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The Deserted Temple:
Democracy's Rise and Fall
... a time when one hears talk on all sides of a crisis--and sometimes
even a catastrophe--of democracy.
--HANS KELSEN, 1932
Freedom? Many people smile at the word. Democracy? Parliaments?
There are few who do not speak ill of Parliaments ...
--FRANCESCO NITTI, 1927
At a "Congress of Dethroned Monarchs" held at Geneva in 192-Europe's erstwhile crowned heads tried to win back their old supporters. But their stirring proclamation ("Only monarchy is able to defend European culture from an onslaught of Bolshevik barbarism, from soulless American mechanization, from the anger of awakening Asiatic nationalisms ... Europe can choose: annihilation or monarchy ...") fell on deaf ears. Bowing to the spirit of the times, they finally set up their own Republic of Kings on a small island in the Indian Ocean. There, to their surprise, they were soon forgotten by their former subjects. The "twilight of the history of monarchy" had begun.
That was fiction, as narrated by the Polish writer Alexander Wat in his 1927 story "Kings in Exile." But the real constitutional changes wrought by the First World War were no less dramatic. In that moment of "bourgeois triumph," the ancien regime was finally toppled--sultans, pashas, emperors and dukes reduced to impotence. Before the First World War there had been just three republics in Europe; by the end of 1918 there were thirteen. "In the eyes of a Wilson, a Lloyd George, a Clemenceau, a Masaryk, a Bene, a Venizelos," wrote a French commentator, "the flight of the Kaiser Wilhelm and the departure of the Emperor Charles completed the flight of Louis XVI ... 1918 was a sort of European 1792."
Following the wholly unforeseen collapse of the great autocratic empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Hohenzollern Germany and Ottoman Turkey, the Paris peace settlement saw parliamentary democracy enthroned across Europe. A belt of democracies--stretching from the Baltic Sea down through Germany and Poland to the Balkans--was equipped with new constitutions drawn up according to the most up-to-date liberal principles. British scholar James Bryce, in his 1921 classic Modern Democracies, talked about the "universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government."
Yet liberalism's triumph proved short-lived. The Russian Revolution and the spectre of communist subversion cast their shadows westwards across the continent. Democratic values disappeared as political polarization brought much of Europe to the verge of civil war. Ruling elites in many countries soon showed themselves to be anti-communists first, democrats second. This became clear as early as 1919 in Hungary with the suppression of the Béla Kun revolutionary government and the installation of Admiral Horthy's regime. In Italy Liberal elites supported the formation of a Fascist government in 1922. Primo de Rivera seized power in Spain; Portugal's republic succumbed to the dictatorship of Professor Salazar. Poland took a sharp turn away from parliamentary rule in 1926, following a period of hyperinflation and political instability. With the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, one government after another moved rightwards. The trend seemed inexorable. "When one examines the contemporary problem of European dictatorships," noted an acute Spanish commentator, "one of the facts which immediately strikes one is the ease with which they have been established and the even greater ease with which they stay in power."
By the 1930s, parliaments seemed to be going the way of kings. The Left had been vanquished or forced onto the defensive nearly everywhere west of the Soviet Union, and all the key political debates were taking place on the Right. Only on the continent's northern fringes did effective parliamentary rule survive. "We are living in a period when the most courageous face moments of profound discouragement, when the hopes for social and international appeasement salvaged from the wreckage of the World War, seem sadly illusory," wrote an analyst of the "current reaction against democracy" in 1934. As early as 1925 the German legal scholar Moritz Bonn had talked of "the crisis of European democracy"; Eustace Percy in 1931 saw "Democracy on Trial" while H. G. Wells looked forward to "After Democracy." "Is this the end of liberty?" asked Salvador de Madariaga in the midst of the Spanish civil war. Professor William Rappard wrote from Geneva that the "crisis of democracy" had taken "civilized mankind completely unawares, following the apparent triumph of democracy in the modern world."
Sitting in Paris in the summer of 1940 as the Germans marched in, the anti-liberal Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote off the "stream of jurists" who had created "a mass of parliaments" after the "bourgeois triumph" of 1918; only gradually, he went on, did people realize that "the great tide of bourgeois parliamentarism of 1919-1920 had retreated" and that "in place of that current which had seemed irresistible there appeared another, an authoritarian one." To de Jouvenel, faced with what seemed to be the definitive collapse of parliamentary democracy in Europe, such institutions as the Presidency of the Republic, the Senate and the Chamber now appeared mere "fantasies of the Faculty of Law."
Today, it is hard to see the inter-war experiment with democracy for the novelty it was: yet we should certainly not assume that democracy is suited to Europe. Though we may like to think democracy's victory in the Cold War proves its deep roots in Europe's soil, history tells us otherwise. Triumphant in 1918, it was virtually extinct twenty years on. Maybe it was bound to collapse in a time of political crisis and economic turmoil, for its defenders were too utopian, too ambitious, too few. In its focus upon constitutional rights and its neglect of social responsibilities, it often seemed more fitted to the nineteenth than to the twentieth century. By the 1930s the signs were that most Europeans no longer wished to fight for it; there were dynamic nondemocratic alternatives to meet the challenges of modernity. Europe found other, authoritarian, forms of political order no more foreign to its traditions, and no less efficient as organizers of society, industry and technology.
"Constitution is such a wonderful thing that he who does not know what it is is a donkey," exclaimed an inhabitant of Ottoman Salonika in 1908. During the nineteenth century the demand for constitutional government had been a centrepiece of middle-class demands for political reform, and this demand gathered pace in the decade before the outbreak of the First World War, spreading through the empires of Europe and infiltrating St. Petersburg, Istanbul and the monarchies of the Balkans.
With the victory of Entente forces and the USA in 1918, the demand for constitutional reform swept central-eastern Europe. Poland and the Baltic states lost no time once Germany was defeated in affirming their liberal ambitions, and drawing up appropriately democratic constitutions. Territories wrested from the former Habsburg empire underwent a similar transformation. In November 1918, a provisional constitution declared Austria to be a "democratic republic." The Czech nationalist leaders issued the Declaration of Independence of the Czechoslovak State in October 1918 in Paris. "We accept and shall adhere to the ideals of modern democracy, as they have been the ideals of our nation for centuries," they proclaimed. "We accept the American principles as laid down by President Wilson: the principles of liberated mankind--of the actual equality of nations--and of governments deriving their just power from the consent of the governed." Early in 1920, the Czech National Assembly adopted the constitution of a democratic republic."
Of course, the key to the future of democracy in Europe--as it would be through the century--was Germany. The Kaiser was forced into exile, and a transitional liberal regime under the constitutionalist Prince Max of Baden soon made way for a sweeping democratization of the entire political system under the chancellorship of the Social Democratic leader, Friedrich Ebert. In January 1919 a National Constituent Assembly was elected by universal suffrage; six months later it voted for a constitution whose first article affirmed: "The Reich is a republic. All political authority is derived from the people." The workers' and soldiers' councils which had been set up at the same time, inspired by the Bolshevik example, were forced to accept the primacy of parliamentary rule.
In this way, amid the chaos and confusion of post-war central Europe, where nationalist paramilitaries, bandits, peasant radicals and pro-Bolsheviks were all seeking to exploit the collapse of the old regime, middle-class lawyers and politicians tried to lay down the bases of a new, democratic, constitutional order. The Russo-French scholar Mirkine-Guetzevitch, in his 1929 survey Les Constitutions de l'Europe nouvelle, found no fewer than twenty-two separate cases to discuss, including the constitutions of the Free City of Danzig, of the Vatican, Prussia and Bavaria. In that heady first post-war decade the jurist was king. University professors wielded extraordinary influence and experts like Hugo Preuss in Germany and Hans Kelsen in Austria put their theories into practice in the constitutions of their respective countries.
For inspiration--often taken verbatim--they scoured established liberal polities such as France, the USA, England and Switzerland. But they outdid even these in their zeal to build truly representative and comprehensive democracies. Their handiwork reflected the most modern doctrines of public law and its relationship to politics and society. Their fundamental aim was--in the words of a leading commentator--to subordinate politics to law, to "rationalize" power and sweep away the inconsistencies and irrational residues of the old feudal order, considering every aspect of social and political life in specific constitutional provisions.
Later, of course, it was the lawyers themselves who would be blamed for the collapse of democratic institutions. They had been naive, unrealistic and too inclined to seek "juridical perfection" rather than "political expediency." Replacing politics with law was a rather quixotic aspiration in the bitterly polarized climate of post-1918 central Europe. Critics charged that such grandiose and ultimately utopian schemes only produced political structures that were unworkable in the real world. These accusations ignored the many other factors that contributed to inter-war political instability--economic crisis, social turmoil, the inequities of the Paris peace settlement. But they did at least recognize the genuine importance and novelty of post-war constitutional arrangements.
Most of the new constitutions began by stressing their democratic, national and republican character. Thus, article 1 of the 1920 Austrian constitution asserted that "Austria is a democratic republic. Sovereignty is vested in the people." The Lithuanian constitution opened: "The state of Lithuania is an independent democratic republic." Sovereignty was usually stated to reside in "the people"; in some, however, such as Poland, the Irish Free State (in the 1921 constitution) and Greece, it emanated from the "nation." The 1921 constitution of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes insisted hopefully that "there is only one nationality for all the subjects of the Kingdom"; the Czechoslovak wording was almost identical. The Weimar constitution declared similarly its belief in "the national self-consciousness of a self-organizing people."
Because so much of bourgeois political life had revolved in the nineteenth century around the struggle with autocratic monarchs and their personalized systems of rule, the new constitutions naturally expressed an overwhelming mistrust of executive authority. Power was heavily concentrated in the legislature. The new constitutions authorized the setting up of parliamentary committees to oversee the workings of the executive and spelled out the circumstances in which a vote of confidence in the government might be called. In some cases, it was stipulated that government ministers were to be nominated by parliament rather than by the prime minister or president. This pre-eminence of parliament was to become, as we shall see, one of the main points of criticism by opponents of the new democratic arrangements.
The same desire for a highly modern, open democracy led often to the adoption of proportional representation in order to produce a legislature which would most closely express the popular will; referendums were also popular for this reason. In order to "rationalize" the tangled mass of regional legal codes and conventions and create a national body of law, several constitutions tried explicitly to define and restrict the power of local authorities and enhanced the power of the central state. Draft proposals by Polish and Croatian jurists to safeguard the autonomy of local government were rejected. Wilson's legacy, after all, encompassed not just democracy but national self-determination as well, and a strong central authority appealed to Czechs faced with a powerful German minority, to Poles with their Ukrainians, to the Serbs in Yugoslavia. Only in Germany and Austria was the new state constructed on a federal rather than unitary basis, and in those cases not until after a long struggle, nor for very many years. Indeed even before Hitler and Dollfuss centralized power in an unmistakable fashion, the central governments of Germany and Austria had begun to use their special powers in fiscal and welfare legislation.
Where the new constitutions departed sharply and most controversially from nineteenth-century liberal values was in their extension of rights from political and civil liberties to areas of health, welfare, the family and social security. The goals of social policy--new in their ambition and promise--were set out in constitutional provisions, not only in countries like Germany and Austria where the Social Democrats held power at the end of the war, but even in Romania, which talked about the "social rights of man" and in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes which mentioned land reform and the need for social and economic legislation. The Spanish constitution declared the country "a democratic republic of workers of all classes" and laid down that property might be expropriated "for social uses."
In these as in other respects, the new constitutions reflected the very diverse political preoccupations of their makers. On the one hand, they were expressions of classic nineteenth-century liberalism; on the other, they attempted to meet popular demands reinforced by the impact of the First World War for a "genuine social democracy." This social democratic agenda was clearly a response to events in Russia, and reflected a desire to win the masses away from Bolshevism and over to parliamentarism. "Either Wilson or Lenin," wrote Hugo Preuss, who drafted the Weimar constitution and saw it as a bulwark against the Bolshevization of Germany. Thus the new constitutions tried to reconcile old-fashioned parliamentarism with the contemporary pressures of a modern mass society emerging from the devastation of war. A mixture of forward-looking optimism and a new anxiety, they mirrored the ambiguous post-war situation of democracy's defenders--the European bourgeoisie.
EUROPE'S CIVIL WAR
"The soul of the Russian people," declared Prince Lvov, Prime Minister of the Provisional Government in March 1917, "turned out by its very nature to be a universal democratic soul. It is prepared not only to merge with the democracy of the whole world, but to stand at the head of it and to lead it along the path of human progress according to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity."
For much of 1917 it seemed that Russia would be the site of the first triumph of Europe's democratic revolution. All the parties involved in the overthrow of the old autocracy were committed to preserving their gains from the monarchy's return: liberal democracy was all the rage in early 1917, and if there was an apparent enemy, it lay in the form of the Romanov loyalists, not the Bolsheviks. The Left, including Lenin, was pressing for a Constituent Assembly in order to usher in the period of "bourgeois rule" which according to Marxist theory was now needed. As late as October, when the Bolsheviks seized power, they could not decide whether the revolution they were making was "bourgeois democratic" or "proletarian socialist."
With the Tsarist empire disintegrating, the struggle in 1917-18 with the breakaway Ukrainian and Finnish assemblies helped to push them in favour of the second possibility. Even more important were the results of the Constituent Assembly elections, which represented a vote for the Left but a considerable defeat for the Bolsheviks, who gained under one fourth of the total votes cast, and less than half as many deputies as the Socialist Revolutionaries. In the face of this rejection by the electorate, Lenin adjusted his position: according to his Theses on the Constituent Assembly it was true that "in a bourgeois republic the constituent assembly [is] the highest form of the democratic principle"; however, it now appeared that according to "revolutionary social-democracy ... a republic of Soviets [is] a higher form of the democratic principle." The Assembly became an anachronistic symbol of "bourgeois counter-revolution"; its members were written off as "men from another world." Lenin did not prevent its meeting in January 1918; but one day after it opened, he closed it down by force. This was bad Marxism, according to more moderate Social Democrats, but Lenin hardly cared.
His triumph, like Mussolini's later from the Right, was really the consequence of liberalism's failure. Russia's liberals turned out to be the first, but not the last, to assume mistakenly that a deep-rooted social crisis could be solved by offering "the people" constitutional liberties. Such liberties were not what "the people"--and especially Russia's fifteen million peasant conscripts--wanted. They were more interested in peace and land, and the liberals offered them neither, just as they had little to offer the country's urban working class either. In the factories, in the countryside and in the ranks, social order was collapsing, and the middle ground in Russian politics disappeared. Kerensky's Provisional Government had become an empty shell well before Trotsky's Red Guards seized power in Petrograd.
The hopes of Russian constitutionalists lingered on, nevertheless, and in June 1918 they established a short-lived Committee of Members of the Constitutional Assembly in Samara. After the end of the civil war, "bourgeois counter-revolutionaries" formed a rump Assembly of Members of the Constituent Assembly in Paris--but this bore little relation to the balance of power inside what had by now become the Soviet Union, where the overwhelming desire was not for constitutional liberties but for socio-economic transformation, national consolidation and an end to lawlessness and social anarchy through decisive state action. Thus Russia, liberalism's first wartime triumph, became the scene of its first and most frightening defeat.
In Bolshevik hands, even constitutionalism could be used against the bourgeoisie: why should their form of constitution be regarded as the last word? Perhaps it was outmoded and class-ridden, and needed to be replaced by something more modern? "We'll tell the people that its interests are higher than the interests of democratic institutions," insisted Lenin in December 1917. Shortly after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, he contrasted the "dead bourgeois parliamentarism" of the assembly, with the "proletarian, simple, in many ways disorderly and incomplete, but alive and vital Soviet apparat." And it was upon the basis of his Declaration of Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People that the Fifth Congress of Soviets approved its own constitution for the Russian Federated Republic. Through this document the congress sought the creation of socialism by ending exploitation, "crushing completely" the bourgeoisie and vesting power in the working population as expressed through the Soviets.
Citizenship in this new state was unrestricted--at least in theory--according to sex and place of birth, so that women and some foreigners were enfranchised. It was, however, restricted according to social background in favour of "the urban and rural proletariat" and "the poorest peasants": at least seven categories of persons--including rentiers, monks and commercial traders--were denied the vote. Moreover, all rights in law were conditional: they could be withdrawn by the government if their exercise was deemed to prejudice the socialist revolution. When in December 1919, the Menshevik Martov criticized the Revolution's repeated violations of its own constitution, Lenin rejoined that what Martov demanded meant "back to bourgeois democracy and nothing else," insisting that "both terror and the Cheka are ... indispensable." One year later, he was clearer still. "The scientific term `dictatorship,'" he wrote, "means nothing more or less than authority untrammeled by any laws, absolutely unrestricted by any rules whatever, and based directly on force." Thus, well before Stalin, the absolutist character of communist rule was made manifest; as in Tsarist times, the regime preserved an administrative conception of law rather than one consistent with the "bourgeois" separation of powers. It differed, of course, both from Tsarist times and, more important, from constitutional innovations elsewhere in Europe, in the priority it gave to socio-economic benefits for the masses--public housing, medical care and schooling, liberalized marriage and divorce laws--over the classical individual freedoms. But it differed too in its conception of revolutionary politics as civil war, wherein state terror had a special role as an instrument of class struggle.
Yet the development of the Soviet system had a less immediate impact on the rest of Europe than seemed likely in 1918. The West's intervention in the Russian Civil War failed to topple the communist regime. But equally across the rest of Europe, the much-feared revolution either failed to materialize, or was easily put down. Despite the wave of soviets, strikes, mutinies and insurrections which swept Europe in 1918-19 from Scotland to the Adriatic, with street fighting in Germany and a violent civil war in Finland, there was only one other country where a Bolshevik regime actually seized power for any length of time, and that was Hungary. As in Russia, civil war was the consequence; the outcome, however, was very different.
In early 1919, the liberal regime of Count Mihaly Karolyi was overthrown by a Bolshevik sympathizer called Bela Kun, who immediately proclaimed the establishment of a Soviet republic. But Kun held Budapest for only several months. Backed by the Entente powers, the Romanian army invaded Hungary and the communists fled. In the autumn of 1919, the gentry class returned to power under the regency of Admiral Horthy, established a regime of terror against suspected radicals and quickly won Allied recognition.
At first, Horthy's right-wing regime--anti-communist, anti-democratic--seemed an anomaly in an era of growing democratization, a last gasp of European feudalism. Time would show, however, that it was more than a relic from the past; it was also a vision of the future: the democracies were to be squeezed increasingly tightly between the twin extremes of communism and fascism. These new authoritarian models were soon to challenge the pre-eminence of Versailles liberalism.
At a time when ruling elites feared the prospect of peasants and workers joining hands to seize power, one of the main instruments for building up support for democratic successor states across Europe was land reform--sacrificing the aristocracy to save bourgeois society from the Bolshevik threat to do away with private property completely. Thus throughout eastern and central Europe, large estates were parcelled out to create a new class of peasant smallholders. In general it was hoped that they would prove to be independent, democratic but conservative, immune to the blandishments of communism.
Such a political project could only work, however, where the government was prepared to dispossess the landed classes. Where large estates were in the hands of an ethnic minority, as in the Baltic states, in Czechoslovakia and to some extent in the Balkans, politicians were happier about land reform than in countries like Hungary, where the magnates nipped the reform movement in the bud, or Italy, where landowners were well connected to government. In Weimar Germany, east Elbian Junkers accused the reform-minded Chancellor Bruning of "Agrarian Bolshevism." In Spain, of course, fear of agrarian reform was to play a large part in fomenting civil war.
The revolutionary wave of 1918-19 did indeed demonstrate the political conservatism of the landowning peasantry. It was in the cities--Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Budapest--that pro-Bolshevik groups sought power. It was in cities--like Turin in 1920--that the power of European pro-Bolsheviks expressed itself in strikes, factory occupations and demonstrations. What limited their potential--outside wartime Russia--was their lack of appeal to the rural population. Rarely in Europe did you encounter peasants in as miserable a condition as was to be found in Russia. Most were uninterested in political radicalism--with the partial exception of the Bulgarian Agrarians. Only where you found a landless agricultural workforce as in the Po valley, in the latifundia of Andalusia, or the Great Plain of Hungary, did the Russian Revolution resonate. Whilst Austrian smallholders denounced Red Vienna, Italian braccianti were forming powerful socialist leagues. Unwilling to defuse this rural discontent by the only democratic means possible--land reform--political elites in Italy turned to force. Agrarian civil war paved the way for Mussolini.
The rise of Italian Fascism in the early 1920s offers an instructive counter-example to those critics who blamed the new constitutions for democracy's collapse in Europe. After all, when Mussolini became Premier, Charles Albert's Statuto of 1848 remained the constitutional foundation of the state. What post-war Italy offered was a picture of liberal uncertainty and weakness, a more or less voluntary renunciation of power to the Right in the face of popular discontent and political instability.
In October 1922, when the King invited Mussolini to form a government, the Fascist movement was still relatively small. What helped it into power was not the impression created by the melodramatic, not to say farcical, March on Rome, but rather the widespread fear of socialism in Italy, generated by the results of the new universal male suffrage in the elections of 1919. It was this fear which explains why such broad strata of the police, the civil service, the Court and parliament looked upon the Fascists with sympathy. Mussolini's first government was a coalition with three other political parties. Without their support, especially that of the Liberals, Mussolini would have been unable to form a government. Without their support, and that of the Socialists as well, he would have been unable to push through the electoral reform of 1923 which ensured his government's control of the Chamber of Deputies.
Up to 1925, indeed, many of the Duce's more radical supporters expressed their disappointment at Fascism's compromise with the old system. The conservative Gaetano Serventi, in his book Ascesa della democrazia europea e prime reazioni storiche (The Ascent of European Democracy and the First Historical Reactions) not only wrote off post-war democracy as a symptom of "the rapid and progressive decadence of European values in the world," but, less predictably perhaps, attacked what he called "parliamentary Fascism" for "deluding itself that its vitality might exist within a democratic system." Similarly the Spanish commentator Francisco Cambo warned that Mussolini, by compromising with parliamentarism, had lost his opportunity for a truly revolutionary break with the past. Such criticisms were to be found also within the Fascist movement itself, where calls for revolutionary renewal led to the so-called "second wave" of 1925-6. Only then were laws passed extending the powers of the prefect in the provinces, depriving the regime's critics of citizenship, suppressing opposition parties and attacking press freedoms and civil liberties. In the fluid political climate of the early 1920s, Fascism no less than democracy was feeling its way.
Over the next four years the outlines of the Fascist state became clearer. Some features from the past were retained: the King remained head of state (although his powers were whittled down), Parliament continued its ineffectual debates, while the widespread use of police power in the provinces remained as indispensable as it had done under the Liberals. Thus in some ways Fascism followed on quite smoothly from its Liberal predecessors, and post-war mass democracy looked much like a tiny interlude in a longer history of elite government.
Where Fascism differed sharply from liberalism was in its frank defence of the authoritarian state. "Discipline must be accepted," stated Mussolini, who had--after all--chosen the fasces, a Roman image of authority, as the symbol of his movement. "When it is not accepted, it must be imposed." Individual and collective rights were, of course, harshly curtailed. The virtues of violence and action were extolled, while Parliament was denounced for ineffectiveness and useless rhetoric. As the Duce himself put it in his inimitable prose:
Fascism rejects in Democracy the conventional lie of political equality, the spirit of collective irresponsibility and the myth of happiness and indefinite progress ... One should not exaggerate the importance of Liberalism in the last century and make of it a religion of humanity for all present and future times when in reality it was only one of the many doctrines of that century ... Now Liberalism is on the point of closing the doors of its deserted temple ... That is why all the political experiments of the contemporary world are anti-Liberal and the desire to exile them from history is supremely ridiculous: as if history was a hunting preserve for Liberalism and professors, as if Liberalism was the last and incomparable word in civilization ... The present century is the century of authority, a century of the Right, a Fascist century.
In its attack on liberal individualism, Fascism proposed a social project revolutionary in its implications: the bourgeois division of life into public and private spheres was to be replaced by a "totalitarian" conception of politics as a complete lived experience: "One cannot be a Fascist in politics ... and non-Fascist in school, non-Fascist in the family circle, non-Fascist in the workshop." Through all the many twists and turns of the Duce's long period in office, these elements at least of Fascism remained constant.
Foreign reaction was largely positive. Outside observers were unimpressed by Italy's experience of parliamentary government, and their approval of Mussolini's achievement often carried undertones of a more general disquiet about the efficacy of parliamentary democracy in the modern world. Condescending English politicians like Churchill or Austen Chamberlain, who doubted whether the parliamentary tradition was for export at all, congratulated the Italians on having liberated themselves from a form of government to which they had clearly been unsuited.
Similar doubts about the universality of the democratic model could be detected more widely. Some questioned whether "the Latin peoples" with their tradition of absolutism could make of democracy anything more than a "comedy." In Portugal, for instance, there had been eight presidents, dozens of governments and innumerable attempted coups in the fifteen years which followed the creation of the republic. Perhaps certain specific historical traditions existed in the Anglo-Saxon world to explain the tenacity of democratic institutions--a long history of successful struggle against monarchy, a deep attachment to the liberties which had been slowly and painfully won during that struggle. The pre-war experience of Greece, Romania, Serbia and indeed Italy itself showed that parliaments were quite compatible with corruption, clientilism and continued backwardness.
At the same time post-war changes in the nature of government and the role of the state had made parliament itself less important as a locus of decision-making than its liberal advocates liked to admit. Now it had to share power with centres of business and union bargaining, and other kinds of interest groups. When one looked more closely at how parliaments actually functioned in the 1920s, the question remained: why bother with them at all?
THE CRITIQUE OF PARLIAMENTARISM
"The reason why `fascisms' come into being," wrote a French critic, "is the political and social failure of liberal democracy." The authors of Fascism for Whom? (1938) put it more simply: "Fascism was the product of democratic decay." This decay was located most obviously in the working of parliament itself. For many Europeans the roots of the post-war "flourishing of dictatorship" lay "in the crisis of parliamentary government as practised today."
Proportional representation--as some critics had warned at the outset--produced fragmented legislatures, with large numbers of parties. The very system designed to reflect the popular will revealed its absence amid a welter of class, ethnic or religious differences. Sixteen parties secured seats in the 1930 Reichstag, for example, nineteen in the 1929 Czech elections, while in Latvia, Estonia and Poland there were sometimes even more. According to Cambo, "the greatest inefficiency of the Italian parliament coincided with the application of ... proportional representation" which he described as "one of the most obvious reasons for the success of the Fascist revolution."
New electoral laws could discourage this fragmentation. France in 1924 and Greece in 1928 saw systems of proportional representation replaced by majority voting. Critics pointed to the example of Britain in support of their argument that majority voting would increase the stability of democracy. The problem, however, went beyond the electoral system itself. Political parties--highly organized, often with their own educational, cultural, welfare and paramilitary services--were frequently accused of acting as intermediaries for sectional interests rather than standing for the country as a whole. One conservative German theorist talked of the "egotism" of political parties and regarded their influence as the "symptom of an illness" and "a degeneration." Belgians talked disparagingly of the "regime of parties" which held sway. There were Peasant Parties, Communist and Social Democratic Parries for the industrial working class, even a "Party of the Middle-Classes, Artisans and Merchants" (in Czechoslovakia). Parties formed on ethnic lines as well as class. A Party for Spiritual Renewal made a brief appearance in Weimar. Parliament seemed like a lens, magnifying rather than resolving the bitter social, national and economic tensions in society at large. To see deputies hurling chairs as well as insults at each other was not uncommon; in the extreme case, in the Belgrade Skupstina in 1928, a Serbian MP shot dead the Croat Peasant Party leader at point-blank range, leading King Alexander to suspend parliamentary business, to revoke the constitution, and, in an act of extreme hopefulness, to rename the land of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But this did little good and in 1934 Alexander himself was assassinated by Croat nationalist extremists.
In his analysis of the Weimar party system, Sigmund Neumann argued that Germany's political parries were confronting rather than communicating with one another. Each group of supporters, mobilized in increasingly militaristic party organizations with their banners and placards, looked on with hostility at other sections of society. Political dialogue and coalition government were increasingly intractable, for "discussion becomes meaningless where one's partner has already decided on his position before the discussion has begun ... As a result the intellectual foundations of liberalism and parliamentarism have been shaken." Neumann predicted that "the breakdown of parliament will of necessity lead to the rise in importance of other political power factors, perhaps the Reich president [or] the Reich government." Legislative paralysis, according to his colleague Moritz Bonn, "has produced the clamor for a dictator who is willing to do the things the nation wants to be done, but who is not subject to the rule of economic groups or even of a majority." Hans Kelsen, one of Europe's most eminent legal theorists, spoke of "the crisis of the parliamentary system" and discussed reinforcing the power of the government vis-a-vis the Reichstag. Neumann, Bonn and Kelsen were all committed democrats; but they were all conscious of living in societies split down the middle in an era of unprecedented economic and political polarization. Democracy was supposed to have unified the nation; instead it seemed to have divided it.
As a result of the multiplicity of competing party interests, the formation of governments was becoming ever more difficult. There were hardly any countries in Europe after 1918 where the average Cabinet lasted more than a year; in Germany and Austria the average was eight months, in Italy five, in Spain after 1931 under four. In the French Third Republic--the ineffectual model for so many east European constitutions--the average Cabinet lifespan dropped from ten months in 1870-1914, to eight in 1914-32 and a mere four in 1932-40. This reflected the almost universal lack of stable bi-party legislatures, or of parties able to command absolute majorities. "Restoring the authority of the State in a democracy ... will be ... the first and most essential element of our intended programme," announced Paul-Boncour in December 1932; his Cabinet fell a month later. Such governments naturally found it difficult to push through the socio-economic reforms which were promised in their constitutions and party programmes.
Impasse in the legislature prompted calls for a strengthening of the executive. In Brussels the Centre d'Etudes pour la Reforme de l'Etat pushed hard for the modification of parliamentary procedure; "Reforme de l'Etat" became a popular slogan in Belgian politics. The Czech premier Benes correctly predicted that following the resolution of the European crisis "there will certainly be a reinforcement and consolidation of the executive power as compared with the last phases of European liberal constitutional democracy." Neither in Czechoslovakia nor anywhere else would this debate be forgotten after 1945.
In fact, constitutional revisions to strengthen the executive did occur in Poland and Lithuania (1926 and 1935), Austria (1929), and Estonia (1933 and 1937). The 1931 Spanish constitution--the most modern in inter-war Europe--authorized the delegation of substantial legislative power to the executive. Many feared, however, that such moves would turn out--as occurred, for example, under Pilsudski in Poland--to be a step along the road to dictatorship rather than a safeguard for democracy. "We must defend democracy," the leading French liberal Victor Basch warned the League of the Rights of Man in May 1934. "We will not accept Parliament being sent away, nor these decree-laws which may be constitutional but are contrary to the very principles of democracy."
It is just here that we can discern the clash between, on the one hand, liberal democrats who saw "in Power an enemy which can never be weakened enough," and, on the other, those more pragmatic constitutionalists who argued that in a crisis the executive should use all available constitutional powers to preserve the substance of democracy. Nowhere did this clash have more profound implications than in Weimar Germany.
By the late 1920s, the right-wing legal theorist Carl Schmitt had already developed his analysis of the "state of exception"--in which constitutional emergency powers were to be employed to defend the constitution rather than to institute dictatorship. With the Reichstag paralysed, Schmitt promoted the idea of the president as defender of the constitution. Between March 1930 and January 1933, Weimar moved towards a presidential system of government through emergency decrees. In the disastrous elections of September 1930, the Nazis and the Communists emerged as the second and third largest parties, making a majority coalition impossible and giving credence to Schmitt's arguments. Germany now appeared to be in a situation whereby decree-laws issued under article 48 of the constitution were essential if government was not to be turned over into the hands of parties dedicated to the complete overthrow of democracy.
The growing use of article 48, however, made it difficult to determine at what point democracy slid into dictatorship. Between 1925 and 1931 only sixteen emergency decrees were issued; in 1931 there were forty-two as against thirty-five laws passed by the Reichstag; in 1932 there were fifty-nine as against five. On 20 July 1932, Chancellor Papen used an emergency decree to impose martial law in Prussia and remove the Social Democrat state government. Jurists started talking of the "dictatorial power of the Reich president"; conservative anti-parliamentarians offered "democratic dictatorship" as the alternative to parliamentary government. It was scarcely surprising that jurists like Schmitt were widely suspected of laying the groundwork for an authoritarian New State--perhaps under General Schleicher, who was known to favour such a solution as a means of keeping out Hitler. One Liberal paper subtitled a 1932 discussion of Schmitt's views "A Constitutional Guide for Students of Dictatorship."
The German constitutional debate--paralleled, it must be said, by very similar discussions elsewhere--illuminates the complex relationship between authoritarianism and democracy in the crisis atmosphere of inter-war Europe. Weimar in the 1920s was clearly a democracy; under Chancellor Bruning it was less of one; under von Papen and Schleicher--Hitler's immediate predecessor--it was already very close to being an authoritarian state. Most people felt that the liberal model of parliamentary democracy needed revision; the question was, first, to what extent to transfer powers from legislature to executive, and second, what function parliament should possess once the executive predominated. Parliaments, after all, were rarely abolished entirely or suspended indefinitely; they lingered on in a shadowy half-life in Hitler's Germany, Fascist Italy and in many authoritarian states--a sign that these regimes still craved the kind of popular legitimacy which representative assemblies, however constituted, could offer.
THE CRISIS OF DEMOCRACY
Parliaments were not the only point of controversy; liberal democracy was under attack on a much wider front as well. To put it most simply: how democratically minded was inter-war Europe? Disillusioned jurists argued that the problem lay not in an excess of democratism in the constitutions but rather in a lack of democratic values among the public. Moritz Bonn echoed the views of many when he said that behind the crisis of parliaments lay "the crisis of European life."
Anti-liberal and anti-democratic creeds had been gaining ground since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Great War, they spread fast, through a "gospel of violence" most visible in the fascist movement but common to many members of what a later historian was to call the "generation of 1914." Reared on war, extremist ideologues preferred violence to reason, action to rhetoric: from Marinetti to Ernst Jünger, many young European males in the 1920s seemed ready to justify and even advocate the politics of confrontation. "Nothing is ever accomplished without bloodshed," wrote the young right-wing Frenchman Drieu la Rochelle in Le Jeune Européen. "I look forward to a bloodbath." Violence obsessed artists from the Expressionists to the Surrealists. Some saw the heritage of the war in the atmosphere of "internal war" which was polarizing most countries in Europe and which achieved its juridical expression in Lenin's conception of internal civil war and in the Nazi "state of emergency."
Among the veterans of the front were thinkers like Jünger and politicians of the Right including Röhm, head of the SA (the Storm Troopers), Oswald Mosley, the Flemish nationalist Joris van Severen, the Hungarian Ferenc Szalasi (founder of the extremist Arrow Cross movement) and, of course, Hitler himself. They assailed democracy for being "bourgeois": sluggish, materialistic, unexciting and incapable of arousing the sympathy of the masses, reflecting the aspirations of an older generation whose politicians dressed in frock coats and top hats. Bertrand de Jouvenel claimed young people found democracy unappealing; Henri de Montherlant contrasted the "haggard gaze" of the sedentary bourgeois with the physical vigour of the disciplined young authoritarian, beneficiary of the fascist "revolution of the body." Young Romanian intellectuals like Emile Cioran and Mircea Eliade hailed Hitler's assault on "democratic rationalism," and the energy of messianic and spiritual totalitarianism. Against liberalism's glorification of the selfish individual they proposed the spirit of self-sacrifice, obedience and communal duty.
Nor was it only the confirmed anti-democrats who thought democracy effete and worn out. Robert Musil, author of The Man without Qualities, affirmed: "I do not fight against fascism, but in democracy for her future, thus also against democracy." H. G. Wells urged Oxford summer-school students to transform themselves into "Liberal Fascisti" and "enlightened Nazis" who would compete in their enthusiasm and self-sacrifice with the ardent supporters of dictatorship. Unless democracy was able to mobilize such advocates, he saw little future for it. Liberalism seemed too individualistic to cope with the demands of a more collectivist age.
In 1930 Weimar's Chancellor Hermann Müller warned that "a democracy without democrats is an internal and external danger"; but the founders of post-war constitutionalism had not given this matter much thought. Kelsen, for instance, had proudly promoted his vision of a "legal theory purified of all political ideologies"; yet such a theory, by virtue of its detachment from politics, lacked supporters. Kelsen criticized Austria's Christian Socials and Social Democrats for following different legal traditions, contaminated by political Catholicism or Marxism, but they at least had large party memberships and he did not. His position might have been intellectually unassailable; politically he was still living with the comfortable illusions of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. Democracy in Europe had been shored up briefly after 1918 by an unstable coalition of international and domestic forces which was now breaking down across much of the continent. There were, simply, fewer and fewer committed democrats.
In the first place, democracy's international backers were less supportive as time passed. Woodrow Wilson's legacy of messianic liberalism was undermined by American isolationism, while the European victors--Britain and France--were concerned more about communism than dictatorship; so long as the new states of central-eastern Europe held communism at bay, they cared little about their domestic political arrangements. They made sure that the deposed monarchs and emperors of the Central Powers could not return to power, but were less concerned with other kinds of threat. They failed to realize that if democracy was identified with the peace imposed at Versailles, then the abolition of democracy implied an attack on the peace settlement as well. Back from Catalonia, Orwell chafed at the "deep, deep sleep of England," which by the late 1930s was losing the battle of ideologies by default.
Unambiguous support for democracy was thin on the ground throughout Europe. Guglielmo Ferrero remarked in 1925 that democracy's failure in Italy was chiefly due to the lack of a strong democratic party. But not only in Italy. The core group of old-time liberals were marginal figures in the inter-war years, their battles largely won with the defeat of monarchs and aristocracies. "The positive argument for being a Liberal," according to John Maynard Keynes in 1925, was "very weak." The decline of Britain's Liberals had little impact upon the stability of the political system, but this was not true, for instance, of Weimar's Democratic Party and other classic liberal parties. Mass suffrage threatened them with a marginal political role in the face of the great parties of the Left, of conservatism and nationalism, and of Catholicism. Fear of communism, in particular, drew many liberals towards authoritarian solutions. They were joined there by other kinds of elitists--the social engineers, business managers and technocrats, who wanted scientific, apolitical solutions to society's ills and were impatient with the instability and incompetence of parliamentary rule.
The European Left was seriously weakened by the split between Social Democrats and Communists, and was never again as strong as in 1918-19. The Communists opposed what they regarded as "bourgeois formalism"--parliamentary democracy--but could not destroy it, though they tried hard enough, at least before 1934. With the possible exception of 1930s France, they remained on the margins of politics and emerged--in the words of one recent historian--"on the losing side of all electoral battles of the inter-war years." "By any reasoned judgement," concludes Donald Sassoon, "the record of pre-war communism in Europe must be described as one of failure." The Social Democrats did not want to destroy democracy, so long as it could be transformed into socialism. "Republic, that's not much/ Socialism is the goal" was the ditty which summed up SPD attitudes to Weimar. This was a very provisional kind of backing, based on Marxist premises and reservations, especially once it became clear that many of the social rights set out in the second part of the Weimar constitution would remain a dead letter. At least one percipient critic foresaw the consequences; Hermann Heller warned at the height of the depression that either Weimar would realize its promise to become a soziale Rechtsstaat--a state with social and economic justice as foreseen in the constitution--or else it would slide into dictatorship. Only where Social Democrats forged a secure alliance with rural populations--as most notably in Scandinavia--or with conservatives--as in Belgium and Britain--did democracy survive. Elsewhere, constitutional commitments to socio-economic rights and welfare benefits were undermined by the depression and mass unemployment. The healing of the breach on the Left through a Popular Front strategy came too late for Germany and Austria, failed to save the Republic in Spain and ultimately collapsed in its heartland, France, as well.
Many conservatives, for their part, were no happier with inter-war democracy and were keen to see a return to more elitist, aristocratic and occasionally even monarchical modes of government. For them the problem with democracy lay in the power it gave the masses, in the supposed incompatibility of democracy and authority. They were prone to attack democracy on ethical grounds too. It placed too much stress on rights and not enough on duties. It had bred egotism and sectional self-interest and had thus contributed to its own downfall by failing to encourage a civic consciousness or a sense of community, or so many Catholic, Orthodox and nationalist critics of democracy in the 1920s argued. The Spaniard de Madariaga called for liberal democracy to be replaced with "unanimous organic democracy"; the French social Catholic Emmanuel Mounier greeted the fall of the Third Republic in 1940 by calling for "a struggle against individualism, a sense of responsibility, restoration of leadership, sense of community ... [and] a sense of the whole man, flesh and spirit"; his readers were reminded that for years he had been calling for a rejection of the pernicious individualism of "liberal and popular democracy."
Such criticisms marked the failure of democracy to live up to its own boast to have embodied and given voice to the nation as a whole. Once it had sounded so confident: "We, the Czechoslovak Nation, in order to form a more perfect union of the nation ..." began the preamble to the 1920 Czech constitution, yet it was an open question whether the country's Slovaks, Jews, Hungarians and Germans regarded themselves as included in such a phrase. Hugo Preuss had drawn up his draft of the Weimar constitution noting that "there is neither a Prussian or Bavarian nation ... there is only one German nation which is to shape its political organization in the German republic." And yet facts proved the contrary: Austria was prohibited from joining the new Germany and Bavaria was prevented from seceding; the constitution itself was drafted in an atmosphere of civil war. The confident bourgeois claim that liberal constitutions would both acknowledge and nurture the Nation was belied almost everywhere by ethnic and class cleavages. As a result, those whose highest priority was national unity were increasingly tempted by more integral and authoritarian forms of government; liberal democracy had failed the Nation, and might have to be sacrificed if the Nation was to survive. "When a constitution proves itself to be useless," Hitler wrote to Chancellor Brüning in 1931, "the nation does not die--the constitution is altered."
It is thus not surprising that by the 1930s many asked why it should ever have been expected that democracy would flower in Europe. This sort of attitude fitted neatly with the British pursuit of appeasement. "It may be that the system of parliamentary Government which suits Great Britain suits few other countries besides," sniffed The Times, defending non-intervention in Spain: "Recent Spanish Governments have tried to conform to the parliamentary type of republican democracy, but with scant success." From this perspective, the crisis of democracy in Europe simply proved Britain's superiority.
But it was not only Little England that took such a view. Karl Loewenstein was just one of many who pointed out how few European countries had any indigenous tradition of democracy. In few states, he argued, had the inhabitants a long tradition of fighting for popular liberties. Did the history of eastern Europe not suggest that democracy had been a last-minute gift--if not an imposition--of the victors at Versailles rather than the result of a popular mobilization? Was it then surprising that people should acquiesce so calmly in the loss of something they had scarcely fought for? Democracy's shallow roots in Europe's political tradition helped explain why anti-liberal regimes were established with such ease and so little protest.
|1||The Deserted Temple: Democracy's Rise and Fall||3|
|2||Empires, Nations, Minorities||41|
|3||Healthy Bodies, Sick Bodies||76|
|4||The Crisis of Capitalism||104|
|5||Hitler's New Order, 1938-45||138|
|6||Blueprints for the Golden Age||182|
|7||A Brutal Peace, 1943-9||212|
|8||Building People's Democracy||250|
|9||Democracy Transformed: Western Europe, 1950-75||286|
|10||The Social Contract in Crisis||327|
|11||Sharks and Dolphins: The Collapse of Communism||361|
|Epilogue: Making Europe||395|
|Maps and Tables||404|
|Guide to Further Reading||451|
Posted December 17, 1999
Brilliant! Mazower ignores decades of socio-political mythology and describes 20th century European politics in an engaging, uncompromising manner.
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