One of the first priorities of the British Council was to promote an alternative cultural view within Europe to the cultural propaganda produced by the German and Italian fascist regimes.
The Second World War restricted our opportunities to work on the continent; this was followed by a long period of budget cuts and the restrictions of the Cold War.
The rise of economic union in Europe revitalised our work in the region, and in recent decades we have sustained much closer cultural relationships with our nearest neighbours.
World War Two
Between 1938 and 1940 we opened several institutes across Europe, beginning in Lisbon. Our institutes combined a library with classrooms and social spaces, allowing us to provide a wide range of academic and cultural activities. The outbreak of War did not cause an immediate change in our work, although we faced staff shortages when many teachers were called up for military duty.
The German invasion of Europe in 1940 prompted an immediate evacuation of staff across the continent. The final country to be evacuated was Greece in 1941, where local staff destroyed Institute records to protect members from persecution.
Despite heavy bombings, our institutes in Malta and Cyprus remained open, providing social support to the islanders. Our activities in neutral Spain and Portugal flourished during this period, and we opened the British Council School in Madrid in 1940.
Work in the UK
From 1939 huge numbers of refugees arrived in the UK. Port cities became hubs for an international merchant fleet which ferried supplies from the United States to Europe.
In response to this, we established a ‘Resident Foreigners Division’ in 1939. For international servicemen we opened a number of ‘Allied Centres’, which provided accommodation, entertainment and support.
For refugees ‘national hearths’ were established; these were social spaces where people of the same nationality could connect. The Division also supported a number of national schools.
Operating during the Blitz could be very dangerous – our first Allied Centre in Liverpool was destroyed by bombing soon after opening, and had to be rehoused. Meanwhile, part of our headquarters was evacuated to Oxfordshire for the duration.
After the War we were left with a huge network of offices around the country. These were reorganised into a new ‘Home Division’, whose main responsibility was to provide support to international scholarship students. At one point, over 20 offices were opened in university cities around the country.
We were eager to return to Europe after the War, and by the mid-1940s had reopened many of our former offices and extended into new countries, such as France and Austria.
The UK economy struggled in the post-War period, resulting in general budget cuts for the British Council. Europe was particularly hard hit by this - a 1953 government review recommended that we remove our staff from Europe altogether!
Fortunately this did not occur, although our activities in Europe were reduced during this period. The majority of our institutes were closed, meaning we had no premises for teaching or exhibitions. Those that remained open (in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece), however, were extremely popular.
A notable exception to the reductions in our operations was in West Germany; we took over the British Embassy’s cultural activities there in October 1959. A special budget was made available for this work; over ten times more than we could invest in France in the same period.
A new European community
In 1963, and again in 1967, the French government vetoed British entry into the European Economic Community.
It was recognised that whilst the British Council had such a limited ability to present the cultural achievements of the UK, and meet the educational needs of the European states, it could not help to raise the profile of the British in Western Europe.
In 1971 our budget for France was extended by £100,000 a year - the first budget increase for the region in 23 years. This was devoted to youth engagement, teacher exchanges and city twinning activities.
A few of our Institutes had remained open, as English teaching centres, but little attention was paid to this by our headquarters until the mid-1970s. An inspection visit to Spain in 1975 revealed the popularity and demand for our teaching services among the local population. As a result, support for direct teaching of English was reinstated both in Europe and around the world.
The publicity surrounding the UK’s eventual entry into the EEC created more interest in our culture and language. With this came opportunities for new teaching centres, in countries such as the Netherlands and Spain, and an increase in art events, fellowship schemes and bursaries in other EU member states.
Eastern Europe, the Cold War and beyond
In the mid-1940s we reopened a number of our Institutes in Eastern Europe; however, we soon closed almost all of them following increasing intimidation from the Soviet authorities. In some cases, our local staff were imprisoned or fined for having worked with us.
Only our office in Poland remained open amongst the Soviet states, and we also maintained an office in Zagreb within the former Yugoslavia. However, in both cases we operated under considerable limitations.
A level of cultural exchange with some Soviet Republics was reinstated in the late 1950s, leading to the establishment of the East Europe Committee in 1963. This allowed us to co-ordinate activities in Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, where our staff were attached to the British Embassies.
Through exchange visits of professionals (such as teachers and doctors), the provision of lecturers in English, and arranging theatre tours and exhibitions we were able to make a considerable impact.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, we were able to provide considerable educational assistance to the former member states, for example in providing books, computer equipment, and the visits of expert advisers. We opened several new offices in 1991 and 1992, and extended our activities into the Baltic States for the first time.