Democracy after World War I

Start of project: January 2012

The project’s objective is to contribute to perspectives on the interwar period that seek to develop new approaches to the history of democracy after World War I. Starting points are the critical reflection on the project’s suppositions and the integration of different national perspectives. Traditional interpretations that seem self-evident, especially teleological assumptions about flawed, ill-conceived, and undesired elements of democracy after 1918, but also many notions about special national developments that have become almost axiomatic, will be subject to review. A study focusing on these issues must address fundamental theoretical-methodological aspects, explore new interpretations based on examples from relevant sources, and develop theories that aid in understanding such material. Work is currently progressing in three steps: 1) a review of the state of research; 2) an explication of the need to move beyond national narratives; and 3) analysis of case studies on the relationship between democracy and economic policy after World War I.

1. Review of the state of research
A first step is a review, discussion, and extension of research on the Weimar Republic and German democracy, which has achieved remarkable breakthroughs in the past two decades. In the course of this work, a new foundation has been established for interpretations and theories of democracy in the interwar period. Despite these contributions, however, there is a need for argumentative precision, systematic linking, and interpretive consistency; for this reason, unquestioned traditional assumptions continue to exist along with innovative and revolutionary findings. Based on this extensive research, the project will attempt to explore new interpretive options.

2. National narratives
Currently, standardized models and hierarchies of national histories of democracy are still in use that cannot be reconciled with the results of recent research—neither with work in comparative studies of democratization in Germany nor in historical research on other democratic western societies. Even if assumptions about special national developments as global theories are in general no longer supported, they often still continue to be woven into the epistemic grid and micro-narratives. There is no doubt that there are differences in the history of democracy. But it is no longer plausible to identify and explain these differences by employing, in a circular argumentation, narrative constructions from later eras that served specific intentions in their own historical contexts. For heuristic purposes, the project will therefore avoid national narratives as far as possible. Current research is increasingly uncovering transnational aspects that call unequivocal national ascriptions into question. For this reason, the study will eschew static ideal-types that abstractly conceptualize ahistorical, national containers of the political in favor of an analysis of political notions, concepts, and actions in all their changeability, inconsistency, and ambiguity. This also applies to contingency as a factor embedded in multiple contextual conditions that must be included in the historical account. In view of these considerations, the idea of a national path dependency is also inadequate as a structural explanation. This approach aims to open up the horizons of opportunity in the period after World War I and reveal the history of democracy as the great experiment and grand expectation that it became in the eyes of many contemporaries in numerous societies after 1918—as an open story of uncertainties and risks as well as of growing stability and the building of consensus. The project will seek to examine democracies as new formations in terms of their normality and fragility and their own possibilities and self-understanding. The aim is to avoid allowing one’s own assessment of historical developments to be influenced by the knowledge of historical outcomes or by national narratives. Moreover, the impression that there is currently inadequate knowledge about democracy, its potential, and its pathologies is a key motive for this study.

3. Case studies
In the third phase, the theoretical and heuristic considerations and principles developed in the first two phases will be tested and revised after being applied to case studies. To this end, a central aspect of normal and fragile democracy formation processes during the interwar period has been selected—the relationship between democracy and economic policy. This is where the history of economics, politics, and administration are thematically linked. Analysis will involve the use of methods from the history of ideas and concepts and cultural history. The lack of connections between different approaches and areas of investigation has often prevented the transfer of relevant findings to related fields. With an integrated approach—which perceives the formation of democracy as a political and cultural process and is grounded in a concept of political ideas that is related to all fields of action—the mutual entanglements of the political, the economic, and the cultural sphere can be elucidated which are otherwise viewed as autonomous from the perspective of ideal-type categories or systems theory. After World War I, these three spheres were constituted and stabilized in an interrelated process that pertained to democracy with its all-pervasive conflicts, institutions, strategies, and languages.

Empirically, the project is based on the observation that a prominent case of the contemporary establishment after 1918 of a democratic horizon of expectation can be discerned in the apparently preferred technocratic control or self-administration of accessible spheres of the economic. In this context, we can identify a process in which democratic opportunities were opened up and subsequently narrowed but not eliminated until 1933. The study focuses on economic policy actors in the Weimar Republic’s ministry of economics and its environs as well as on the public discussion of economic policy ideas under democratic conditions. However, these national constellations will not be studied in isolation, but rather as part of an international comparison and with an eye for transnational problems.

At the chronological end point of the project, the extent to which the findings gained through this approach are relevant to contributing to a better understanding of the Weimar democracy’s crisis in the context of the European crisis, and also to describing more precisely the potentials and pathologies of democracy as a historically mutable subject, will be discussed.

(Last modified March 2016)