"Economic conditions were the most important factor in the emergence of authoritarian states." Discuss with reference to two states, each chosen from a different region.

 From the May 2023 IBDP Paper 2 History exam



The transformation of democratic systems into authoritarian regimes has been a subject of intricate historical analysis. It is a process deeply steeped in multifaceted variables, each playing crucial roles within a socio-political matrix that leads to the rise of such states. One of the most significant factors argued to be the primary determinant of this transition is the prevailing economic conditions. The interwar period in the 20th century witnessed the ascendance of authoritarian regimes, notably in Germany and Argentina, where economics undeniably played a significant role. However, the assertion that economic conditions were the pre-eminent driver is a subject of robust debate, as other factors such as socio-political unrest, manipulation of nationalist sentiments, and failures of democratic systems also significantly contributed. This essay aims to discern the relevance and weight of economic conditions vis-a-vis other factors in the emergence of authoritarian states, with a specific focus on Germany and Argentina.

 Post World War I Germany, colloquially known as the Weimar Republic, presented a prime example of economic conditions feeding into the rise of an authoritarian state. The Treaty of Versailles had burdened Germany with gargantuan reparations, causing economic instability and resulting in what historian Sally Marks dubbed "the Myths of Reparations." Hyperinflation ravaged the German economy between 1921 and 1923, with the Reichsmark depreciating alarmingly. This economic crisis led to widespread discontent among the populace, sowing the seeds for authoritarianism. Historian Detlev Peukert has argued that the reparations and economic instability undermined the legitimacy of the democratic government and allowed extremist factions to gain traction. Indeed, the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), led by Adolf Hitler, exploited this discontent, propagating a narrative of the 'November Criminals' who had supposedly stabbed Germany in the back by accepting the Versailles Treaty. By the early 1930s, as the Great Depression further strained the economy, the NSDAP had become the most potent political force in the country. However, the ascendance of the NSDAP was not solely driven by economic conditions. Richard J. Evans, in his trilogy on Nazi Germany, emphasised the role of social and political factors. For instance, the democratic system under the Weimar Republic was inherently weak due to factors such as proportional representation, leading to unstable coalition governments. Hitler's charisma and the NSDAP's skilful manipulation of nationalist sentiments also played an undeniable role. Furthermore, the conservative elite, fearful of a communist revolution, supported Hitler, with President Hindenburg appointing him as Chancellor in 1933. Therefore, while economic conditions were significant, they were part of a larger picture.

Moving to Argentina, a country that experienced its share of authoritarian regimes, the Perón era (1946-1955) stands out. The economic conditions preceding Juan Perón's rise to power were characterised by social inequality and an unbalanced economy heavily reliant on agricultural exports. Historian David Rock's "Authoritarian Argentina" discussed the economic disparities and wealth concentration as factors that caused discontent among the masses and the rising middle classes. Perón capitalised on this and presented himself as the champion of the working classes, advocating for social justice and fair wages. His government implemented a series of economic reforms, marking the beginning of an unprecedented era of industrialisation and urbanisation, but also initiating a shift towards authoritarianism. But, as with Germany, the economic aspect was not the sole factor behind the rise of Perón. As historian Matthew B. Karush points out in "Culture of Class", Perón's charisma, his mastery of populist rhetoric, and the mobilisation of workers played pivotal roles. The socio-political context was equally significant, with Perón exploiting the disillusionment with the traditional ruling classes. He successfully constructed a powerful political narrative by appropriating the descamisados, or 'shirtless ones,' as part of his political identity, thus securing the support of the working class and leading to his eventual presidency. While it is undisputable that the socio-economic conditions facilitated Perón's rise to power, other factors, including his personal charisma, populist policies, and the broader socio-political context, were equally, if not more, influential. Economic conditions were a crucial element but were part of a much larger and complex web of factors that precipitated Argentina's transition to authoritarianism.

A comparative analysis of Germany and Argentina provides a nuanced perspective on the question. It is irrefutable that economic conditions played a significant role in both cases, with economic instability in Germany and economic inequality in Argentina serving as catalysts for the rise of authoritarian regimes. However, as demonstrated, these economic factors did not operate in isolation but intertwined with a range of social and political dynamics. In Germany, the economic fallout from the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression were instrumental in fuelling support for extremist factions. However, this was inextricably linked to the failure of democratic systems, manipulative nationalist narratives, and the political machinations of the conservative elite. Historian Ian Kershaw in his biography of Hitler emphasised the role of Hitler's personal charisma and manipulative political strategies alongside economic crises, asserting that these factors together were pivotal in the shift to authoritarianism. Likewise, in Argentina, while economic disparities did create a fertile ground for Perón's rise, the political context, disillusionment with traditional ruling classes, and Perón's populist rhetoric were of equal importance. As historian Daniel James argues in "Resistance and Integration", economic conditions were a significant factor but not the sole determinant. Perón skilfully exploited the socio-economic discontent, but his personal charisma, populist policies, and the broader socio-political context were equally critical. Thus, although economic conditions were undoubtedly important, their significance must be understood within the broader socio-political context. Their influence was not in themselves sufficient to lead to the emergence of authoritarian states, but instead, they combined and interacted with a range of other factors in a complex process that led to the rise of such regimes. 

In conclusion, the emergence of authoritarian states in the 20th century, as exemplified by Germany and Argentina, was the result of a complex interplay of economic, social, and political factors. The assertion that economic conditions were the primary driver, while holding some merit, tends to oversimplify the intricate processes at play. As demonstrated in both cases, economic conditions, whether it was instability in Germany or inequality in Argentina, played a critical role. Still, they were part of a larger socio-political matrix. Other factors such as failures of democratic systems, manipulation of nationalist sentiments, and charismatic leaders were equally instrumental. By evaluating different perspectives, this essay has provided a balanced and integrated analysis of the question. The findings of historians like Detlev Peukert, Richard J. Evans, David Rock, Matthew B. Karush, Ian Kershaw, and Daniel James have been instrumental in demonstrating the multifaceted nature of this historical process. Consequently, a comprehensive understanding of the emergence of authoritarian states requires an appreciation of this complexity, acknowledging the significance of economic conditions but not elevating them above the myriad of other factors at play.



 The dynamics underpinning the rise of authoritarian states have been a subject of robust debate among historians and political scientists, provoking a multi-faceted analysis that spans across numerous socio-political, economic, and ideological factors. This essay will consider whether economic conditions were the prime catalyst in the emergence of authoritarian states by examining two case studies: Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini (1922-1943) and the People's Republic of China under Mao Zedong (1949-1976). Both regions witnessed an undeniable surge towards authoritarianism; however, the contributing factors have their distinct nuances, influenced by their unique historical, cultural, and economic contexts.

Historian Adrian Lyttelton posits that Fascist Italy's ascent cannot be disassociated from the turbulent economic conditions that gripped post-World War I Italy. The country was plagued with inflation, unemployment, and debt. While the liberal government attempted to stabilise the economy, their efforts were deemed inadequate by the populace. Lyttelton argues that this economic turmoil served as the breeding ground for radical ideologies, providing the opportunity for authoritarian figures like Mussolini to capitalise on popular discontent. The people, disillusioned by economic instability, were drawn towards Mussolini’s promise of stability and prosperity. Yet, the economic conditions themselves were nested within wider political and social crises. John Whittam, in his analysis of interwar Italy, highlights the ineffectiveness of the liberal democratic governance during this period. Post-war disillusionment, paired with a profound crisis in political leadership, instigated widespread societal unrest. In essence, the perceived political incompetence combined with harsh economic conditions created a vacuum in which Fascism thrived. Therefore, while the role of economic conditions was crucial, it was the socio-political landscape that dictated how these conditions were interpreted and responded to. However, the power of propaganda in forging the Fascist state must also be considered. Ruth Ben-Ghiat argues that it was not merely economic desperation that fuelled Mussolini's rise. Rather, it was his powerful rhetoric and propaganda campaigns that glorified war, nationalism, and patriarchal authority, which fostered the consent needed for his regime. By intertwining these themes with economic recovery promises, Mussolini successfully secured public allegiance.

Much like Italy, economic conditions in China following the Second World War played a crucial role in facilitating the rise of Mao’s authoritarian rule. The historian Roderick MacFarquhar asserts that widespread poverty, inflation, and social inequality heightened the appeal of Mao's promise for economic redistribution and social justice. Mao's agrarian land reform policy particularly resonated with the rural peasant majority who, oppressed by feudal landowners, constituted the backbone of his revolutionary support. However, Jonathan Spence argues that the role of economic conditions should not overshadow the impact of the ideological struggle and the legacy of colonial humiliation. Nationalism, fuelled by anti-imperialistic sentiments, played a fundamental role in Mao's rise. Economic hardship was compounded by a deep-rooted sense of national degradation, following a century of foreign domination. In essence, the economic conditions were a conduit for deeper historical grievances to be voiced, and it was this amalgamation that drove the people towards Mao’s vision of a new China. Moreover, Patricia Ebrey emphasises the strategic execution of Mao’s revolutionary warfare as an instrumental factor in his rise to power. Through a successful combination of guerrilla warfare and political mobilisation of the peasantry, Mao secured the support base necessary for the establishment of his authoritarian rule. Economic distress, while significant, was but one element in a larger strategy of social, political, and military manoeuvring.

While economic conditions undeniably played a significant role in facilitating the emergence of authoritarian states in both Fascist Italy and Mao's China, it is overly simplistic to categorise them as the most important factor. The analysis offered by historians Lyttelton, Whittam, and Ben-Ghiat for Italy, and MacFarquhar, Spence, and Ebrey for China, reveals that these conditions were inextricably interwoven with broader political, social, and ideological contexts. The perceived failures of incumbent regimes, potent nationalist sentiment, strategic propaganda, and effective military tactics were equally, if not more, critical in paving the way for authoritarianism in these states. Therefore, while economic conditions provided the backdrop against which discontent and radicalisation festered, their significance cannot be fully comprehended without considering the multitude of other factors that directly contributed to the rise of Mussolini in Italy and Mao in China. This insight underscores the importance of a holistic perspective in understanding the complexities of historical phenomena, avoiding reductionist interpretations that may oversimplify and distort our comprehension of the past.