Democracies and their Historical Self-Perceptions

Project Overview

Democracy is a historical phenomenon and an ongoing process. It is continually reconceived, negotiated, and practiced. It is the goal of research on historical democracy at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History to investigate this in all of its facets and ambivalences. It scrutinizes the conditions in which democracies evolved, how they developed and in which way they changed. Research on democracies at the IfZ is interested in institutional structures, normative discourses and social practices linked to the concept of democracy, as well as in the motives and perspectives of actors who tied their actions to democracy. Not least, it analyzes the historical self-images that democracies have developed and the impact of these modes of democratic self-assurance.

The research program comprises three areas of focus:

The first involves the confrontation of (West) German democracy with its dictatorial past. What influence did personal, institutional, and praxeological continuities have on the democratic development of the Federal Republic of Germany as a federation and within its states (Länder)? What sort of mark did confrontations over the Nazi past leave on the political culture of the country? What significance did international and transnational factors assume within democratization processes?

The second area of focus looks into the connection between democracy and gender in the 20th century, from an international perspective. Democracy is anchored in the promise of equality in terms of citizenship and civil society. This led to controversy when gender equality was actually demanded. Democracies were equally marked by changing gender orders. What influence have these models exerted on the development of democracy in Europe?

A third area of focus centers on an international comparison of the contemporary historical self-images and self-understandings in modern democracies. The political cultures in which democracies developed have indeed done much to strengthen their stability – and could, conversely, also unsettle them as well.  How did citizens experience “their” democracies? What concepts and ideas provided the structure for their understanding of democracy? What expectations and experiences were connected to democratic participation?

Historical research on democracy at the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History reflects on the variety of democracy in the 20th century, thus providing an important contribution to the self-understanding of democratic societies in today’s Europe at a time when democracy has once again come under challenges and attacks.


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