The Sunday Magazine

A better tomorrow or back to normal? How societies grappled with the aftermaths of past crises

2020 has unspooled one crisis after another, from the pandemic and long-term care to racial injustice and police brutality. That’s inspired calls for massive changes to our government, economy and way of life. At the same time, many of us desperately want life to return to normal. Ryerson University historian Catherine Ellis looks at the choices Western societies made when faced with similar forks in the road after the two world wars — to attempt to make a better world, or to retrench and just forget about what caused the crisis.

'We are in a place where the relationship between individuals and the state is being openly discussed'

(Veterans Affairs Canada)

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, there's been a chorus of voices saying that if we want a better, healthier, saner world, we are all going to have to reject the old normal. 

The old normal, after all, was defined by inequality, underfunded public healthcare, fraying social safety nets, political polarization, racism and environmental degradation — all of which made us more vulnerable to a pandemic.

But you only need to look south of the border, or walk past some of the crowded patios in many Canadian cities, to see how desperate people are simply to get back to normal.

Dr. Catherine Ellis is a member of the graduate faculty at Ryerson and at McMaster University. (Mark Blinch)

In the aftermath of great upheavals, societies are often caught between two competing desires — feeling the urgent need to change what's wrong with our way of life and our institutions, while also feeling the seductive and comforting call of what's familiar.

The Sunday Edition's guest host Anthony Germain spoke to Ryerson University history professor Catherine Ellis about the years following the First and Second World Wars — to see when societies seized the chance to reckon with the mistakes of the past, and when those underlying problems were left to fester.

"Responses to both the World Wars were embedded in the idea that wartime conditions were temporary. As people often said at the time, they were 'for the duration' … There was always an understanding that these experiences would come to an end when the wars did themselves, and so that tended to reinforce an impulse to return to normal," Ellis told Germain.

While periods of societal upheaval can be "catalysts for very important new ideas and ways of being and organizing societies and institutions," Ellis said they can also reinforce old societal structures.

"I'd argue it's very important to question any assumption that periods of crisis or radical change, such as wars, automatically lead to large-scale change," she said. 

Responses to both the World Wars were embedded in the idea that wartime conditions were temporary.- Catherine Ellis

The confusing aftermath of the First World War

After the First World War, Ellis said there was a strong feeling that the war had been futile, and people wanted to put its memory behind them. 

That desire for a break with the past led to new cultural forms. "If we think of the Dadaists, the avant garde, the 'new woman' emerging, Le Corbusier's architectural daring — [there was an] idea that modern life really demanded new plans, new physical and mental and cultural spaces," Ellis said.

At the same time, however, political tensions were left to fester.

"There were enormous structural problems that the Great War really had not addressed, and that in particular would come out in the case of Germany, where there was a great deal of anger and resentment over the defeat," said Ellis.

"Unemployed and often wounded and traumatized servicemen in Germany were unable to resume their normal lives. And their roles as breadwinners, husbands and fathers were very significantly compromised. So the kind of anger that came with the economic collapse fueled the attraction of more extreme political solutions. We see the rise of small parties, including right-wing nationalist parties such as Hitler's National Socialist Party."

While women had access to broader opportunities during wartime, some of that progress was rolled back following the war.

"There was a strong impulse toward restoring normality, or trying to get back whatever could be returned — for example, in gender roles," Ellis said. "That led to the attraction of political parties, including Hitler's, that prioritized traditional gender roles, that wanted to put women back in the home, that promised that the better way of reconstructing countries was to try to get back, as close as possible, to the pre-1914 era."

The aftermath of the First World War "really left a lot of things open," said Ellis. By 1939, the world was once again on the brink of war.

So the kind of anger that came with the economic collapse fueled the attraction of more extreme political solutions.- Catherine Ellis

A different approach during the Second World War 

During the Second World War, many people were determined not to make the same mistakes.

"There was a very strong desire not to return to the defining elements of the interwar years — especially, to avoid repeating the unemployment and the poverty of the Depression, and then the political instability and extremism that had come both through communism and through fascism," Ellis said. 

"Planning with that in mind, of not going back to the 1920s and 30s, actually began well before the Second World War was over. A really wonderful example of this is the Beveridge Report."

The Beveridge Report was written by William Beveridge, a British senior civil servant who was given the task of thinking about how to build a better world after the war.

When his report came out in 1942, it "provided a blueprint for the post-war world," said Ellis.

"It provided a summary of the principles that Beveridge deemed necessary to fight, what he called five giant evils — want, which is poverty; disease; ignorance; squalor, meaning poor living conditions; and idleness, or unemployment. It proposed a comprehensive insurance-funded system of social security … that Beveridge said would protect the British people from the cradle to the grave."

The report was enormously popular. For Ellis, that "speaks to that desire for something genuinely different, and not a return to the past, that distinguishes the Second World War from the First."

She also said having a concrete vision for the post-war world — even while the bombs were still falling — gave people a future to fight for.

"Copies were even distributed to the British troops, as a way to maintain their morale, to show that these sacrifices were worth making. I believe there was even a small-sized edition that was printed to fit into the pockets of the soldiers' uniforms," she said.

In 1945, the Labour Party adopted many of the principles of the Beveridge Report, and defeated the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill in a landslide. The new prime minister, Clement Attlee, then used those principles to build the modern British welfare state and to create the National Health System.

Both the World Wars accelerated changes to the relationship between individuals and the state.- Catherine Ellis

A Beveridge Report for the post-COVID world?

Ellis said it's possible to imagine a Beveridge Report for the post-COVID world — for example, one that proposes sweeping reforms for long-term care and a national childcare strategy.

She's also fascinated by programs like Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the renewed calls for a universal basic income.

"One of the things that really grabs me as an historian of political ideas and policy-making is that both the World Wars accelerated changes to the relationship between individuals and the state … [Today, again], we are in a place where the relationship between individuals and the state is being openly discussed," she said. 

"We're thinking again that the state is asking people to make sacrifices, to close their businesses, to stay indoors, to stay away from their friends and family, to delay medical treatments that are not essential. So I think, again, we have a sense that the state owes people supports in return."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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