Is European Liberal Democracy in Crisis? A Historical Perspective

*This blog post is part of the Jean Monnet Chair of European Media Governance and Integration Series curated by Wagner Piassaroli Mantovaneli & Markos Mpadanes


By Oliver Rathkolb

Today we experience an intensive debate about the ‘Global Erosion’ of democracy[1] in general and in Europe in particular. In my lecture I shall analyze the present status of liberal democracies within the EU, which score quite differently both in the Demokratie index[2] 2018 and the Freedom-House-Index 2019[3]. By taking especially a close look at the individuals, the citizens, I shall try to answer the key theoretical question whether this present feeling of instability of democracy is an indicator for the forthcoming destabilization of the traditional post world War two system of liberal democracy. By analyzing historical perceptions, authoritarian attitudes, fears and identities of people I shall examine the existing level of active democratic participation in civil society to resist populist anti-democratic authoritarian messages and politics from all ideological camps.

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash



Are people prepared to defend the liberal democratic parliamentarian system or will they accept – like in the inter-war period – new forms of democracy like “illiberal democracy” or even more authoritarian systems or “electoral autocracies”?

I do not pretend to be able to develop a completely new theory on how democratic systems can be destabilized, but  I aim at finding enough historical evidence in the inter-war period and in the presence focusing on the concepts for manipulation of public opinion and public perceptions through functionalization of authoritarian attitudes in Europe. History therefore matters!

Here the past experiences before 1945 are an important mostly completely neglected tool in social sciences today since our working thesis is that authoritarian attitudes have a strong continuity in societies and are constructed and transmitted over generations. Prejudices, however, can be regulated, deconstructed and they can fade away (e.g. authoritarian attitudes towards women in Europe).

Theoretically, my analysis is based on:

1)      Psychological traits of citizens concerning anti-democratic authoritarian prejudices  – both seen from the historical perspective 1918-1945 and analyzed in present developments. Here we shall use qualitative historical data collected by US psychologists in series of interviews in 1945 and 1946 in Germany within German elites during denazification and in case studies with larger groups. The US psychologists Bertram Schaffner and David M. Levy and the anthropologist David Rodnick [4] published on these findings. Part of the original interview material of David M. Levy from the US screenings centers is available in the Oskar Diethelm Library, Cornell University, Joan and Sanford L. Weill Medical College, N.Y. and will be extensively used for this research platform.

2)      Influence of media and manipulation of public opinion (taking traditional media and for the present era both traditional and social media into account). Here – just to give one example – the vast series of studies on Nazi, Fascist and authoritarian propaganda[5] and the archival material of the Reichsministerium für Propaganda und Volksaufklärung in the Bundesarchiv Berlin and the completely digitalized  and on line searchable Gaupresse Archives in Vienna 1938-1945  of the Department of Contemporary History of the University of Vienna with 180.000 articles, provide enough primary sources to study concrete guidance and propaganda aims of the Nazi regime.

3)      The effects of changes with regard to economy and welfare aspects and their impact on the rise of anti-democratic authoritarian attitudes will be certainly included in the interpretation. This explanation for the erosion of democracy in the past pre 1945 has been reused by the sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf in 1997[6] with his thesis that „a century of authoritarianism is by no means the least likely prognosis for the 21st century“.

  • 4) The central research questions are based on several hypotheses on the relations between individual authoritarian disposition, anomy and cognitive conversion of history on the one hand and political authoritarianism, democratic participation and hostilities towards out-groups such as Jews, Muslims or other minorities, on the other hand.[7] Furthermore, we are interested in finding out, how non-authoritarian people interpret authoritarian or totalitarian experiences. Are people in favour or against discussions on the totalitarian past is an additional research goal. Especially politicians addressing authoritarian attitudes in the presence use actively memories from the dictatorial national past concerning former strong leaders und dictators like Mussolini and Horthy.


[1] Is Democracy Dying? A Global report, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 97, No. 3, May/June 2018. Some political scientists like Sheri Berman still argue that the number of democracies today remains close to its all-time high: There were 11 in 1900, 20 in 1920, nine in 1940, 32 in 1970, 77 in 2000 and 116 in 2018 (compare Sheri Berman, democracy and Dictatorship: Europe from the Ancient Regime to the Collapse of Communism, Oxford 2019)

[2] Sweden 3, Roumania 66 among 167 countries (based on democratic factors like free elections, political democratic culture and civil rights).

[3] Finland 1, Hungary 70 from 195 countries and 14 territories (based on the realization of political rights and civil freedom).

[4] Bertram Schaffner, Father Land. A Study of Authoritarianism in the German Family, New York 1948; compare Uta Gerhardt, Die Familie und die soziale Pathologie der Gewalt. Denkmodelle für die Theorie der modernen Gesellschaften, in: Uta Gerhardt/Stefan Hradil (eds.), Familie der Zukunft: Lebensbedingungen und Lebensformen, Opladen 1995, 16. David M. Levy, Anti-Nazis – Criteria of Differenziation, in: Psychiatry, Vol. 11, 1948, 125-167, and David Rodnick, Postwar Germans. An Anthropologist’s Account, New Haven 1948.

[5] Clemens Zimmermann, Medien im Nationalsozialismus. Deutschland, Italien, Spanien in den 1930er und 1940er Jahren. Wien/Köln etc. 2007. Published sources in Bernd Sösemann,  Propaganda: Medien und Öffentlichkeit in der NS-Diktatur : eine Dokumentation und Edition von Gesetzen, Führerbefehlen und sonstigen Anordnungen sowie propagandistischen Bild- und Textüberlieferungen im kommunikationshistorischen Kontext und in der Wahrnehmung des Publikums, Band 2. Stuttgart, 2011

[6]  Ralf Dahrendorf, Die Globalisierung und ihre sozialen Folgen werden zur nächsten Herausforderung einer Politik der Freiheit. An der Schwelle zum autoritären Jahrhundert, in Die Zeit 14. Nov. 1997 (

[7]  It is impossible to cite for this proposal the vast literature on research with regard to authoritarianism. A classique introduction is Bob Altemeyer. Enemies of Freedom: Understanding. Right- Wing Authoritarianism. San Francisco 1988. A good overview is provided by Susanne Rippl, Christian Seipel, Angela Kindervater (eds.), Autoritarismus. Kontroversen und Ansätze der aktuellen Autoritarismusforschung, Opladen 2000. For additional critical details see Detlef Oesterreich, Flight into Security: A New Approach and Measure of the Authoritarian Personality, in: Political Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2005, 275-297.

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