Once before, in 1919, it looked as though the world had been made "safe for democracy" and commentators talked of "the universal acceptance of democracy as the normal and natural form of government". Yet nearly all the new parliamentary regimes set up after the First World War, and not a few older ones too, collapsed shortly after. "The present century is the century of authority, a century of the Right, a Fascist century," Mussolini proclaimed. By the 1930s, this did not seem a crazy boast. What is more, Fascism's most vigorous European alternative was none other than Stalin's Soviet Union: the democracies seemed tired and outmoded, the creation of an older generation whose politicians dressed in frock coats and top hats. Returning from Catalonia, George Orwell chafed at the "deep, deep sleep of England" and wondered when it would wake up to the challenges of the modern world.
What saved democracy, of course, was the defeat of Hitler's vision of an authoritarian Europe, and for this we chiefly have to thank the Red Army. Thus it was Communism which gave Europe a second chance at making democracy work. By reforming capitalism in a more humane direction, and by securing long-term American military and financial backing, Western Europe achieved a new kind of stability. Whether it was democracy or capitalism which should take the credit for defeating Communism is a moot point. What is not in doubt is that politics as an activity evokes fewer passions or dreams today than it did in the age of ideology. In the 1990s, the age of marches and torchlit parades is gone for good, along with a certain kind of idealism about the future.
But, if democracy has seen off the challenge of its totalitarian rivals, it still poses us as many questions as answers about what kind of community we want to live in. As the Kosovo crisis shows, we are not much better than our predecessors in protecting minorities from their own rulers. And defining the nation politically remains just as contentious in other ways too. Proportional representation, for instance, which was widely credited in the 1920s with weakening parliamentary systems, attracts support in Britain at the same time as in Italy and Czechoslovakia people are trying to move away from it. And, if by democracy we mean equal rights for both sexes, then we must accept that few countries in Europe can boast of achievements. Women struggled to win the vote right up to the 1970s; their struggle to reform family law codes and business practices continues today.
Democratic regimes also continue to reflect the ingrained racism which Europeans find so hard to break away from. Free Hungary and Czechoslovakia discriminate more ruthlessly and violently against their gypsies than did their Communist predecessors. Jorg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria and Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France demonstrate that, when the old post-war conservative parties collapse, they leach votes to the extremists. Can it comfort us that both Haider and Le Pen like to assert their democratic credentials? Or does it not simply indicate that, while the great ideological contest which took up so much of this century is over, real political battles remain to be fought?
Mark Mazower is the author of `Dark Continent: Europe's twentieth century', published this week by the Penguin Press, pounds 20