Changing the Face of Europe: European Road Mobility during the Marshall Plan Years

By Schipper, Frank | The Journal of Transport History, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Changing the Face of Europe: European Road Mobility during the Marshall Plan Years


Schipper, Frank, The Journal of Transport History


Five years after the end of the Second World War The Changing Face of Europe, a series of six documentaries, painted a Technicolor portrait of reconstruction in Europe. The films informed the public on the Marshall Plan and tried to shape public opinion on its achievements.1 Clearing the Lines, the fifth volume, treated mobility in Europe and stated that 'one barrier [has] not [been] conquered yet: the little painted lines marking the man-made frontiers that separate the nations'. The film made a plea to abolish such outdated man-made restrictions hampering engineers' victories over time and space. 'The triumphs of road and rail and waterway and air, they are the very framework of the grand design that we are striving to lay down all across our continent for the good life'.2 Clearing the Lines also testified how the Marshall Plan had restored mobility in Europe to its prewar levels. But mobility patterns were about to change.

Mass motorisation started in the 1950s, coinciding with a period of unprecedented economic growth in Western Europe. The relation between the Marshall Plan and the increase of Western European wealth has been the subject of a lively scholarly debate in which a crude distinction can be made between, on the one hand, the view that it constituted a crucial contribution to European recovery and, on the other, the opinion that its effects were minimal.3 The current consensus takes a middle position in between these extremes.4

Yet the Marshall Plan was about more than economics. The available literature suggests its main legacy was in fact cultural and psychological.5 These elements have been integrated in literature on transatlantic technological transfer, a process that has been most systematically researched in the context of the Marshall Plan.6 This literature suggests that successful transfer required adaptation to local circumstances, making both senders and receivers active participants in the process. Recipients selected, adapted, and transformed what America sent them and mapping the negotiation between sender and receiver is hence important.7 In the process, transfer also occurred in the opposite direction.8 The results of technological transfer differed widely across Europe.

An important concept that merits to be mentioned in this context is 'soft power'. Joseph Nye distinguishes this form of power from 'hard' economic and military power. The mechanism underlying soft power is attraction rather than imposition. In Nye's words 'soft power-getting others to want the outcomes that you want-co-opts people rather than coerces them'.9 Europeans had admired and frowned upon the American car culture since at least the early twentieth century and the transfer of American ideas on motorised mobility should be understood in this context. Such mechanisms were by no means restricted to Europe. Thomas Campanella makes a similar argument for pre-communist China.10 Graeme Davison has shown the profound influence of the United States on how the car won the hearts and conquered the cities of modern Australia, both as a model and through direct American involvement, for example by training Australian engineers. At the same time the United States formed a nightmarish dystopia at other points in time, as it did in the 1970s.11 These non-European examples not withstanding, Victoria de Grazia has recently argued that the place where this concept can be most fruitfully put to work is post-war Europe. It was there that American hegemony was built.12

Given this context the American government's attempt to 'refashion Western Europe in [its] image'13 through the Marshall Plan provided an opportunity to promote American views of mobility in Western Europe. A 2004 symposium issue of Comparative Technology Transfer and Society on the transfer of the American car society to Europe indeed suggests that this was exactly what happened in the 1945-65 period. In this special issue Bruce Seely identifies several institutions involved in 'pushing' Americanstyle highway engineering in Europe as part of a broader transatlantic transfer of technology and expertise, and indeed car culture in the wake of Marshall Plan financial flows. …

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