The Liminality of Failing Democracy: East Central Europe during the Interwar Slump

East Central Europe saw the emergence of a series of democratically constituted new states as a result of the collapse of Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian imperial rule at the end of the First World War. The majority of these states – Poland, Yugoslavia, the Baltic States and Romania – shifted to authoritarian rule from the mid-1920s and in the 1930s.

The project challenges the narrative that democratic failure and the rise of authoritarian leaders in interwar East Central Europe resulted from a lack of experience in political participation. Rather, it argues that authoritarianism was enabled during specific critical moments which endowed it with significant domestic and international support. Economic crises resulted in ‘liminal moments’, which transformed shared expectations towards the agency of states.The project is funded by the Gerda-Henkel Foundation for a duration of three years (2021 – 2024).

Overview

The dominant narrative of the rise and character of authoritarianism in interwar East Central Europe posits these regimes as chauvinistic and ineffective dictatorships that found support in the wider population only due to a lack of experience in political participation and a broad disillusionment with democratic systems already eroded by political divisions. The proposed project challenges these views on the basis of the proposition that, to understand how anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-internationalist policies gathered momentum and support across East Central Europe, we need to investigate economic crises as liminal moments, during which previous certainties were suspended, leading to fundamentally new, subjective expectations across societies. As these expectations of different groups of historical actors either aligned or diverged, they had a transformative impact on the relationship of states and societies. During the pan-European experience of the Great Depression, the authoritarian regimes received support not only domestically, but also internationally – not because of concrete policymaking, but because they represented rapidly changing and widely accepted concepts of what constituted successful states. To test this hypothesis, the project raises the following research questions:

  1. How did the economic slump of the interwar period produce liminal moments in which proponents of anti-democratic, anti-liberal and anti-integrationist policies could move into the political mainstream, and how were these moments ultimately resolved?
  2. How far did the impact of such liminal moments that transitioned from democracy to authoritarianism and from economic cooperation to protectionism change subjectivities among regimes and societies? How far did this lead to an alignment of views on authoritarian, interventionist and disintegrationist policies and thus bolster support for the regime?
  3. To what extent did the authoritarian regimes of East Central Europe continue to engage in international cooperation, and how far did the pan-European experience of economic crisis increase their acceptance at the international level?

By answering these questions, the proposed project will fundamentally reinterpret the history of interwar authoritarianism in East Central Europe and enhance our understanding of its domestic and international support base. Examining how regimes come into place and change discourse and social consensuses in times of economic upheaval promises insights into the threats that economic crises pose to democracy beyond the project’s chronological and geographical contexts.

Research team

 

The project is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation as part of its Democracy Programme.

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