How Democracies Collapse: Lessons From Interwar Romania

Tracing the rise of right-wing authoritarianism in interwar Romania reveals a number of key factors that are too familiar for comfort.

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.

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.

Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Senior Lecturer in History, University of Liverpool. See his profile here.

© Roland Clark. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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