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I. Preliminary Observations

A knowledge of history provides a decent understanding of human nature, well-wrought standards of judgment, and the perspective necessary to make vital comparisons with the past that bring the present into sharper focus. In recent years, academics, journalists, and politicians have sounded alarms to signal mounting threats to democracy. I take such warnings seriously and encourage all Americans to do the same. We cannot afford to ignore or dismiss them. But as a historian I am left to contemplate the nature, extent, and significance of the peril we face using the only guide that we have: the past.

The situation is rendered more complicated because the political history of the United States offers no antecedents to clarify and explain present circumstances. For much of its history America has been ahead of Europe by being behind Europe, thereby avoiding many of the problems and crises that have beset European society. America was, in fact, long thought the alternative to Europe. The New World, America was a land of new possibilities, new opportunities, and new hope. Events and developments that took place in Europe beginning in the late nineteenth century thus provide deeper insight into contemporary American politics than does the American past. For America has at last caught up with Europe, where one hundred years ago it was not democracy alone but freedom itself that was in peril.

Believing that it will somehow accrue to their benefit, some politicians have abandoned any semblance of principle or even ideological coherence, called for the elimination of freedom, and devoted themselves to serving the Great Leader. Partisanship, tribalism, and irrationality are intrinsic to human nature. Yet, political thinkers such as James Madison long ago identified and addressed these challenges to freedom, making them central to the American experiment in self-government. Unlike later social engineers, whether liberal or socialist, Madison understood that human nature could not be changed. But, he argued, it could be governed without at the same time subjecting men and women to a despotism that would rob them of their liberty. The more antisocial impulses and destructive aspects of human nature could be restrained not by tyrannical government but instead by citizens themselves who agreed not to assert their private rights and interests but rather to devote themselves to civility, to self-restraint, to serving the common good, and to abiding by laws that they had a voice in making. Liberty, in Madison’s analysis, rested on public virtue.

As Madison recognized, the weakness and perversity of human nature made it impossible to keep men unerringly on the path of justice, order, and peace, especially when it was easier for them to realize their desires and to satisfy their ambitions by fraud, deceit, and violence. He thus denied that reason was sufficient to ensure the continuance of social, political, and moral order. In the realm theory, ordered liberty ought to depend on nothing more than “the voice of an enlightened reason. . . . It is the reason, alone,” Madison wrote in Federalist 49, “that ought to control and regulate government. The passions ought to be controlled and regulated by the government.”[i] Since the limits that reason imposed agitated a substantial portion of the citizenry, Madison feared that passion would repeatedly come to direct human affairs. Even the wisest statesman at the head of the most enlightened government could not hope to alter that reality. The Constitution was Madison’s response to the dilemma that the human condition presented, for the Constitution established the moderate alternative of responsible self-government to navigate between two unpalatable extremes: despotism and anarchy, government by fiat and force of arms or the surrender to caprice and submission to the passions of the moment.

Madison hoped to avoid debates about the nature of the regime that would have compromised its survival. Like other members of the founding generation, he envisioned politics as a process, a succession of arguments, a long conversation, among men united in their desire to solve the problems of the day and to improve the conditions of national life, but who sometimes disagreed about how to do so. A century ago European statesmen could not deflect such existential questions. Their answers were inadequate. As a result, they presided over the widespread retreat from freedom, which might have become permanent.

II. The Economic Background

The tragedy that befell Europe during the 1920s and 1930s assumed many forms, most of which contributed to or emerged from the Great War. The crushing system of reparations that the Allies imposed on Germany, in addition to the huge debt that the Allies owed to the United States to pay the costs of war and reconstruction, hampered economic recovery. Almost all the profits that European economies generated following the war were devoured by debt. Throughout the 1920s, the leaders of European nations, especially in Great Britain, repeatedly called on American leaders to cancel the debts owned to the United States. The Americans always refused, but did agree to restructure debt payments as long as the Allies extended the same courtesy to Germany.

In the early 1920s, the German economy was a wreck. Increasing taxation, a huge national debt, a trade deficit, reparation payments, and runaway inflation combined to wipe out the value of savings, war bonds, and pensions that represented years of toil and thrift. To meet its financial obligations, the German government printed more paper money, which only made inflation worse and destroyed the value of the deutschmark, the basic unit of German currency. Before the outbreak of the First World War, the value of the mark stood at a ratio of 4.2 marks to 1 U. S. dollar. In 1919 the ratio was 8.9 marks to a dollar. By early 1923, the ratio was 18,000 marks to the dollar. By August 1923, inflation in Germany had reached absurd levels when a single U. S. dollar could be exchanged for 4.6 million marks; by November the ratio was 1 dollar to 4 billion marks. The German government could no longer meet its financial obligations. Germany defaulted on its debts, including reparation payments to the Allies.

The English economist John Maynard Keynes, the representative of the British Treasury at the peace conference, thought the Allied treatment of Germany despicable.[ii] The Allies, Keynes argued, had invited their own destruction by punishing Germany so severely. The victors had forgotten that they and the defeated Central Powers shared a common civilization. They were willing to sacrifice the principles, such as justice, decency, and even common sense, to which all Europeans had long given assent, in order to rebuke and humble Germany. More practically, Keynes pointed out, the countries of Europe were socially, politically, and economically bound together.They depended on one another for their power, their wealth, and their survival. It was thus in the best interest of all to cooperate rather than to compete.

The Treaty of Versailles had given rise to intense national rivalries that made such cooperation impossible, and that virtually guaranteed the outbreak of a future war. Keynes explained that although the United States had asked for no reparations from Germany, the American government demanded the repayment of loans from Great Britain and France. To pay their debts to the United States, the British and French relied on German reparation payments. The American government, meanwhile, was lending money to Germany so that the government of the Weimer Republic could make reparation payments to Britain and France. Keynes understood that under these circumstances, no nation in Europe, and ultimately not even the United States, controlled its financial life or economic welfare. Europe was instead dependent on a continuous supply of foreign capital, most of it coming from America. As an alternative, Keynes proposed reducing German reparations to more tolerable levels and creating a free-trade union that linked the commerce of all European countries. In these ways, Keynes hoped to bring about economic cooperation and stability that would counteract destructive, self-serving, nationalist economic policies.

Gustav Stresemann became chancellor of Germany in August, 1923. Although Stresemann’s ministry survived only until November, during his one hundred days in office Stresemann skillfully placed Germany on the road to economic recovery. He declared his willingness to resume reparation payments and issued a new currency backed by a mortgage on German real estate, the one asset that had held its worth. To protect the value of the new currency, Stresemann ordered the government not print a second issue. Inflation receded. Stresemann restored national and international confidence in the German economy.

Recognizing that Germany could not meet its obligations, the United States and Great Britain pressured France to restructure the reparation payments. In 1924, all of the Allies accepted the American Dawes Plan, named for Charles Gates Dawes, the American financier, politician, and diplomat, who presided over the commission that devised it. The Dawes Plan lowered reparations, bringing them more in accord with the German capacity to pay.

Between 1924 and 1929 economic conditions in Germany improved. Foreign investment, particularly from American capitalists and the United States government, stimulated the recovery. By 1929, German iron, steel, coal, and chemical production exceeded pre-World War I levels. The value of German exports also surpassed that of 1913. Real wages for German workers were higher than they had been before the war, and improved unemployment compensation helped to maintain the standard of living even for those out of work. Germany at last appeared to have achieved economic stability.

Prosperity did not last. Germany and the Allies had neither world enough nor time. On the eve of the Great Depression, Germany still owed the Allies $33 billion; the Allies still owed the United States $22 billion. The Allies had relied on prompt German payment to meet their obligations. If Germany did not pay the Allies, then the Allies could not pay the United States. To make payments, Germany borrowed funds from private banks around the world, but especially from Americans. When international credit suddenly contracted in 1929, it became more difficult to borrow money. Without ready sources of foreign capital, first Germany and then the other nations of Western Europe defaulted on their loans, drawing the United States after them into the Great Depression.

In addition, by the late 1920s, the European demand for Americans goods had begun to wane for two reasons. First, the increased productivity of European industry and agriculture, having at last recovered from the war, made it possible to reduce the volume of American imports. Second, toward the end of the decade, most European merchants could no longer afford to buy American goods even if they wanted to do so. After peace returned to Europe in 1919 there was a pervasive desire to restore the affluence that had characterized the years before the Great War. For a time, that goal seemed within reach. But the reconstruction of the European economy always rested on precarious foundations.

The forty years before the First World War had been a period of massive capital accumulation and economic growth. During the war, Europeans turned against one another the vast industrial apparatus that they had built at a cost of 10 million dead and 20 million wounded. These casualties meant not only the waste of human life and talent but also the loss of workers and consumers. In addition, the warring armies had destroyed roads, railroads, waterways, mines, factories, and fields. These human and material losses made it nearly impossible for the economies even of the victorious nations to recover quickly or completely from the war.

One economic casualty of the war was the financial dominance of Europe. In 1914, Europe was the financial capital of the world. Most the money in the world was invested in European businesses or deposited in European banks. By 1919, almost every European government was deeply in debt and some, such as the government of Great Britain, were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The communist leadership of the Soviet Union solved this problem by repudiating the war debts of the tsarist government, but other nations, most notably Germany, could not pursue such a radical course of action. With the Treaty of Versailles, the Allies imposed an untenable financial burden on Germany. The consequences were disastrous, for the peace settlement bred economic instability not only in German but throughout the rest of Europe as well.

To protect industries from foreign competition while they recovered from the war, every European nation erected tariffs of some kind that hampered the flow of goods from one country to another. Although most sectors of the American economy prospered during and after the war, the government of the United States, as an expression of the prevailing isolationist sentiment, also raised tariffs in 1922, which eliminated many foreign goods from the domestic market. Worst was the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which Herbert Hoover signed into law on June 17, 1930. Smoot-Hawley hiked import duties to punitive levels, making it next to impossible for European merchants and manufacturers to do business in the United States. The decline of commerce also made it even more difficult for European governments to raise the revenue needed to pay off their war debts. Hoover might have vetoed the bill. The American Economics Association implored him to do so. He did not, promising revision of its more injurious aspects through mediation of the Tariff Commission. If the crash of the New York Stock Exchange restricted international credit, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff destroyed international commerce.

Just as Keynes had predicted and feared, rather than cooperating, the nations of Europe and the world were pursuing selfish nationalist policies that promoted a destructive economic competition from which no country emerged victorious. The less one nation purchased from others, the less those others could purchase in return. Gradually, by the middle of the 1920s, states began to move toward economic self-sufficiency, and the international economy contracted.

Industrial productivity nonetheless increased. By 1925 the level of industrial output surpassed that of 1913, and continued to climb. With the contraction of the world market, it was only a matter of time before supply of available goods exceeded demand. As long as the United States pumped money into Europe, consumption could at least keep pace with production. When in October 1929 American capital abruptly disappeared, the European economies began to collapse. Between 1929 and1932, the annual value of world trade fell from $68.6 billion to $26.6 billion, a decline of 38.7 percent in three years. The reduction in trade eventually necessitated a corresponding reduction in industrial production. As a consequence, again between 1929 and 1932, industrial output declined by 25 percent. In the meantime, companies in the United States and around the world either ceased operations or dismissed now superfluous workers. By 1932, estimates suggest that 22 percent of the world labor force, or approximately 30 million persons, were unemployed, and worse, were without the prospect of finding work. The world was in the midst of the Great Depression. In their ruthless determination to punish Germany, the Allied nations had brought about the economic crisis that now placed them on the brink of ruin.

III. The Impoverishment of the European Bourgeoisie

The depression eroded Europeans’ already faltering confidence in parliamentary government, which seemed incompetent to cope with the postwar economic crisis. Growing numbers of persons in all nations and from all classes became more willing to exchange freedom for order, stability, and security. No event heralded the approaching tumult more than the dissolution of the European bourgeoisie.

In the early twentieth century, the European bourgeoisie endured both impoverishment and demoralization. The value of bourgeois property declined even before the onset of the Great Depression. Taxes and inflation were the primary culprits in depriving the bourgeoisie of its wealth. During prior national crises, governments had sometimes imposed an income tax. Only during the second half of the nineteenth century did European governments introduce a regular and permanent tax on incomes. Previously, governments had derived revenue from a combination of property taxes, customs duties, and such indirect taxes as the sales tax. What a man earned though his work or his occupation, he kept. The notion that the government could claim a portion of an individual’s earnings contradicted the principles of classical liberalism, for it seemed to penalize industry and thrift.

The rapid expansion of government welfare programs, to say nothing of the expenditures on armaments and public works, necessitated the imposition of an income tax long before the Great War. Great Britain instituted a regular tax on incomes in 1874. The German state of Prussia followed in 1891; France did the same in 1909. Yet, although national treasuries had come by the late nineteenth century increasingly to depend on the income tax as the chief and most reliable source of revenue, taxes did not become burdensome until the First World War. Before 1914, the tax bill even for the most affluent Europeans never exceeded eight percent.

After 1914, taxation dramatically increased. Unlike France and Germany, the British government had paid for most of its wartime expenditures not by borrowing but by taxing its citizens. By 1916, English taxpayers contributed fifteen percent of their annual incomes to the government. By the end of the war, in 1918, they contributed an unprecedented thirty percent. This circumstance, essentially repeated in other European countries, impoverished the English bourgeoisie, and removed the incentive for economic activity: the prospect of getting rich and, more important, of staying that way. The absence of an income tax had once made it possible for the bourgeoisie to amass huge fortunes in a comparatively short time, which was essential to its rise to economic and political influence and to the attendant triumph of liberalism. Taxation hurt the bourgeoisie, hampered future economic growth and development in England and elsewhere, and dampened prospects for the survival of liberal values and institutions.

The Great War also inaugurated a long period of inflation, which further eroded the wealth, and with it, the influence, prestige, and status of the European bourgeoisie. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Western Europeans enjoyed remarkable monetary stability. Prices rose so slowly, an average of only 1 to 1.5 percent a year, that the effects of inflation were negligible. During the war governments began to print more money to cover the cost of military expenditures. Great Britain, which followed the most conservative wartime fiscal policy of any European nation, still increased the quantity of pound notes in circulation by four times between 1914 and 1918. In Germany, the amount of circulating notes increased by five times, in Russia by twelve times, and in Austria-Hungary by fifteen times. As with any commodity, the greater quantity of money diminished its value. Money was worth less than it had been before the war, and prices began to rise.

Another source of inflation was the shift in production from consumer to military goods. As consumer products became scarce, prices increased. Between 1913 and 1920, wholesale prices more than doubled in the Netherlands and Switzerland, tripled in Great Britain, quintupled in France, and sextupled in Italy. Nowhere, of course, was postwar inflation more calamitous that in Germany. Inflation brought hardship to every European nation. In Germany its affects were ruinous.

The nascent bourgeoisie in the Soviet Union and the Jewish bourgeoisie in Germany suffered the worst economic disasters. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they nationalized nearly all private property. Several million persons, from wealthy industrialists to bankers, from large landowners to small shopkeepers, from land-owning peasants to self-employed artisans, were impoverished overnight. The collectivization of agriculture carried out between 1928 and 1932 completed the economic destruction of the Russian bourgeoisie. The governments of several other Eastern European nations, such as Latvia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, also confiscated land and nationalized industries during the 1920s and 1930s. Only in Germany under Nazi domination did the attack on private property approach the drastic levels attained in the Soviet Union. During their twelve years in power the Nazis appropriated the wealth and property of the Jewish population in Germany and in the other territories that fell under Nazi control, effecting an incalculable destruction of private wealth in the process.

IV. The Political Crisis

Long before the outbreak of the Great War, then, parliamentary government in Europe had already entered a protracted crisis. Liberal political ideas, values, and institutions, drawn from the Enlightenment and sustained by the bourgeoisie throughout Europe, reached the height of popularity and influence during the 1860s and early 1870s. After 1875, liberalism began to fade. One important reason for the retreat from liberalism was the expansion of government power.

The intimate connection between liberalism and democracy that many take for granted today did characterize European politics during the first half of the nineteenth century. But the continuing spread of democracy also eroded the confidence in, and the influence of, liberalism. Early liberals, in fact, were not democrats. They distrusted the masses, whom they considered ignorant and unreliable, and preferred to restrict the franchise to the propertied and educated members of the middle and upper classes. As greater numbers of men and then also women began to acquire the right to vote during the last quarter of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century, two developments occurred that weakened liberalism. First, the rise and spread of democracy altered the focus and the quality of European political life.

After 1875, European politics became oriented toward the masses. To win elections, candidates had to appeal to the newly enfranchised voters, who, except for women, were drawn exclusively from the lower middle and the working class. Among other demands, these voters sought protection from the hardships of life in an urban, industrial society that only a strong central government could provide. The triumph of democracy did not necessarily engender greater freedom. On the contrary, it widened the scope of governmental activity. The adoption and management of social welfare programs, such as social security, old age pensions, unemployment compensation, and disability insurance, to say nothing of the imposition of safety inspections, sanitary and health regulations, and compulsory education required the state to intervene to a much greater extent than ever before in economic, social, and even private life. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, therefore, one European nation after another moved toward political and economic centralization, which ran counter to the insistence of classical liberals that the less government interference the better.

Liberal parties throughout Europe began to lose support to socialist parties on the left and to nationalist parties on the right. By the late nineteenth century, the socialists had taken up the struggle for civil and political rights and social justice that, a century earlier, had been the province of the liberal bourgeoisie. Gradually, liberals abandoned these initiatives and became more conservative in defense of their prerogatives and their property. In some countries such as, for example, Germany and Belgium, liberal parties all but disappeared. Elsewhere, as for example in Great Britain and Sweden, liberal parties absorbed so much of the socialist agenda that they lost their identity.

Liberalism also faced a serious challenge from nationalist parties, whose leaders and members proposed to strengthen the government and the nation. Asserting the right of stronger nations to conquer and dominate weaker nations, nationalists were also commonly xenophobic and often anti-Semitic. Typical of such nationalist movements were the Christian Socialist Party of Dr. Karl Lueger in Austria and L’Action Française of Charles Maurras in France.[iii]

Serving as mayor of Vienna between 1897 and his death in 1910, Lueger developed a program that combined socialist reform and a reinvigorated Catholicism with xenophobia and anti-Semitism to lure, enthrall, and mobilize voters, enticing them to mass demonstrations and mob violence when advantageous.[iv] Lueger, who in 1907 was instrumental in establishing universal suffrage in Austria, also sought to make German the official language of the Empire, to remove Jews, Hungarians, Slavs, and other non-Germans from positions of influence, and to create a German majority in the imperial parliament. He appealed to the uneasiness of the Austrian Germans, who saw themselves in danger of being inundated, oppressed, and replaced by such minorities.

His reform proposals including nationalizing railroad and insurance companies and placing public utilities under the control of municipal governments, which he accomplished in Vienna. He also moved to enact social welfare legislation that ensured safer conditions and better wages for workers, while banning child labor. But Lueger gradually abandoned the politics of reason and reform in favor of a politics of authority and emotion, which attracted those who preferred an older and more mystical source of power than rational argument and empirical evidence. He became a political showman, a spellbinding orator, and a seasoned activist who united the aristocracy, the clergy, and the masses against the liberal Viennese bourgeoisie by exploiting issues, such as the alleged corruption of the Rothchilds and other wealthy Jewish financiers, that had bred feelings of victimization, grievance, and resentment. Lueger’s charismatic leadership and reformist policies enabled the Christian Socialist Party and its allies to establish the largest voting bloc in the Reichsrat by 1907.

As with Lueger, some historians view the ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, and anti-Semitic L’Action Française, which Charles Maurras founded in 1898, as the harbinger of the various fascist movements to emerge during the twentieth century.[v] Maurras argued that the collective was more real and more important than the individual. “The primary reality, more real than the individual and more real also than the world,” he affirmed, “is la patrie, the Country.”[vi] Maurras regarded the religious individualism of the Protestant Reformation, the political individualism of the French Revolution, and the cultural individualism of the Romantic Movement as sources of discord, threatening to divide and weaken the nation. In addition, Maurras detested both parliamentary and democratic government, which he thought incapable of maintaining political stability and social order. The principles of democracy and equality, he thought, permitted the triumph of the mediocre and the incompetent at the expense of talent and excllence.

To save France from political factionalism, class warfare, and spiritual disintegration, all the result, in his view, of destructive individualism, Maurras championed a program that he called “integral nationalism,” by which he sought to unify, that is to integrate, the French around monarchy, aristocracy, and Catholicism. Jews, Protestants, and foreigners, even if they had become naturalized citizens, must be deprived of political rights. None could ever be truly French. The Jews, in particular, were corrupting the French soul and disfiguring the French nation, as Maurras believed the Dreyfus Affair had illustrated. (Maurras lobbied against Dreyfus’s exoneration and his followers often harassed and attacked the Dreyfusards.) The agents of revolution, the Jews had historically advanced the ideals of individualism and equality. “It is in the Law and the Prophets,” Maurras lamented, “that are to be found the first expressions in antiquity of the individualism, egalitarianism, humanitarianism, and social and political idealism that were the mark of 1789.”[vii] Maurras and his followers, by contrast, extolled the Ancien Régime.

Appealing mainly to soldiers and officers, nobles, the Roman Catholic clergy, and bourgeois professionals, L’Action Française boasted a membership of between 30,000 and 40,000 by 1926. Although it never posed a serious threat to the republican government of France, as Maurras hoped, the organization, with its cult of the fatherland, its celebration of war, its resort to intimidation and violence, and its virulent anti-Semitism did much to weaken the appeal of the liberal idea of freedom and to enhance the fascination with authoritarian government.

Second, not only the strength of government but also its weakness, the failure of parliamentary regimes to meet the needs of citizens and to solve the most basic economic and social problems, contributed to the decline of liberalism, the loss of freedom, and the rise of dictatorship. Parliamentary government, for instance, demanded that ministers enjoy the confidence of deputies, and resign if they lost it. In the years before the Great War, this practice had been fairly common throughout Western Europe, although it had not existed in Germany, Austria-Hungary, or Russia, the three monarchies most responsible for igniting war in 1914. After the war, this practice began to disappear, as rulers appointed their cabinets whose members held office at the ruler’s pleasure. Various European parliaments could not bring much pressure to bear on cabinet ministers to resign, and often lacked even the authority to question their policies or their conduct. The absence of ministerial responsibility meant that parliaments could neither monitor nor restrain the power of a ruler. Under the worst conditions, relations between the legislature and the ruler were so strained that the work of the government came to a halt.

The parliamentary system also required the existence of at least one effective opposition party to keep the party in power honest, to expose any corruption that might have occurred, and to assume the responsibilities of government when the ruling party lost an election. In most European countries after the First World War, such organized and disciplined parties ceased to exist. There emerged in their stead numerous parties that represented specific, often extremist, ideologies, personal loyalties, or narrow class interests. Frequently, these parties were too many, too small, and too weak to form a viable opposition let alone a coalition able to rule. The dismissal of one ministry did not automatically lead to the peaceful transfer of power to another. Instead, it more likely resulted in prolonged negotiations between the statesmen charged with forming the new government, which was to be composed of representatives from various parties, each of whom entertained fundamental disagreements that made cooperation difficult if not, in the end, impossible. Such coalitions were unstable and ineffective. The resignation of a single minister was sometimes enough to bring down the entire government and trigger new elections that produced the same contentious outcomes and the same ominous volatility.

The function of parliamentary government was to pass laws and solve problems, not to debate competing and incompatible political philosophies. But in Europe after the First World War disagreements repeatedly surfaced about the principles of government. They went unresolved. The members of some extreme parties on both the right and the left worked to undermine parliamentary government in their countries, and to substitute a despotic regime more to their liking. Even in the absence of such disputes, most parliaments were too unwieldy and cumbersome to deal with the administration of social welfare programs or the regulation of the economy. The expansion of state authority thus required the growth of bureaucracy to supervise governmental programs. As a consequence, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century and advancing at an quickened pace in the twentieth, bureaucracies grew spectacularly, so much so that the German sociologist Max Weber anticipated that parliaments would soon become obsolete, reduced to the mere servants of omnipotent bureaucracies. Elected officials would be less important to the operation of a modern state than would professional civil servants. Parliaments simply lacked the capacity to manage the increased responsibilities of government.

By the early years of the twentieth century, then, increasing numbers of statesmen and thinkers shared a pervasive skepticism about the effectiveness, the legitimacy, and the future of parliamentary government in Europe. The Great War only added to their concerns. Few statesmen as yet thought that parliaments could or should be eliminated or that liberalism be wholly abandoned. But many now treated parliaments as if they were ineffective and unimportant, and regarded individual freedom as if it were an expensive luxury, an idea whose time had come and gone. Many ordinary citizens agreed. For them, parliamentary government had come to mean little more than endless partisan squabbles, empty rhetoric, legislative impotence, broken promises, and blatant corruption. They associated parliaments with the status quo, which meant continued political uncertainty and material deprivation. The success of parliamentary government, the very survival of freedom depended, first, on the ability of governments to achieve economic prosperity, to introduce political responsibility, and to ensure social justice. Second, parliamentary government depended on the rejection of chauvinistic nationalism and the embrace of international cooperation. Without these reforms, even the most devoted advocates of liberalism worried lest parliamentary government throughout Europe would continue to falter and, in time, would collapse. Freedom would then be lost, first to anarchy and then to tyranny.

V. The Social Crisis

More important than the economic and political hardships of the European bourgeoisie were the attendant social disruptions and the general crisis of confidence from which it suffered. In the years between the First and Second World Wars, faith in themselves, in the values they represented, and in the institutions they created disappeared. As a result of the war, the bourgeoisie no longer believed in their own supremacy or in their fitness to rule. Bourgeois families began to fall apart as taxes and inflation eroded wealth and inheritance, as birth rates declined, and as women, long oppressed by custom and law, sought fulfilment outside their traditional roles. Bourgeois morality, which had once emphasized self-restraint and self-sacrifice, prudence, sobriety, hard work, and delayed gratification, appeared ridiculous in a world that had witnessed mass slaughter.

Statistical evidence highlights the decline of the bourgeois family in the decade after the First World War. Financial constraints prompted many bourgeois couples to limit the number of children they had to one or at most two. They could not afford to support and educate more. In Great Britain by 1927, the number of births per 1,000 persons had declined by 50 percent compared to what it had been fifty years earlier. In France, a nation with a large and predominantly Roman Catholic bourgeoisie, the population declined as mortality rates exceeded birth rates.

If bourgeois families became smaller, they also became less stable. During the nineteenth century obtaining a divorce had been difficult and costly. Before 1857 in Great Britain, it required a special act of Parliament to end a marriage. The results were predictable: between 1800 and 1857 only fifty divorces were granted. The easing of divorce laws after the First World War, along with an expansion of the grounds on which couples could sue for divorce, made divorces simpler and cheaper to obtain. The results again were predictable: a steady rise in divorce rates. In France, the number of divorces increased five times between 1874 and 1904, and continued to rise at an accelerated rate after the First World War. In Great Britain only two out of every 1,000 marriages had ended in divorce in 1911. By 1921, the ratio had increased to eight in 1,000, and by 1937 to sixteen in 1,000. The trend was clear. Among the European bourgeoisie, the once stable family had begun to disintegrate.

Sexual attitudes and practices also changed. Liberal thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes believed that bourgeois sexual mores were old fashioned and repressive to the point of cruelty. Keynes had promoted the relaxation of divorce laws. He also advocated widespread access to and use of birth control, the expression of sexuality outside of marriage, and the treatment of so-called sexual deviance as at worst a medical disorder rather than a criminal offense. More than any single event, the First World War had altered sexual morality and practice. During and after the war, relations between men and women became freer, more spontaneous, and less restrained and inhibited than they had been in the second half of the nineteenth century. Soldiers on furlough were in no mood to respect traditional codes of sexual conduct. The distribution of contraceptives among the armed forces not only protected the health of the troops by safeguarding them from venereal disease, which was the main purpose of using condoms, but also removed, or at least diminished, the fear of pregnancy, which had been the foremost inhibition to extramarital sex in the past. During the 1920s, when contraceptives did become more easily available throughout most of Europe, it effected nothing less than a social revolution in the behavior of hundreds of thousands of men and women. However liberating such behavior may have been, it had a damaging effect on the traditional family.

The nineteenth-century bourgeois world view had characterized sex as more or less a necessary evil, to be tolerated only within the confines of marriage for the purpose of procreation. Outside of marriage, the bourgeoisie, at least in theory, viewed sex as debasing, repulsive, and even unhealthy. Illegitimate children who might assert a claim to family wealth also potentially complicated lines of inheritance. During the war, many in the European bourgeois did not assign much significance to the loosening moral codes. Like everything else that took place between 1914 and 1918, the transformation of manners and morals seemed a temporary aberration, a deviation from the norm that would reverse itself once the war ended and peace returned. Contrary to such expectations, during the 1920s the social revolution intensified, and finally appeared to threaten the survival of civilization itself. The accessibility of birth control, in addition to the sense of deceit and meaninglessness that lay at the heart of modern life, persuaded many throughout Europe to reject bourgeois conventions. These disheartened, despairing men and women now sought emotional fulfilment and sexual satisfaction wherever they found it, whether in or out of wedlock, whether in or out of heterosexual relationships.

With the collapse of European prosperity, the end of European world supremacy, the mounting challenge to liberal values and institutions, and the economic and moral decline of the European bourgeoisie, many thoughtful European writers in the years between the world wars dreaded the approaching end of everything that had once made civilization possible and life worthwhile. Writing in the late 1920s, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset warned that European society was degenerating into barbarism because of the unwillingness to preserve its intellectual, cultural, moral, and religious heritage. Forsaking reason and glorifying violence, intellectually vulgar and morally stunted men, such as the fascists, sought to impose their opinions without the appeal to logic or the presentation of evidence. This attitude, Ortega believed, represented something new in European thought: the right to be unreasonable. “Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody,” Ortega wrote, “runs the risk of being eliminated.”

In 1933, the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung echoed Ortega’s analysis in Modern Man in Search of a Soul:

On the whole, I believe I am not exaggerating when I say that modern man has suffered an almost fatal shock, psychologically speaking, and as a result has fallen into profound uncertainty. . . . The revolution in our conscious outlook, brought about by the catastrophic results of the World War, shows itself in our inner life by the shattering of our faith in ourselves and our own worth. . . . I realize only too well that I am losing my faith in the possibility of a rational organization of the world, the old dream of the millennium, in which peace and harmony should rule, has grown pale.

Finally, the Dutch historian Johan Huzinga articulated the deepening fear of impending catastrophe when he wrote in The Shadow of To-morrow:

We are living in a demented world. And we know it. It would not come as a surprise to anyone if to-morrow the madness gave way to a frenzy which would leave our poor Europe in a state of distracted stupor, with engines still turning and flags streaming in the breeze, but with the spirit gone. Everywhere there are doubts as to the solidity of our social structure, vague fears of the imminent future, a feeling that our civilization is on the way to ruin. . . . How to avoid the recognition that almost all things which once seemed sacred and immutable have now become unsettled, truth and humanity, justice and reason? We see forms of government no longer capable of functioning, production systems on the verge of collapse, social forces gone wild with power. The roaring engine of this tremendous time seems to be heading for a breakdown.

“The sense of living in the midst of a violent crisis of civilization, threatening complete collapse,” Huzinga concluded, “has spread far and wide.” For William Butler Yeats “the best” lacked “all conviction, while the worst” were “full of passionate intensity.” [viii] If Ortega, Jung, Huzinga, and Yeats were right, and by the late 1930s it certainly seemed that they were, many wondered whether Europeans any longer possessed the spiritual capital to resist, and the moral will to survive, the coming onslaught.

VI. Closing Thoughts

When the gathering storm at last broke over Europe, the worst may have been filled with passionate intensity but not all of the best lacked conviction. They united to combat, and in time to subdue, the evil that had shrouded the world in darkness. They fought not to conquer but to liberate a continent, not to spread tyranny but to end it. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the assault on democracy and freedom had become nearly universal. Authoritarian strongmen emerged in the nations of Europe and around the world. Dictators sought to master not only governments and economies but to control and manipulate the ideas, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and conduct of people as well. Even in countries such as Great Britain, historically committed to classical liberalism and parliamentary rule, the potential for despotism threatened. That Edward VIII observed Adolf Hitler’s demeanor with more curiosity than apprehension was obvious from the beginning of his reign. Men and women the world over, including in the United States, longed for a savior, someone who could simplify the complexities of an industrial economy, the more so when that economy broke down; someone who could unravel the dilemmas of a mass society and erase the confusion of modern life; someone who could use the mechanisms of the technocratic state to improve society and bring glory to the nation. Those leaders who resolved the crisis, or those who, more accurately, sustained the illusion of having done so, earned the almost mystical allegiance of their countrymen. The ruler’s love for them and theirs for him became the means of individual and national salvation.

Such apparently heroic leaders could also call on their people to sacrifice for the mother country or the fatherland. They could organize the economy not to the benefit either of workers or businessmen but to further some great national purpose, whether the construction of massive highway systems, the manufacture of armaments, or the conduct of war. To influence the population and to marshal public support, leaders not only resorted to censorship but also established ministries of propaganda. They exploited the new technologies of radio and cinema to out the leader directly in touch with the people. It was so much sound and fury, but it did not signify nothing. Such efforts represented motion, immediacy, strength, action, life. They were meant to inspire, to eliminate lingering doubts, to excite, beguile, persuade, and finally to manage and subjugate.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler perfected and applied the techniques of showmanship, pageantry, spectacle, and advertising to stir the passions of the masses, whom they correctly surmised were not moved by ideas, information, facts, knowledge, or truth but by primitive emotions such as power, terror, and hatred. Propagandists kept the message simple, devising easy slogans repeated incessantly that reduced all the bewildering complications of modern life to a few elementary formula, the meaning of which was clear and unmistakable.

For fascists, national socialists, and communists alike, it was dangerous to permit individuals the freedom to think for themselves. Nor were they entitled to the joys and satisfactions of private life. They existed to serve the state. Mussolini gave unequivocal statement of the principle. “Everything within the state,” he contended, “nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” In “The Doctrine of Fascism,” published in 1933, he elaborated:

Against individualism, the Fascist conception is for the State; and it is for the individual in so far as he coincides with the State, which is the conscience and universal will of man in his historical existence…. Liberalism denied the State in the interests of the particular individual; Fascism reaffirms the State as the true reality of the individual. And if liberty is to be the attribute of the real man, and not of that abstract puppet envisaged by individualistic Liberalism, Fascism is for liberty. And for the only liberty which can be a real thing, the liberty of the State and of the individual within the State. Therefore, for the Fascist, everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State.[ix]

Giovanni Gentile, the theorist of Italian fascism, affirmed that the fascist regime offered a “total” way of life (“totalitario”) that enabled men and women to escape the decadence of liberal democracy and to enjoy true freedom. For Gentile, as for his master, nothing of value existed, or could exist, outside the state.

In the eighteenth century, the political credo of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, whom Hitler admired, was: “Believe anything, but obey.” Unlike earlier autocratic regimes in Germany and elsewhere, the Nazis were not content merely with outward obedience. They instead demanded complete and unconditional loyalty and enthusiastic support. They aspired to dominate the inner person, reshaping thoughts, attitudes, and emotions to accord with party ideology. The aim was to fashion new men and new women who had dedicated their lives to the party. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment, summarized Nazi objectives, saying: “It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we want rather to work on people until they are addicted to us.”[x] The Nazis, in other words, sought to become a narcotic that people craved and could not live without.

To the extent that the German people embraced Hitler’s mythical world view and became emotionally and psychologically dependent on Nazism, they lost all perspective, all intellectual and moral balance, all objectivity and restraint, all sense of reality. They were then prepared not to think, to question, to judge, and to condemn, but only to believe and to obey, to be manipulated and led, to brutalize and to tolerate brutality. Yet, even the Nazis dreamed of erecting a new order from amid the ruins of bourgeois civilization. My suspicions are growing that our problem may be of an altogether different order and that we confront a novel form of despotism. There are those today who, for a variety of reasons, wish to dismantle the system without intending to replace it. They are satisfied with destruction and with anarchy that is sure to follow. Others cover their eyes, pretending not to see the horror that is approaching.

I submit as a hypothesis that the appeal of Donald Trump rests less on his authoritarian rhetoric, his childish, incoherent rants, his tiresome, irresponsible homage to Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Viktor Orban, and Kim Jong Un, than it does on his promise to subvert the Constitution, to enfeeble the government, and to unleash chaos throughout the world. “Politics is magic,” mused the Austrian poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. “He who knows how to summon the forces from the deep, him will they follow.”[xi] Trump’s most ardent supporters are not traditional partisans. They display no consistent allegiance to a party or an ideology. Hostile to everything and everyone, intent only to demolish the institutions, the system, and the elites that they hold responsible for their frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness, they are nihilists. They have persuaded themselves that Trump will deliver the fatal blow. In so doing, they acknowledge, he may bring untold suffering to millions of Americans, including them. At least such misery, if it comes, would be of their own choosing. Such is their consolation.

Angry and disaffected, animated by grievance, resentment, and hatred, afflicted by both real and imagined injustices, these men and women seem to have lost hope in the possibility of better lives for themselves and a better world for their children. To them, nothing matters. Impervious to evidence and argument, unwilling to distinguish truth from falsehood, resolute in their ignorance, they are guided only by their feelings and act only on their emotions. In this respect, they confirm Madison’s grim prediction that the unrestrained, licentious passions of the mob would extinguish freedom. “If we review the history of all republics,” Madison observed, “we are justified by the supposition, that if the bands of the government be relaxed, confusion will ensue. Anarchy ever has, and I fear ever will, produce despotism.” [xii] Reason, Madison understood, was often no match for popular enthusiasm and delusion, urged on by rumor, innuendo, and conspiracy. The public tumult that ensues among a people who are kept off balance and on edge allows a demagogue to indulge his own whims and to gratify his own ambitions at the expense of the very men and women whom he has pledge to save. But even at his most pessimistic, it is doubtful that Madison could have foreseen the ascendancy of a pyromaniac, intent to set the Republic aflame and then to watch it burn.

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[i] James Madison, “Federalist Number XLIX,” in James Maidson, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. by Isaac Kramnick (New York & London, 1987), 315.

[ii] See John Maynard Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace (London, 1920) and “The Treaty of Peace” in Essays in Persuasion (New York, 1963), 3-73.

[iii] On Lueger, see Carl E. Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (New York, 1981).  See also R.G.J. Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria, 1867-1938 (New York, 1964). On Maurras, see Michael Sutton, Nationalism, Positivism and Catholicism: The Politics of Charles Maurras and French Catholics, 1890-1914 (Cambridge, UK, 1982).

[iv] Lueger was elected mayor of Vienna in 1895. Emperor Franz Josef prevented him from taking office until 1897 when he was at last compelled to withdraw the imperial prohibition and yield to the democratic will of the electorate.

[v] See, for example, Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, trans. by Leila Vennewitz  (New York, 1965).

[vi] Quoted in Sutton, Nationalism, Positivism and Catholicism, 26

[vii] Quoted in Ibid., 8.

[viii] José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (New York, 1964), 18; C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. by W.S. Dell and Carl F. Baynes (New York, 1933), 200, 203; Johan Huzinga, In the Shadow of To-morrow (London, 1936), 1-2, 4; William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats (New York, 1956), 184-85.

[ix] Benito Mussolini,”The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism,” trans. by Jane Soames, The Political Quarterly Vol. 4/No. 3 (July 1933), 341-56.

[x] Quoted in David Welch, ed., Nazi Propaganda (Totowa, NJ, 1983), 5.

[xi]  Quoted in Schorske, Fin-De-Siècle Vienna, 134.

[xii] James Madison, “Power of Congress to Regulate the Militia,” June 14, 1788, Madison Papers, The National Archives.

The featured image is “Episodio dei moti rivoluzionari alla Foppa” (1900) by Achille Beltrame, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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