In view of the economic and political crises which are now affecting many parts of the world there has been renewed interest in the question of how major countries and regions previously faced such challenges in order to learn as much as possible from these experiences. The end of the Cold War and the wave of democratization it entailed in many Eastern European and Third World countries has, in the absence of overriding superpower rivalry and influence, also directed attention to the internal factors which have shaped these developments in each case (see, e.g., Hadenius, 1992, Held, 1993, Huntington, 1991, Vanhanen, 1990). For these reasons, an analysis of the social and political reactions to the Great Depression during the inter-war period in Europe may not only reveal some insights which are pertinent to crisis theory (Almond et al., 1973, Dobry, 1986) and an empirical theory of democracy (see in particular Dahl, 1989) in general, but may also be relevant for contemporary political concerns.
The inter-war period in Europe seems to be particularly interesting in this respect because it most closely resembles what can be called a "quasi-experimental" research design which is, for ethical or practical reasons, relatively rare in the social sciences (Mill, 1843). The cases to be considered share many socio-economic and political-cultural characteristics. Their history is relatively well-researched and documented, The time period is clearly demarcated by common events, i.e., of the two World Wars, which significantly altered the internal and external political landscape and set it apart from earlier and later developments. All cases could initially be termed parliamentary democracies, some of them having been established for a relatively long period, and others being of comparatively recent origin and more democratic in form than in substance. These countries were then affected by a common external stimulus: the world economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Some parliamentary regimes survived while others turned to a more authoritarian form of rule and, in particular, to fascism.
This period has, of course, been discussed and analyzed from a large variety of research perspectives (for a critical review and a test of major hypotheses see Berg-Schlosser/De Meur, 1994). Our concern here is not so much with the economic aspects of the crisis and the impact of the various economic policies pursued (although these must also be assessed within our overall context) since they have been largely discussed by economic historians and economists (see, e.g., Kindleberger, 1973, Schulz, 1985, Gourevitch, 1986, Eichengreen, 1992). Rather, we are concerned with the social and political reactions to the crisis and the factors which contributed to the final regime outcome, i.e., the survival or breakdown of democratic systems.
Our research differs from previous and related projects in a number of critical respects. Most importantly, we consider the inter-war European crises to have been political in nature. They certainly had their economic and social 'causes', but what links these varying inputs to the 'crisis outcomes' are essentially political decisions and political factors related to both the institutional and cultural patterns of the polities in question and to their political actors. This impact of political variables thus depends upon a complex interaction of structures, cultures and pre-conditions both at any one point in time and in terms of the development sequence that gave rise to such configurations. These general factors are all linked to specific outcomes through the actions of intermediary groups and individual actors and through the particular choices of these persons and groups, including the possibility of new alignments being formed at critical moments.
By proceeding in this manner, we are attempting to steer clear of the pitfalls of a premature and over-generalizing historical materialist determinism on the one hand, and the overly personalizing ('men make history') and individualizing ('not true in my country') approach of many conventional historians on the other. …