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Assault on Democracy: Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism during the Interwar Years, Kurt Weyland

Reviewed by Jeffrey Kopstein

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Understanding the huge wave of authoritarianism that swept across Europe in the 1920s and 1930s has never seemed more relevant. Kurt Weyland has written a highly original and deeply researched study grappling with one of the oldest questions of comparative politics: why do some countries withstand the challenge to their democratic orders, while others slide into authoritarianism? His answer focuses on elite choices in the face of the dual assaults of communism and fascism. For most countries in Eastern and Southern Europe, elites found both left- and right-wing extremism frightening. The modal result was neither revolution of the left nor the right but demobilizing authoritarian rule that sought to defang both. It is this “double deterrent” of communism and fascism that makes the politics of the first wave unique and interesting.

In Assault on Democracy, Weyland acknowledges the conventional distributional and ethnic cleavages that destabilized democratic rule virtually everywhere, but his theoretical approach draws less on the classics of political economy and sociology than on the insights of behavioral and cognitive psychology. His actors are “boundedly rational” and subject to cognitive shortcuts, such as “availability” heuristics, which in experimental conditions show that dramatic events lead people to change t

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