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The Forgotten Twentieth-Century

BERLIN – It has been 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which for many historians marked the real end of the “short twentieth century” – a century that, beginning in 1914, was characterized by protracted ideological conflicts among communism, fascism, and liberal democracy, until the latter seemed to have emerged fully victorious. But something strange happened on the way to the End of History: we seem desperate to learn from the recent past, but are very unsure about what the lessons are.

Clearly, all history is contemporary history, and what Europeans, in particular, need to learn today from the twentieth century concerns the power of ideological extremes in dark times – and the peculiar nature of European democracy as it was constructed after World War II.

In some ways, the great ideological struggles of the twentieth century now seem about as close and relevant as the scholastic debates of the Middle Ages – especially, but not only, for younger generations. Who now remotely understands – let alone takes the trouble to try to understand – the great political dramas of intellectuals like Arthur Koestler and Victor Serge, people who risked their lives for and then against communism?

Nevertheless, much more than most of us would care to admit, we remain enmeshed in the concepts and categories of the twentieth century’s ideological wars. This was most obvious with the intellectual responses to Islamist terror: terms like “Islamo-fascism” or “third totalitarianism” were coined not just to characterize a new enemy of the West, but also to evoke the experience of the anti-totalitarian struggles that preceded and followed World War II.

Such terms seek to borrow legitimacy from the past and to explain the present – in a way that most serious scholars of either Islam or terrorism never found very helpful. Analogizing in this way seemed more to reflect a desire to re-fight the old battles, rather than to sharpen political judgment about contemporary events.

So how should we think about the ideological legacy of the twentieth century? For one thing, we need to stop viewing the twentieth century as a historical parenthesis filled with pathological experiments conducted by crazed thinkers and politicians, as if liberal democracy had been there before those experiments and merely needed to be revived after they failed.

It is not a pleasant thought – and perhaps even a dangerous one – but the fact remains that many people, not just ideologues, put their hopes in the twentieth century’s authoritarian and totalitarian experiments, viewing politicians like Mussolini and even Stalin as problem-solvers, while liberal democrats were written off as dithering failures.

This is not to make any excuses – it is not true that to comprehend is to forgive. On the contrary, any proper understanding of ideologies must reckon with their power to seduce and even genuinely convince people who care little about their emotional appeal – whether to pride or to hate – but who think they actually offer rational policy solutions. We must remember that Mussolini and Hitler were ultimately brought to power by a king and a retired general, respectively – in other words, traditional elites, not street-fighting fanatics.

Second, we need to appreciate the special and innovative nature of the democracy created by Western European elites after 1945. In light of the totalitarian experience, they stopped identifying democracy with parliamentary sovereignty – the classic interpretation of modern representative democracy everywhere but in the United States. Never again should a parliamentary assembly just cede power to a Hitler or a Pétain. Instead, the architects of post-war European democracy opted for as many checks and balances as possible – and, paradoxically, for empowering unelected institutions to strengthen liberal democracy as a whole.

The most important example is constitutional courts – a different animal from the US Supreme Court, and one specifically tasked with ensuring respect for individual rights. Eventually, even countries traditionally suspicious of “government by judges” – France being the classic case – accepted this model of constrained democracy. And virtually all Central and Eastern European countries adopted it after 1989. Importantly, European institutions – especially the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights – also fit this understanding of democracy through prima facie undemocratic mechanisms.

Today, many Europeans are clearly dissatisfied with this conception of democracy. Many have the impression that the continent is entering what the political scientist Colin Crouch has called a “post-democratic” era. Citizens increasingly claim that political elites do not properly represent them, and that directly elected institutions – national parliaments in particular – are forced to bow to unelected bodies like central banks. Passionate grassroots protest and surging populist parties across the continent are the result.

It will not do simply to reaffirm the post-war European model of democracy, as if the only alternative were totalitarianism of one sort or another. But we should be clear about where we are coming from, and why – and that there was no golden age of European liberal democracy, whether before World War II, in the 1950’s, or at some other mythical point.

Ordinary Europeans long trusted elites with the business of democracy – and often even seemed to prefer unelected elites. If they now want to modify the social contract (and assuming that direct democracy remains impossible), change ought to be based on a clear, historically grounded sense of which innovations European democracy might really need – and of whom Europeans really trust to hold power. That discussion has barely begun.