The First World War which was aimed at making the world safe for democracy had far reaching consequences. More than thirty countries had embraced the spirit of democratization and thus adopting democratic constitutions, a few years after the Treaty of Versailles. A large number of states in Central and Eastern Europe had become democratic. The majority of these countries were new nations that emerged as a consequence of Versailles. Linking up with the prevailing democratic spirit was thus quite natural.
The trend spread from Estonia in the North to Albania in the south. It was a period characterized by great hopes for the future of democracy. Before long, the tide began to turn. A counter wave was beginning to take shape, and would gradually gather more and more momentum and strength. The 1920s and 1930s were characterized by far reaching setbacks for democracy. This new trend was witnessed in Petrograd in 1917, with the overthrow of the republican regime and closure of the democratically elected Duma by the Bolsheviks.
This same method of gaining power was successfully used by right-wing nationalist forces in other countries. In 1922, Mussolini assumed the leadership of a group of Italian fascists and matched on Rome. He did not encounter much resistance and managed to oust the elected government and make himself a dictator. This came to be a trend setting event. Mussolini’s daring act greatly inspired the German Nazis. Democracy thus fell victim to usurpers for many European lands. By the final years of 1930s, virtually every country in Central Europe was under authoritarian government (Rothschild, 1990).
In the 1930s, nearly every state that had introduced a civilian and democratic regime shifted to military rule. With the conclusion of a pact between Hitler and Stalin in 1939 which allowed each to expand within his respective sphere of interest, the prospects of democracy seemed bleak. In Czechoslovakia, armed German assault abolished the existing democratic system. Belgium, Netherlands, France, Norway, Luxembourg and Denmark soon came under the same spell. Meanwhile, Finland came under Soviet attack.
At the beginning of 1940s, democratic governments were very few. In the en tire world, the number of democratic countries amounted to about ten. Autocracy appeared to be sweeping everything before it. This paper is concerned with the problems that democracy faced during the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties. It particularly looks at the challenges and threats that faced democracy during this period of time and the consequences of such challenges. The recurrent scene of liberal democracies falling victims to dictatorship dominated inter-war politics.
The western powers hoped that their victory would bring in an epoch modeled in their own image. This was backed by the fact that the European continent at the beginning of the Great War had nineteen monarchies and three republics with the number of republics increasing to sixteen while that of monarchies decreasing to fourteen. Yet, the democratic revolution soon proved to be illusory. Not one democratic country could last a year before its democratic constitution became violated by one or other brand of dictator.
This phenomenon cannot be attributed to a single cause except for the inability of the Western Powers to defend the regimes that they had inspired. All the brands of dictators shared the conviction that Western democracy was not meant for them. The problem of democracy emanated from both the subjective and objective basis of politics. The subjective aspects of the social foundations of politics were however more difficult to influence than their more objectifiable structural side.
Although it is clear that more durable forms of political systems have to be rooted in a more general supportive culture, its more specific elements in most cases defy clearer specification and quantification (Berg-Schlosser & Mitchell, 2000). A sense of identification with a polity’s very existence is a precondition for any form of polity, both with regards its geographical national extension and its legitimate quality. Where there is an absence of either of these elements, or where they are undergoing basic changes, this can to a certain extent and temporarily be replaced by mere force or repression.
However, in the longer run, important aspects of political structure and political culture have to be brought in line (Auer, 2004). For the democratic political system, this implies a general respect for the dignity of every human individual and its rights, a particular degree of mutual tolerance and trust in society, and a wider acceptance of democratic rules of the game. Among the things that presented a threat to democracy were Germany and Soviet Russia.
These two countries also presented the two fundamental revisionist threats to the interwar territorial and social settlements. Even though many democratic European governments were wary of Bolshevik danger, Germany proved to be the basic menace. Neither in absolute nor in relative terms had Germany been made weak to the extent that had been assumed in the 1920s. Within Germany, the Germans failed to identify with democracy and instead viewed is as an obstacle. The Soviet Union on the other hand wanted to expand the extent of communism.
Democracy thus suffered from these forces that it seemed incapable of conquering. As such, weak democratic regimes had to succumb to the emerging ideologies and force of dominant forces. As such, the very structure of the various European societies that supported various ideologies also posed a problem for democracy. The alliance option for other classes in both the late nineteenth century and in the twenties and thirties was changed by the existence of a large landed class which also changed the political outcomes.
The authoritarian options for the bourgeoisie were opened up to the extent that the alliance of landlord-state-bourgeois impacted on the politics of the middle class and peasantry, locking out options for the working class (Davies, 1996). This in itself dealt presented various obstacles for democracy. It can also be said that the breakdown of democracy in interwar Europe was a consequence of the agrarian class relations and patterns of state-class alliances of the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s.
As such, it may be generally claimed that the major problem that democracy faced in Central Europe during the 1920s and 1930s was the incoherence between the thoughts, social, political and economic structures of the countries. Today, it is now generally accepted that democracy needs a supportive culture, even if it is agreed that this culture can be strongly shaped by temporary and short-term factors including economic performance, and by other underlying variables such as the institutional setting upon which this culture is set.
Popular support for the establishment of an independent civil society integrating intermediate group and associations which feed into the political process and aggregate different societal interests is also needed. Since the freedom of speech, religion, media, assembly and the right to form independent groups and opposition parties were all suppressed during the communist era, the norms associated with civic culture had to take time to establish itself.