'Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe)' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Regime to the Present Day

By Sheri Berman, Oxford University Press, 545 pages, $34.95

Far-right nationalists are now in power in Poland and Hungary, in coalition governments in Italy and Austria, and in parliaments in Germany, the Netherlands and France. In anticipation of European Union elections this month, a group of far-right populist parties has formed a new alliance, led by Italy’s Instagram-loving interior minister, Matteo Salvini. How surprised should supporters of liberal democracy in Europe be? Not very, according to Sheri Berman’s Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien REgime to the Present Day.

In her study of European political development over more than 200 years, Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard, shows that the story of democracy in Europe is complicated. The ultimate goal, she believes, is liberal democracy, with elections, respect for the rule of law, individual liberties and minority rights. But that’s a rare, and hard-won, achievement. A step forward is often followed by a step back.

This may seem a bit obvious to anyone familiar with the broad outlines of European history, but Berman makes the case clearly and convincingly. Moreover, at a moment when hyperventilating over the decline of democracy has grown into a veritable intellectual industry, her long-view approach comes across as appealingly sober.

Contemporary questions are obviously never far from Berman’s mind, but she devotes only a few pages to European politics today. Most of the book’s chapters are case studies, examining when and why democracy or dictatorship flourishes, with examples that range from Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 to the fall of Soviet-style Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

These cases convey nothing so strongly as the fact that “the legacies of previous political regimes — both positive and negative — weigh heavily on the development of new ones.” Building a liberal democracy requires, among other things, strong states, cohesive national identities and political cultures in which citizens and politicians buy into what she calls “the rules of the game.” But impediments to them can span generations.

Consider Italy. In the early 19th century, the Italian peninsula, dominated by rival kingdoms and city-states, was derided as a “geographical expression” rather than a country. To forge a state, Italy went through a top-down consolidation, led by the more prosperous north, and requiring coercion and corruption to incorporate the rest of the country. The result was a weak state that, even after the expansion of universal manhood suffrage in 1912, was susceptible to Mussolini and the Fascisti. Liberal democracy only fully arrived in Italy after the Second World War — thanks, in part, to Mussolini’s centralisation. Even today, the legacy of those early years persists.

Is Salvini an heir to the Fascisti, though? An instructive point in Berman’s book — if not a central one — is that antidemocratic forces mutate as frequently as anything else in politics. In the push-and-pull between democracy and dictatorship in France, for example, 18th-century monarchists were replaced by new types of anti-liberal nationalists. Every era, it seems, gets the right wing it deserves. This is a valuable reminder to those today who apply labels like “fascist” to far-right politicians: It’s better to conceive of them in modern terms.

If there’s a fault in Berman’s book, it’s her lack of imagination about what an even democracy might look like. Despite her keen eye for how politics constantly shifts, she seems to believe that in Western Europe politics reached its highest stage after the Second World War, when capitalism was tamed by social democracy and liberal values were broadly adopted (or imposed) — all under an American security umbrella and funded by Marshall Plan cash.

She rightly condemns the changes in recent decades as the social welfare state has been rolled back and the European Union became less democratic and more “technocratic,” and she sees the rise of the far right today as a response. But she hopes, it seems, only to return to that previous golden age. Who can blame her? The years between the end of the Second World War and the rise of neoliberalism look pretty rosy in retrospect. But isn’t it possible that even that model could have used a step forward, once again, towards something more democratic? If the defenders of democracy on the Continent want to fight off Salvini and his allies, they will have to offer more than nostalgia.

–New York Times News Service