When Is Peace?

Concepts, Negotiations, and Representations of Transition Processes at the End of the Twentieth Century
Start of project: April 2014

The end of war or violent conflict does not inherently entail an automatic path to peace, nor is peace a fixed political and social state. Peace is a fragile state, always a matter of negotiation and dependent on individual and collective decisions.

A special tension and significance underlie the transition from one state to the other. The state between war and peace is closely linked to preceding forms of war and experiences of violence, on one hand, and on the other hand, to the terms of pacification. These generally include international agreements and forms of transitional justice, but also the social setting for reciprocal recognition and understanding. The violence used to end wars and violent conflicts, as well as different modes of postwar violence, have an effect on the (in)stability of peace. Transitional situations are highly specific, and assessments of when a state can be labeled peace also differ.

There have always been "utopian moments" (Jay Winter) that promise lasting peace―this was the case above all during the time of political change in the early 1990s and especially immediately afterward. But after a brief period of euphoria, interpretations that referred to disorder, complexity, and uncertainty predominated. Today as well as historically, the interesting questions concern the conditions under which a postwar situation is considered pacified, who decides this at regional, national, and international levels, and how these assessments have influenced over time understandings of peace, international security, and not least, civil society and democracy.

Unlike the majority of historical studies that investigate paths into violence and/or aspects of warfare, at the center of this project are the questions of how and under which conditions societies end violence and to what extent this is part of cross-border processes of negotiation and interaction in society and the media. The project draws on both historical research on violence and debates in peace research and then changes perspectives to search for different actors, perceptions, ideas, and interests that have been effective in peace processes and determined the political public agenda.

Starting from developments in Germany in the 1980s, the project will ask how interpretive elites (think tanks, research communities, media, and actors in social movements), especially in the 1990s, observed, interpreted, and communicated to their own (national) public the specific transitions taking place in postwar and post-conflict situations, particularly in Europe but also in Latin America and Africa. Thus, in a first step, the people and places of peace discourse will be identified and analyzed within German, European, and transatlantic networks.

In the second step, the assessments and arguments on war and peace made by observers and interpretative elites in the media will be examined to uncover their own understanding of social order, civility, and democracy. This step will not only reveal avenues of debate about political self-reassurance but also the dynamics of peace ideas which, as normative guidelines in a time of political change and international fragmentation, have became more fragile but have never been obsolete.

In order to make longer-lasting traditions of thinking and interpretation visible, the investigation period from the 1980s to the 1990s will incorporate the political watershed years of 1989 and 1990, which mark the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a "new world order". The question "when is peace?" is the starting point for creating a perspective based on analytical discourse and social history to historicize the transition from the end of the Cold War into the 1990s. This creates an approach to recent contemporary history that examines the normative function of peace concepts, images of society, and patterns of order in political debates of the past thirty years.

(Last modified October 2014)