Two years ago, I left my native Denmark to briefly live in the Suffolk village of Higham as part of a research stay at the University of Essex. Higham is a designated conservation area, situated in the picturesque Dedham Vale, consisting of old cottages and farmsteads as well as a couple of manor houses. Higham also has a 15th-century church, St. Mary’s, where I would walk most afternoons. The church was being renovated and it was therefore closed to the public. However, on the penultimate day of my stay, I came across two builders and asked if I could enter. Inside, my attention was caught by a stained-glass window, which—below an image of Richard the Lionheart—listed the six Higham men who fell in the Great War of 1914-19.
Higham today has fewer than 200 inhabitants. There are no shops, not even the obligatory English village pub. I don’t know how many inhabitants Higham had a hundred years ago—or if it had a public house then—but those six war victims must have made up a non-trivial percentage of the adult male population. Had there been no war but six murders in Higham between 1914 and 1919, the mortality rate would have made even the most violent cities in the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, or South Africa today look tranquil by comparison. Indeed, it would have placed Higham on a par with the violence that has marred some hunter and gatherer societies without a Leviathan to enforce peaceful conduct.
At the same time, there is nothing unusual about the six Higham dead. Driving around Suffolk and Essex, I saw that each village has its memorial, normally in the form of stone monuments in the cemetery or city square. They document similar death rates, and show that several members of the same family were often among the victims of the war. Of course, we also find Great War memorials scattered across Continental European countries such as Germany and France, which shed even more blood during the years between 1914 and 1918. The memorials remind us of how destructive this first fully industrialized war was for local communities across Europe.
A century has elapsed since the fighting ended in November 1918. But the two decades after the fighting were not on balance happy times for the former European combatants. Massive dislocation and collective psychological trauma soon flowed into the maw of the Great Depression, out of which came in no small part the political maelstrom that gave rise to the second Great War—or better perhaps, the second part of the one and only Great War. It is not surprising, then, that on the heels of many recent books about World War I we now may note a string of even newer books that have revisited the interwar period that followed to understand the challenges facing today’s democracies. These books include Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, and the anthology Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America edited by Cass Sunstein.1
These books are testimony to what Aviezer Tucker in these pages has termed “the disillusioned political zeitgeist of the second decade of the 21st century,”2 and they have won much acclaim in Western media and journals. They have at least two other things in common. First, they issue stern warnings that even established democracies in Western Europe and North America face grave dangers due to the rise of populism out of the “Great Recession” that began in 2008. Second, they turn to history in general and the interwar period in particular for parallels, and they use these parallels to argue that present-day democracies are more fragile than we like to believe. And perhaps they have a third characteristic in common: They make historical analogies that are mainly false.
This is where the Higham memorial came to my mind. In 1919, the United Kingdom had to return to political normalcy in a situation where more than a million sons, brothers, and fathers had died in the trenches. Several million other war veterans had to find their place in society while fighting mental and physical injuries. No better attempt to describe this struggle exists than J.L. Carr’s wonderful novel A Month in the Country. The novel is set in the summer of 1920, and it tells of two war veterans who spend a month in a village much like Higham. At some point, the protagonist, Tom Birkin, having just dined at a local home and seen a photo of the family’s fallen son, Perce, finds himself yelling out loud to no one in particular along an otherwise empty road: “Oh you bastards! You bloody bastards! You didn’t need to have started it. And you could have stopped it before you did. God? Ha! There is no God.”3
There were thousands if not millions of Tom Birkins in the United Kingdom after the war. To make matters worse, the war trauma was merely one of many calamities. The economic dislocation that followed from dismantling the war economy created a severe post-war slump, the General Strike of 1926 was seen as a near-revolutionary situation, at least in the media, and in 1929, the Great Depression hit the British industrial economy with a vengeance. One of the political repercussions was the split of the Labour government over crisis policy in 1931.
If democracies are inherently fragile, interwar Britain would have been a good candidate for democratic breakdown. But nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, British democracy proved remarkably stable between the two world wars. Labour replaced the Liberals as the main center-left party and peacefully took office in 1924 and 1929, while the Tories developed into a broad conservative party that closed the flank to extremist movements such as Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. When Labour split over the size of public spending cuts, in the midst of what British historian Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Extremes termed the “largest global earthquake ever to be measured on the economic historians’ Richter Scale,”4 it did not open the gateway for political extremists. Instead, a national government consisting of Labour’s right wing, Liberals, and Conservatives, led by former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, was established. This broad coalition provided political stability and governance during the economic crisis.
One might object that the United Kingdom is hardly your average democracy. But the fact of the matter is that Britain is merely one among a string of democracies that have been remarkably stable for a very long period. If we equate democracy with a system where governments can lose power at elections—a minimum definition widely used in political science and economics—the United States has been a democracy since 1776, the United Kingdom since 1832, Canada since 1867, Australia since 1901, and New Zealand since 1907. Turning to Europe, if we disregard the democratic breakdowns that occurred due to the German occupations under the two world wars, Belgium has been continuously democratic since 1830, the Netherlands and Switzerland since 1848, France since 1870, Norway since 1884, Denmark since 1901, and Sweden since 1917. Indeed, the most recent democratic breakdown in any of these former British settler colonies or Western European countries dates to Napoleon III’s self-coup in France in 1851, more than 150 years ago.5
The remarkable stability of these “Northwestern” democracies seems to belie Levitsky and Ziblatt’s observation on the very first page of How Democracies Die that “even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity.”6 The United States, it seems, is merely one of a relatively large number of countries that have defied gravity.
However, it is not the interwar trajectories of these “Northwestern” countries that form the basis for the many recent warnings that even well-established democracies might prove brittle in the face of crisis. It is the dire fate of democracy in countries such as Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s that haunts this new scholarship. To see why this is the case, take Germany, which was also hit by the Great Depression in 1929.
As in Britain, the social and economic consequences were brutal. Unemployment exploded while public spending and wages fell. But the political repercussions differed fundamentally. The economic crisis tore apart the centrist foundations of the very young Weimar democracy. President Hindenburg responded to the crisis by using a hitherto dormant clause in the Weimar Constitution that allowed him to appoint governments—led by first Heinrich Brüning, then Franz von Papen, and finally Kurt von Schleicher—that were not supported by a parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, the crisis led to large-scale political radicalization. At the last pre-crisis election, in May 1929, the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) had received a meagre 2.6 percent of the vote. At the first crisis election, in 1930, its vote tally skyrocketed to 18.3 percent, and at the July 1932 election—at the trough of the Great Depression—the NSDAP received 37 percent of the popular vote. An additional 14 percent of German voters opted for the Communist Party, which also wished to do away with Weimer democracy.
Political radicalization meanwhile returned to the streets, a decade after the violent “German Revolution” of 1918-19. The membership of the Nazi paramilitary organization, the Sturmarbteilung or SA, increased from 60,000 in 1930 to half a million on the eve of Adolf Hitler’s Machtergreifung in January 1933.7 This increase in paramilitary activity found an outlet in large-scale brawls and regular street battles: In 1931 alone, clashes between Nazi and Communist groups, in particular, led to more than 8,000 casualties.8 The close link between the economic crisis and political radicalization provides some vindication for Franz von Papen’s claim, in his Memoirs, that in the early 1930s, “the material conditions in Germany were so desperate that many young people took the brown shirt not because it was brown but because it was a shirt.”9
Germany was not a singular case. In a broad arc from Lisbon to Tallinn, all democracies save that of Czechoslovakia broke down, some in the 1920s, others in the 1930s. But based on what we know about democratic stability, this is really rather unsurprising. A voluminous body of research has shown that new democracies are fragile, especially if they are poor and especially if they are hit by economic crisis before institutions and attitudes mutually supportive of democracy can form.10 These characteristics apply to all the interwar democracies that were created in the aftermath of the victory of the Entente democracies in the First World War. To make matters worse, most of them were grafted on agricultural societies, which made it virtually impossible to establish modern mass parties. In countries such as Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania there was no working class of note to mobilize, and there was little in the sense of a civil society that could be used to undergird political activities.
The exceptions were the industrialized countries in Central Europe: Germany, Austria, and Italy (or at least the northern and central parts of Italy). It is probably for this reason that these countries figure prominently in recent warnings about the dangers of the rising populism. But these were also new democracies, and on top of that they were bedeviled by the legacy of the World War. Germany and Austria were the two principal losers of that war, and while Italy was part of the Entente, both the Italian political elite and the voters felt that a grave injustice had been done to the country after the war: Italy did not receive the Ottoman and Habsburg territories that France and the United Kingdom had promised in return for joining the Entente in 1915. This created revanchist yearnings in all three countries, which could be harnessed by undemocratic forces on the Right that had, in the first place, been brutalized by four years of fighting in the trenches. Furthermore, Germany, Austria, and to a lesser extent Italy were pestered by the Continental inflation crisis of the early 1920s, which eroded the savings of the middle class. Finally, all three countries had a strong stratum of noble landowners—epitomized by the Prussian Junkers—who were openly hostile to democracy, and who wielded a large influence in mainstream conservative parties.11 This was one of the reasons that these parties often proved disloyal to the new regime form.
Many of the new books that have turned to history to understand the present challenges facing Western democracies thus base their arguments on what happened in a set of democracies that bear little resemblance to the democracies we know today, in a period that was characterized by crises of a completely different magnitude than what we have seen in recent years—the Great Recession included. The books thereby create a false historical analogy between the patterns of breakdown in new and mainly poor democracies and the challenges that mature and affluent democracies face today.
The place to look for historical insights about how well-established democracies respond to crisis is rather to scrutinize what happens in this kind of regime when crises hit. In the case of the interwar period, this means scrutinizing the Northwestern democracies that had a longstanding experience with democracy on the eve of the Great War. If we do this, the historical lesson that emerges is much more heartening: Old democracies are remarkably stable even in the face of crises as devastating as those of the interwar period.
There are probably many different reasons for this democratic resilience. One important factor is the experience with democracy itself. As Dankwart Rustow observed in a 1970 article that is today seen as the harbinger of the much denigrated “transition paradigm”:
With its basic practice of multilateral debate, democracy in particular involves a process of trial and error, a joint learning experience. The first grand compromise that establishes democracy, if it proves at all viable, is in itself a proof of the efficacy of the principle of conciliation and accommodation.12
Over time, learning and habituation mechanisms teach both political elites and the broader citizenry that defeat in an election is only a temporary setback; losers get another chance in the future. Moreover, in well-established democracies, losing power does not mean losing everything; defeated parties and their voters need not fear repression by the victors. They are free to carry on their activities and wait for their day.
Lurking behind these learning and habituation mechanisms is the fact that well-established democracies have vibrant civil societies. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in Democracy in America, civil society bolsters democracy by creating a bottom-up bulwark against transgressions by the powers that be. Civil society associations—which were already ubiquitous in the America Tocqueville visited in 1831-32—bind individuals together, increase their political involvement, and enable them to speak truth to power, thereby resisting the centralization of power that Tocqueville had seen in France in his own lifetime and that he so feared. Seymour Martin Lipset and his co-authors elaborated these ideas in their seminal Union Democracy, published in 1956, in which they argued that democracy can only become institutionalized where voluntary associations provide information to citizens, school them in democracy, and allow them to oppose the cabals and maneuverings of would-be dictators.13
Civil society and a democracy legacy obviously do not appear deus ex machina. To understand why vibrant civil societies and long democratic legacies had come to characterize the Northwestern countries on the eve of the First World War, it is necessary to delve back into deeper patterns of state formation and economic development. But the important point remains that a prior experience with democracy, coupled with a fine-grained associational landscape, enabled the “old” democracies in Northwestern countries to channel the frustration wrought by the interwar crises—including the mass unemployment of the Great Depression—without it leading to the kind of political radicalization that we find in the arch from Lisbon to Tallinn.14
A good example is interwar Scandinavia. In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt fleetingly refer to interwar Sweden for evidence that the key to democratic survival is that moderate political forces fight extremists. The story they relate is the following: In the 1930s, the youth organization in the Swedish equivalent to the British Conservatives, Allmänna Valmansförbundet, was strongly inspired by fascist ideas in general and Mussolini’s example in particular. In March 1933, the conservative youths founded a militia clad in grey uniforms with blue ties and blue armbands, and they attempted to push the mother party to radicalize. Their elders in the Conservative Party disowned these tendencies. In 1934, the youth organization therefore broke with the Conservatives and founded a decidedly fascist party, Sveriges Nationella Förbund. The new party included three members of parliament and it contested the national elections in September 1936. However, the fascists got a meagre 1 percent of the popular vote; two other fascist outfits fared even worse.
Levitsky and Ziblatt construe this as evidence that moderate political forces can stem the tide of extremism by actively resisting it. But surely the most spectacular aspect of this episode is the lack of popular support for fascism in Sweden in the 1930s, even in a situation where the world economic crisis had wreaked havoc on the Swedish economy and where Hitler and Mussolini had allegedly eradicated unemployment and made the trains run on time. What the Swedish example shows is that some democracies are so stable that they can weather even severe economic crisis without political radicalization.
Similar political dynamics played out across the Sound where the Danish Conservatives also fought radicalization in the youth party and where extremists had even less success during elections in the midst of the Great Depression, and in a situation where totalitarianism was the shining model—or contagious disease, if you prefer—of the day. As in Sweden, the moderate Danish parties came together to give a democratic answer to the crisis in the form of large-scale social settlements (the most important being the so-called Kanslergade Agreement, concluded on the very same day that Hitler became Chancellor in neighboring Germany). Thus they were able to hold on to their voters and fight undemocratic movements via legislation. If anything, the Scandinavian democracies were strengthened by the interwar convulsions. More generally, all the European countries or former British settler colonies that had democratized before the end of the World War—meaning that democracy was not an external consequence of the victory of the Entente in the war but had emerged from internal political struggles during the 19th or early 20th century—survived the repeated and often mutually enforcing interwar crises.15
This is not to deny that the American political system is mired in a deep crisis of legitimacy at present. It is indeed worrying that an outsider and populist such as Donald Trump could come out of nowhere and win the presidency against the will of the political establishment; and that part of this political establishment has subsequently rallied to his side.
However, the history of the Northwestern democracies does nothing to bolster the notion that American democracy is in jeopardy.16 The stained-glass window in St. Mary’s Church in Higham serves as a reminder of democratic resilience, one among thousands of similar war memorials in the United Kingdom. It also shows why any attempt to make analogies with the interwar period is vulnerable to the objection that today’s context is fundamentally dissimilar. It is hard to imagine a situation more radically different from the circumstances in which the six Higham men were commemorated than the present one. There were no Tom Birkins in Higham when I lived there—as there are no Tom Birkins anywhere in Western Europe these days. As David Goodhart recently pointed out in these pages in his retroview of Erich Fromm’s 1941 book Escape from Freedom, the Great Recession that began in 2008 never developed into anything like the Great Depression that began in 1929.17 The populist parties now making headway in many Western democracies are fundamentally different from the “anti-system” parties of the interwar years, which openly denounced democracy and whose militiamen fought to the death in the streets. Indeed, there are no parties of note in any of the Western democracies that aim to introduce an alternative system to the democratic one—as we did see as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. This is not 1919, 1929, or 1933. Whatever challenges our democracies face today, they differ fundamentally from those of the interwar period.
1 Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017); Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die: What History Reveals about our Future (Crown, 2018); Madeleine Albright, Fascism: A Warning (Harper Collins, 2018); David Runciman, How Democracy Ends (Basic Books, 2018); Cass Sunstein, ed., Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America (Harper Collins, 2018).
3 J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country (The New York Review of Books, 2000), pp. 88-89.
4 E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (Michael Joseph, 1994), p. 86.
5 See Svend-Erik Skaaning, John Gerring, and Henrikas Bartusevičius, “A Lexical Index of Electoral Democracy,” Comparative Political Studies, vol. 48, no. 12 (2015), pp. 1491-1525.
6 Levitsky and Ziblatt, p. 1.
7 Christopher R. Browning, “For Fighting We Were Born,” New York Review of Books, vol. 65, no. 6 (April 5, 2018), p. 24.
8 Richard J. Evans, “Men He Could Trust,” London Review of Books, vol. 40, no. 4 (February 22, 2018), p. 37.
9 Franz von Papen, Memoirs (Dutton, 1953), p. 255.
10 Michael Bernhard, Christopher Reenock and Timothy Nordstrom, “Economic Performance and Survival in New Democracies: Is There a Honeymoon Effect?” Comparative Political Studies, vol. 36, no. 4 (2003), pp. 404-431; Milan Svolik, “Authoritarian Reversals and Democratic Consolidation,” American Political Science Review, vol. 102, no. 2 (2008), pp.153-168.
11 John D. Stephens, “Democratic Transition and Breakdown in Western Europe, 1870-1939: A Test of the Moore Thesis,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 94, no. 5 (March 1989), pp. 1019-1077; Gregory M. Luebbert, Liberalism, Fascism, or Social Democracy: Social Classes and the Political Origins of Regimes in Interwar Europe (Oxford University Press, 1991).
12 Dankwart Rustow, “Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model,” Comparative Politics vol. 2, no. 3 (April 1970), p. 358.
13 Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin A. Trow and James S. Coleman, Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (Free Press, 1956).
14 Thomas Ertman, “Democracy and Dictatorship in Interwar Western Europe Revisited”, World Politics vol. 50, no. 3 (1998), pp. 475-505.
15 See Agnes Cornell, Jørgen Møller and Svend-Erik Skaaning, ”The Real Lessons of the Interwar Period”, Journal of Democracy vol. 28, no. 3 (2017), pp. 14-28.
16 Aspects of American liberalism are under greater attack than democracy, it being understood that the two have different ontological statuses and different histories. Indeed, in some respects too much democracy is the problem; case in point: no open primaries in the Republican Party, no Trump presidency.