- Insights from Europe’s History
Sheri Berman's ambitious book analyzes the development of democracies and dictatorships in Europe, from prerevolutionary France to the collapse of communism. This is a tall order and an important task: Today populists, authoritarians, and other illiberal forces threaten to erode democracies that were centuries in the making. We cannot diagnose or comprehend the full scale of these challenges without understanding the history of how Europe became democratic.
Berman offers case studies that span three centuries and an entire continent. Helpfully, she structures what could be an unwieldy amount of data around four general arguments. First, she urges us to take a long view of democratization, arguing that, "political development is best understood as a marathon and not a sprint" (p. 8). One cannot simply graft a new political system onto old societies and economies. This is one reason why the path from democratization to democratic consolidation is so long—democratic transitions need to upend and replace entire political, social, and economic orders. Thus, Berman's second argument is that democratic transformations can succeed only when key actors decisively reject the old order and adopt the new democratic order. This is difficult to achieve because the old political elites often are those with the most to lose. Democratic transitions also tend to be accompanied by violence, as major structural change [End Page 170] or war is often what destroys illiberal and antidemocratic vestiges of the old order.
After defining the pace and scope of democratic transition, Berman explains the conditions that enable or hinder consensus for democratization. Her third major argument is that the sequence of development matters for the success of democratization. Strong states that established national unity before the introduction of mass politics and capitalism began reshaping society were more likely to achieve democratic consolidation. This was the case in France and Great Britain. Conversely, in weaker states and in states that became strong and consolidated national identity alongside the birth of mass politics, consensus for transformation was harder to establish. As Berman shows in her Italian and German case studies, the democracies that formed under such conditions were more contested and fragile. Spain was a similar case, and its relative poverty meant that there was neither a middle class to support fascism nor a working class to support communism. This allowed entrenched conservative forces such as the church and the military to maintain their power. Finally, Berman's fourth argument is that the liberal consensus that emerged after 1945 was the foundation that made democratic consolidation across Europe possible.
There is a lot to digest here, but some of the book's arguments will leave interested readers wanting more. I will focus on just one: the idea that strong national unity is a prerequisite for democratic consolidation. There have been innumerable books written about nationalism and the evolution of the nation-state in Europe, offering what has become a standard account of how European nation-states were formed: deliberately and instrumentally. In conversation with these works, Berman offers a more complete picture of the formation of national unity by analyzing the sequence of democratization, arguing that the processes of nation-building and political development are often mutually dependent. Specifically, Berman observes that nation-building does not end after transition or with consolidation, because consolidation is itself a process and not an endpoint. In fact, as I and other scholars have shown, nation-building is an ongoing process. Who belongs? Who decides? Eugen Weber wrote that "peasants became Frenchmen," but the process did not stop there. What it means to be a Frenchman is continually being defined and redefined as immigrant newcomers join French democracy as citizens. In other words, a strong and coherent national identity is not merely a prerequisite for democratization; it continues to develop as part of democratic consolidation.
Berman's history shows how national identity and strong states have co-developed to produce or inhibit democracy, but her argument can also help us to think critically about what happens to...