Scholars have convincingly argued that theoretical frameworks that combine international influences and domestic factors are needed to understand political regime developments. We argue that exogenous shifts in the balance of power between great powers (‘power politics’) spark demonstration effects. These, in turn, are filtered into the domestic political system of smaller states via changes in political polarization – but with the effects being conditional on the domestic vulnerability of democracy. To assess this framework we turn to interwar Europe, where the international order changed from undergirding democracy to facilitating autocratic rule. An analysis of three countries (Poland, Austria and Denmark), backed by a more general glance at the remaining interwar cases, shows that the interaction between demonstration effects, pressure from great powers and the domestic resilience of democracy offers substantial leverage in accounting for patterns of democratic regression.