Conference Report

Author: PD Dr. Kerstin von Lingen, Cluster of Excellence "Asia and Europe in a Global Context", Universität Heidelberg

(This report was published for the most part on HSozKult.)

Since an assassination in Chemnitz on 26 August 2018 and its aftermath, when amongst "ordinary citizen" many far right protesters were heard shouting "Foreigners out" and "Germany for Germans!", some of them openly showing the Hitler salute, civil unrest followed in the remote small Saxonian town. Now, preoccupation in politics and the media about Hitler’s returning shadow are profound, and it has become clear that, notwithstanding its history, also Germany has a problem with its far-right populist movement.

It came in handy a few days later, that the conference on "1918-1938-2018" at Schloss Eckartsau (Lower Austria) had precisely planned to discuss the question whether we are at the "Dawn of an authoritarian century?", by putting historical, sociological and political-scientist expertise together to address the questions behind the phenomenon. Organized jointly by the Department of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna and the German Federal Agency for Civic Education, Bonn, the question of the benefits of education was the underlying leitmotif of the conference. Supporters and Partners of the conference included the Leo Baeck Institute – New York|Berlin, and the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) Vienna, amongst others, and the hosting institution, the Austrian Federal Forests (Österreichische Bundesforste) who own Schloss Eckartsau.

As 2018 saw, in varying levels of commemorative intensity, the anniversary of three significant events in European history, the retrospective on "1918" and "1938" as well as their extensive effects and possible influence on the course of future events was key. As is known, November 1918 saw the end of the First World War and the short-lived blossoming of parliamentary democracy that followed the fall of various monarchies, but in some cases quickly transformed into authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. March and September 1938 mark the two military and geopolitical poles of Hitler’s aggressive expansion policies that would unleash the violence of the Second World War: the "Anschluss" of Austria, already eroded by Austro-fascism, in March and the dissolution of democratic Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement in September of that year. 1938 concluded with the horrors of November 1938, the targeted destruction of synagogues and racially motivated murder, as well as the imprisonment of Jews in concentration camps. The events represented a radicalization on the path to the Shoah, the persecution and genocide of the European Jews.

The location of the conference was carefully chosen to meet the conference topic, as Schloss Eckartsau was the venue where Emperor Karl signed the declaration relinquishing his claim to the Hungarian throne and thus part of the empire of Austria-Hungary on 13 November 1918. There was also reminiscence to the old Habsburgian heartland for those informed about the medieval battlegrounds of the March field. Today’s reality of open-borders was however celebrated in a very appealing way: as conference participants stayed in a hotel in near-by Bratislava, they were shuttled back and forth every day, a sign of European progress and peace. The launch of the conference took place at a reception in the Austrian Embassy in Bratislava with short speeches by Oliver Rathkolb (University of Vienna) and Thomas Krüger (Federal Agency for Civic Education, Bonn) on behalf of the organizers. Afterwards, first discussion spread as to the term "refugee crisis", which seems established but still leaves us a taste of unease and even of abetting the far right with terms they could easily pervert.

The conference started on 5 September 2018 and was organized around the three dates in three conference days. Following several keynote lectures, parallel panels were held to discuss aspects of the problem in more depth, and it was not easy to choose which panel to attend.

The first conference day (Wednesday, 5 September 2018) started with a keynote of historian Margaret MacMillan (Oxford University/University of Toronto) on her renowned subject on the end of War and Empires, entitled "The Long Shadow of the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919 and the Impact on Europe in 2018". While she concentrated in a first part on decisions of a fragile peace, pressure from different national societies and failures of politicians to re-order the world in- and outside of Europe, she also made clear that in her eyes, we shouldn’t overestimate the power of the Paris peace conference, as the raise of the Nazis was not inevitable. The peace treaty was harsh, but the peace treaty of the German Reich with Russia in Brest-Litowsk only a year earlier was harsher. Already by the mid-1920s there were signs of reconciliation amongst former war enemies: The German Reich was called back into the "Family of Nations" by offering a seat within the League of Nations, and German foreign minister Gustav Stresemann was an able and respected partner. On the question why the Allies hadn’t allowed the German part of the Habsburg empire to join the Reich (a fact which is said to have in part also contributed to raising nationalism in Austria in the Interwar years), the answer of MacMillan was as simple as clear: it would have looked like a reward for the loser to enlarge its territory by such a move.

The second key note saw Oliver Schmitt (Professor for South East European History, University of Vienna) to speak about "The Balkan States and the Impact of Regional Political Cultures since 1918", a talk in which he focused on imperial continuities and their crossroads with authoritarianism. Interesting was his focus on networks and "soft imperial legacies" as legislation, bureaucracy, education, and he underlined how "empires" were replaced by "structures", while authoritarian regimes were left to deal with it. Both keynote speakers stressed during the Q+A session how Wilson’s lofty ideas of self-government wouldn’t work in the fragile aftermath of war, and how minority treaties sharpened (and thus exposed) the same ethnic groups they pretended to protect.

The keynotes were followed by parallel panels, on "Rise and Fall of Young Democracies", the "Rule of Law", and "Macroeconomic Policy Approaches as a reply to Strengthen Democratic Trends". The day was concluded by a "firseside-chat" with former Austrian President Heinz Fischer and other renowned speakers around the question "The Historical Burden of 1918 for Europe Today: Are We at the Dawn of an Authoritarian 21st Century?". While underlining that historical consciousness was the valid instrument to strengthen democracy against authoritarianist or even "illiberal" regimes (a term coined by Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban), panelists including Elisabeth Holzleithner (University of Vienna), Irina Scherbakowa (Memorial, Moscow), Ivan Vejvoda (IWM Vienna) and chair Eva Nowotny (University of Vienna) discussed the basis of democracy as well as its content. Are we maybe left with a shell only? As Vejvoda noted, we have gotten used to the wellbeing in Europe, but nothing came for free, neither suffrage nor democracy, and we need again to stand up to defend our beliefs. Sherbakova observed, however, that there existed also a sphere were people were not interested in "learning from history", but in following political promises and scapegoating. The Q+A session centred around the problem how the international system could be stabilized while at the same time it was threatened by politicians who were systematically destroying the system of mutual trust which had been built up since the last war.

Day two on Thursday, 6 September 2018 was devoted on the trajectory from 1938 to 2018. The morning started with two keynotes on "The Escalating Persecution of Jews and Aggressive National Socialist Expansion Policies 1938". Leontine Meijer-van Mensch (Jewish Museum, Berlin) focused on the recollections and objects left behind by those who were persecuted, and by asking what kind of heritage was presented in the museum of today advocated a more victim-focused approach to exhibitions. Sybille Steinbacher (Fritz Bauer Institute and Goethe University Frankfurt) gave an insight into the complex mechanisms of Nazi racial politics (in Germany and Austria), antisemitism and Nazi war preparation. She focused in her talk on the year 1938, which was both, the moment of imperial expansion as well as of open radicalization, and made five points. Firstly, Austria had set a "pattern" to follow, with its violent outburst of antisemitism and organized plunder after the "Anschluss" in March, which was soon institutionalized back in the Reich as well. Secondly, the Evian conference, intended to create safe havens for Jewish refugees, failed. Third, Hitler played openly with the threat of war; fourth, victims were marked (with the yellow star and a stamp within the passport), and fifth, organized plunder reached a dimension which triggered the start of forced immigration but on the other side left many thousands penniless and thus unable to leave the country any more. The morning keynotes were followed by parallel panels on the questions of "Minority Rights", "Flight and Migration" and "Diaspora".

The afternoon saw two more keynotes, to address the 'longue duree' perspective of the intertwined path of democracy and authoritarianism between 1918 and 2018. Already in 1997, Ralf Dahrendorf foresaw developments that are currently occurring in Europe by coining the term "politics of freedom", seen as a social outcome of globalization. The digital revolution has had a greater impact than the sociologist Dahrendorf could predict; living and work conditions have been radically changed and overturned with dramatic consequences for all traditional lifestyles and societal cohesion. The longing for a new “strong leader” continues to grow. Key topics addressed in this part of the conference were the weakness of institutions, social gaps as well as the (lack of) education after 1918 (and today), and "Chemnitz" was evoked several times through talks and Q+A.

W. Lance Bennet (University of Washington, Seattle) in his talk "Who are the People? Communication, Power, and the Rise of Anti-Democratic Politics" spoke about the conflicting debates about "true citizens", which were played out in many societies today through political battles over immigration, refugees, civil rights for religious or sexual minorities, press freedom, and opposition to supra national organizations such as the EU. In his data analysis of millions of social media comments, he revealed the growing network of right wing politicians who learned from each other. The pressures of global economic demands, he underlined, brought about a power shift between business interest, party and voters. Those voters, under economic pressure by privatization and free market policy, burdened by austerity measures and cut public benefits, were increasingly turning against their governments, showing anger and voicing their unrepresentedness. The result was the division of democratic public spheres by disruptive communication (or in some parts, alternative channels of information and communication altogether). His point was that the term "populist" should be avoided, as it was somehow misleading, indicating a will of "the" people which was not the focus of these movements. Those were/are clearly directed to form a narrative of "true identity" which by definition excluded others. He suggested to instead speak of "right-wing movements" and their rise, and analyse openly the institutional failures of democracy, with the aim to develop a new normative perspective on institutions, communication and democracy.

Sylvia Kritzinger (Political Science, University of Vienna) followed with her lecture on "A citizen’s perspective? Pushing authoritarianism and Populism", which deepened many of the points raised before. To reduce societal and political complexity it was necessary to target the feeling of uncertainty or avoidance strategies. She made clear that populist attitudes and beliefs were not consequential for far-right voting per se. Her suggestion was to focus instead on taking up grievances, pushing back technocracy, and emphasize the representative functions of democracy. The keynotes were followed by another three parallel panels, on the transformation of Europe after 1989 and post-communist democracies, with a special emphasis on female voices within the transformation process.

The last conference day on Friday, 7 September 2018 was focusing on the "Future of Democracy" (and thus continuing the conference’s link between historical and social science based analysis). As already the two previous days had underlined: Berlin is not Weimar, we are not living back in the 1920s, notwithstanding authoritarian tendencies and populist/right-wing challenges, and notwithstanding the events in Chemnitz. The first keynote, by Wolfgang Merkel (Berlin Social Science Center WZB, and Humboldt-University) analysed "Challenges to Democracy in the 21st Century", by focusing around the four "major challenges" globalization, inequality, heterogeneity and right-wing threats. The resulting dawn of liberal democracies made way for new parties (and decline of the old ones). He gave examples how the lower classes were literally exiting the electoral participation system and voting against their interests. A perceived cleavage between "economic" and "cultural" was the result. In naming trends, he focused on the unresolved clash between states and markets, the fragmentation of parties (accompanied by a large erosion of collective organizations), and the heterogeneity ratio of education and low income, which resulted in a shift between communitarian and cosmopolitan. He was followed by Katherine Sarikakis (University of Vienna) with her talk on "Media as the Fourth Estate? Between Agora and Tyranny in the Authoritarian Century", which concentrated around the question who was expected to participate. She pleaded for a high role of institutions to counter the "era of mis-information" which has started. The morning was concluded with parallel panels on "Migration, Education, Democracy", "Agents of Change" and "Media, Populism and Democracy".

Together with Journalist Ian Bateson (Kiev), Oliver Rathkolb concluded the conference in the afternoon, by referring back to the role of education and thus the role of experts to use all possible ways and media channels to inform society about the lessons of history, in order to strengthen parliamentary democracy and foster liberal democracy against the illiberal version. Empirical studies have shown that active political engagement to strengthen democratic decisions and processes was more pronounced when a nation was able to examine its own "national" history more critically. Thus, the global perspective on "1918-1938-2018" has underlined the need for our professional engagement and more dissemination of our research findings in an impressive way.

Tagungsbericht: 1918-1938-2018: Dawn of an Authoritarian Century?, 05.09.2018 – 07.09.2018 Eckartsau, in: H-Soz-Kult, 19.10.2018,

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