With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

A Clash of Civilizations or Just a Phase in Democratic Development?

The catastrophic events in Iraq demonstrate the effect of political decisions that are based on a wrong reading of history. President Bush and even much of the United States accepted the concept that dictatorships are an “evil” form of government that must be eliminated. Had the present government held an alternative concept of political history the actions of the United States might have been less disastrous.

Such an alternative was held by my father, the historian J.C. Russell. We often discussed history especially modern history. At one point I tentatively suggested that dictatorships might be a natural occurrence in the historical process.  His answer was: “Isn’t that obvious.” Apparently, several years previously he had written a paper, which has not been published, describing the origin of dictators as a stage in the usual developmental process of democracies. Most modern dictators and wars are part of a general transformation of Western nations from monarchies into stable democracies.

This same historical process is now playing out in many parts of the world and is highly relevant to contemporary diplomacy. Since my father did not live to apply this theory to the contemporary international situation, a commentary based on our discussions will also be presented.

Here is his argument, in his own words:

The dictator is despised by democracies. He usually attained his position by usurpation and maintained his hold by violating civil rights. And yet nearly every modern Western nation has had a dictator in its history - Cromwell, Napoleon, Salazar, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin. Given this constant appearance, although so little liked, there must be a reason for the dictator.

A historical approach suggests that dictatorship is a natural stage in the advance from the absolute monarchy of early modern Europe to democracy. Many dictatorships appeared after World War I such as Poland, Yugoslavia, Austria, Greece, Bulgaria, Germany, Russia and Italy. None of these countries had had much experience in actual democracy. In contrast no nation with a long experience in democracy succumbed to a dictator. However, when we turn to these countries with the long record of democracy, nearly all had had a dictator. England had Cromwell and France had Napoleon.

Evidently great cultural changes occur from monarchy to democracy which create dictatorships. Most of the historical monarchs imposed great restrictions upon freedom of speech and action. This was customary and largely accepted so the subjects of such regimens felt that to raise questions outside of the permitted topics was improper if not disloyal.

Loyalty to the king was ingrained in folk feeling. Above all, a monarchial people often had considerable confidence in the king and his family with the prestige of generations of royalty behind it. The solemn ceremonies of coronation, public anniversaries and burial, place royalty before the people as the symbol of folk unity. He is human like the peasant but his acts of state approach divinity.

Even when a wretched king was replaced by revolution, the creation of a republic was a shock to a large portion of the people. The republic brought numbers of ideas which had previously been suppressed. The political horizon was unfamiliar and difficult to understand. No king was present as the single and certain source of authority to reassure the people.

The people had no republican traditions to fall back upon and the early problems of the new radicals caused many people to question the validity of the democratic process. Thus, after the first enthusiasm of the new era had passed, the people often became disappointed in the republic.

It was easy for them to flee from their new liberties. Their flight was not back to the king, however, since they still remembered his particular failings and the people had enjoyed the exhilaration of republican unity. The more confident spirits had experienced the joy of self-government as well as the freedom of speech and press.

Thus the citizen was caught between the older pattern of thought instilled into him by generations of rulers and intellectual convictions that had as yet little root in the experience of the masses. This conflict of states of mind tended to produce a restlessness in the body politic. The political atmosphere is surcharged with tension, much like the heavy atmosphere before a violent electrical storm. This feeling was true of Germany before Hitler.

A dictator was the answer to the desire to satisfy both their monarchical nostalgia and their republican aspirations. These were, of course, irreconcilable in the long run. This confusion became sublimated in devotion to the dictator. He became the symbol of a mystical union of absolutism and republicanism.

What the people seemed to wish most was a means of expressing their feelings rather than their intellect. To the more detached person the speeches of the dictators often seem unadulterated tommyrot, if not actually delirium.

The dictator offered the illusion of a fairy land. The press, the radio and the movies all present beautiful pictures of the glories of the government. The people had again a solidarity of emotion.

As part of the illusion the dictator raised all sorts of fantastic scapegoats. The French Revolutionists applied the guillotine to many varieties of enemies and eventually to their own leaders. Nazi intellect ran wild with its marvelous imagination: Nordic superiority, international Jewish conspiracy, and Slavic inferiority. The Soviets belabored international capitalism and all types of bourgeoisie activity.

 The dictator phase indicates that the process of democratization is dependent on political experience and not intellectual education. In other words democracy is based not so much upon the formal political ideas as upon a lengthy establishment of democratic attitudes and habits in the people’s folkways. Thus, it seems more important for a people to gain practical experience in self government than for them to secure a formal and theoretical education in political science.

As proposed by my father, dictatorships are part of the process in the formation of a democracy. This process produced much of the turmoil in the 20th Century.

Philip Bobbitt (2002) has proposed the concept of the “long war,” which included not only World War I and World War II but also the Cold War. The democratization theory implies that this long war with its dictatorships was primarily produced by the process of creating democracies. The First World War destroyed the last great European monarchies. This was followed by an era of dictators - at least eighteen between 1917 and 1939 (Davis, Europe, A History[1996]). For many nations the trauma of the Great War took the place of an intrinsic national revolution. World War II was derived in part from the militaristic dictator stage in Germany. The only major European dictatorship to survive was Russia.  Subsequently, the "Cold War" was a conflict between this last great western dictatorship and the democratic nations. When Russia abandoned its dictatorship The establishment of Western democracy was essentially complete.

Bobbitt argued that the long war was a conflict of ideologies, between Fascism, Communism and Parliamentarianism. However ideology does not explain the origin of World War I, nor the strong resemblances between the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, with opposed ideologies. (See Overy's Dictators and Fergson’s The World at War). Also, regardless of ideology, almost every European government that did not have a stable democracy, produced a dictator after the Great War.

This democratization process is now a world wide historical force. The Muslim countries of Turkey and Indonesia are near the democratic stage, while Saudi Arabia has a king. Most of the Muslim states, such as Iran, are in the dictatorship phase. The dictator Saddam Hussein was not derived from some evil empire of terrorists but was part of an understandable political process.

For Muslim states democratization manifests itself in increasing secularism, while religion is the major ideology. As such the most basic conflict in the Muslim world is between fundamentalism and secularism, even though some sectarian struggles are occurring.

Pape’s (2005) book Dying to Win, found that self destructive terrorism is a tactic of fighters used to drive out political and economic colonialists. Muslim fundamentalistic terrorists attack nations not due to opposed ideologies but because Western nations are perceived as attempting to recolonize Muslim countries. The President of the United States has already proclaimed that his aim is make all Middle Eastern Countries into Western democracies.

The democratization theory implies that Middle Eastern terrorism is not part of a clash of cultures or ideologies but rather an aspect of the democratization process. The real enemies for the fundamentalists of all Muslim sects are the secular more democratic elements in their own societies. Consequently, Western foreign policy should allow these pre-democratic nations to develop at their own rate without interference. The excesses of dictators, such as attacking the surrounding nations or perpetrating genocide, must be prevented by the more democratic Muslim nations. With little “Western” interference the fundamentalist terrorists will direct their terrorist tactics toward secular Muslim groups rather than Western nations.

Further reading

Bobbitt, Philip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. New York Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.

Davies Norman. Europe, A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Ferguson, Niall. The World at War. New York: Penguin Press.

Overy, Richard. The Dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

Pape, Robert A. Dying to win, The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. New York: Random House, 2005.

Related Links

  • William R. Hutchison: Strong Objections ... Another Best-Selling Author Complains About Plagiarism (Re: Samuel Huntington's book on immigration)