Account for the “Failure of Democracy” in Eastern Europe (Excluding the Ussr) in the Period 1918-1939 Essay

According to Robert A. Dahl, there are certain criteria that a government must meet for it to be called a democracy. Democracy must provide first of all, opportunities for effective participation, where all members of an association concerned with a certain policy ‘must have equal and effective opportunities for making their views known to the other members as to what the policy should be’ (Dahl R. A. : 2000).

A second criterion is equality in voting, whereby ‘every member must have an equal and effective opportunity to vote, and all votes must be counted as equal’, followed by gaining enlightened understanding, meaning that each member must have the opportunity to learn about alternative solutions and policies. The last two criteria are the opportunities of exercising control over the agenda (the opportunity for the members to decide ‘how and, if they choose, what matters are to be placed on the agenda’ (Dahl R. A. 2000) and the inclusion of adults, who should have the full citizen rights implied by the first four criteria. Failure of democracy is therefore to be regarded as an incapability of the ruling elite to provide the society with one or more of the previous opportunities for fairness and equality in government and choice. It is a phenomenon which occurred in many parts of the world in the beginning of the XX century – in the form of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. One of the most affected regions was Eastern Europe.

Up to 1918 most of Eastern Europe had been dominated by supranational empires for centuries. The collapse of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires brought for the first time the idea of an Eastern Europe ruled democratically, with state boundaries corresponding to ethnic ones, and the right of people to choose their country’s government. With the end of the First World War, there were signed pacts which determined the borders of the newly formed independent states of Eastern Europe.

The treaties of Versailles (28 June 1919), Saint-Germain (10 September 1919), Neuilly (27 November 1919), Trianon (4 June 1920), Sevres (20 August 1920) and, later on, Lausanne (24 July 1923), “aimed to draw the new state boundaries to fit the existing distribution of populations rather than to ‘adjust’ or relocate populations to fit the existing state boundaries” (Bideleux R. and Jeffries I. : 1998, p. 408). Still, the complex mixture of ethnicities and nationalities in Eastern Europe made it harder for such a plan to be accomplished.

What is more, with the big influence that Russia had always had in the region, this idea of how nation-states should be formed proved unsuitable for post-WWI Europe. Not denying the strong liberating and energizing effects of the establishment of the independent nation-states, it is true that there were major problems that weighed them down – it was not an easy task to build anew the states’ administration, political and economical systems and to deal with the deep social issues with no help.

Furthermore, for most of the East European countries, as well as enduring most of the military action in WWI, there had been a period of six years of almost continuous conflict. In Poland, this began in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, when it was the main battlefield between Germany and Russia and between Russia and Austria-Hungary and ended in 1920, with the Russo-Polish conflict.

On the Balkans, many conflicts dating way back in the past, or appearing out of the new political order (between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, between Romania and Austria-Hungary, between Bulgaria and her Balkan neighbours and between Christians and Turks) took place from 1912 until 1918. These resulted in a broken down economy, with extremely poor peasantry, a huge loss of human resources and a great amount of damage caused to the infrastructures as a whole in Eastern Europe.

All these events led to instability and to the need of a prolonged period of adjustment (which in the case was not possible to acquire due to the quickly changing political climate in Europe) for the ‘successor states’. The international political climate of these years is also a very important factor for the ‘failure of democracy’. Many crucial events took place in the years between 1918 and 1939 that helped the development of undemocratic regimes. First of all, there were the Russian revolutions of February and October 1917. The Russian Empire was replaced by a republic, governed by the Russian parliament (Duma).

In 1922 it became the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), bringing out a completely new type of government. The creation of USSR made the communist threat to the world much bigger than it used to be, with Lenin’s modification of Marx and Engels’ theories aiming to fit his own ambitions for a world ruled by the Communist party and the International. The Western world felt threatened by the powerful Bolsheviks and from this fear sprang up a new political ideology – Mussolini’s fascism, which involved the creation of a single-party state, with a strong leader who impersonated power and stability.

In terms of ideology fascism rejects both liberalism and Marxism for being class-dependent models and offers an economically trans-class movement which is to put an end to class disputes. Their economical model opposes both the ideas of capitalism and of socialism, presenting a mixture of both as the working combination. The appearance of these two completely opposite ideologies put Europe and the whole world in a deep fear of their spread. The conditions created by the Versailles system created a favourable climate for the rise of the Nazi Party (a unique fascist party existent only in Germany) and Hitler’s dictatorship.

The East European states once again lay between two very different and powerful forms of government – the USSR communist model in the East and the Italian fascist and German Nazi rule in the West. As newly formed states, none of the Eastern countries had a strong enough government to withstand the pressure from both sides. In all the countries wings of the communist party coexisted with models of authoritarian government. This created pressure for the whole of Eastern Europe, which was to result in the ‘failure of democracy’. The social setting in Eastern Europe gives further explanation of the ‘failure of democracy’.

Ever since 1918, the East European states have been known for continuous corruption and bribing. The chain starts off in the lower state jobs and with small bribes the officials take in order to be able to provide better life conditions for their families, for which their salaries are not sufficient and goes all the way to the top echelons of state governments. ‘In Eastern Europe fortunes are made not in industry or banking but in politics’ (Seton-Watson H. : 1986, p148). Ministers appropriated national money, while inspectors were bribed to keep their eyes shut to irregularities in the factories.

The industry was not well developed and served the needs of the upper classes, rather than those of the poorest, who had to bear the prices of indispensable imported goods. Where factories were built, their production was monopolised and the prices were very high, still not helping in any way the majority of the population. Furthermore, the judicial systems only seemed to be working by the Western example, while actually real people’s issues were being neglected by the court and required a very long procedure of trial involving all levels of court. It was common or small issues to be sent to higher institutions and for people to be obliged for their own expenses to go to the capitals, where all possible institutions were gathered. The poor peasant or working class labourer could not afford the hassle and the resources needed to deal legally with small everyday life problems and preferred solving them in different ways which in most occasions had nothing to do with democracy. The police system was in a similar status, giving priority to people from the bourgeoisie and the ruling elite, as well as to foreigners, but neglecting the peasantry and working class and making them wait for simple executions.

All these are examples of how corruption, incompetence and economic adversity influenced the fact that ‘political parties increasingly lost touch with their popular constituencies and succumbed to authoritarian, charismatic or personalistic forms of leadership’ (Bideleux R. and Jeffries I. : 1998, p. 458). Another major issue that put to a halt and distorted the development of the East European states as democracies was the economic crisis of the 1930s. It started in the late 1920s, with the Wall Street Crash of October 29th 1929 as the major index of its worldwide spread.

It had great effect in all countries, no matter rich or poor, and even with its underdeveloped economies it left its trace in Eastern Europe as well. In the years just before 1929 over-production and cut-throat competition caused weakening of primary commodity prices. The fall of grain and timber prices affected Romania, Hungary and Poland, the fall of the price of coal had repercussions in Romania and Hungary, the Bulgarian tobacco industry and even the oil plants were hit by the Great Depression.

Only Czechoslovakia was not adversely affected due to its degree of industrialisation and the protection against the low import prices that the government offered. The economic crisis resulted in low personal income, tax revenue, profits and prices, massive unemployment and bankrupts. The peoples of Eastern Europe sought their own ways of fighting the crisis, but with their low level of economic development and limited resources, their means, seemingly effective for the individual primary commodity producer (farmer or mine-owner in most cases), did not work in their favour in the big picture.

Instead of cutting down production and trying to minimise their losses, they thought that with an increase in production they would be able to make up for the low prices. Thus they pushed the prices of their produce even lower, deepening the crisis. The export earnings of all East European countries fell significantly. The figures show a drop by 66% in Poland, 62% in Hungary, 58% in Romania and Yugoslavia and 56% in Bulgaria. The governments tried to revive their economies with attempts to industrialise their countries, but the newly created industries were a heavy burden for the society.

They aimed to satisfy the needs of the ‘upper classes’, while heavy taxes protected products which were 50% to 300% more expensive than the imported goods. ‘The taxation system was calculated to make the poorer classes pay for the economic programme of the ruling class. ’ (Seton-Watson H. : 1986, p131). The policies adopted were supposed to enhance the national economies of the East European countries, but instead of focusing the new industries on fields that they had any chance of prosperity in, the governments decided to invest in war industries (Hungary’s “Billion Pengo Plan”, Poland’s “Central Industrial Region”).

The outcomes of this experiment were products more expensive and with worse quality than the imported ones. Those plans proved to be inefficient for the economies in crisis, and the over-protectionism ‘encouraged ‘rent-seeking’, racketeering, inefficiency, waste, fraud, misallocation or misappropriation of resources and damaging distortions of the market system in general. ’ (Bideleux R. and Jeffries I. : 1998, p. 442). For Eastern Europe, this economical climate proved fertile for the ambitions of the rulers.

The new policies of autarky (self-sufficiency) created an environment for a fast development of authoritarian regimes, which promised fast revival from the conditions of the Depression and suitable measures against unemployment and poverty. Overall, Eastern Europe in the interwar period was going through a period of all sorts of change. Countries that had never existed, or that had been subordinated to empires for centuries, appeared on the map.

Their problems, among which the need of a fast transition to a different form of government, the state of society, the transition from war-time to peace economy contributed greatly to the ‘fail of democracy’. The international affairs of the time also influenced strongly the political development – strong fascist and communist parties came to being in all countries in the region and left people with little choice of vote – it was either one model or the other that was going to rule. Thus, in Eastern Europe in the years between the two World Wars, democracy was slowly fading away as an option. Having no traditions in overnment helped the authoritarian and totalitarian regimes get around in the politicians’ minds because with all the issues of the region they seemed most suitable for solving the complex problems of each country.


1. Bideleux, R. , Jeffries, I. , 1998. A History of Eastern Europe Crisis and Change. London: Routledge. 2. Dahl, R. A. , 2000. On Democracy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 3. Davies, N. , 1997. Europe: a history. London: Pimlico 4. Held, J. , 1992. The Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century. New York; Oxford: Columbia University Press.