| Faculty of Philosophy, Knowledge, Spaces, and Media, Research

Critical self-questioning of liberal democracies

The word "illiberal" is difficult to associate with democracy according to a Western understanding of politics. Rather, individual freedom is nowadays considered a basic element of this form of government. In some countries of East-Central Europe, however, governments have now established themselves that quite offensively propagate an illiberal version as their own variety of democracy and change the respective states accordingly - first and foremost Poland and Hungary. What understanding of the constitution underlies this? What traditions does it build on? And what does this mean for the entire continent? Eastern European experts from the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena want to explore answers to these questions together with colleagues from the Universities of Erfurt, Budapest and Warsaw as well as the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. The Volkswagen Foundation is supporting the international project "Towards Illiberal Constitutionalism in East Central Europe: Historical Analysis in Comparative and Transnational Perspectives" within the framework of its funding programme "Challenges for Europe" over the next four years with a total of almost 1.5 million euros (376,360 euros for the sub-project at the University of Erfurt). In addition to historians, researchers from sociology, law and political science are also involved.

"We focus on the question of constitutionalism - that is, the constitutional order and how debates about it were conducted in the respective countries during their formative years in the early 1990s and continue to be conducted today,"

explains Prof. Dr Joachim von Puttkamer from the University of Jena. "Currently, we can observe that different interpretations of what constitutionalism even means have emerged from everyday constitutional practice, which has definitely led to a loss of substance. The political order becomes a façade behind which processes take place that still have to do with the letter of the constitution, but no longer with the ideas originally associated with it." In view of anti-democratic and populist tendencies spreading throughout Europe, the researchers want to know whether this is just a somehow specifically Eastern European deformation or a basic challenge from the core of our understanding of democracy. "In this sense, this research is always also an important critical self-questioning of liberal democracies," says the Jena historian.

Within the framework of the project, Prof. von Puttkamer analyses the ideas of the rule of law and an independent judiciary shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the East-Central European countries. In particular, he takes a look at the period between the First and Second World Wars, in which - similar to Germany - the first democracies developed, from which people turned away earlier - in Hungary as early as 1918 - or later - in Czechoslovakia as late as 1938. Joachim von Puttkamer is particularly interested in the extent to which these first democratic experiences were incorporated into the new national constitutions and constitutional practices after the fall of the communist regimes and possibly had a tradition-forming effect. For countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary, there have hardly been any findings on this so far - only the distance of 30 years, which classifies the events as part of recent contemporary history, now opens up new perspectives and the archives.

"In Germany, we have made the normative observation that - in order to build a functioning democracy - one has to deal with why earlier attempts failed.

This was also done extensively in the 1970s and 1980s in the Federal Republic," explains the co-director of the Imre Kertész Kolleg in Jena. "From the current handling of the Weimar Republic, we also learn that democracy also needs a need for positive connecting points of historical memory and not only the admonition through early failure.

Another case study within the project deals with the interpretation of legality and the rule of law in Poland and in the new German states: In it, Dr Ned Richardson-Little, a historian in Erfurt, examines how these East Central European experiences can serve to understand processes in the former GDR. A Hungarian lawyer examines from a jurisprudential perspective how illiberal practices in Hungary are visibly gaining acceptance in a Western European comparison. And a colleague in Prague is researching how debates about juridification and expertise have shaped the more management-oriented understanding of democracy in the Czech Republic.

The new project is intended in particular to help young scholars network with each other in order to place research of this kind on a broader cross-national foundation in the future.

Further information / Contact:
Prof. Dr. Joachim von Puttkamer
Imre Kertész Kolleg der Universität Jena
Tel.: 03641 / 944070
email: joachim.puttkamer@uni-jena.de