"We are Europe" – The European Youth Campaign (1951-1958) and the role of youth in uniting Europe

Posted on Tuesday 16th April 2013

Christina Norwig and Dieter Schlenker

During her research on the European Youth Campaign (1951-1958) at the Historical Archives of the European Union in Florence, Göttingen-based PhD student Ms Christina Norwig, spoke about the key role youth played in the process of European integration and the importance of a political commitment towards young people’s needs in the European Union.

Ms Norwig, you are writing a PhD thesis on the history of the European Youth campaign (1951-1958). How did you get interested in the topic? 

Christina Norwig: A personal interest is important when writing a PhD thesis. When I went to school I was already participating in youth exchanges and I was very keen on having contacts in foreign countries and getting to know other people and their culture. During my university studies, I joined the AEGEE, the ‘European Student’s Forum’. The AEGEE has various thematic working groups, it organises meetings and has an impact on European matters. The slogan of my group was: ‘We are Europe’. We considered that Europe has to be constructed by its citizens and that every single person can contribute to this. This impressed me. After studying I began working for‚ Jugend für Europa which is the German Agency for the EU’s youth programme ’Youth in Action’, which promotes European activities amongst the youth.

It was then that I got interested in the history of the international youth programme and I figured out, that young people who travelled abroad immediately after the war must have had a completely different approach than young people who participate nowadays in European volunteer services or youth movements’ activities.

I started to be interested in the reasons behind why young people travelled abroad and in their experiences; for example those of young Germans who travelled to France. I then began to search for existing international youth movements after World War II and through an article by J.M. Palayret, the former director of the Historical Archives of the EU, I come across the European Movement’s ‘European Youth Campaign’ in the fifties. He told me at the Historical Archives held a huge amount of archival material about it and this is how I decided on the topic for my PhD thesis.

What are the origins of the European Youth movement?

Christina Norwig: The origins lie between the two World Wars and in some cases even before the First World War. The traditional youth movements like the German youth movement or the scouts had contacts in other countries and organised big international camps like for example World-Scout-Gatherings. The ‘International Union of Socialist Youth‘ organized also huge international Camp Meetings.

After World War II the European youth movements continued this tradition and organised international activities. Many new organisations having a precise European vocation like the creation of a United Europe were set up. Enthusiasm for traveling was very keen even amongst unorganised youth. Young people travelled by hitch-hiking, by bicycle, by foot sometimes even without passports over the borders and shared an incredible interest in meeting young people in other countries. They were interested in peace and reconciliation. Europe stood for peace, the abolishment of the Nation State and for a better economic future.

Having experienced war and the very difficult post war period had certainly an important impact. In the archival sources I found may young people in their twenties who had experienced war and felt that the time was ripe to build up a united Europe.

Was the idea of French-German reconciliation dominating the youth movement or was it a more Pan European movement?

Christina Norwig: From the archival sources of the “European Youth Campaign” one realises that all were agreed on the point that to move forward from the miserable state of Europe was through the creation of an economically united Europe. The idea about reconciliation was, as far as I can see, important among German youth, while young people coming from other nations were sceptical about Germans, they felt ready for a conciliatory approach. The various motivations conciliation, a politically united Europe, an economically united Europe etc. varied according to movements and individuals.

And soon a clear orientation for a Western Europe became dominant?

Christina Norwig: More than 15 European countries were involved in the ‘European Youth Campaign’, each in a different way and with changing intensity. Germany, France and Italy were without a doubt the more active countries, but also the Benelux countries played their part. It is interesting to note that Turkey was amongst them. According to the archival sources turkey is considered definitely a European country with a European culture. This adopts the rhetoric of the Marshall plan, which included Turkey.

Many active personalities thought that the countries in Eastern Europe could still be converted to Democracy and that they belonged certainly to Europe. But the Cold War played in fact an important role in the European integration process, also on a local level.

The origins of the “European Youth Campaign” I researched on, began during the Cold War. The international Youth Festival held in Ostberlin in 1951 troubled western European and American politicians. In answer to it the grounds for the ‘European Youth Campaign’ were laid in cooperation with the European Movement‘. The Campaign was financed by an American association, the “American Committee on United Europe”. All of its members were US-secret service agents. Without the US financial aid the Campaign would not have been able to survive.

On what activities did the Youth Movements concentrate in the following years?

Christina Norwig: An important event cited by many organizations, especially by the “Young European Federalists” is the symbolic takeover of the French-German border in 1950. German and French students assailed the border, cut the border barriers and installed signs with European symbols. This action was coordinated mainly by adults – the American association had financed it generously- but many young people had participated and a lot of movements consequently identified themselves with this event.

Another major event in that year 1950 was the demonstration of 3000 young people in front of the Council of Europe building in Strasburg where they claimed for a faster European integration. The Loreley-Camp in 1951, proposed by French occupation forces and organised by Jean Moreau who later became the Head of the “European Youth Campaign”, attracted attention everywhere in Europe. To me the most important result was the establishment of many personal contacts and friendships which characterises the movement.

The creation of the “European Youth Forum” and the “European Youth Foundation” in the 1970’s and the setting up of the EU youth programme “Youth for Europe” in the 80’s (1988) are important milestones as well.

These movements provided a financial framework for European youth activities.

Where there any crises in the European youth movements?

Christina Norwig: Tension between organisers and young people arose already in the 1950’s because the youth did not want to be influenced by adults and misused for their political objectives. This was evident between 1952 and 1954 when the European Youth campaign had to campaign for the “European Defence Community” (EDC). Many young people were extremely critical of it and when the EDC finally failed, it was a big defeat also for the youth movements. The Campaign had set their hopes in the EDC: through the ECD Europe would have expanded its competences on other policies and at length a real supranational European Community would have been created.

The dissolution of the “Campaign” in 1958 was another blow for the activities of the youth movements since they did not have any active support from the European institutions. The US had financed the youth movements after WW II for political reasons in the Cold War period but in 1958 these financial support was stopped. The official argument was that since Europe had now its own institutions it was the task of Europe to promote youth activities. But the new European institutions were absolutely not able at this stage to finance youth projects. Even if Jean Moreau and Fausta Deshormes, another organiser of the “European Youth Campaign”, had joined the European Commission and later founded the European Youth Forum, financial funds were not forthcoming. It was only in 1988 the first ‘Youth for Europe’ programme was set up.

What do youth movements think about the present crisis in Europe?

Christina Norwig: It depends on the experiences that young people have regard to Europe. More and more people have a negative perception of Europe as it has become associated with the austerity policy. The revival of prejudices and stereotypes that were thought to have disappeared is very damaging and indeed bewildering. The promotion of European youth activities should continue. The personal experience abroad and the personal contact with people in other countries helps to overcome such prejudices. I think that young people are very flexible and this will become even get more important in the future.

In such a crisis the youth associations show solidarity with the European youth. The European Youth Forum and the other associations have chosen the issue of unemployment amongst young people and the impact of the crisis on young people as crucial framework topics.

How do you imagine the European youth movement of the future do be?

Christina Norwig: I’m optimistic that more and more young people will become activists. I also hope that young people will continue to engage for democracy and especially for more direct democracy in Europe.

This year the EU programme ’Youth in Action’ will finish up and there will be no programme focussing on non-formal youth work. There will be only one huge programme which will assemble Erasmus, Sokrates, Leonardo etc.

This new programme should not only concentrate on university or school studies, but should also include young people who do not pursue higher studies. In order to abolish and fight prejudices it is important that all young people are targeted.

The interview was conducted by Dieter Schlenker, Director, Historical Archives of the European Union, Florence, Italy and translated in English by Ruth Meyer Belardini.

For the original version of the interview in German.

Link to the archival holdings of pro-European youth movements