The Collapse of Democracy and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Interwar Europe

World War II (WWII) has always a special place in the imagination of the public, often quoted as “The Just War” with the perfect clear cut villains who have haunted the public (and their movie screens) long after their defeat: Nazis. Compared to later wars of the 20th century, WWII was the greatest and most clear cut war for Western democracies. It included the most sensational villains and greatest horrors that society never wishes to forget. However, the timeline of WWII is actually much more complex and begins much earlier than the story of Adolf Hitler. Decades before the first shot was fired, trust in democracy started to fail and set the stage for the authoritarian and fascist leaders to exploit the faults in the system and gain popularity with the people of various nations. This paper will argue that the eventual war and the crumbling of liberal democracy during the interwar years was caused the lack of humanitarian interest in the welfare of the people by liberal democracy during times of great despair, political gridlock and in-fighting, the vengeance and pressure that the Versailles Treaty caused on losing nations, and charismatic authoritarian leadership that appealed to people’s sense of hope created a decomposition of democracy that would lead to all out war. It is only by capitalizing on these grievances that the charismatic dictators of WWII were able to create the narratives that would reframe their nation’s histories in the mind’s of their general populations and create the national myths that would kick off WWII.

Before one can examine the crumbling of democracy during the interwar years of Europe, we must first explore the socio-political mood at the onset of this period, the end of World War I (WWI), that the peoples of Europe experienced. The ordeal of WWI greatly influenced the philosophies of many in Europe, with soldiers such as the British Wilfred Owen commenting on the dichotomy between the “glorious” and “heroic” vision of the war that they had been fed and the dark bloody realities of trench warfare they experienced as their fellow soldiers died around for the “old Lie” that it is good and sweet to die for your country. Owen’s outright criticism of not only the bloody uselessness of the death and destruction that abounded in WWI but also of the direct role that the “old” ideologies of heroic nationalism and valor played highlights the feeling of pessimism and creeping distrust in the governments of old Europeans -and especially soldiers- held at the beginning of the interwar years. The words of another soldier and future fascist leader further reveal the bleak mood held by many in Europe as they attempted to rationalize the violence and destruction of the “Great War”: in the case of Benito Mussolini, this violence would herald a new world order where the soldiers of the trenches would rule successfully where the old Italian (democratic) government had failed. Those who lived through the insanity of WWI thus felt angered and betrayed by their governments following WWI, creating the first cracks in the once utopian vision of liberal democracy Enlightenment ideals of endless progress and civilization favored.

Immediately following the end of WWI, liberal democracy was challenged by the national trauma and economic pressure that the Versailles Treaty and the new world order created for the losing nations of the Great War. The Versailles Order, encapsulated by Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, celebrated liberal democracy and capitalism as the defenders of the European order, with self-determination afforded to all nations. However, this symbol of the new and more “just” world that liberal democracy had supposedly created was contradicted by the Versailles Treaty itself, which actively prohibited Germany and Austria from unification (even though this would be an extension of self-determination), created “protectorates” of certain nations that were quasi-colonies, and assigned all economic and moral blame for the war on Germany, despite the fact that it was not the only nation in the Central Powers! This severe punishment of the German people created both systems of economic oppression through the debt heaped on through reparations and forcefully marked out Germany as an “other” to be hated by the rest of the continent. The moral ostracization, despite the fact that no nations were “objectively” at fault of the war, coupled with the economic suppression Germany faced created a national trauma in the mythos of German history. This alienated the populace from the liberal democratic government of the Weimar Republic cooperating with the rest of Europe and created a desire for future vengeance. Authoritarian movements actively preyed upon this grievance and mood for retribution, with Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda explicitly decrying the Versailles Order as creating an “enslaved people” that has taken away “all sovereign rights” from Germany. In Italy, a nation that had nominally been on the victorious side, the Versailles Order was still denounced by fascist leader Gabriele D’Annunzio in the “Charter of Carnaro” which expanded Italian holdings to Fiume, an area that had been “promised” to Italy for their cooperation. Clearly, the shortcomings of the Versailles Treaty fostered outright anger that was capitalized on by authoritarian leaders and transformed into the militaristic actions that would spark WWII conflict. Thus, the punishing and contradictory post WWI socio-political order created by the Versailles Treaty created a feeling of resentment and isolation from liberal democracy by several nations, leading to national traumas in the zeitgeist of several nations who awaited reprisal.

Liberal democracy was also challenged by its lack of humanitarian compassion and inability to address the needs of the populace during times of great distress throughout the Great Depression in interwar Europe created some of the most major crises of faith in democratic systems of governance. Specifically, the post Versailles Treaty liberal democracies were unable to actually help nor stem the tide of unemployment and destitution the economic collapse created. Commentators such as Heinrich Hauser spotlighted the hostile and demeaning way in which Berlin government workers treated the unemployed men seeking housing and food, despairing that the state of the nation was worse during the time of the liberal Weimar Republic than it had been even during the darkest times of starvation in WWI. This lack of support for the peoples of Germany, many of whom had fought for the country and its ideology in WWI, seemingly revealed the inability of liberal democracy to actually aid its citizenry to a better future as well as its failure to address national crises as they arose. To the average citizen of Europe at this time, it seemed like liberal democracy could neither govern the present nor guide the nation to a brighter future- it was likely time to look for a new system of governance which actually could. Not even the victorious and therefore less economically constricted nations of Europe escaped this humanitarian shortcoming of liberal democracy, with George Orwell remarking on how it was only “cheap luxuries” in post-WWI Britain that averted socialist revolution as the democratic government remained unable to help the increasing ranks of the poor. Rather, the liberal democracies of interwar Europe shifted the “blame” for the poverty of its people back onto the populace, framing their misfortune as a personal failure rather than a failure of global capitalist democratic governance. Liberal democratic governments lack of help and shifting of the blame onto the populace therefore alienated the people of Europe and pushed them away from democratic systems into the arms of more sympathetic individuals. Meanwhile, authoritarian groups touted how they would solve the issues of poverty, work, and food that people experienced, with the Nazi Party demanding “the right to work” and “decent living” for its people.

Furthermore, liberal democracy was further challenged and people’s trust in its system of governance eroded by the slew of in-fighting and political gridlock that liberal democratic systems were characterized by during the interwar years. In Germany, the authoritarian Nazi Party rose to power partially through a platform which demanded direct action rather than the political underhandedness and lack of direction which characterized the Weimar Republic during the 1920s as things continually regressed for the general population as unemployment soared and economic progress stagnated. The growing popularity of the Nationalist Socialist Nazi Party and their electoral gains thus reveal the growing discontent by the German population with the Weimar Republic. Liberal democracy was doing nothing, so it only followed that the German public would turn to another system of governance as the liberal democratic system had been revealed to be ineffective in remedying their grievances and problems. This frustration at the lack of action by systems of liberal democratic governments was also echoed in Italy, where Mussolini expressed in 1932 that Italian Fascism was “born of the need for action” and that its creation was “practical rather than theoretical” in response to the lack of certainty and decision-making by the post WWI democratic government of Italy. Again, it is the inaction and political gridlock of liberal democratic governments that inspired the European people to lose hope and pursue an alternative, authoritarian, path. Even in Britain, Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) cites the political gridlock and lack of action by the liberal and conservative parties as a major reason that he joined the BUF as a party that would seek positive change on behalf of the common people. In both nations on the victorious and losing side of WWI, it is the inaction and lack of solutions which interwar liberal democratic governments were characterized by that drove the populace into seeking an active and assertive “alternate path” of governance that authoritarian parties capitalized on to grow their base.

Moreover, while authoritarian leaders exploited every failing of liberal democracy previously discussed within this paper to grow their base and attain more political power, it is specifically their charismatic appeals to the populace’s desire for hope and progress that liberal democracy could not provide which created the final and most severe fault within the foundation of liberal democratic governments in interwar Europe. To best discuss this, we will focus primarily on the three nations which composed the Axis Powers at the onset of WWII, although it is important to note that minor authoritarian leaders were weaponizing these same strategies to varying successes across the European continent. One of the most effective to capitalize upon people’s desires for a brighter and more prosperous future was Joseph Stalin during his reign of the Soviet Union through the complete propagandist push of “socialist realism,” a program which attempted to project an ideal future of socialist utopia throw artistic and literature propaganda that reflected the realities of workers to inspire actions that would spur that utopian socialist future into existence. Andrey Zhdanov reflects on how successful and convincing this propaganda was, underlining that the writers believed themselves to be the “engineers of human souls” under the direction of Stalin to create a utopian workers’ future, no matter that the present was currently distinctly dystopian. Not only were authoritarian leaders able to exploit the problems of liberal democracy, they were therefore able to actively -and very successfully- provide their citizenry with a utopian vision of the future under their rule, in this case that of Stalinist communism, to work for if they only follow their leadership. This wildly successful manipulation of people’s desire for a prosperous future compared with the paltry present was also utilized by Mussolini in his explanation of the Fascist Party’s platform, where he highlighted that the main goal of the people under the fascist state would be the support of the state and its ultimate growth and success. Thus, by supporting the fascist state and following the directives of Mussolini, the Italian people would gain prosperity and take their rightful place on the global stage as Italy grew in power. The rise of the Italian people and their successful future was intrinsically tied to the success of the state under fascism, bolstering the public’s desire to support Mussolini and his party rather than oppose them in favor of liberal democratic rule which had offered nothing. The last of the major dictators to utilize this trend in interwar Europe was Adolf Hitler, whose entire Nationalist Socialist Nazi platform hinged on the idea of “lebensraum” living space for the German people and a welfare state that would work towards the primacy and success of the genetically Aryan people at the cost of all other nations. Even Hitler’s concept of propaganda and mass rallies hinged on the unification of the greater genetically German population in uniting towards one goal (in this case the “Big Lie” eradication of the Jewish people) in order to not only create a society that would be greater for the remaining Germans, but also consolidate them into one national mythos. Thus, the authoritarian dictators of interwar Europe were able to utilize not only the cracks in the foundations of the liberal democratic world order but to also actively take advantage of their populations’ desires for a more prosperous future to consolidate their power and plans for the future.

In conclusion, liberal democracy in interwar Europe fractured due to a crisis in the liberal democratic world order. Specifically, the liberal democracy crumbled due to its inability to support the population during times of great poverty and despair in the Great Depression, the lack of action and political gridlock which characterized it throughout the interwar years, the economic and cultural resentment and isolation that the post Versailles Treaty world order functioned in, and the ability of charismatic authoritarian leaders to exploit their populations’ desire for a better path for the future to grow their own power and further their plans. Through this combination of crises and growing lack of faith in the systems of governments that had seemingly failed them again and again, the European people looked to another path for the future of their nations. Sadly, waiting in the wings were the extremely effective fascist leaders of interwar Europe ready to expand their power and plunge the continent into a second world war. It is for this very reason that, in our own time, we must always be critical in looking for alternative leaders. After all, all that separates us from a German citizen of 1920s Berlin is hindsight and fashion sense.