Re-imagining Democracy in Central and Northern Europe

The fourth part of the project is intended to span the Netherlands, Switzerland, the German Confederation/Germany, the Habsburg Empire, the divided lands of Poland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

As with our other projects, we begin with intensive reading and discussions with other scholars as we develop our understanding of the region, compile a bibliography, identify the key questions that we will pursue.

We recognise that it is, to some extent, an arbitrary region: European places we haven’t looked at yet. But there are common features, which we’ll want to bring out. Consider these four.

First, the dominance of broadly Germanic languages, at least as languages of rule, opened up scope for the sharing of texts. If French writers were influential here as everywhere, there’s some sign in the reading I’ve already done of distinct intellectual traditions, looking back for example to Kant and Hegel.

Second, although some governmental systems were radically reconstructed as early as the 1790s – Poland of course, the Netherlands, the Swiss Confederation, some German states – in contrast to the Mediterranean region, it was at least as common for traditional forms of representative though not necessarily elective institution to survive from the early modern period into the 19th century. This meant that debates about how to give the people a voice in government were often mixed up with debates about the relative virtues of traditional and new-fangled approaches.

Thirdly, only the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden came anywhere close to what was increasingly seen as a normative nation-state model from the start of our period. Much further from that model were loosely agglomerated German states and Swiss cantons, and the relatively more centralised but still very agglomerative Habsburg monarchy. One potential line of enquiry is accordingly the relation between ‘democracy’ as an idea and nationalist projects. It was common across the 19th century for democracy to be national-ised – ascribed deep roots in a nation’s history – and in that context also often ethnicised. Within this region, we might expect competition between more civic and more ethnic kinds of nationalism to have played out in different visions of what democracy, government by ‘the people’, entailed.

Finally, a fourth theme which suggests itself as common to much of the region is that it was even more rural and agricultural than other parts of Europe, and, above and beyond that, in many parts forms of bonded labour long persisted, and formed subjects of popular complaint: complaints that in the 1840s were taken up especially by self-proclaimed ‘democrats’.