How Democracies Collapse: Lessons From Interwar Romania
Dr. Roland Clark is a Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Liverpool and a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. He has published a number of books and articles on fascism, religion, and East European cultural history.
Almost every state in Europe had a parliamentary democracy in 1919, but within twenty years more than half had become fascist, authoritarian, or communist dictatorships. In most cases, the collapse of democracy was not as dramatic as Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler’s Enabling Act after the Reichstag fire, or Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War. By and large, democracies died slow deaths caused by systemic problems and irresponsible politicians.
Each country abandoned democracy for different reasons, but understanding how and why parliamentary democracies break down can still help us protect our fragile democracies today. Tracing the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in interwar Romania reveals a number of key factors that feel slightly too familiar for comfort.
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Step one: Creating second class citizens. Romania expanded significantly after the First World War, incorporating large numbers of ethnic and religious minorities together with the new territories. Official rhetoric, promoted by bureaucrats and through the school system, encouraged people to think that ethnic Romanians deserved certain privileges that others did not. The rhetoric claimed that ethnic Romanians had been ‘victims’ under the old empires, and they were now given preferential treatment in access to state jobs or university.
Step two: Policing minorities. Journalists and state officials stoked fears that a communist revolution was imminent following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Béla Kun’s rise to power in Hungary in 1918, and a wave of industrial action in 1920. Police cracked down on the Romanian Communist Party and made it extremely difficult for left-wing parties to carry out propaganda. Moreover, the police and other officials began to treat Jews, Hungarians, and other minorities with suspicion as potential terrorists or traitors, frequently equating Jews with Bolshevism.
Step three: Rule by and for a tiny elite. Two major political parties had governed the country for decades before the First World War: the National Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. The Conservatives collapsed after universal male suffrage was introduced after the war, but the National Liberals held on to power for most of the 1920s. They changed electoral laws in 1923 and 1925 to make it easier for them to remain in power, and consistently introduced policies that served their own financial interests. From the perspective of the average voter, universal male suffrage still did not mean that their interests were being represented in parliament.
Step four: A biased judiciary. Right-wing nationalist violence emerged in the early 1920s, almost always perpetrated by radical young men. In 1923 a group of antisemitic students were arrested for the attempted assassination of leading public figures, all of whom were Jewish. They admitted to their crime but were acquitted because their motives were ‘patriotic’. One of the conspirators, Ion Moţa, shot the informant inside the courtroom and in front of the jury, but he too was acquitted. Another of the students, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, shot a police prefect on the steps of a courthouse the following year because he had tried to curtail the extremist activities of Codreanu’s organization. In 1927 another student, Nicolae Totu, shot a Jewish high school student who had insulted a Romanian school inspector. In every case, the nationalist students were acquitted by juries sympathetic to their motives and hostile to minorities.
Step five: Incompetent opposition. The other major political party that emerged after the war was the National Peasant Party, which promised major land redistribution and economic policies that would benefit agriculture rather than large industry. Not only did they fail to deliver on these policies when they came to power in 1928, but they had no solutions when the Great Depression crippled the country economically. Voters who had looked to the Peasantists for reform were bitterly disappointed.
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Step six: Sex scandals and individual ambition. Prince Carol renounced his right to the throne in 1925 so that he could continue an affair and divorce his wife. He returned to claim the throne in 1930, despite strong opposition from the Prime Minister, Iuliu Maniu. Maniu framed his protest to Carol’s return in terms of the king’s immorality, when the real issue was over whether the king or parliament would run the country. Carol won, and consistently undermined the political process for the next eight years.
Step seven: Fascist movements. The antisemitic student movement transformed into a fascist movement during the second half of the 1920s, and by 1933 they were ready to seriously contest national elections. Violence between police and fascists continued throughout 1933 and three members of the fascist Iron Guard shot the new Prime Minister after his government had outlawed their party just weeks before the election. Even following the Prime Minister’s assassination, only the assassins themselves were convicted and their supporters allowed to continue their propaganda.
Step eight: Mainstream politicians adopt right-wing policies. By 1935 Romania had a number of right-wing parties. Most were splinter groups led by people without a strong political following, but a couple of mainstream politicians hoping to establish new parties around themselves adopted the rhetoric and policies of the far-right, promising ethnic discrimination and an alliance with Hitler should they be elected.
Step nine: By-Passing Parliament. A series of National Liberal governments held power between 1933 and 1938, led by a younger generation of Liberals than those who had controlled the party during the 1920s. They increasingly made decisions only inside the cabinet, by-passing parliamentary discussions and ignoring the complaints of the opposition.
Step ten: A split electorate. The elections of December 1937 failed to give a majority to any party. The National Peasantists won the most votes, but the king refused to give them power because they wanted to limit his power. The fascist Iron Guard were the second-largest party, but they too opposed the king. So King Carol II invited the National Christian Party – a far-right group whose only policy was driving Jews out of the country – to form a government.
Step eleven: A political crisis. After less than two months of misrule, the king used growing political violence as an excuse to end parliamentary democracy in Romania, establishing a royal dictatorship, which after two years gave way first to a fascist party state then to a right-wing military dictatorship.
The collapse of Romanian democracy took almost twenty years, and could have been prevented at any time. The lesson of its collapse is that it is not what far-right parties do which brings them to power, but whether mainstream politicians are willing to put due process and the rule of law before their personal ambitions.
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