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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.



Balázs Trencsényi

Lead Researcher / CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

Constantin Iordachi 

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

Gábor Klaniczay

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

Laszlo Kontler

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

András Kovács

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

Zoltan Miklosi

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Associate Professor

István Perczel

CEU Research Affiliate / CEU Professor

Istvan Rev

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

Orsolya Anna Sudár

Junior Research Fellow

Katalin Szende

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 regime 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. 

Democracy in History Workgroup Partners in CIVICA Project

The new CIVICA Research Project, entitled “Democracy and Its Discontents. A Historical Examination of the Current Predicament of Democracy,” offers a thorough historical investigation capable of defining a genealogy of the current democratic malaise.

Balazs Trencsenyi: "Politics of History" and Authoritarian Regime-Building in Hungary After 1990

In his latest book chapter Balazs Trencsenyi, lead researcher of our Democracy in History workgroup, focuses on the relationship between historical knowledge production and the memory politics and historical ideology of the ‘System of National Cooperation’ that emerged in Hungary after 2010.

Presentation of the Democracy in History Workgroup

In the first event of the series showcasing its projects and activities, the Democracy in History Workgroup presented some of its thematic orientations.

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.

Inaugural Meeting of the Democracy in History Workgroup

The Democracy in History Workgroup organized an online meeting with 20 Hungarian colleagues from different institutions, discussing modalities of cooperation and questions of democratic memory politics.

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.

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.