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European Radicalism in an Anxious Age
The radicalization of politics, though most well known in the German case, was not in any way an exclusive German phenomenon. Radical politics became the norm in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.
In Hungary, after the dissolution of the dual monarchy, a communist revolution led by Bela Kun took power in 1919. Kun was eventually ousted by a combination of domestic revolt and international forces. Right-wing Admiral Miklos Horthy then assumed power in Hungary, ending all hopes for democratic reform.
In Poland, democracy was also short-lived. After a difficult beginning as a nation-state, the Polish government, which had been not managed to produce a stable governing coalition between 1923 and 1926, was overthrown by the military leader of the independence movement, the authoritarian Jozef Pilsudski, who became the country’s de facto dictator until he died in 1935. In a fitting moment for the age, Pilsudski named his governing style “Sanation,” which had as its explicit and primary goal a restoration of the Polish nation’s moral health. This notion of a “sick” or “diseased” society, culture, and politics pervaded Europe and became a primary justification for extreme politics from Spain to Moscow.
In Yugoslavia, or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, democracy lasted until the late 1920s, though it was democracy of a dubious sort. Serb leader and Prime Minister Nicola Pasic used all means necessary, including force and corruption, to ensure Serb power over the other parties. This didn’t sit well with the representatives of the other peoples, who fought to win back rights from the government in Belgrade. Tensions mounted, and in 1928 violence erupted in the parliament building with a Serb leader shooting five members of the Croat opposition. Serb King Alexander I used this crisis as a pretext to disband the government and establish a new constitutional order with himself as chief executive with broad powers. This move only increased internal tensions. In 1929, even the dubious democracy of the Pasic years had vanished from Yugoslavia, and Yugoslavia joined Poland, Russia, Hungary, Italy, and soon Germany in a continent of authoritarian regimes. Again, we see in Yugoslavia heightened nationalist tensions, strict notions of inclusion and exclusion, and an ethnic understanding of community, all of which made representative democracy very difficult to maintain. There was no established way to mediate these conflicts. The state’s political leaders had no interest in doing so.
The most famous failure of democracy in Europe between 1919 and 1929 took place in Italy. In October of 1922, Benito Mussolini, the leader and creator of the Italian Fascist Party, marched on Rome and overthrew the democratically elected government. Mussolini became Italian dictator and his party, the Fascists, became the only party permitted in Italian politics. A disastrous military effort in the First World War, a failure to secure treaty terms in Paris that satisfied the people back home, an economy hard hit by war and general stagnation, a country divided into a richer northern half and a very poor southern half combined to make the Italian government vulnerable. Mussolini, like Pilsudski, promised a reinvigorated Italian nation, one that would return Italy to its pure ethnic roots and reestablish its former (ancient) glory. Mussolini, however, was not a conservative. He was a new blend of politician: a right wing radical. He used nationalist and racist rhetoric to push a militarily aggressive and domestically radical agenda. In the economic realm, Mussolini partnered with corporate interests and powerful business leaders to increase the production of the Italian economy. He liberalized trade and business (at least before 1929), transferring some of the state operated sectors to private ownership. His reforms proved popular with the Italian public, and those who disagreed with him were silenced by imprisonment or intimidation. Gradually during the 1920s, all independent political or administrative institutions were incorporated into the fascist structure. The powers of the fascist police state expanded until Mussolini had absolute control over the nation. He launched a campaign of violence and terror against his opponents, ridding Italy of dissent. By 1929, nothing of Italy’s former democratic culture remained. The economic depression that began in 1929 would further radicalize Mussolini and his party. As economic conditions in the world threatened his modest gains, Mussolini would become increasingly aggressive and dictatorial.