The central tension in this refreshingly contrarian book becomes apparent near the start. Discussing Woodrow Wilson’s dictum ‘the world must be made safe for democracy’, pronounced in 1917, Reynolds writes:
The crisis of 1917–18 ignited the Bolshevik revolution in Russia … The backlash against it fuelled Mussolini’s fascist movement, which gained power in Italy in 1922. By the 1930s fascist or right-wing authoritarian regimes, backed by military force, had become the norm across central and eastern Europe, and above all in Germany. Even France became polarised between right and left. In this new age of communism and fascism, of mass politics and political ‘supermen’, the liberal variant of democracy seemed antiquated and irrelevant.
Reynolds recognises that the Great War was, in fact, what it has long been thought to be – a disaster for Europe and the world, which inflicted catastrophic damage on democratic government and liberal values (however imperfectly these were embodied at the time). But he also argues that the image