Insights from Europe’s History

Issue Date October 2019
Volume 30
Issue 4
Page Numbers 170-175
file Print
arrow-down-thin Download from Project MUSE
external View Citation

Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day. By Sheri Berman. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 560 pp.

Sheri Berman’s ambitious book analyzes the development of democracies and dictatorships in Europe, from prerevolutionary France to the collapse of communism. This is a tall order and an important task: Today populists, authoritarians, and other illiberal forces threaten to erode democracies that were centuries in the making. We cannot diagnose or comprehend the full scale of these challenges without understanding the history of how Europe became democratic.

Berman offers case studies that span three centuries and an entire continent. Helpfully, she structures what could be an unwieldy amount of data around four general arguments. First, she urges us to take a long view of democratization, arguing that, “political development is best understood as a marathon and not a sprint” (p. 8). One cannot simply graft a new political system onto old societies and economies. This is one reason why the path from democratization to democratic consolidation is so long—democratic transitions need to upend and replace entire political, social, and economic orders. Thus, Berman’s second argument is that democratic transformations can succeed only when key actors decisively reject the old order and adopt the new democratic order. This is difficult to achieve because the old political elites often are those with the most to lose. Democratic transitions also tend to be accompanied by violence, as major structural change [End Page 170] or war is often what destroys illiberal and antidemocratic vestiges of the old order.

About the Author

Sara Wallace Goodman is associate professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine.

View all work by Sara Wallace Goodman

After defining the pace and scope of democratic transition, Berman explains the conditions that enable or hinder consensus for democratization. Her third major argument is that the sequence of development matters for the success of democratization. Strong states that established national unity before the introduction of mass politics and capitalism began reshaping society were more likely to achieve democratic consolidation. This was the case in France and Great Britain. Conversely, in weaker states and in states that became strong and consolidated national identity alongside the birth of mass politics, consensus for transformation was harder to establish. As Berman shows in her Italian and German case studies, the democracies that formed under such conditions were more contested and fragile. Spain was a similar case, and its relative poverty meant that there was neither a middle class to support fascism nor a working class to support communism. This allowed entrenched conservative forces such as the church and the military to maintain their power. Finally, Berman’s fourth argument is that the liberal consensus that emerged after 1945 was the foundation that made democratic consolidation across Europe possible.

There is a lot to digest here, but some of the book’s arguments will leave interested readers wanting more. I will focus on just one: the idea that strong national unity is a prerequisite for democratic consolidation. There have been innumerable books written about nationalism and the evolution of the nation-state in Europe, offering what has become a standard account of how European nation-states were formed: deliberately and instrumentally. In conversation with these works, Berman offers a more complete picture of the formation of national unity by analyzing the sequence of democratization, arguing that the processes of nation-building and political development are often mutually dependent. Specifically, Berman observes that nation-building does not end after transition or with consolidation, because consolidation is itself a process and not an endpoint. In fact, as I and other scholars have shown, nation-building is an ongoing process. Who belongs? Who decides? Eugen Weber wrote that “peasants became Frenchmen,” but the process did not stop there. What it means to be a Frenchman is continually being defined and redefined as immigrant newcomers join French democracy as citizens. In other words, a strong and coherent national identity is not merely a prerequisite for democratization; it continues to develop as part of democratic consolidation.

Berman’s history shows how national identity and strong states have co-developed to produce or inhibit democracy, but her argument can also help us to think critically about what happens to national [End Page 171] identity when democratic deconsolidation takes place. Berman provides critical context for understanding some of the challenges that advanced democracies are facing today. One overt danger is posed by exclusionary populists who claim to represent a “pure” people while painting other elements of society as impure, unwelcome, or alien. Societies that are deeply polarized along ideological, ethnic, and cultural lines cannot be described as nationally united. And though liberal democracies tolerate and invite a degree of division and contestation, what sorts of institutions and norms are needed to bind a democratic society together? Is commitment to the rule of law sufficient?

A second challenge is less immediately distressing, but it lies at the core of contemporary political debates in Europe today. This is the matter of immigration. Whether political elites characterize it as a threat or an opportunity is a choice—and an indication of how they perceive national unity. Today’s immigration politics has revealed remarkably insecure and weak national unity that antidemocratic and illiberal elements have exploited to divide and polarize long-consolidated nations. But again, the long view shows that religious and ethnic minorities have presented a challenge to consolidating national identity for most of Europe’s history. Berman documents France’s Dreyfus Affair—an anti-Semitic miscarriage of justice that almost threw the Third Republic into civil war. She traces how, in Spain, centuries of weak central authority and strong regional identity can be traced in part to Ferdinand and Isabella’s decision to prop up local nobles in order to fend off the Moors.

Historically, national communities in Europe were created through expulsion and extermination. Berman argues that these national identities were fragile because they lacked “the tools or traditions to respond to new social cleavages or integrate new groups,” while liberal democracies “have the potential to knit people together on the basis of particular ideals” (p. 397). That immigrants still are seen as posing a contemporary challenge to this social fabric reminds us that the process of nation-building is both ongoing and delicate. If democracy derives its sovereignty from “the people,” then defining just who “the people” are is critical to determining the fate of democracy itself.

This is only one line of inquiry inspired by this deeply compelling work. There is much here that will interest scholars of labor, the welfare state, and social movements. It is notable that in each of Berman’s cases successful democratization hinges on conservatives and a strong middle class. Berman exhibits her analytical strengths in the richness of her English, French, and German case studies. Her chapters on Spain—while outliers in the analytical narrative—also are quite fascinating.

After sifting through the centuries, a reader may be torn about what [End Page 172] Berman wants us to make of the threat to democracy today. One possible conclusion is that Western democracies are in real trouble and that the world is entering a historical “interregnum,” a transition period dominated by “conflicts over what a new order should look like” (p. 9). Berman tackles this concern head-on, noting that while “we are nowhere near the kind of political crisis that characterized the interwar years . . . the consequences for liberal democracy have already been dire” (p. 405). Rampant polarization is a key characteristic of historical interregnums. In France at the time of the 1789 revolution, “various groups shared little beyond discontent with the reigning order” (p. 73). Similarly, Spain in the 1930s was intensely polarized and its politics “quickly became a ‘zero-sum’ game, with neither left nor right willing to accept electoral losses” (p. 281).

We can also see contemporary parallels with previous interregnums in the declining support for democracy itself, which compounds the corrosive effects of polarization. In Weimar Germany, movements such as National Socialism were “designed to attract a broad range of disillusioned, disaffected voters” (p. 243), a group that swells in economic hard times. Berman shows how the Nazi party really was a people’s party, drawing support in the 1933 election from a broad coalition of Germans—including the middle class as well as rural voters, and both young and old (p. 248). The Weimar Republic was unpopular even in segments of society where support for the Nazis was weak. Crucially, the conservative elite was “unable or unwilling to reconcile itself with democracy” (p. 250). These omens—polarization, disenchantment with democracy, and economic hard times—abound today.

Still, an alternative and more encouraging conclusion is possible. Berman rightly points out that “cycles of optimism and pessimism are not new: they have accompanied previous democratic waves and the backsliding that followed them” (p. 377). While polarization is a problem today, parties have not entirely abandoned their commitment to the rule of law, admittedly a depressingly low bar. It is far easier to strengthen democracy when institutions, practices, and memories are already in place. Democracies under threat today do not need to design institutions from scratch, and while “achieving consolidated liberal democracy easily or quickly is extremely unusual,” revitalizing moribund institutions is comparatively simple (p. 384). The value of knowing the past is that it reveals which aspects of the contemporary crisis are distinctive and which fit into the ebb and flow of democratic tides, providing clues for wary citizens and political leaders trying to avoid being swept away by the undertow. [End Page 173]


Copyright © 2019 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press