The Crisis of Liberalism and the Increased Viability of Alternatives in Pre-WWII Germany and Britain

Why, before the Second World War, did Germany succumb to fascism when Great Britain remained a liberal-democracy? I will present a historical account of the ideological trajectory of Germany and Britain and explain why each nation went the route they did. What were the historical factors and conditions that caused the divergence between these two nations?


“It was not preordained that democracy should win out over fascism and communism.” -Mark Mazower

Although Germany and Britain were both democracies after The Great War, the German system collapsed while Britain’s survived. Two factors that explain these opposite outcomes are the legitimacy of each country’s political system and state of their economies after the war. The appeal of radical ideologies depends on the historical contexts of each nation. Britain experienced a slow development towards democracy. This transitional nature allowed the liberal principles of legalism and the electorate to be legitimated and embedded in their political consciousness. This legitimacy of government allowed them to successfully maneuver through the post-war crises of mass politics, emerging labor movements, and economic decline. As a contrast, the experience of the German development towards the Weimar Republic consisted of monarchial overthrow, violent repression of opposition, and no real establishment of the liberal principles of democracy. This unstable development prevented the Weimar Republic from adequately handling the post-war economic ruin and socialist forces emerging from mass politics. Ultimately, Weimar’s collapse paved the way for the acceptance of Nazism’s extreme fascist ideology.

Fascism as an ideology includes the core values of anti-rationalism, struggle, leadership and elitism, socialism, and ultranationalism. The loss of the first World War put Germany in a vulnerable position, economically, socially, and politically. Their industry was physically destroyed, they replaced a monarchical system with a radical new constitutional democratic one, and their citizens’ lives and egos impacted traumatically. In desperate social conditions and states of mind, an ideology based on “vitalism” and action would appear ideal. Fascist success in Germany came about because the population was vulnerable and Nazism presented itself as a panacea to all their social ills. The ideology of fascism is not specific or definite. Fascism can only be described as a “metamorphosis” or against a “template”. There was no concrete set of goals or ideas in fascism, rather, its influence and significance came from its ability to react. Heywood states that “Fascism has a strong ‘anti-character’: it is anti-rational, anti-liberal, anti-conservative, anti-capitalist, anti bourgeois, anti-communist and so on”. This means that fascism triumphed because it could successfully respond to both the threat of a Bolshevik-type communist or socialist uprising and the dissatisfaction with liberal democracy. According to Heywood, “Democratic governments, representing a coalition of interests or parties, often appeared weak and unstable when confronted by economic or political crises”. Fascism was able to place itself in Germany as the best and only alternative not by offering its own tangible program, but by being in opposition to existing ones. Hitler’s emotionally-based appeal to nationalism, hero-militarism, and race became a viable alternative to liberalism’s appeal to rationality, reason, law, and equality in the context of crisis.

The Weimar Republic did not develop as smoothly as Britain’s liberal-democratic coalition government did. The German pre-war constitutional monarchy was only a façade of liberal-democracy. The king and non-elected Bundesrat retained most of the power while the universally elected Reichstag, the only potential channel for a legitimate democratic voice, could not take meaningful action. Whereas in Britain, the government’s commitment to the liberal principles of legalism and democracy was made clear with the passing of the Parliament Act of 1911, in which the elected House of Commons received more power than the non-elected House of Lords. Also, the reformist tradition of British politics was seen in how its democratic forces confronted an obsolete monarchy, that is, through the use of legislature. As a contrast, German development towards democracy was marked by definitive breaks. After Germany’s defeat in the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate and the institution of monarchy was entirely abolished, as opposed to the British monarchy, which remains accommodated. The trajectory of each country’s development towards a democratic system explains the level of stability of their post-war crisis governments. For instance, because the British democracy experienced a more reformist and transitional development, it came to be perceived as more legitimate. The process reinforced the place of liberal ideals such as legalism and pluralism, allowing these notions to take hold in British politics and establishing legitimacy. Whereas Germany used a less secure method to stabilize the Weimar Republic. Instead of incorporating conflicting forces into a democracy based on pluralism, democrats and right-wing anti-democrats cooperated to violently destroy the leftist revolutionaries, the Spartacists. Thus, the base of the new regime was one precariously united only because of a common communist enemy. After the leftists were removed, there was nothing that stopped them from becoming divided again. Fascists were able to take advantage of Germany’s confused political system.

The perceived legitimacy of the British democratic process allowed the government to respond to the problem of mass politics and leftist movements. As workers became enfranchised and made demands, Britain was able to genuinely offer government representation and suffrage. Winks & Adams state that “Unlike other European nations, Britain had developed and remained generally wedded to an electoral system with two competing political parties, although not to the exclusion of one or more third parties”. This means that participation in government was not exclusionary. Thus, socialist sentiment did not need to be channeled through revolutionary ideologies. Rather than requiring a revolutionary movement, worker groups developed into the Labour political party which had a socialist agenda, including nationalization of industry. According to Winks & Adams, the labor movement in Britain used the process of Fabianism, which was the “attainment of social democracy not through revolution but by the peaceful parliamentary”. Britain used the legitimacy of their electoral tradition to manage the post-war labor strikes. The Labour party became the second party after the Conservatists. The government coped with the General Strike of 1926 by allowing the Labour party to become a new mass democratic party. By doing so, the problem of new mass politics was handled with incorporating socialists as an opposition party within the existing government, instead of against it.

What made the German democracy fail and Germany itself susceptible to the ideology of fascism was the illegitimacy of the Weimar Republic’s founding. The Republic never had the political consensus or authority to enact policies that would adequately address the social and economic post-war devastation. Bessel states that “democratic politics was reduced to form without content…to propaganda”. This means that liberal principles were not fully established by the earlier constitutional monarchy and would be of little use in an economically devastated and traumatized post-war country. Unlike Britain, which had meaningful electorate laws and a history of legalism, the ideals of democracy in Germany became merely empty propaganda, a precursor to Nazism. Bessel claims that the Weimar perpetuated an environment of “myths”. In it the Weimar refused to portray the War itself as a cause of their financial ruin, instead they blamed external factors like foreign debt and the Versailles treaty. Bessel states that “1913 was regarded during the 1920s as somehow normal (and, by implication, conditions during the Weimar period as abnormal and therefore blameworthy and illegitimate)”. The perceived illegitimacy of the Weimar Republic meant that the German population was not invested in the system, whereas in Britain, successful enfranchisement of workers forced them to have a stake in a liberal democracy. The German Republic lacked a support base, was unstable, and was thus susceptible to the successful mass mobilization strategies of fascism.

Another common factor that accounts for the divergence of Britain and Germany’s ideological outcomes was the state of their economies after the war. Because Germany lost the war, their economy was burdened by war debts and reparations, as well as the loss of vital economic infrastructure such as transportation links and resource shortages. In an environment of devastation, meaningful democracy or socialism could not be a priority. Unlike in Britain, where social liberalism had already taken root. Heywood states “Modern liberal ideas were related to the further development of industrialization. These developments had an impact on UK liberalism from the late nineteenth century onwards, but in other countries they did not take effect until much later”. This means that Britain had already been developing welfarism because of the advanced state of its industrialization. In Britain, the socialist ideology found an outlet in the Labour party. In Germany, lacking a strong political system, Bessel states that “a genuine socialist revolution might have led to economic collapse…would have been opposed by a majority of the German population”. The Weimar Republic had achieved so little political consensus among its factions that it became paralyzed. It did not have the political power to put controversial policies through, such as economic austerity measures, and so Germany spiraled into hyperinflation and the economy continued its decline. In such an already chaotic environment, overhauling the economic structure was infeasible. Since the Weimar Republic did not adequately respond to its economic problem, Germany became susceptible to the dynamic, military based fascist economic program.

Even though Britain, being victorious in World War I, did not have to suffer costs of reparations they did experience an economic crisis until 1921. A postwar boom in production and consumption gave way to a collapse and the previous system of international trade fell apart during the war. Unlike in Germany, where economic devastation proved to be fatal, Britain had the advantage of a functioning and effective democratic government which could successfully apply policy. Britain had the economic strength, even after the war, to alleviate the concerns of the labor movement. Britain had been the most advanced and industrialized nation in the world, owning 90% of the world market, and could afford to make concessions to workers. This helped reinforce the notion among the British population that the liberal-democratic system produces tangible results. As a result, British workers became committed to the continued functioning of liberal-democratic ideology and contributed to its legitimacy. Even after the decline of the British Empire post-war, the previous incorporation of workers’ interest into the existing liberal system staved off the desire for a revolutionary break with the British government.

To sum, as demonstrated in the comparison between Britain’s democracy and the Weimar Republic, a democracy must be legitimate to respond effectively to crises. Britain’s legitimacy allowed them to convince new political forces to work within the system instead of against it. Thus, the ideology of liberalism did not seem as vulnerable. The collapse of the Weimar Republic shows that an illegitimate government tends to be more subject to conflict. The ideology of fascism, with its direct and extreme nature, seems more equipped to handle states of crisis. Also, although both countries’ experienced economic decline, the extremity of Germany’s situation and their refusal to take difficult remedial steps exacerbated the crisis to the point of breaking down. To contrast, Britain had the power of a legitimate government to enact austere but corrective policies. These two factors of legitimacy and economy help to explain the differing ideological outcomes experienced by post-war Britain and Germany.


Winks, Robin W., and R. J. Q. Adams. Europe, 1890-1945: Crisis and Conflict. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Mazower, Mark. Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Kershaw, Ian, and Richard Bessel. Weimar: Why Did German Democracy Fail? London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Blinkhorn, Martin. Fascism and the Right in Europe, 1919-1945. Harlow, England: Longman, 2000.

Heywood, Andrew. Political Ideologies: an Introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.


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