The Crisis of Liberalism in the Interwar Era

The grave and sudden crisis of liberal democracy that followed World War One also affected the political theory of liberalism itself. The optimism that the Western Allies drew from their victory over the monarchies was soon dissipated in the post-war upheavals. As it turned out, neither the international peace of Versailles nor the newly created democratic states were able to bring about the desired pacification of political life. The pluralist liberal values of parliamentary democracy found themselves struggling for legitimacy and vulnerable both to the assault of the revolutionary left and to attacks from a radical right that rejected conservative loyalty to past orders and – as Italian fascism was the first to demonstrate – was willing to tread the path of violence to establish new authoritarian forms of rule.

Growing pressure on political parties whose liberal or social democratic convictions led them to defend the parliamentary order, also affected political thinkers who found themselves accused of supporting an outdated political model. There was a widespread conviction that European parliamentary liberalism belonged to the pre-1914 Belle Époque. The political discourses that developed in its defense have to date generally been examined under the aspect of liberal weakness and surrender. Especially in the case of the Weimar Republic, it is possible to trace the erosion of the party-political center in the shrinking willingness to stand by the political principles of constitutional democracy. Even liberals became afflicted by doubts about the functionality of party-political pluralism and began calling for a charismatic leader.

For good reasons, research into the history of these ideas has concentrated on the dissemination of "anti-democratic thought" (Sontheimer) in order to explain how the "treason of the intellectuals" (Benda) could have come about, whether for a revolutionary left socialism or for a conservative revolutionary option. Beyond that, there was a tendency to ignore the sophisticated (though admittedly marginal) liberal position-seeking discourse that combined liberal self-correction and openness to reform with a robust critique of anti-liberalism.

The research project outlined here will show that these new political theories generated in response to crisis and societal modernization processes deserve attention and analysis for several reasons. Firstly, they still appear as manifestations of common sense in times that were permeated, indeed dominated by political irrationality, utopianism, and apocalypticism. Secondly, in terms of identifying the essence of social democracy – which was initially the loser but ultimately the lasting outcome of the totalitarian age – the intellectual debates of those years attain a level that was rarely matched later.

Thirdly, and this remains relevant in our time, the crisis-prone nature of liberal capitalism represented the central subject of a theoretical exploration that discussed political containment in terms of equity and redistribution. And finally, this period saw the first thorough analyses of the problems of mass democracy as it faced up to the task of redefining the principle of representation, ensuring an integrative political system, and demonstrating political responsiveness.

The lively debates among constitutional experts, sociologists, political economists and other political thinkers that developed around this spectrum of topics in the 1920s and 1930s in many respects supplied the background experience and inspiration for the second post-war era after 1945. For political thought, it was crucial that the experience of learning from the horrors of the "epoch of global civil war" was accompanied by a striving for continuity. Much of what was conceived in the brief intermission of the inter-war era had to wait for the emergence of the protected Western European space of the Cold War: totalitarianism theory, ordoliberalism, concepts of pluralism, and the theory of "fortified democracy." The critique of the corporatist state and of the creeping marginalization of parliamentarianism also built on ideas developed during the inter-war period.

This research project sets out to rediscover a problem-led, value-based, and rationality-seeking liberalism capable of enhancing what is still an unfinished liberal political theory.

(Last modified August 2012)