Democracy in 20th Century Europe

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After the revolutions of the 19th century, democracy was gradually introduced in Europe. In some countries, the monarchy was formally retained but, in practice, democracy took over. This didn't take place without its problems, and the continent had to go through two world wars, various totalitarian ideologies and the collapse of the Soviet Union before democracy succeeded. And we're still working on it.

World War I

Germany was not at all on the road to democracy in the early 1900s. Neither were Austria-Hungary and Turkey, the two countries that would later become Germany's allies in World War I. However, it was not the question of democracy that caused hostilities to break out, but the fear in the rest of Europe that Germany was getting too powerful. Around 1914, Germany had overtaken Britain as the leading industrial nation.

When a young Serbian nationalist shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in 1914, Germany used it as pretext for attacking Serbia's ally, France. Great Britain could not ignore this and declared war on Germany.

Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey constituted the Central Powers who fought against the Entente Powers of Britain, France, Russia, Italy and Japan. The USA didn't want to enter the war, but changed its mind when the Germans torpedoed U.S. merchant ships in the Atlantic in 1917. After that, the American president Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) was compelled to mobilize Americans for war, which took place under the motto, "Making the world safe for democracy."

Thus what had started as a reaction against allowing Germany to expand its territory and gain greater power in Europe was gradually defined as a defence of democracy.

In November 1918, a ceasefire was signed and revolution broke out in Germany the same month. This resulted in Kaiser Wilhelm II being deposed and Germany becoming a republic. At the subsequent peace negotiations in Versailles in 1919, the victors decided to punish the Germans for their aggression. The newly created republic had its wings clipped in all possible ways, politically and economically, and couldn't even feed its own population.

World War II

Europe and America were plunged into economic depression in the 1920s, a depression which was instrumental in many anti-democratic movements arising on both continents. The worst cases were in Italy, where Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) and the fascists took power in 1921, and in Germany.

Germany was the leading nation in technology, industry, philosophy, science, culture, and virtually everything your heart desires of intellectual activity, free-thinking and pluralism; but it was also an impoverished nation which felt cheated after the Versailles Treaty, and which was suffering from terrible poverty because of the crisis and the inflation of the 1920s. In short, the people were demanding national redress, food and a strong man who could create "law and order" at any price.

In 1921, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the "National Socialist German Workers Party" (i.e. the Nazi Party) and promised the Germans exactly what they wanted to hear: German recovery, work, food on the table, the extension of German territory and a glorious place in history. In the parliamentary election in July 1932, the Nazi Party got 38% of the votes.

At a new election later the same year, their support dropped to 33%, but Hitler was successful in getting the president of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), to appoint him Chancellor in January 1933.

Hitler took advantage of his newly won power and, at elections in March 1933, the Nazis received 44% of the votes. When von Hindenburg died the year after, Hitler also declared himself Führer (Leader), making his power over Germany total.

In 1939, Germany started World War II by invading Poland.

Nationalism, Fascism, Nazism

One reason for Europe's laborious process towards democracy, therefore, was nationalism in its extreme, totalitarian versions in the form of Nazism and Fascism. Both ideologies reject the importance of the individual and put "The People" or "The Leader" at the centre instead. The individual has no significance; the only thing that matters is the Nation, the Ideology or the Leader. Furthermore, Nazism and Fascism build on the idea that one's own people have certain rights in preference to other people.

Even after World War II and the disasters which Fascism, Nazism and extreme nationalism had brought in their wake, there were still fascist regimes in Europe. Greece, Portugal and Spain were all fascist dictatorships until the mid-1970s.

The Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco (1892-1975), had decided that, on his death, Spain would again become a monarchy. The new king, Juan Carlos I (b. 1938) proved to be a democrat and is one of the reasons why Spain is now a constitutional monarchy with democracy.


Another obstacle to democratisation was Marxism and Communism. The revolutions that were based on their theories also led only to misery and dictatorship.

Communism is based on Lenin's refinement of Marxism and doesn't put the individual first either, but promotes the community and Communism itself. Communism looks forward to revolution and a new world order. But because Communism is well aware that this can't happen from one day to the next, it introduces the "dictatorship of the proletariat" for an interim period after the revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat is therefore, in theory, a transition phase where the classless society has not yet arrived, but is the goal. According to Communist theory, the dictatorship of the proletariat has a duty to carry out any form of violence which helps the revolution because, after the revolution, the world will be a perfect, peaceful paradise; the oppressed will be free and able to live happily to the end of their days.

But it didn't happen. In Russia, the Communist revolution broke out in 1917 and, although it resulted in an ultra-short democratic period, the Soviet Union then quickly became one of the most comprehensive and brutal dictatorships in the world. The Soviet Union suppressed virtually every freedom for all of the people the union had under its power during the more than 70 years of its existence.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union "liberated" Eastern Europe, which meant that countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and others in reality lost their freedom, and that all signs of democratic movement were crushed - often with military power.

The opportunity for democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe didn't arise until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union's gradual dissolution up until 1991.


Democracy in Europe and the USA was slow in coming. In actual fact, it took exactly 200 years from the French Revolution in 1789 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 before Europe became free and democratic. Furthermore, it looks as if Russia still has some way to go.

Next chapter: Education, Cultivation, Paideia, Bildung