Daniel Siemens (Newcastle): Blueprints for a dying democracy? The political history of Interwar Europe in light of contemporary debates

Nous publions sur ce blog les abstracts des interventions à la journée d’étude Critiques de la démocratie, autoritarismes, populismes en Europe: quelles continuités et ruptures entre l’entre-deux-guerres et aujourd’hui?, dans une autre langue que celle de l’intervention pour favoriser le dialogue. Pour commencer aujourd’hui, l’intervention de Daniel Siemens, professeur d’histoire européenne à l’Université de Newcastle, dans le premier panel: Le retour des années 1930? qui aura lieu le jeudi 14 mars 2019 à 13:30.

Among the best-selling none-fiction books published last year one finds titles as How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, jointly written by the U.S. political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and its British equivalent, David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends. The argumentation of both books relies heavily on historical analogies. Their authors repeatedly contrast and compare the current situation with the interwar years in Europe and the US. Although this comparative perspective yields some insights, in particular with regard to early ‘warning signs’ when stable democratic systems quietly lose their balance, the suggested actions for successfully challenging this development are less convincing. In particular Levitsky and Ziblatt advocate for a conscious effort to change the political culture in order to stabilize endangered democracies, yet they ignore that the political culture is the very effect of political and social developments, not their precondition.

I will argue that a comparison between the interwar years and today’s political situation can be fruitful, yet that we need to go further by also engaging in a comparison of the explanations of these very processes. This ‘second order observation’, to take up the expression from sociologist Niklas Luhmann, will not necessarily produce ready-made receipts for the defence of democracy, but it will allow us to better understand the analytical potential as well as the limits of the historical analogies between the interwar years and today. Applying this method to an analysis of the recent literature in the field, I see a second and very different level of historical comparison at work. While most of the discourse of the ‘factual’ level is – for good or for whose – concerned with possible parallels and analogies between the interwar years and the world after the financial crisis of 2007/2008, the mode and the tone of the comparisons suggest analogies between the cultural criticism of the fin-de-siècle and the present.

This become most obvious by reading Runciman’s book. He explicitly recommends to ‘get away from our current fixation with the 1930s’, as ‘our obsession with a few traumatic moments in our past can blind us to the many lessons to be drawn from other points in time’, yet at the same time he himself seems obsessed with the idea that modern democracies (in the form of ‘audience democracy’, ‘spectator democracy’ or – as Runciman also suggests – ‘zombie democracy’) will no longer be successful to “delivering long-term benefits for societies while providing their individual citizens with a voice’. He finds democratic institution good-willed, but tired and perceives them as ultimately unable to address the problem of rising social inequalities, not least because of the ‘absence of collective encounters with violence’.

Not least because of such statements that link the success of democracies in nation states with their ability to engage their citizens in warfare, I would propose that the current discourse comparing the political history of the interwar years with the present has strong undertones usually associated with the fin-de-siècle and European Imperialism. If this is any indicator at all, it seems rather bad news, given the ‘sleepwalking’ of European nations into war in 1914, driven by a toxic combination of intellectual complacency and energic nationalists.


dhiparis

Teamaccount der Redaktion. Forschen – Vermitteln – Qualifizieren: Das DHI Paris ist ein zentraler Akteur international ausgerichteter historischer Forschung im Verbund der Max Weber Stiftung, Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland.

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