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Low Dishonest Decades

Myriad political and economic factors, together with muddled leadership, eroded democratic institutions and enfeebled governments across Europe between 1918 and 1939. No one today can say how the damage wrought by former US President Donald Trump and his populist acolytes in Europe will ramify in the years ahead.

WINCHESTER, UK – Although most of the world is grateful that Donald Trump’s presidency has ended, in its wake many still feel “uncertain and afraid,” as W.H. Auden put it in his immortal poem “September 1, 1939.” Auden, drinking alone in a New York bar, viewed the day when Nazi Germany invaded Poland to initiate World War II as marking the end of a “low dishonest decade” of squalid events and increasingly squalid moral compromises. Trump’s presidency may not have lasted a decade (it only seemed to), but lump together his four-year term with the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the world has arguably endured an era almost as compromised as the 1930s were.

Of course, Trump is neither Adolf Hitler nor Benito Mussolini. But, as four excellent recent books about the interwar years show, it wasn’t the fascists who started the rot that enabled their rise to power. Myriad political and economic factors, along with muddled leadership, eroded democratic institutions and enfeebled governments across Europe between 1918 and 1939, and no one today can say how the institutional damage wrought by Trump and his populist acolytes in Europe will ramify in the years ahead. Yet, one thing is abundantly clear: the rule of Trump, Boris Johnson, Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński, and others also has been low and dishonest. The question that should most concern us is whether we can arrest the rot early enough.

The First Crisis of Democracy

The four books under review offer convincing accounts of some of the many upheavals of the 1920s and 1930s that provided a political opening for fascists and Nazis. The main thread running through all of them is the ideological conflict between communism and fascism during the interwar decades. Today, it is tempting to assume that this confrontation, which defined twentieth-century politics from the Atlantic to the Pacific, is history. Communism supposedly collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union, while fascism allegedly died with the death of Generalísimo Francisco Franco in 1975 and Spain’s embrace of democracy.

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