An academic study on the long historical buildup to “liberal democracy” in Europe.
A commitment to the rule of law, a protection of minorities and individual liberties, and a respect for all members of society as political equals—these have been hard-fought democratic achievements since the collapse of the Ancien Régime and subsequent forces of authoritarianism and dictatorship in Europe. Yet, as demonstrated by elected “illiberal” governments in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, the adherence to fully democratic political systems in Europe is not guaranteed. In a history that will appeal most to scholars, Berman (Political Science/Barnard Coll.; The Primacy of Politics: Social Democracy and the Making of Europe's Twentieth Century, 2006, etc.) follows several currents. In France, the dismantling of centralization under the Ancien Régime required a violent overhaul of the society and economy, as evidenced by the French Revolution. In England, however, the process toward democratization had already begun, with the emergence of Parliament, and a check on monarchical power followed more gradually and peacefully, as wrought by the Glorious Revolution. The author explores the democratic revolutions that swept Europe in 1848, which were swiftly followed by the reinstitution of monarchies. Yet the role of class conflict began to assert itself, as well as forces of nationalism and socialism. “As we have seen over and over again in European history,” writes the author, “when there is a mismatch between citizens’ demands and expectations and the willingness or ability of political institutions to respond to them, the outcome is disorder and instability.” Berman also spotlights France’s long-running Third Republic and examines the unification processes of Italy and Germany. Her treatment of the world wars is brief and cogent, as are her investigations of the staggering developments of the late-20th century—e.g., Spain’s transition to democracy and the collapse of communism in East-Central Europe.
A dense, astute history and warning about the importance—in the face of growing illiberalism and the reawakening of authoritarianism—of continuing to strengthen democratic institutions and structures.