1940: The State of Democracy


Gregg Easterbrook makes a startling observation in this entry to his “Best Laid Plans” series in The New Republic:

“In 1940, when darkness was spreading over the globe (Nazi fascism, Soviet communism, and Japanese imperialism), the entire world was down to just a dozen or so democracies”

This is pretty shocking. It’s one thing to recall that the world was under assault at that time, but to stop and recognize just how few democracies were left is quite another. Here is the list:

  1. Great Britain
  2. Ireland
  3. The United States
  4. Canada
  5. Australia
  6. New Zealand
  7. Sweden
  8. Finland
  9. Iceland
  10. Switzerland
  11. Mexico
  12. Colombia
  13. Costa Rica
  14. Uruguay

I couldn’t help but notice the concentration of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries in the list.

I’ve always found it interesting that both Britain and Germany in some respects looked to Tacitus’ Germania as a kind of cultural foundation myth; but whereas the National Socialists saw only the Gothic and declaimed the ‘Furor Teutonicus,’ the Britains embraced not only the warrior ethic, but looked to the primitive community councils (and the Saxon witenagemot) as confirmation of their emerging parliamentarian government.

I wonder if this reflects in some small way the differences in the institutions brought by the subsiquent invading cultures: the Norse into Britain, and before that, the Huns into Germany. Did the old Norse institutions such as the Thing, the great council, and its influence on Anglo-Saxon Britain, contributed to a deeper-seated tradition of “democracy” such as it was?

This is certainly an over-simplification, but it’s worth pondering nevertheless that some of the direct descendents of the Anglii, Saxones, Frisii and Jutae whom Tacitus held up so nobly, were among the last redoubts of freedom just 60 years ago.

» Posted: Saturday, April 19, 2003 | Permanent Link