Criticisms of Democracy, Authoritarianism and Populism in Europe: Continuities and Disruptions from the Interwar Period Until Today

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop “Criticisms of democracy, authoritarianism and populism in  Europe:  Continuities  and disruptions from the interwar period until today” which will take place on March 14-15 2019 at the German Historical Institute in Paris.

Please find the call for papers (open till September 30, 2018) here.

You are one of the organizers of the upcoming workshop “Criticisms of democracy, authoritarianism and populism in Europe: Continuities and disruptions from the inter-war period until today”: Why do you think this topic is of particular importance in current times?

It has become a commonplace to note a “crisis of democracy” in recent years, exemplified by the rise of populist movements in many countries. Oftentimes this diagnosis is supported by a comparison with the political context of the inter-war period, which has become a regular trope of political debate in many European countries. Particularly in Germany and France, historians have assessed this comparison critically. If its adequacy is a matter of debate, many scholars agree that it can provide a heuristic tool to analyze both past and present configurations with an enhanced perspective. [1] In the realm of political ideas, Marcus Llanque has suggested to look back at the interwar period not as a mirror of today’s issues, but as a “laboratory” in which diverse democratic models, and particularly the model of “liberal” representative democracy which had emerged throughout the 19th century, were extensively discussed and criticized.[2] The research program which this workshop will initiate takes this idea as an encouragement to shed new light on the history of democracy in Western and Central Europe during the interwar period. The workshop itself aims at exploring the diverse sources of criticism addressed to democracy between the interwar and today. This angle can help to bridge the scholarship on both periods by looking at the specific charges laid out against democracy. In this regard, it seems crucial to question both concepts of “authoritarianism” and “populism” in a historical and comparative perspective, in order to give more depth to the current diagnosis of a “crisis of democracy”.

Which questions regarding criticisms of democracy are still understudied and in which ways will your upcoming workshop contribute to fill these gaps?

While there has been a renewed interest for inter-war politics in Western and Central Europe and the scholarship on current challenges to democracy is abundant, there are not many for where these two perspectives get confronted with one another. The novelty of this kick-off workshop lies in its ambition to shed light on the inter-war period through a contemporary perspective and vice versa, by asking about the specific criticisms addressed to democracy, the phenomena associated with authoritarianism and populism at both periods and in various European countries. At the meta-level, we also want to question the use of such comparisons: what can it bring to historical and social science research? On the other hand, how shall we understand the recurrence of references to the 1930s in the contemporary European debate?

The upcoming workshop serves as kick-off for the research program “Which democracy/democracies? Reflections on the crisis, modernization and limits of democracy in Germany, France, England  and  Central  Europe  between  1919  and  1939” supported  by  the Centre interdisciplinaire d’études et de recherches  sur  l’Allemagne  (CIERA) – what other activities are planned within this initiative?

Three conferences and one last workshop will indeed follow. This program is a cooperation between the Universities of Strasbourg, Augsburg, Lorraine and Reims Champagne-Ardenne and the German Historical Institute of Paris and financed by the CIERA (Centre interdisciplinaire d’études et de recherches sur l’Allemagne). It aims at creating a forum for discussion and a possibility to get new input and feedback for young researchers of different countries. A first conference planned in Strasbourg in Mai 2019 will address the debate opposing liberal representative democracy to dictatorship during the interwar period. A second conference at the University of Lorraine in March 2020 will tackle the discussion surrounding “social democracy” in the interwar period, relating to what will emerge as the “welfare state” after the Second World War. The third conference at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in October 2020 will explore the possibilities discussed and tried out during the inter-war period to sustain and defend democracy: civic education, civil servant training and legal provisions to protect democracy and fundamental rights. Finally, a last workshop at the University of Augsburg in Mai 2021 will conclude the program by inviting both the program participants and external experts to discuss its results. As such, the research program is designed to raise many new questions and provides multiple possibilities to young researchers to engage with other scholars on democracy history.


Dr. des. Zoé Kergomard gained her PhD in 2018 for a work on Swiss election campaigns between 1947 and 1983. Since March 2018, she is a research fellow at the Department for contemporary history at the German Historical Institute Paris.


[1] Les années 30  : et si l’histoire recommençait? (Paris, Ed. de La Martinière, 2017) ; Olivier Dard, « L’histoire ne se répète pas », Revue Projet (354), 10.11.2016, pp. 6‑10. En ligne: https://doi.org/10.3917/pro.354.0006; Andreas Wirsching / Berthold Kohler / Ulrich Wilhelm (dir.), Weimarer Verhältnisse? Historische Lektionen für unsere Demokratie, (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2018) et Thomas Raithel (dir.), « Podium Zeitgeschichte. Wie nah ist uns die Zwischenkriegszeit? Geschichte und Aktualität der demokratischen Staatsgründungen nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg in Deutschland, Österreich, Polen, Litauen und der Tschechoslowakei », Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 66 (2018), 294-347; Pascal Blanchard/Farid Abdelouahab Farid, Les années 30  : et si l’histoire recommençait? (Paris, Ed. de La Martinière, 2017); Olivier Dard Olivier, « L’histoire ne se répète pas », Revue Projet (354), 10.11.2016, pp. 6‑10. En ligne: <https://doi.org/10.3917/pro.354.0006>.

[2]  Marcus Llanque : « The edges of democracy: German, British and American debates on the dictatorial challenges to democracy in the interwar years », in: Jussi Kurusmäki / Jeppe Nevers / Henk van der Velde, eds., Democracy in Europe. A Conceptual History, Oxford / New York (Berghahn) 2018 (i.E.).


Citation: Zoé Kergomard, Criticisms of Democracy, Authoritarianism and Populism in Europe: Continuities and Disruptions from the Interwar Period Until Today, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.09.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/13262.


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