Sheri BermanOct 6, 2020
Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe
From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day
Oxford University Press 2019
At the end of the twentieth century, many believed the story of European political development had come to an end. Modern democracy began in Europe, but for hundreds of years it competed with various forms of dictatorship. Now, though, the entire continent was in the democratic camp for the first time in history.
But within a decade, this story had already begun to unravel. Some of the continent's newer democracies slid back towards dictatorship, while citizens in many of its older democracies began questioning democracy's functioning and even its legitimacy. And of course it is not merely in Europe where democracy is under siege.
Across the globe the immense optimism accompanying the post-Cold War democratic wave has been replaced by pessimism. Many new democracies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia began "backsliding," while the Arab Spring quickly turned into the Arab winter.
The victory of Donald Trump led many to wonder if it represented a threat to the future of liberal democracy in the United States. Indeed, it is increasingly common today for leaders, intellectuals, commentators and others to claim that rather than democracy, some form dictatorship or illiberal democracy is the wave of the future.
In Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press, 2019), author and Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Sheri Berman, traces the long history of democracy in its cradle, Europe.
She explains that in fact, just about every democratic wave in Europe initially failed, either collapsing in upon itself or succumbing to the forces of reaction. Yet even when democratic waves failed, there were always some achievements that lasted. Even the most virulently reactionary regimes could not suppress every element of democratic progress.
Wide in scope, Berman takes readers through three centuries of turmoil: revolution, fascism, civil war, and - -finally -- the emergence of liberal democratic Europe in the postwar era. An enjoyable retelling of modern European political history, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe not only explains how democracy actually develops, but how we should interpret the current wave of illiberalism sweeping Europe and the rest of the world. And while not everyone will be convinced by Berman's narrative, anyone who is interested in the growth of democracy in Europe in the past three-hundred plus years, will find this book to be ultra-interesting.
Charles Coutinho Ph. D. of the Royal Historical Society, received his doctorate from New York University. His area of specialization is 19th and 20th-century European, American diplomatic and political history. He has written recently for Chatham House’s International Affairs.