A Century of Demagogues in Europe

Ivan T. Berend’s Portraits of Populists between Past and Present

7 January 2021

Published in a particularly turbulent year amid a global pandemic, renowned historian Ivan T. Berend’s latest book comes as a cautionary text reminding readers how times of crisis can act as the breeding ground for populism and the emergence of demagogic leaders seeking to take advantage of popular anxieties and discontent for their own personal or political gain.

Ivan T. Berend is a Distinguished Research Professor at the History Department of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and an expert on nineteenth and twentieth-century Eastern and Central European History. Now ninety years of age with decades of academic experience under his belt, he is a prolific writer with twenty-plus books and over a hundred scholarly and popular essays and articles.

Writing his latest book for a general audience, Berend’s A Century of Populist Demagogues: Eighteen European Portraits, 1918–2018 reads like a collection of short biographies which, in the words of the author, seeks to “introduce [demagogues] and their demagoguery as it was” (p. viii).

Indeed, A Century of Populist Demagogues explores the longstanding history of demagoguery and populism in Europe from the early twentieth century up to today by focusing on the lives of some of Europe’s most notable demagogic figures of the last hundred years.

By contextually presenting the circumstances which contributed to their rise to power (or popularity), engaging with these demagogues’ ideas and own words, yet keeping account of their actions (or inaction) – this book offers an accessible, informative, and thought-provoking introduction for anyone interested in exploring the concept of populism and demagoguery and their manifestations in history and/or contemporary politics.

Defining demagoguery

Despite acting as the central idea tying this 18 chapter work together, Berend does not shy away from admitting that precisely defining ‘demagogue’ or ‘demagoguery’ is no simple task.

As is common with investigations of abstract concepts, the first pages begin by introducing the word’s etymology as well as a simplified definition to act as a starting point.

Originally deriving from the Greek demos agein meaning ‘leader of the people,’ the term demagogue has evolved in modern times to connote in a negative sense one who is a ‘leader of the mob,’ or “political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power” (p. 1).

Applying the concept to political realities today, demagoguery is often portrayed as closely intertwined with populism, a stance shared by Berend who seems to use the notions of a ‘populist leader’ and ‘demagogue’ interchangeably throughout the book’s subsequent chapters. Despite noting that populist movements can exist without a single charismatic leader (e.g. Occupy Wall Street), they are usually commandeered by political actors looking to harness mass discontent to gain personal power.

Although demagogues generally share an overall populistic approach, the reader is reminded that no two demagogues are carbon copies of another. Each is a product of their own social, cultural, and political environments which shape the dynamics of their stated beliefs and personalities.

In fact, on several issues, they could be on opposite sides of the spectrum. For instance, demagogues can be either religious or atheist. Berend identifies Romanian Orthodox Corneliu Codreanu, Bosnian Muslim Alija Izetbegović, and Polish Roman Catholic Jarosław Kaczyński all as demagogues who were/are “deeply religious and embrace the banner of God and religion” (p. 10). But he also explores examples of notable irreligious/atheist demagogues such as Austria’s Jörg Haider and France’s Marine Le Pen, and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders.

Similarly, demagogues can be Left-wing or Right-wing. Looking at interwar Hungary, the author identifies Left-wing communist Béla Kun and also Right-wing anti-communist Gyula Gömbös as Hungarian demagogues who attempted to advance themselves in times of crisis and confusion following the First World War.

Demagogues can even switch from one side of the political spectrum to the other later in life.

Take, for example, Slobodan Milošević. A devoted communist throughout much of his life who had once denounced Serbian nationalism, he went on to embrace it in one of its most brutal forms. Similarly, Franjo Tudjman, a Yugoslav communist partisan during the Second World War, would go on to mirror Milošević’s turn towards radical nationalism, even rehabilitating the symbolism of the fascist Ustaše regime that he had fought against during his youth.

Demagogues can also oscillate between traditionally left-wing and right-wing positions, policies, or discourse to secure themselves power. For instance, Berend notes how today’s right-wing Viktor Orban will occasionally engage in rather ‘lefty’ rhetoric, portraying banks as bullying vulnerable Hungarian families who require his protection.

Conversely, although interwar communist Béla Kun advocated proletarian internationalism, he would rely on nationalistic rhetoric to mobilise Hungarians to defend the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic against Little Entente forces in 1919.

Discerning commonalities

Still, despite several points of divergence, demagogues share many overlapping and discerning commonalities. Berend identifies several features shared by demagogic leaders, indicators that he identifies and uses throughout the book to explore each historical and contemporary case.

As mentioned, demagogues share the tendency to emerge in times of crisis, whether times of trouble or periods of instability in times of change or transition. Considering the drastic reordering of the global order in the wake of the First World War and the devastation and poverty the war left in its wake, it’s no wonder that interwar Europe became a demagogue’s playground as populist leaders came to the forefront looking to court the masses.

In more contemporary times, the emergence of demagogues can likewise stem from economic crisis and precarity. Demagogues will appeal to the emotions of disgruntled “losers of modern transformation: de-industrialisation and globalisation” (p. 31), as Berend calls them, with promises of rescuing ‘the People,’ ‘the little, forgotten man,’ or ‘the silent majority’ from establishment elites. That being said, the author argues that demagogues are most successful in “backward, relatively poor peripheral countries” especially appealing among less-educated blue-collared parts of the population (p. 22).

Even though many contemporary demagogues have come from places of personal privilege or have amassed great amounts of wealth, they present themselves as having a finger on the pulse of the common man and empathise with their struggles This is unlike the established parties and politicians, they claim, who are alienated from ‘the People.’

Italian vacuum cleaner salesman turned billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has retroactively reinvented his image from upper-class media tycoon to a football-loving everyman who likes to crack a dirty joke with his mates.

Similarly, in the United States, Donald Trump has constantly painted himself as a self-made entrepreneur to appeal to his supporters, despite what he has called a “very small” loan from his father of one million dollars which started his career.

Building on half-truths, Berend notes, is a common tactic of demagogues who wish to frame reality to fit their narratives. Yet, half-truths amount to one thing – lies.

Other common forms of half-truth or lie in the demagogue’s arsenal is that of oversimplification and self-aggrandisement. This can apply to both complex problems and their proposed solutions, which can be erroneously boiled down to rigid frameworks of ‘us’ and ‘them, ‘good’ and ‘bad.’

Whether pointing the finger at cultural or economic elites, political opponents, or immigrants, the demagogue will blame all problems on those they identify as enemies while portraying themselves as the ultimate good and voice or reason.

Demagogues present themselves as leaders who truly understand the people’s will and are the only ones who can successfully represent their interests. While some demagogues may try to do this while paying lip service to notions of liberal democracy, others are openly critical, like Viktor Orbán who advocates so-called ‘illiberal democracy.’

A common way a demagogue can strengthen illiberal or even extralegal legitimacy among their supporters is to build themselves up as an altruistic ultra-patriot, selfless leaders who will lead their people to greatness.

History and memory can play a large role in this process. Looking at the so-called ‘golden periods’ of their respective country’s history or times of national resistance under occupation, demagogues will often liken themselves to national heroes of old who bravely went to battle against their enemies.

Marine Le Pen has likened herself to a modern-day Joan of Arc. Boris Johnson has suggested he is like Harold II and the Brexit movement is similarly in the spirit of Anglo-Saxon defenders at the Battle of Hastings who fought against Norman invaders.

Victor Orbán portrays himself as protecting Hungary from the dismemberment of Hungary at the hands of the EU, making parallels to the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 where Hungary lost almost three-fourths of all its former territories. And Jarosław Kaczyński will consistently frame current events through the history of the Second World War to stir anti-German, anti-EU, or anti-Russian sentiments.

In each of the aforementioned cases, demagogues attempt to frame historical narratives in a way that any opposition to their position or party implies being unpatriotic at best, and treasonous at worst. Demagogues will push particular versions of historical narratives that are cleverly weaved into the present to mobilise patriotic feelings within their support base.

This generally coincides with a good deal of political theatre, including demagogic self-flattery of the leader but also directed towards their supporters. Given the classic base of demagogic support, it’s common for demagogues to flatter and glorify the less educated lower classes and their way of life.

Historically, this meant the peasantry or industrial working class. Dressed in traditional peasant clothing, interwar demagogue Corneliu Codreanu would ride on horseback into rural Romanian villages to mobilise support from villagers against landowning elites, which translated into the targeting of local managers and Jewish merchants who were portrayed as responsible for the peasantry’s impoverished position.

In more urban settings, interwar demagogues would draw crowds of thousands to public parks and squared, whipping the masses into a frenzy of support.

Since the late 1930s, demagogues have had much easier access to bases of support, adapting tactics of mass persuasion to new mediums such as radio and television. Fiery speeches or theatrics were no longer limited to face to face interactions with crowds, but could be broadcasted far and wide, and reproduced over and over again.

Between past and present

As a collection of 18 individual biographies, Ivan T. Berend’s newest publication does what it says on the cover by introducing demagogues and their demagoguery as it was/is. It is a valuable and engaging work for anyone interested in approaching the study of history or politics comparatively. At the same time, the reader should remember that the biographies are by no means exhaustive (which admittedly the author never claims) and are open to critique on intraoperative or comparative points throughout.

One of the most surprising aspects of the book after reading in this reviewer’s opinion was how little it engaged with the role of new media when looking at the rise of contemporary demagogues, as well as the problem of ‘fake news’ as we think of it today. Although there are indeed a handful of references to the issue, its significance and implications for the phenomenon of demagoguery today is briefly mentioned but not discussed at length.

Indeed, the realities of the internet age complicate traditional analyses of political discourse. Take the widespread use of Twitter in politics today. The politics of Twitter presents a radically new form of discourse whose long-term implications are still unknown. Within academia, senior researchers continue to struggle over novel problems such as identifying sincerity and irony when approaching a hundred-character tweet as a source of political discourse.

In A Century of Populist Demagogues, this omission is noticeable when considering some of the later figures that are analyzed or mentioned – Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Marine LePen, Vladimir Putin- who all undoubtedly benefited in one way or another from mass media and the interconnectivity of the world wide web. However, Twitter is mentioned only once in the entire 340-page book.

When comparing contemporary demagogues with historic examples, this divergence becomes much more striking, if nothing more than a matter of magnitude. Both the reach and speed at which demagogues can mobilise a support base and connect with them today is a world away from village-to-village horseback tactics used by Codreanu. Even those demagogues of the later interwar period who had access to mass communication technologies like radio or television could only dream of what is possible now.

Additionally, though initial ambiguities are clarified, and ‘demagoguery’ exemplified throughout each of the eighteen portraits, a certain degree of ambiguity (in this reviewer’s opinion) remains upon finishing the book as to when exactly a political leader crosses the Rubicon and can be labelled a ‘demagogue.’ Surely, any political leader prone to using Machiavellian tactics can dabble in some of these demagogic commonalities, but at what point should they be dubbed ‘demagogue?’

Early on in the book, Berend identifies Hitler and Mussolini as history’s “model demagogues,” those who embody wholehearted embrace of demagoguery as a political tactic to secure power for themselves (pp. 17-18). However, that’s not to say that all demagogues should be necessarily perceived as carbon-copy Hitlers or Mussolinis. For instance, though Romanian demagogue Codreanu shared in Hitler’s anti-Semitism and love of fascism, Hungarian demagogue Bela Kun was a communist and secular Jew. Still, Berend identifies them both as populist demagogic leaders.

Berend even admits that demagogues have varying levels of success and though all are dangerous, it’s “difficult to say which populist demagogues are more dangerous” (p. 1).

Keeping this in mind while considering that ‘demagogues’ don’t always even always share all the identified ‘discerning commonalities,’ there seems to be a certain level of subjectivity at the margins which calls the word’s usefulness in political discourse today into question. Labelling a political leader as a ‘demagogue’ seems to cast them, implicitly or explicitly, in the same lot as Hitler and Mussolini.

Generally speaking, those who call their opponents or enemies a ‘Hitler’ today are discredited as being sensationalistic. However, Berend criticises select demagogues for comparing their political opponents to the Nazis or Hitler, while simultaneously implying the same with each persona he selected for the publication.

Moreover, implying or identifying any contemporary demagogic leader’s supporters merely as a mindless ‘mob’ being duped is certainly divisive and potentially dangerous for base-level social cohesion required for healthy democracies to function. Looking across the pond at the American example, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the incoming Biden administration to achieve détente with pro-Trump Americans, whom Democrats have been castigating for the last four years as being idiotic and deplorable. To be certain, pro-Trump Americans say the same towards Biden and other Americans who oppose Trump – time will tell what will come of America’s experiment these last four years.

Perhaps these tensions suggest that though using the concept of ‘demagogue’ or ‘demagoguery’ may be a useful comparative tool within academia, however, its ambiguity and implications make its use within public discourse more troublesome. Yet, there’s still much to be gained by comparing and contrasting historical or social processes at play to better understand and define the phenomenon of demagoguery.

In any case, Ivan T. Berend’s A Century of Populist Demagogues: Eighteen European Portraits, 1918–2018 offers the reader much to think about, and it is an important addition to contemporary discussions surrounding leadership, democracy, and populism today.


Adam Aksnowicz

Adam Aksnowicz holds an MA in History from Central European University and an MA in Sociology from the University of Wrocław. His research focuses on the history and memory of Poland’s former Eastern borderlands, state and military propaganda, and cultural politics from an interdisciplinary perspective. Originally from Chicago but currently based in Warsaw, his interests also include diaspora issues and US foreign relations.

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