A Republic of Comrades. Elite and elitenetworks in Belgian interwar politics (1918-1940)
This thesis explores the existence and modus operandi of interwar elite networks and the ways they have (or tried to) influenced Belgian politics in the period between the two world wars. Traditionally, these two decades are associated with the breakthrough of democratization in the twenties, the success of the New Order movements in the thirties and political instability throughout the entire period. At the same time, researchers have stressed the fact that the more conservative groups generally continued to set the tone and that democratic system in Belgium relatively easily withstood the challenge of the anti-democratic opposition. Both trends - democratization, success of New Order movements and political instability on the one hand, conservative dominance and a steadfast democracy on the other - however seem somewhat contradictory.
The key to this apparent inconsistency lies in the continuity in terms of the elite between the periods before and after the First World War. Although parliament underwent an undeniable democratization after the war that - among others - made an end to homogeneous majorities, the centre of political power - the government - remained firmly in the hands of the more traditional elites. After all, Socialists and Christian Democrats were not the only ones that were able to reinforce their position due to the war. The King, bankers and numerous dignitaries had respectively led the Army and the National Relief and Nurturing Committee during the war and thus saved the country from disaster. This gave them an enormous prestige, which was a great benefit for their political position for years to come. The networks that linked up these men, furthermore proved to be a formidable counter-weight for the growing electoral representation of the more progressive, democratic parliamentary fractions.
Moreover, it turned out that many leaders of the emerging, ‘democratic’ groups sought and found their way to the political top through the traditional, existing channels. The ‘right’ family background and (higher) education remained critical, if not essential gateways to the highest positions in society. After all, a good background guaranteed access to the most influential domains and networks of the interwar period: party leadership, the royal entourage, financial holding companies, academia, the bench ... In reality, these networks were actually hard to set apart, for the interwar elite was characterized by a structural cumulation of positions, not bound to one domain. Academics that were active in politics, politicians taking leading positions in companies and financial institutions or bankers in the academic councils were rather rule than exception.
The competition between these different networks ultimately gave way to some sort of power balance that became particularly noticeable in government, where it led to a monopolization of positions and jurisdictions. Although governments usually didn’t last very long and cabinets quickly succeeded one another, the same networks did seem able to stay in control over the same portfolios. Moreover, a very restrained group of politicians were able to secure their position in several consecutive cabinets, thereby guaranteeing continuity both in terms of people and control over cabinet portfolios. This balance of power proved very resilient and hardly affected by changing electoral results.
Our study finally shows that the growing critic on this concentration of power in the interwar period did lead to an increasing interest for both legal restrictions with regard to the cumulation of offices and the need for party reorganization. It did however not lead to fundamental reforms. However, the dissatisfaction with the impotence of parties and the disproportionately big influence of financial institutions and the monarchy, made younger generations of politicians conscious of the necessity of party discipline and more stringent legal restrictions and thus laid out the foundation for more structural reforms that would be implemented after the Second World War.