The Fall of Western Democracies: Nations, Events & Replacement Governments

The Fall of Western Democracies: Nations, Events & Replacement Governments
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  • 0:01 Fall of Democracies
  • 0:54 Italy
  • 2:40 Germany
  • 4:31 Spain
  • 6:11 Eastern Europe
  • 7:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore several European democracies that fell in the 1930s and 1940s to fascist dictatorships or Soviet-supported communist governments.

Fall of Democracies

There is a government in the world in the middle of a major transition at almost any given moment. At the time of this writing, these governments are Ukraine and Syria, whereas earlier this century it was Egypt, Tunisia and others. It's a regular occurrence throughout the world as ideas influence people and movements blossom. Whether those transitions turn into all-out civil war or are conducted peacefully often depends on the reaction of the sitting power.

In this lesson, we are going to explore an incredibly important period of the 20th century in which several governments fell at relatively the same time. Democracies across Europe generally fell to fascist regimes (authoritarian governments with nationalist or racist aims) or communist regimes (equally authoritarian governments with total control over the state's economy), some of which later instigated WWII.


The first democracy to fall in between the wars was in Italy. Italy had been a constitutional monarchy since its inception in the 1860s, with a parliament that largely governed the country at the pleasure of the king. Italy joined the Allies late in WWI and, as such, did not receive much retribution for its efforts or a seat at the bargaining table that ended the war.

Furthermore, Italy, having only come together in the 1860s, remained a diverse and politically fragmented society. This fragmentation led to a vast array of political parties and opinions, and by WWI, very little was ever accomplished by the Italian Parliament. For instance, from 1919 to 1922, five separate elections were held after the government was unable to pass even basic legislation.

With the war leaving Italy economically crippled and its government ineffectual, Italy was nearing its breaking point. Out of this confusion rose Benito Mussolini, leader of Italy's fascist party. Mussolini's fascist party, which had only formed in 1919, had gained quick popularity by running on an ultra-nationalist platform, winning 35 seats in the 1921 election. With labor riots and social unrest in Northern Italy fueling fears of a communist takeover, King Victor Emmanuel III asked Mussolini to take the reins of government in 1922 and bring peace to Italy's countryside.

Mussolini not only quelled the unrest but intimidated and imprisoned labor leaders and other activists. Using his party foot soldiers, the famous Black Shirts, as a paramilitary extension of the fascist party, Mussolini began dismantling the democratic institutions of the Italian government. By 1925, he was virtual dictator of Italy and referring to himself as 'Il Duce' - literally, 'the leader.'


Germany experienced a similar rise to power of a fascist government a decade later. Indeed, at the same time as Benito Mussolini was taking power in Italy, Germany's eventual fascist dictator - Adolf Hitler - was serving a jail sentence after attempting a coup against the German government.

Germany's economy was also hurt enormously by WWI. Germany, as the chief loser of the conflict, was largely blamed by the victorious allies for starting the war. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war, Germany was made to pay exorbitant sums of money to pay back other countries for their wartime expenditures. The measure crippled Germany economically, and German currency became virtually worthless.

After his prison term ended, Hitler began crafting his National Socialist Workers' Party (or Nazi, for short) to win elections. His ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and increasingly anti-Semitic platform played well with Germans who were tired of being told WWI was their fault. Hitler also gave these Germans a scapegoat for their economic and social problems: Jews.

Hitler and his Nazi Party grew exceedingly popular in Germany, becoming the second largest party in the Bundestag in the 1930 elections. Two years later, the Nazi Party won a plurality of seats in the next round of elections. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor by the German president, and with his newfound power, he began eliminating German democracy.

He used his secret police, the Gestapo, to intimidate or outright eliminate political opponents. He used his clout and support in the Bundestag to pass laws, concentrating power into his own hands. When President Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler eliminated the position and merged its powers with his own, becoming dictator of Germany.


Spain's democracy was one of the youngest in Europe when it fell during the Spanish Civil War. In 1931, Spain's Alfonso XIII abdicated the throne, and soon after, Spain was declared a republic and held its first free elections. The 1931 elections portrayed a deep divide in Spanish society between those who supported the socialists and communists on the left, and those who supported the Catholic Church and Spain's industrialists and businessmen on the right.

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