March 23, 2017

1929. The Nature of Dictatorships

The Future of Authoritarianism in Europe
This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Germany prior to World War II. In 1929, diplomat and academic William Rappard spoke about the postwar dictatorships and their leaders in Europe. The New York Times published an abridged version, with a preface included:
Dictators wield a great power in the Europe of today; the total of dictatorships on the Continent is now at nine. Does this mean, as many political observers have said, that the effect of the war has been the suppression of democracy and the aggrandizement of dictatorships? An eloquent answer to the question was made by William E. Rappard at the current meeting of the Institute of Politics at Williamstown. The article that follows is made up of extracts from his address.

Mr. Rappard is a Doctor of Law and professor at the University of Geneva. From 1911-13 he was Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Harvard. During 1920-24 he was Director of the Mandates Section of the League of Nations and from 1925 to 1929 a member of the League's Permanent Mandates Commission.
From The New York Times, August 18, 1929:

Professor Rappard Contends That While Autocratic Methods of Government May Now Be Necessary And Wholesome They Will in Time Yield to the Greater Freedom of Democratic Institutions


That there are dictatorships in contemporaneous Europe is an undoubted fact. And that democracy is undergoing a crisis in Europe as elsewhere no one will deny. But to declare that the European dictatorships are symptoms of this crisis is to assume that democracy prevailed yesterday where they triumph today, an assumption as groundless as it is fallacious.

In those parts of Europe where democracies can be said fairly to have been established, i.e., Great Britain, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries, not only are there no dictatorships, but dictatorships would be as unlikely and as unwelcome as, say, effective prohibition in New York, or militant atheism in Tennessee.

On the other hand, if we examine the countries in which political liberties have been suspended or suppressed, we shall be led to certain definite conclusions.

Before doing so, may we be allowed to state explicitly that we are not in the least actuated by the desire to make a case for or against any given form of political organization. We shall on the contrary, rely only on the evidence of obviously undeniable facts. And we trust that in dealing with this highly delicate subject, we may avoid offending any national susceptibilities.

The countries in which more or less full-fledged dictatorships have been set up in Europe since the war, and in which they prevail today are, setting them in their geographical order from west to east: Portugal, Spain, Italy, Yugoslavia, Albania, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and the Soviet Union.

Nine Dictatorships Here

The first conclusion to be drawn from this enumeration is a negative one. Dictatorships can clearly not be correlated either with geographical position, population, area, newness of statehood, or with any particular form of constitutional government. Of the nine States under dictatorships, some are large and some are small. Some are densely and others sparsely populated. Two dictatorships prevail in countries whose frontiers have not changed since the war; at least four in States which may be said to have retained their former political identity; five in monarchies, and four in republics.

In all nine cases, however, dictatorships can be correlated directly or indirectly with war and its social, financial and political consequences. The problems of government in post-war Europe are infinitely more varied and more difficult than they were in pre-war days, when the traditional constitutional theories and practices had been adopted and worked out. It was because in some countries these theories and practices, as applied by the available personnel, appeared ill-adapted to the solution of the problems, that dictatorships arose. This is so well known that it needs no further elaboration.

Furthermore, dictatorships are very clearly correlated also, and this has not to my knowledge ever been pointed out, with the economic structure of the countries involved.

If we arrange the States of Europe in the order of relative importance of the proportion of the gainfully employed population which is engaged in agriculture, we shall have the following table:
These figures are taken from the United States Commerce Year Book, 1928, Vol. II, Foreign Countries, and from Die Wirtschaft des Auslandes 1920-1927, Bearbeitet im Statistischen Reichsamt, Berlin, 1928.

Statisticians will be unanimous in questioning these figures as to their absolute accuracy and as to their international comparability. No one will deny, however, that they are more than sufficiently reliable in both of these respects to justify the statement that dictatorships have been established in Europe since the war only in countries still predominantly agricultural. The omission of Albania from the above table, owing to the entire absence of even approximate statistics, certainly does not weaken or limit the scope of the generalization. That interesting but backward country is probably the most strictly agricultural State in Europe.

Political Liberty Urban

How is the above table to be interpreted? Surely not to the effect that agriculture is the economic synonym for political dictatorship. Nothing would warrant, and the figures shown would disprove rather than confirm, such a simple conclusion. But they do point to a certain correlation between the two terms. The true inference is less that peasants love tyranny and favor dictators than that political liberty may, by and large, be considered to be essentially a product of urban life and of all that city dwelling implies in terms of social instability and in possibilities of individual enlightenment and collective organization.

If the chief aim of government is to maintain public order while allowing the greatest possible measure of individual freedom compatible with it, there is bound to be everywhere a certain conflict between order and freedom. Now, in this conflict of ideals it may, I believe, be held that, in Europe at least, the ideal of order is more stressed in the country and that of freedom in the city. That is shown, for instance, by the fact that rural populations are more often and more generally conservative than urban communities. On the other hand, history teaches that a large measure of political freedom is compatible with the reign of order only at a given stage of social evolution, which is rarely attained under predominantly agricultural conditions.

European dictatorships have as a rule been established in rural countries which, having borrowed political and parliamentary institutions from their more advanced industrial neighbors, found them ill-adapted to their post-war needs. As it was obviously impossible, nor perhaps deemed desirable, to hasten the course of social evolution so as to adapt the state of the people to the exigencies of liberal institutions, national interest demanded that the institutions be adapted to the state of the people. This involved the necessity of a political reaction which is hardly conceivable except under dictatorial conditions.

Such is, as I see it, the general explanation of the rise of all the new European dictatorships, except one. Whether established by former Socialists as in Italy and Poland, by military men as in Spain and Portugal, or by leading rulers and statesmen as in Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania and Lithuania, in spite of all the considerable local differences, these dictatorships have much in common. Their professed aim is always the protection of national interests and the promotion of national ambitions, declared to be threatened by internal disorder, license, incompetence, political dishonesty, as well as by external hostility. And their methods, the substitution of executive decision for parliamentary discussion, are always more or less frankly and drastically illiberal and undemocratic.

The general tendency of all these dictatorships is reactionary, in that they tend to suppress or limit the rights and liberties of the people, which it has been the boast of the last 150 years to proclaim and establish. But they may also lay claim to being progressive, and they may even justify that claim in so far as they succeed in actually enhancing the efficiency of government and thereby improving at least the material conditions of life in their respective countries.

May Be a Blessing

Although the Russian dictatorship presents in its spirit and methods many curious analogies with those established in other parts of Europe, it is in essence in a class by itself. Its program is social, not national; its tendencies revolutionary, not reactionary; its aims, not the maintenance and establishment of political order, but the creation of a new social order. Therefore, in contrast to the other dictatorships, it is supported by the towns and not by the country. However, as all dictatorships, that of the proletariat would be difficult to conceive in an advanced urban community. There the number, culture and influence of those would be too great who, valuing individual freedom above all other civic good, were prepared and able to defend their rights against even the most masterful, the most ruthless or the most patriotic autocrat.

Political cynics have often pointed, not without satisfaction, to the fact that one of the most important results of a war professedly waged to make the world safe for democracy has been to suppress democracy and to favor the establishment of dictatorships. At the risk of differing with political cynics and of spoiling their self-complacency—always a doubly perilous undertaking—I must, as already indicated above, point out that this is a fallacy. What the war has destroyed is not democracy, neither its spirit and its ideals, which have on the contrary been strengthened, nor its institutions, where they really functioned.

What the war has done away with in several countries, whose economic and social structure was not yet such that the people could be ripe for the responsibilities of democracy, is a superficial appearance and a popular delusion. And the present dictatorships may well be a blessing in disguise for democracy itself, both in dispelling from within the confusion which the nineteenth century undoubtedly created between true democracy and pseudo-democratic institutions, and in challenging the former from without. It is only if democracy failed to meet this challenge that its doom would be sealed.

This the future only can decide, but can be relied on to decide conclusively. It is obvious that in this competitive world the law of the survival of the fittest applies as well to political forms as to biological species. Although it may seem idle, it is always tempting and sometimes suggestive to speculate about the future. For my part, I cannot but look upon the present European dictatorships as most interesting, as perhaps wholesome and necessary, but always as essentially temporary phenomena. My main reasons for this view are twofold:

In the first place, permanent dictatorship implies either an immortal dictator or an infallible method of choosing his successor. Now dictators, although usually young on assuming power, are not immortal. They are, in fact, for obvious reasons, rather less so than ordinary mortals.

On the other hand, the problem of succession has never been satisfactorily solved, even by the most brilliant dictators of history. The hereditary principle could perpetuate a dictatorship only if it could be relied upon to bestow upon the sons of dictators both the very exceptional personal gifts and the very extraordinary political circumstances, thanks to the combination of which their fathers were able to create their own position. Such an achievement could not be expected except by the intervention of Providence. And it is not at a time when Europe, as we have seen, unanimously dismissed all its former kings by divine right, that it is likely to bow to the authority of dictators by divine right.

The choice of successors by their predecessors, or by bodies set up by the latter, is not more promising. It is a noticeable fact that even the strongest dictators, in fact especially the strongest, seldom tolerate strong personalities about them. This being so, and as admittedly it takes an uncommonly strong personality to be a successful dictator, it is difficult to conceive how he is by dictatorial choice to be selected.

If, finally, the people are to select their own dictator—a method to which none of the present incumbents owe their position—the result would in fact be a democratic republic and certainly not anything resembling the regime we are discussing. Nations may at certain crises in their development need dictators. They hardly ever desire them. That is why even those autocrats who most insistently claim that they faithfully represent their people's real preference are careful never to expose their authority to the test of a free and sincere popular election.

Besides this internal and technical reason which leads me to doubt of the possibilities of permanent dictatorships in the modern world, there is another historic reason which, as I see it, is of a more general and more decisive nature still.

It is surely not an accident that, as we have noted, the dictatorships of Europe should all have been established in predominantly rural and agricultural countries. Now the world in general and Europe in particular are from generation to generation, and almost from year to year, becoming less rural and less agricultural. With the growth of urban civilization and all that it brings with it in the way of progressive public instruction, developed critical faculties, enhanced love of freedom and intolerance of intolerance, the areas on which dictatorships can flourish seem destined to become narrower and narrower. Except during temporary crises, such as wars and revolutions or threats of war and revolution, when even the most enlightened and most independent recognize and submit to the necessity of authoritarian leadership and of political restrictions, democracy in Europe will, I believe, definitely and generally triumph over dictatorship.
Revolution in Society

This view implies neither satisfaction with democratic government as at present constituted nor blindness to the dangers to which it is exposed and to which it may give rise. These dangers I see far less in the assaults of dictatorships from without than in the internal difficulties of legislation and administration. The complications of government, both domestic and international, are, with the progress of wealth, of economic technique and of non-political organization, increasing at a rate that is truly alarming. In the race between the art of statesmanship on the one hand and the social forces which the State is called upon to control on the other, the latter often seem to outstrip the former.

While voters, parties, Parliaments and governments are debating such matters as the budget, the tariff, national defense and State insurance, society is being revolutionized by factors much more important and quite beyond the control of voters, parties, Parliaments and governments. New technical discoveries and inventions are being made; new tastes and fashions are springing up; new secret and often international agreements are being concluded between politically irresponsible financiers and industrialists, which, by changing the course of trade and modifying the price level, by creating unemployment here and by accumulating wealth there, affect the well-being of the individual and the future of the race much more vitally than any decisions governments may make.

That, as I see it, is the real reason for what is often alluded to as the crisis of democracy even in the most advanced countries and those least threatened by dictatorships. Doubtless the State has never been and can never be entirely supreme. Attempts brutally to subject all manifestations of social activity to its rule, such as the world has witnessed in the Soviet Union since 1918, must either fail of their purpose or result in general ruin. But as the power of man over nature is increasing on a constantly shrinking, ever more densely populated globe, social control is becoming more necessary, and social control through the State more difficult.

The problems thus arising are not peculiar to one continent alone. But they are particularly acute in Europe, on account of the density of its population—a density roughly twice as great as that of Asia and ten times as great as that of America—and on account of the multiplicity of its so-called sovereign and independent States. That is also why, in Europe, international cooperation, which is but one form of political control of social forces, is exceptionally important for the well-being of its people and for the peace of the world.

In no period of the known history of this Continent have there been so many conferences, agreements, conventions, and treaties intended to regulate the international relations of its constituent parts as there have been in the brief space of the last ten years. This change has been so striking that, even if we knew nothing of the other causes to which it is to be attributed, we could not explain it merely by the constitution of seven or eight new States.

The fact is that the World War directly and indirectly created many new wants and needs which cannot be satisfied except by international cooperation. Some of them, such as the adjustments required by new frontiers, are doubtless of a temporary character. Most of them, however, being the result of a more keenly felt solidarity, are more likely to prove permanent. The fear of a renewal of war and the desire to combat its possible causes by pacific agreement have raised to the international plane many problems which were formerly considered to be of purely domestic concern.

Policies of Autocrats

Thus the multiplication of sovereign States has intensified and widened the scope of the internationalization of Europe. The rise of republicanism and the emergence of dictatorships have contributed to modify its methods.

The autocrat, especially if he must rely for his authority on his popularity with the most active, restless and articulate of his followers, is apt to appeal constantly, insistently and passionately to national pride. His foreign policy is therefore apt to be nationalistic and dynamic in spirit.

Whether he will it or not, it is also always a danger of becoming bellicose, because nothing so violently stirs up the sentiment of nationality and so effectively silences the murmurings and criticism of internal opposition as the prospect of war, unless it be the reality of war.

As for his methods, the autocrat will naturally prefer to deal with foreign powers one by one rather than to meet them collectively, and he will prefer secret negotiations to "open covenants openly arrived at." Why? Because an autocrat naturally desires and often needs sudden and spectacular triumphs, and naturally loathes and often fears long-drawn-out public discussions necessarily ending in compromise and mutual concession. Secret negotiations with individual powers, especially if they be weaker, may give rise to real diplomatic victories.

When truly successful, such negotiations may with impunity be heralded abroad as masterpieces of Machiavellian skill, if no time is lost over final signatures and ratifications. And powerful autocrats may both practice themselves and impose on their partners great expedition in these matters. When only partly successful, such negotiations may be presented as minor triumphs and, when unsuccessful, entirely hushed up.
None of these possibilities exist when a considerable number of national delegations meet around a table to settle important matters of general interest. Multilateral negotiations, never secret and proverbially slow, cannot give rise to dramatic national victories. If in the course of the debate one of the negotiating parties is so fortunate as to secure more than its due share of concessions, it must be very discreet about its successes for fear of preventing ratification by the other parties and thereby depriving itself of the fruits of its diplomatic victory.

The constituency of a democratic leader is the people as a whole. It is not, as that of past monarchs, the army and the bureaucracy, nor as that of most modern dictators, a group of particularly restless and noisy patriots. What the people as a whole, that is those who respond to the roll-call of universal suffrage, and their representatives demand of their chiefs in the conduct of foreign affairs is not so much national prestige and glory as international security and welfare.

In every Parliament the extreme Right, where dictators usually find their most ardent if not always their earliest supporters, is confronted with and usually outnumbered by moderate, progressive and radical parties, which are almost everywhere less nationalistically inclined.

Democracy More Open

Furthermore, the democratic leader is apt to be much less his own master than is an autocrat, in point of historic fact as well as by definition. Being dependent on the support of many others, and often of a great variety of others, he is both less tempted and less able to resort to secrecy, and more attracted by methods which permit a continuous appeal to public opinion. He is, of course, not systematically averse to discreet negotiations and to bilateral agreements, nor always reluctant to indulge in intrigue and bluff. On the whole, however, he often finds the methods of the new, that is of open, public and multilateral diplomacy, better suited to his own political tastes and interests than the autocrat.

Whatever the truth or error of these somewhat abstract considerations, whose only purpose is to explain the correlation between internal and external policies, one thing is certain: such a correlation is undeniable in the recent experience of Europe. The statesmen who have most persistently and most successfully practiced the new diplomacy, whether it be within or without the framework of the League of Nations, without a single exception, have been representatives of democratic States. Such names as the following prove it more convincingly than the thoroughest scientific demonstration: Léon Bourgeois, Herriot, Briand, MacDonald, Balfour, Chamberlain, Stresemann, Vandervelde, Beneš, Branting, Nansen and Motta.

Republican Institutions

And on the other hand, the aloofness from the public councils of the world of the new European dictators, and often their undisguised hostility to the new spirit and to the new methods of international intercourse, may well serve as a counter-proof. It is surely not a mere coincidence, to quote but one example, that the only two European States who, while members of the Council of the League of Nations, have never been represented thereon by their Prime or Foreign Ministers, are Italy and Spain.

We have seen above that perhaps the most significant incident in the recent political history of Europe has been the unprecedented spread of republican institutions. Although all the new republics are constitutionally based on the principle of popular sovereignty as expressed by universal, free and secret suffrage, they are not at all, in fact, democracies. It is certain, however, that, taken as a whole, they are far more liberal than the autocratic empires from which they sprang. And it is at least probable that even where subjected to dictatorships, whose rule we cannot look upon as permanent, they offer far more scope for the future development of democracy.

We may conclude, therefore, that in so far as the trend of international cooperation in Europe is influenced by internal political developments, it tends toward greater and more active intimacy between an increased number of sovereign States, and toward more openness, publicity and universality in an atmosphere of wider republican freedom.