Remembering the importance of democracy

It’s 76 years this month since the end of the Second World War in Europe – just over three-quarters of a century since the end of the effort by the world’s democracies to survive against a rising tide of totalitarianism.

The fall of Nazi Germany ended the fascist side of that totalitarian system and enabled democracy to prevail in the west. It took the Cold War and another half-century to stop the communist side. These were two contrasting flavours of the same thing: the brutal police-state governments that humans are so adept at creating. But they were stopped.

We take it for granted that the democracies prevailed. Actually, they did so only by a whisker. The whole cycle – nicely captured by Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Extremes – actually leaned more towards the bad guys winning. Other writers have taken similar view, including Max Hastings whose view of the two World Wars as separate acts of the same larger struggle is compelling.

So what was going on – and why were the democracies so close to going out?

The battleship Schleswig-Holstein during the Battle of Westerplatte that opened the Second World War. Public Domain.

According to the current understanding of the twentieth century as a whole – of the wider cycles of global politics, societies and economics – it all began with the First World War. The ‘old European order’ that had dominated the world to that point was already cracking, breaking up from beneath under the forces of a disaffected working population tired of a system that simply profited the rich. The First World War – which was as much a social as a political event – broke it.

What emerged, the so-called ‘new order’ – was framed by the social and economic outcomes of the 1914-18 struggle. Combatant nations filled with shell-shocked and maimed soldiers now had to struggle against economic problems. For Germany, the argument goes, the armistice – this at a time when the army had not been wholly beaten in the field – was a humiliating blow to a nation brought up on Bismarck’s ‘Reich’ mentality. When a shell-shocked corporal popped up in a Bavarian beer hall and began ranting about it, people were prepared to listen – irrespective of the fact that the words and messages were openly deranged.

Why the former central powers swung into totalitarianism is another story: suffice to say, the outcome of the whole circus was the rise of a communist totalitarian power in Russia, and the rise of fascist totalitarian powers in Italy, Germany and – to an extent – Japan. The United States was neutral and isolationist, leaving only Britain and France as the key democracies actively facing these new existential threats. When the Great Depression struck, dragging the western democracies to their knees, it was not clear that this system would even survive.

That threat became particularly evident when the Second World War broke out. By mid-1940 France had fallen, leaving Britain – alone – standing against a totalitarian-dominated Europe. Yet even when the United States joined the struggle – with its unparallelled industrial power – victory for the democracies was by no means guarateed. According to the historian Richard Overy, the pivot was 1943 and the German defeat during the Kursk offensive. Until then, all hung in the balance. Indeed, even after that offensive there was potential for Germany and the Soviet Union to reach an agreement – and talks were held between their foreign ministers, Molotov and Ribbentrop.

The what-ifs there could doubtless be debated; but the point is that the Second World War was a near-run thing. Democracy was not necessarily going to be the winner. It was, of course, and the world was all the better for that.

What worries me is that these lessons have been forgotten. But as the world slides into what is increasingly presenting as a new existential crisis, they deserve remembering.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2021

6 thoughts on “Remembering the importance of democracy

  1. I only studied undergrad history and most of that was about the Russian Revolution and China, so apologies if this is incorrect, but is the Treaty of Versailles with its punitive conditions the same as the Armistice?
    As to the bigger theme, I’m not sure humans are capable of remembering the lessons of history, especially the bits that make them uncomfortable – such as the fact that democracy was almost snuffed out in the 20th century. The rise of populist leaders all over the world, including in China, does not bode well for the future of democracy, and yet I fear the rise of corporatism more. We don’t see it as a political system, yet it’s infiltrated every corner of political thinking. And not just in the West. China’s increasingly prosperous population has swapped any hope of political freedom for consumer goods and a comfortable lifestyle. Are we in the West any different? The labels may be different, but the effect is pretty much the same.

    We live in interesting times. 😦

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    1. The Armistice was the ‘cease-fire’ and Versailles the treaty that followed – in July 1919 – to formally end the war. One of the issues was that the German army hadn’t been fully beaten by November 1918: it was in retreat but remained largely intact as a fighting force. And there were a lot of men in it. That became a factor when Versailles imposed crushing and humiliating peace terms and, as I understand it, helped drive what followed. I often feel the arts of Weimar Germany – very distinctive, very dark – were also framed by this mind set of unjust defeat and extreme gloom on the back of it.

      I agree – today’s existential threat isn’t a political ideology, as such. It’s what’s become of the one picked up by Thatcher and Reagan two generations ago, with its corporates and the concentration of wealth in a very few. It’s not the first time this kind of inequity has occurred, and history has many lessons to offer over what happens when it does. I’d agree that humans don’t like remembering the uncomfortable bits of history there – nobody seems to recognise the underlying thematic matches. What worries me is that humans are so adept at creating catastrophic outcomes. Every time…

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      1. Aaaaah! Thanks for the info. Matthew. I remembered the one and not the other because of the contrast with what happened post WWII – i.e. reconstruction in both Germany and Japan rather than further punishment.
        I loved the stories of history, but hated the ‘facts’ of history. This is in primary school, of course. As an ex teacher I’ve long believed that we underestimate the capacity of even young children to understand nuanced stories of history. Perhaps if the teaching of history were better, we wouldn’t keep making the same types of mistakes, over and over again.
        And yes, unlike Lemmings that simply find a cliff and jump, we seem to be quite happy to manufacture the cliff for ourselves. 😦

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  2. Your take on the “reasons” for the first world war are the official version propagated by the winners. But the war actually started with Churchill’s contrived plot to take the oil field of the Persian Gulf off Turkey. Germany was building the Bagdad to Berlin railway which would carry oil back to Germany. The Western Triumvirate of UK, France and Italy had banned Germany from putting oil tankers through the Suez. So Germany came up with an alternative. Churchill wanted to stop this at any price so he arranged a massive naval attack on Basra. To cover up and divert the Turkish army, he arranged a preemptive attack on the Dardanelles. The Austrian attack on Serbia may have been a set-up too, to divert attention from the real issue. Thus WW1 was the first oil war. There have been many more since.


    1. My post doesn’t discuss the proximate reasons for the First World War. However, can you point me to your sources? And who was responsible for the ‘official’ version?


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