chapter  1
16 Pages

Introduction: (Re)Constructing Communities in Europe, 1918–68

The concept of community was at the heart of inter-and post-war discourses of reconstruction. The devastating effects of both World Wars offered plenty of ruined sites-literally and figuratively-on which new communities were to be constructed or projected, ranging from the highly exclusionary Volksgemeinschaft meant to underpin Hitler’s Millennial Reich, to universalist and democratic notions of community epitomised by the establishment of the United Nations. The notion of community permeated plans for the rebuilding of ruined cities and the development of new, planned (sub)urban neighbourhoods, as well as efforts to maintain viable, cohesive and productive rural settlements amidst rapid urbanisation. Communities, whether in their imagined sense or through lived experience, were the social glue through which people tried to come to terms with the devastating experience of war, where they tried to heal their wounds or urge for the redemption of past injustices. Many panaceas for the perceived moral degeneration of humankind-due to the atrocities of war, anomie induced by the metropolis, the waning of religious values or any of the other alienating and disturbing effects of modernity-were informed by myriad notions of community. 1

Historiography has mainly articulated the nation as a framework for community discourse and formation. Ever since Benedict Anderson’s seminal study, the construction of communities has been presented as a national or even a nationalist historical undertaking. 2 In line with this predominant lens of inquiry, and in an attempt to reconcile the discursive and spatial dimensions of community, Charles S. Maier recently argued that ‘a stable sense of community’ emerges if a minimum degree of congruence exists between ‘identity space’—a particular ‘geography of alliance’—and ‘decision space’—‘the turf that seems to assure physical, economic and cultural security’. 3 As such, historiography has tended to confirm the spatial and discursive dimensions of community as being predominantly national. This applies in particular to the period between 1918 and the late 1960s, the timeframe under consideration in this volume. This period was held together by continual efforts to construct communities as an answer to the challenges of modernity in terms of class antagonism, political polarisation,

social disruption and increasing state intervention. Legitimised by a host of sociological scholarship, for instance the work of Karl Mannheim, social planning was presented as the panacea for the ‘crisis of liberalism and democracy’ that had allegedly been key to interwar social fragmentation. 4

In the late 1960s this collectivist discourse yielded to disaggregated and individualist attitudes towards the social in what Daniel Rodgers has coined the ‘Age of Fracture’. 5 The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has convincingly shown that the late 1960s marked the end of what he termed the Grossgruppengesellschaft : a conceptualisation of society marked by ‘big’ social categories such as nation, class or religion. 6 In a similar vein, other authors have argued that, against the background of post-industrialism and postmaterialism, the 1960s witnessed a shift from ‘heavy’ communities to ‘communities lite’, which they characterize as being dynamic, flexible, temporary and based on individual choice. 7

In contrast to historiography predominantly oriented towards the nationstate, and in line with more recent inquiries into the sub-and trans -national sites of community construction, this volume presents a host of narratives that engage with scales, geographies and discourses that do not necessarily or exclusively articulate, confirm or produce national identities. This is not to say that the national is something to be denounced; it still serves as a trope or counterpoint in negotiating decentred conceptions of community.