Warwick Workshop: May 2023

Demokratie and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe fifty years on

12.30pm 4th May to 2.00pm 5th May 2023

This workshop is part of the Re-imagining Democracy Project that has run since 2004 and is now focussing on Central and Northern Europe.  It will bring together scholars of the history of the German speaking world to reflect on the contribution and limitations of the account of the history of the German word Demokratie provided in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe ( a dictionary of historical concepts).  Developments in digital resources and associated scholarship raise a series of critical questions about this account- and this workshop will bring together historians, and other scholars to review the contribution that these new resources and approaches might make.

This workshop has been made possible by the generous support of the Humanities Research Fund, University of Warwick, The European History Research Centre in Warwick’s History Department; and the Institute for Advanced Study at Warwick.

Workshop Agenda:

  1. Historiography: a changing setting

The Geschichtlicher Grundbegriffe (henceforth GG) entry on Demokratie

  • Predated the availability of digital library catalogues, let alone texts, and in practice drew on careful study of a relatively small number of texts, including works by famous thinkers; dictionaries, encyclopedias and broadly conceived educative surveys; also some relatively programmatic texts by political leaders and thinkers. Parliamentary debates were not a source; nor memoirs, travel accounts, occasional and ephemeral pamphlets, newspapers or magazines. We’re told at some times that the term was not used in official documents, but not when it was.
  • Was largely concerned with meanings, not uses: with what were at any given period possible significations of the word, rather than with who used it in what contexts to do what. Changes in register, bringing it from initial learned use into more general circulation, were indicated but not explored in any depth.
  • Was especially concerned to capture changes of meaning, and the emergence of new meanings, especially enduring new meanings. Only a little attention is given to ephemeral new uses in the 1790s; even less to the new associations the word transiently acquired when it exploded into use in 1848 and the immediately following years.

To what extent has the account if provides been amplified or challenged – of has it come to look vulnerable to challenge — over the past 50 years, because of

  • the increasing availability of digital sources?
    • growth in awareness of the methods of corpus linguistics and greater availability of textual analysis tools and software?
    • developments within the ‘history of concepts’? To what extent has attention within the history of concepts shifted from meanings towards uses?
    • other historiographical developments, eg in intellectual history, the history of ‘the enlightenment’; the study of the ‘public sphere’ or ‘print culture’, gender history or the history of emotions?
    • new developments in understandings of this period of German history, such that the context implied in the account now looks in some way unconvincing?

Are there other features of the original work which you’d want to note, which we might now want to vary, challenge or move beyond?

The main geographical focus of GG seems to be what would become the Kaisertum. Usage in Habsburg lands is sometimes noted, but is not a major focus; Germanophone Switzerland barely figures, more as an object of interest than as a subject in its own right. Also not much interest is taken in variations within the Holy Roman Empire/German Confederation, bar a few odd references to free imperial cities; south German states, and Prussia.

  • Do you think it’s desirable to broaden or narrow the field of study – or to complement this level of generality with more broadly or narrowly-focussed accounts? Is that possible? Are there examples of studies of studies of concepts that operate within a different geographical ambit?
  • Democracy as ‘learned word’

As GG notes, democracy and cognates were originally – as in other parts of Europe – learned words, without much wider currency.  Although they entered the vernacular language in Germany as elsewhere in the sixteenth century, GG suggests that they remained effectively learned terms until at least the French revolution.

  • Consistently with its relatively low interest in patterns of use, GG does not make much attempt to map out the range of ‘learned’ contexts in which the word appeared, but we might be interested in that. What kinds of learned genres did it figure in? Natural law? History? Moral and political philosophy? Comparative studies of states and governments? Geography? Anthropology? Were there any notable developments in its use in any of these contexts?
    • Is GG correct to stress its learned character, or is this overstated? In eighteenth-century Britain and France, it remained a word of the educated, but not really the learned; it entered the polite lexicon, becoming the kind of word magazine readers, male or female, would be expected to know, not needing a vernacular gloss. Was that the case in Germany – or not? Did it achieve any greater circulation in French revolutionary years? According to what chronology and by what steps did it pass into greater currency? (It may well have achieved wide currency at particular moments, and subsequently fallen out of wider use).
    • To what extent and in what ways did ‘learned’ uses inform other uses? To put it another way, when new social groups became familiar with the word, what conceptual baggage did they acquire with it? In Britain in the 1840s, popular radical (Chartist) newspapers showed some interest in educating their readers in some of the term’s classical associations. It also had French revolutionary associations (the French revolution was perhaps more often characterized as democratic in retrospect than by its supporters at the time). In a number of countries it was associated with particular accounts of the national past. It could be associated with discussions of the merits and demerits of government in Swiss cantons/Switzerland, or the United States. Would, for example, children have learned about any such contexts in school?


Politics didn’t provide the only context in which the term was employed (it could relate to standards of conduct, or ways of running non-state organisations, such as clubs – which we’d also be interested to hear more about). But one of the chief contexts in which we might expect to find the word and its cognates used, whether by way of slogan or argument, is political. The sources used by GG mean that its account tends to focus on the more theoretical end of the spectrum of political discourse. We hope to learn more from you about to what extent and how you think it was deployed in the cut and thrust of political life, and to what ends.

In posing questions for discussion below, we draw on our work on who elsewhere used the word and related words, and how they used them, in order to float hypotheses and ask questions about German-language use.

  • Democracy in active politics 1: to 1815

Before the Revolution:

Before the French revolution, what we have found in other regions we’ve studied is that the word was used in various ways in active political life, in a manner that was informed by its ancient associations, but related to contemporary institutional arrangements and concerns – though we don’t think that it became a political watchword, or that any elaborated discourse about the politics of the moment gave it an important and sustained place. A recent account which somewhat overstates the importance  of this family of words in mid-seventeenth-century English debate, but does at least provide plenty of examples of their use, is Cesare Cuttica and Marku Peltonen eds, Democracy and Anti-Democracy in Early Modern England (2019).

Relatively common ways of using democracy and related speech forms included:

  • as an element in a mixed system of government, whether in a national or urban context
  • as one possible form of republic; or as effectively a variant on or synonym of ‘republic’, framing discussions about how to orient government to the promotion of the common good
  • in either of those contexts, as a set of practical institutional arrangements, probably involving ordinary people being admitted to positions of power, perhaps as deputies, or by election
  • as a pattern of political behaviour, involving demagogues, tumultuous crowds and disorder – perhaps leading by one or another route to tyranny
  • as a section of the population, correlate of ‘the aristocracy’

GG suggests that the first four meanings at least were to be found in Germany before the Revolution, and (from the eighteenth century) were sometimes applied to modern states, esp Swiss cantons or the Netherlands – but says that they appear chiefly in learned texts, and mostly at the level of theory.

The question we’d like to put is,

  • Does that claim survive testing against a greater variety of texts than the GG contributors consulted? Can we now find more examples than they found of the words being used in commentary on ongoing or recent German events, or in the cut and thrust of public life?
  • If so, is it possible to distinguish variations in use by time or place?  GG cites a couple examples of their use in the context of city affairs, but was that unusual? We would also be interested to know more about how such words were employed within the Swiss confederation – work Swiss historians apparently haven’t done (they were certainly employed in Geneva).
  • If these words figure, was that especially at particular junctures or in discussion of particular incidents? If there are incidents that look like points where one might have expected to find them used if anywhere – when estates were being uppity, or some ‘demagogue’ did emerge – what other words were used instead? How about vernacular equivalents, Volksregierung, Volksherrschaft  or the like: were they ever used in such contexts?   

How did the French Revolution change patterns of use?

C1789-95: In France itself, the word doesn’t seem to have been used much, or with very positive connotations, in the early years of the revolution – sovereignty of the people and republic did more conceptual work, except in particular contexts (eg the Cordeliers Club); Robespierre and St Just both framed positive thoughts around it, but apparently rarely, and then gave the impression of being motivated as much as anything by a concern defuse its negative charge. Cognate words, especially democrat and democratic, were more widely and more positively used, from the earliest days of the revolution, to convey opposition to privilege and ‘aristocracy’ (though ‘aristocracy’ was probably more commonly invoked, negatively, than ‘democracy’ was positively). In that connection, democracy-related words acquired a cluster of up-to-date connotations: connoting a lifestyle, and an array of social and political commitments, and these words caught on and were used positively in similar ways in some circles in Britain and the United States also. Though the word was also used even more widely and insistently in these places to denounce the revolution and all its works, and to suggest that modern democracies would fail as ancient ones had.

In this context, GG’s suggestion that the word was often associated with criticism of the revolution in Germany at this time seems plausible. Still, we think there might be more to say about positive appropriations by so-called ‘jacobins’ in the German-speaking world. And what about the Rhineland? GG cites Fichte identifying himself as a democrat – if only in 1799 and in private correspondence (Mark Philp also found the term more used by sympathisers at the time in unpublished than in published sources). We wouldn’t be surprised to find even among so-called jacobins denunciations of aristocracy being more common than endorsements of democracy.

1795-1800:  in the course of the 90s, the word and its cognates also acquired new political-institutional meanings: under the Directory, ‘democrats’ in France championed ‘representative democracy’, and it became increasingly common in various circles not to contrast but to equate democracy and representation (though one could still champion some forms of representative institution while denouncing ‘democratic’ variants). We have the impression that the word had somewhat more currency among French sympathisers in satellite states – the Batavian Republic, the Helvetic Republic, various north Italian republics – than in France itself during the later 90s, connoting in these sister-republic contexts sometimes a political and institutional, sometimes a social project. Overall the word acquired new significance and new associations – but wasn’t generally officially avowed, and continued at the same time to carry many negative connotations and to be a good attack-word.

How did these things play out in the German-speaking world? GG reports Wieland writing of representative democracy in 1798, and of various more positive statements about it following the peace of Basel (notably from Schlegel and Görres; also Wagner 1804 associating it with the freedom to exercise talents). What was particular or different about how these themes were developed in different parts of the German-speaking world?

  • Democracy in active politics 2: 1800-40s

1800-15: our impression is that though Napoleon did not disavow democracy, nor did he proselytize for it. We think that in this era, its use dwindled across the board.

Was it used positively by any German-speaking contemporaries in the context of any of the reform initiatives of the period (other than in Hardenburg’s often cited formulation)? GG cites David Hansemann 1834 on Prussian reforms having democratic effects, but were they discussed in those terms at the time? What happened in the Rhineland? GG suggests that Arndt invoked democracy against Napoleon 1814. Was it employed at all in the context of the ‘wars of liberation’? We wonder also how it figured in German-Swiss political discourse at this time, eg around the reconfiguring of the Swiss Confederation.

1815-30. Such semantic space as positively-connoted ‘democracy’ had ever managed to occupy in the previous generation was in the ‘Restoration’ era, we think, commonly colonized instead by so-called ‘liberal’ values and aspirations. Some liberals were relatively sympathetic to what some might then have recognized as democratic aspirations (eg in Spain, some parts of Latin America); by contrast, others, notably in France, defined liberal approaches to politics as decidedly not democratic, and all the better for that, though well suited to a democratic, or post-privilege, form of society. The word seems to have had some currency in a secret-society milieu, as the name for a radical alternative to autocracy and privilege; Buonarroti championed it; Italian Carbonari sometimes secretly endorsed it. But by and large it wasn’t a term that even Carbonari and their ilk pushed to the fore when they wanted to attract a broader following; they were more likely to champion ‘liberty’.  

GG suggests (in section VI, so later in the exposition than one might expect) that German cpnstitutional debates of the Restoration era did produce formulations around monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, and how these might be conceptualized and positioned in relation to one another. Also Hegel at least contrasted corporate representative institutions with representative democracy, which he associated with the indiscriminate representation of individuals. We wonder whether in the context of such discussions, liberals were sometimes moved to defend democracy, or whether they too tended to define themselves against it? And did radical nationalists appeal to the primitive democracy of proto-German tribes, or did such accounts develop later?

1830-40s. In France, at least, ‘democracy’ doesn’t seem to have been a watchword of the 1830 revolution (nor was it a few years later when liberal forces triumphed in Spain and Portugal) – but was that also the case in south German states and the Swiss confederation?

By contrast, it did come into more frequent use in the aftermath of 1830 revolutions, in both France and Britain, being used by radicals of various stripes to critique the liberal order. Some of these radicals were Catholics: Daniel O’Connell in Ireland and Lamennais and others in France. Then from 1835, the publication of the first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s De la démocratie en Amérique (Ger. trans Leipzig, 1836) contributed to making democracy a talking point. Liberals, whatever their reservations about democracy, often agreed with Tocqueville that it was the zeitgeist; the important question in that context was how to orient oneself in relation to it; what to do about it; how to ensure that its advent was as benign as possible. Through the 30s and 40s, critiques of liberalism increasingly focused on ‘the social question’, and ‘democracy’ acquired new content through that association.

We’d be interested to hear about the extent to which any of these lines of thought were taken up in Germany, and by who in what contexts.

GG makes several suggestions about developments in this era (probably mainly post-1830, though possibly starting earler). It suggests that the phrase ‘representative democracy’ acquired more currency around this time; that a ‘democratic principle’ was conceptualized as being potentially at work in constitutional and institutional developments, shaping their changing character without necessarily being expressed in full-blown ‘democracy’, and that it was coming to be argued that monarchy and democracy were reconcilable: monarchy could absorb some democratic principles. (It may be that invocations of a ‘monarchical principle’ as a key to German constitutional developments encouraged conceptualization of an alternative or complementary ‘democratic principle’: we’d be interested to know more about how common a phrase that was) GG also suggests that it became more common at this time to historicise democracy, in any or all of the following terms: it had characterized the proto-political systems of German tribes; it had been extinguished with the rise of ‘feudalism’; it was set fair to be the political form of the future, to which historical development was tending. GG also suggests (later, section VI) that these years saw the development of a case about the unsuitability of democracy for German circumstances (though if one argument as suggested is that it was only well suited to small states, one might have thought some German states would have qualified). Also that the phrases social democracy and social democratic caught on in Germany from the 1830s, and that it became more common to suggest that mere political democracy was insufficient. The binary political/social emerged in discourse in various European languages at this time, Germany among others, it seems. Use of the German Verfassung/Verwaltung binary to argue that democracy as Verfassung was insufficient unless the Verwaltung dealt effectively with the social (as reported by GG) may have been a more distinctively German formulation.

  • We’d be interested to hear more about how any of these ideas were being deployed by political actors seeking to advance particular political goals.

Also more specifically:

  • To what extent and in whose hands did ‘democracy’ come to be associated with universal suffrage – which GG suggests happened around this time?
  • How did it figure in discourses about ‘individualism’ and ‘socialism’?
  • GG tends to look forward to its adoption by urban and industrial workers’ movements, but what of rural ‘social questions’? If a vision of history in which feudalism had extinguished democracy was gaining currency, was democracy also represented as challenging ‘feudalism’ in the present?

Democracy seems to have been endorsed by some in Baden especially. What were their reference points, and how well were their efforts known, and how regarded, elsewhere in the German-speaking world? Did political lexicons differ significantly between different Germanophone states/political cultures? GG quotes Heinrich von Gagern 1838 suggesting that democratic principles had proceeded further in south German states, but doesn’t have anything much to say about state-specific political discourses.

The 1830s also saw the word catch on within transnational émigré circles, to distinguish some more radical members of that milieu, perhaps partly under the inspiration of the foundation of the ‘Polish Democratic Society’. How was the word used by German political exiles and did they help to shape opinion at home?

Finally, the 1820s and 30s also saw the development of historical study and reflection on the French Revolution. To what extent did German-speakers engage with this? In what sorts of ways was ‘democracy’ conceptualized in this context?

  • Democracy in active politics 3: era of the 1848 revolutions

Concerned as it is especially with the development of enduring new meanings, GG gives less attention than one might expect to the 1848-51 era, when the word seems to have exploded in use in the German-speaking world, though it acknowledges that these years saw the development within Germany as elsewhere of explicitly democratic organisations, including ‘parties’ contending for political influence.

So we think that there’s potentially much more to be said about the new currency and meanings that the word and its cognates acquired, including programmatic content, and we’d be interested to hear more about that. The French helped to give the word a new impetus when they formally dubbed their new republic ‘democratic’. The revolutionary era also presented observers with all kinds of things that corresponded to existing ideas about democratic phenomena. The word rose in prominence as a slogan, but also developments provided those either sympathetic to or suspicious of democracy  with lots of new evidence to grapple with. Those who wanted to employ the word as either a positive or negative slogan also had to find ways of conveying its perhaps changing meaning and significance to new audiences.

Developments in Habsburg lands and Switzerland get little attention from GG at this juncture, but they’re also of interest, both in themselves and as they were understood within other territories of the German Confederation. And vice versa: what was being said in other German-speaking territories about the character and fortunes of ‘democratic’ forces in Germany?

  • Democracy in active politics 4: 1852-1870

In GG, this figures as a period of reaction against all the democracy-talk of 1848 and after, as a period when even liberals came to distance themselves from ‘democracy’ and it was largely left for the nascent social-democratic movement to appropriate.

If true, this seems to contrast with developments elsewhere – which it may have done. Our impression in Europe more generally is that the effect of the 1848 revolutions was to solidify democracy’s move into the standard lexicon of active politics, if at a lower level than that which it had briefly attained during the revolutionary years. Though it’s also generally true that the revolutions fueled anxieties about democracy, on the right and the left. After all, the French Second Republic’s experimentation with manhood suffrage, which many democrats had come to see as the natural vehicle for democracy, had not in the event promoted liberty, equality and fraternity, but instead opened the way to Louis Napoleon/Napoleon III, who not only ruled France autocratically but directed French forces to crush the Roman Republic.  Despite these setbacks, what we think we see elsewhere is a widening in the spectrum of people willing to avow democracy; moreover, there survived and developed an international loosely liberal-democratic movement, with Italians like Mazzini and Garibaldi emerging as international icons.

One conclusion some conservatives drew from the outcomes of 1848 was that conservatives need not fear democracy: it could underpin relatively strong-arm, anti-liberal forms of rule. Iain McDaniel has been interesting himself in that strand of German democratic discourse, not really acknowledged in GG. See his “Constantin Frantz and the Intellectual History of Bonapartism and Caesarism: A Reassessment.” Intellectual History Review 28, no. 2 (2018): pp. 317-338. https://doi.org/10.1080/17496977.2017.1361218 and ’The Politics of Historical Economics: Wilhelm Roscher on Democracy, Socialism and Caesarism’, Modern Intellectual History: MIH 15, no. 1 (2018): pp. 93-122. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1479244316000056

There may be other strands in German democratic discourse that were important within this period that are also missing from GG. What do you think? Does GG tend to underplay the vigour and diversity of democratic discourse in this period because its contributors don’t see much novelty I the content of these discourses, their main concern? GG suggests that national democrats were defeated in the context of unification, but up to that point hasn’t said much about them or what they stood for.

We’re also interested in a kindred concept that’s mentioned more than once: Selbstbestimmung. Varieties of this term played an interesting role as linked to but often connoting something different from democracy in various places at this time. It was often associated especially with the refashioning of local government. GG reports Treitschke assessing Prussian Selbstbestimmung as like English self-government and more aristocratic than democratic. Did this word have distinctive currency in Prussia?

We wonder also how ‘democracy’s fortunes and uses varied across different German-speaking polities; and in the context of significant constitutional and political changes in Habsburg lands. Our impression is that developments in Switzerland attracted much international attention from those interested in democracy as a political form during the third quarter of the century (GG mentions Treitschke visiting).  We’re interested in developments in Switzerland in their own right, but also in terms of how they figured in others’ discourse.

Finally, the varying aptitudes of countries in different parts of the world for democracy seems to have become more of a talking point at this time, and we wonder what Germans had to say about that.