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Democracy in History

Democracy in History will complement and enrich the work of the other groups of the Democracy Institute by creating a broad historical perspective and opening up the research field toward the humanities.  It seeks to focus both on the emergence of democracy as a sociocultural practice and as an ideational framework. Thus, it will engage both with the long-term roots of democratic patterns in pre-modern societies (from political philosophies of classical antiquity and political theology of medieval universities to the medieval communes and early modern noble republicanism) and their modern and contemporary manifestations and legacies (such as debates on the relationship of democracy to constitutionalism, liberalism, or republicanism).

By analyzing various patterns of democratization, our group is aware that this is not a “one-directional” teleological process. Therefore, it will pay special attention to the study of earlier and recent crises of “de-democratization.” Thus, we seek to put contemporary debates into a broad historical framework, but also look at previous instances of de-democratization and processes of democratic revival while having in mind our current problems. Thus, the historical study of the rise of autocratic/totalitarian regimes in past times is relevant to current political discussions and it allows for a critical examination of the dominant civilizationist discourse. In connection to studying patterns and processes of democratization and de-democratization, this research group will also explore the history of “thick” and “thin” ideologies, such as liberalism, socialism, anti-liberalism, nationalism, populism, fascism and their impact on social and political changes.  

We will explore questions such as: How to map comparatively national, meso-regional, and global patterns of democratization and de-democratization if we want to go beyond the Huntingtonian “waves,” and consider the backlash of the last decade? Can we use populism as a trans-historical category of internal challenges to democratic regimes going back in time, or is it a recent phenomenon? What is the role of history (politics of remembrance, populist reinterpretation of medieval and recent past, erecting and reinterpreting monuments, rewriting of schoolbooks) in this process?  How and when did civil society function as an agent of democratization or of democratic backsliding? How was the creation of autonomous communities instrumentalized by monarchical and state power for various purposes? In order to address these issues, we also plan to involve colleagues working at the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives (OSA) on the history of transition to team up with Democracy Institute researchers and run common projects.



Lead Researcher / CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Associate Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor / Director of Open Society Archive

  • Orsolya Sudar

Junior Research Fellow

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor


Research Projects  

Reconstructing the interwar debate on the crisis of liberal democracy

Lead Researcher: Balazs Trencsenyi

Reconstructing the interwar debate on the crisis of liberal democracy from a transnational comparative perspective. Fed by the criticism of mass democracy at the turn of the century, such as Sorel, Pareto, or Le Bon, the feeling of crisis amplified after 1918 when actually most of Europe saw the expansion of parliamentary regimes, soon to be eroded by permanent infighting and eventually superseded by authoritarian projects in many countries. Along these lines, I hope to analyze different ideological and political groupings (liberals and neo-liberals, socialists, communists, populists, and fascists) and their use of the crisis-discourse, seeking also to draw some lessons relevant for understanding the post-1989 anti-liberal backlash in East Central Europe and beyond. 

History of European Political and Constitutional Thought

Lead CEU Editor: Laszlo Kontler 

This book series (Brill), launched in 2019 and co-edited by Erica Benner (Berlin), Cesare Cuttica (Paris/Helsinki), Laszlo Kontler (CEU) and Mark Somos (Heidelberg) promotes the study of European traditions of political and constitutional thought from classical antiquity to the twentieth century. Three volumes have been published so far, and about half a dozen more are in advanced stages of preparation. The series and each new volume shall be presented with the involvement of expert commentators in the seminar series of the DI. 

Parliaments, estates and constitutions: Representative institutions and ideologies in ancien régime Europe 

Lead CEU Editor: Laszlo Kontler

Within this project, initiated by Istvan Szijarto (ELTE), a conference co-hosted by CEU took place in 2019, and a volume co-edited by Szijarto, Wim Blockmans (Leiden) and Laszlo Kontler is being prepared. To paraphrase Quentin Skinner (“liberty before liberalism”), the project looks at aspects of constitutionalism before constitutionalism. It investigates parliamentary culture in the last century of the ancien régime in “peripheral” areas of continental Europe, where – unlike some of the core regions – the estates retained more substantial political powers than elsewhere. Prime examples include the sejm in Poland, the Diet in Hungary or the Riksdag in Sweden in the Age of Liberty. Particular emphasis is placed on motivations and political communication, and the interplay of ideas and practices. 

History as democracy? 

Lead CEU Researcher: Laszlo Kontler

Historians can meaningfully contribute to the program and profile of the Democracy Institute not only by asking what the historical study of processes of democratization, de-democratization, and so forth, may add to our understanding of democracy. It may, indeed must also be asked where democracy “is” in history as a discipline and a cognitive field, what the practice of history itself contributes to democracy – to what extent and in what sense is, or is not history “democratic”. This relationship is a meta-level issue relevant to the formation and self-reflection of all historians and can be meaningfully engaged irrespective of one’s specific empirical research interests. By embracing it, the Democracy Institute may provide an important platform for CEU graduate students, researchers, faculty, visiting fellows and external scholars to develop joint projects relevant to its larger endeavors. For a start, a series of public conversations about these issues with a select range of historians, will be organized by a small team of graduate students and CEU faculty during the academic year 2021-2022. 



What for Does Democracy Need Political Parties?

Jan-Werner Müller, in an interview with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, talks about the functions of contemporary political parties, the role of the constitutional courts and the future of European Christian  Democracy.

The Trump Canon of Democratic Struggle

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska reviews "What Were We Thinking" by Carlos Lozada, which offers an answer to the problem of how we discursively resisted Trump’s presidency.

Job Opening: One-year Post-Doctoral Fellowship in the Jewish Studies Program

The Jewish Studies Program at Central European University and the CEU Democracy Institute invites applications for a post-doctoral research fellowship on a topic related to Jewish cultural, visual and literary studies.

Enemies at the Liberal Democratic Gates

Is America living in the shadow of the post-Cold War liberalism? Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins argues that some liberal intellectuals are still looking for an enemy who can give a cause to their political actions.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins About Liberalism

Kasia Krzyzanowska interviews Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, a faculty member in History Department at Dartmouth College, on the future of liberalism, especially post-Cold War liberalism as envisioned by American intellectuals.

The Forgotten Massacre: New Book by Andrea Peto

The book discusses a formerly unknown and invisible massacre in Budapest in 1944, committed by a paramilitary group lead by a women.

We've Gotten the Ogre Out of the Way

Samuel Moyn, Professor of Jurisprudence at Yale University, in conversation with the RevDem's Kasia Nowicka on the current state of America's democracy on the eve of Joe Biden's presidency.

It's Identity, Stupid! An Interview with Guy Sorman on Identity as a Political Factor

Identity is a very strong political factor in the current world Guy Sorman*, philosopher and economist, the author of “The Conservative Revolution in America,” said in an interview with Michał Matlak.

Job Opening: Postdoctoral Fellow - Democracy in History Workgroup

The Democracy in History Working Group invites applications for a Postdoctoral Fellow position.