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Europe’s democracies are in trouble. To understand why, look to the past.

Building stable democracies is a slow and painful process.

- June 7, 2019

Sheri Berman is the author of a new book, “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day,” that examines how democracy has emerged in Europe over the past couple of centuries. Her evidence and arguments are relevant to the difficulties that many European democracies find themselves in today.

H.F. — In this book you argue for a return to a “political development” approach to the study of democracy. What does that mean and why do you think it is important?

S.B. — At its most basic, a political development approach is based on the assumption that we need to understand the past to understand the present and future of democracy.

First and most obviously because we cannot understand the challenges new democracies face as well as the difficulty of overcoming them without knowledge of their pasts. As Karl Marx put it, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Getting rid of these traditions — the legacies of each country’s old regime — is, as the book’s analysis of Europe makes clear, an extremely long and difficult process. And any new democracy’s ability to deal with these legacies also depends on their pasts. For example, “Democracy and Dictatorship” focuses on the import of the degree and nature of state and nation-building that has occurred at the time of transition and on whether transitional countries have previous democratic experience to build on.

A second and related contribution of a political development perspective is to provide more realistic criteria by which to judge new democracies. Without knowledge of the past, we cannot know what aspects of contemporary cases are distinctive to these cases or the particular time we are living in, rather than fairly common characteristics of political development.

For example, there is a tendency on the part of contemporary commentators to set high expectations for new democracies — to view post-transition violence, corruption and incompetence as signs that countries are not “ready” for democracy; the implicit assumption here is that “normal” democratic transitions lead smoothly to stable liberal democracy.

But the analysis in “Democracy and Dictatorship” of Europe’s political development makes clear that such problems often reflect the difficulty of eliminating the social and economic as well as political legacies of dictatorship. In addition, countries that stumble along the way to democracy are the norm rather than the exception: Liberal democracy usually emerges only at the end of long, often violent, struggle, with many false starts and detours from the high road.

H.F. — This is another theme of “Democracy and Dictatorship”: the difficulty of constructing well-functioning liberal democracies.

S.B. — “Democracy and Dictatorship” makes clear that there are no examples in European history of quick, painless transitions to democracy. The European struggle for democracy began in 1789 with the French Revolution. During the next 150 years many transitions to democracy occurred in France and other European countries. Most failed — many spectacularly and violently as in Italy, Germany and Spain during the interwar period. Even those few countries that had relatively peaceful paths to liberal democracy — Britain being the prime example — took an extremely long time to get there: from the 1688 Glorious Revolution until manhood suffrage in 1918.

Given contemporary debates, it is also worth stressing that, in the past, most transitions to democracy, particularly initial ones, that didn’t quickly fail led to electoral or illiberal rather than consolidated liberal democracy. It was only after 1945 that liberal democracy became the norm in Western Europe, only in the late 20th century in Southern Europe, and, not surprisingly, given its history and the story of democratic development laid out in “Democracy and Dictatorship,” liberal democracy remains elusive in Eastern Europe today.

H.F. — Why is it difficult to construct well-functioning liberal democracy?

S.B. — Another theme of “Democracy and Dictatorship” is that liberal democracy is so rare and difficult because it requires not only transforming political institutions, but also overcoming the anti-democratic and illiberal economic and social legacies of the old order. And this often requires violence, even war, to achieve.

This was true, for example, of the modern era’s first political revolution — the French — which did away with the political and legal infrastructure of the ancien régime in France. “Democracy and Dictatorship” then analyzes how the First World War permanently eliminated the old order’s political infrastructure — monarchical dictatorships and continental empires — from the rest of Europe, but it took fascism, national socialism and the Second World War to eradicate most of its remaining social and economic legacies.

This was particularly clear and particularly consequential in Germany. The Nazi regime finally pushed aside conservative Junker elites and established civilian control over the military. The regime also broke down the rigid status hierarchies that had long defined German society. The war’s aftermath then forced ethnic Germans from their traditional homelands in Eastern and Central Europe, eliminating a long-standing cause of conflict from the region, and making borders and peoples coincide across it more than they ever had before. Germany and Austria, in particular, became the home of essentially all of Europe’s Germans after 1945, finally fulfilling the goal proclaimed by German nationalists in 1848.

“Democracy and Dictatorship” makes clear that it was only after dictatorships and war eliminated the social and economic remnants of the old regime that the stage was set for the construction of the new domestic, regional and international orders that were finally able to provide the foundation upon which stable liberal democracy could be built in Western Europe during the postwar period.

H.F. — How many of Europe’s contemporary political problems can be illuminated by the political development perspective adopted in “Democracy and Dictatorship”?

S.B. — Almost all of them! To take but a few: The book analyzes how contemporary regional challenges in Spain are rooted in the weak state and nation-building process the country experienced during the early modern period. “Democracy and Dictatorship” also analyzes how deeply rooted the corruption, weak parties and so on that currently plague Italian democracy are in the country’s past, particularly its early state and nation-building experiences. And the democratic backsliding that has occurred in Eastern Europe over the past decades can’t be understood without knowing the region’s history. East European countries are relatively young — emerging only with the collapse of Europe’s continental empires following the First World War. They were then quickly reabsorbed into the Nazi and then Soviet empires. For these and other reasons, these countries have relatively weak states, fragile national cohesion, and had almost no experience with liberalism or democracy before 1989.