-1970s. But this time, the West European field was definitely acting more independently from the US than in the earlier phase, were we saw the direct intervention and support.


(partial) Conclusions

What is the sense of looking back at what happened 60 years ago now, in the second decade of the XXI Century 2010? There are several   lessons that we could already draw from this short introduction.

Firstly, this historical moment reminds us that investment in the youth sector of civil society (or the lack of) is a strategic choice of governments and institutions. This should, in my opinion, serve as a reminder for these actors to continue to provide the necessary support to youth civil society, especially in a moment of the individualisation of public life. Secondly, this episode traces the origin of dialectics between the actors and the origin of an independent youth civil society, which is now, decades later, institutionalised and re-balanced. In particular, it stands at the very beginning of a story that would lead to the creation of the European Youth Forum in 1996. Last (but not least) it shows how youth policy had, and still has, a role in challenging the concept of the Nation State, contributing to the creation of an international European scale.

I think these three lessons are today important to strategically plan the future of youth work and youth policy in Europe. In a period of economic crisis, young people are becoming more and more subjects of policy-making. Policy consumers, not policy producers. The recent launch of the new European Commission flagship initiative: Youth on the Move is an example of this trend. Participatory youth work risks being challenged and investments on participation and on the youth sector of civil society might be sidelined to the advantage of other important priorities. In this situation, the delicate balance among actors can easily break to the advantage of state-oriented top down policies. It is perhaps time for brave decisions. Besides the different size in numbers, the positive value of the contribution to European societies of independent youth organisations is definitely as strong and strategic as 60 years ago.


Methodological and Bibliographical Note

This is only a seminal contribution that would require more research on this specific historical period but as well should include a larger research on the past 60 years of History of European Youth Movements and Youth Policy. I will not give an extensive bibliography but some guiding references. Concerning the role of youth movements in the building of the Modern Nation State it is worth reading the works on the Nationalisation of Masses by George Mosse. On the European Youth Campaign very little has been written so far, but it is traceable in many books speaking about the history of the European Movement International. A lot of information is also included in the golden mines of the archives of CENYC, which are hosted at the European University Institute in Florence.