Democratic history of the 20th century as a history of caesuras

The example of the early Weimar Republic

Project Leader: Prof. Dr. Peter Haslinger
Project Partner:
Institute of the German Language in Mannheim (overall coordination), Institute of Contemporary History in Munich
Leibniz Association out of funds from the Pact on Innovation and Research

At the centre of this trans-disciplinary project is the period of political and social upheaval from monarchy to democracy in the early years of the Weimar Republic (1917-1925), which will be examined from the perspectives of the histories of language, mentalities and discourse. Through this, the research project is aiming to integrate the three disciplinary approaches and establish a new, trans-disciplinary model of discourse analysis, which will clarify the possibilities (and limits) of interdisciplinarity.

Projekt Demokratiegeschichte
Postcard, Collection Goettinger-Bildwerk, Image Archive Herder Institute, Inv.-Nr. 177641

Through the perspective of research into discourse history, this sub-project based at the Herder Institute is dedicated to the question of the rules used for finding common ground and/or holding differences of opinion within the democratic framework of the early Weimar Republic. Being guided by individual events, thematic groupings, symbols of common ground and key terms in selected discourses and debates, the development of the democratic discourse will be examined using examples, including the debate on the Versailles peace treaty and the discussion on the eastern borders of Germany. This will not only look at the political-journalistic debate and analyse it using methods of discourse analysis, but will also link it with more recent research on academic discourses (such as that on the early phase of “folk history” and the Central European debate of the interwar years). The focus of this area of work on discourse history within the whole project is aimed at discourse subjects such as ‘majorities’, ‘minorities’, borders’, and ‘communities and the state’, amongst others.  Particular weight is being given to the analysis of image-based sources (e.g. in works of political journalism, in caricatures and on propaganda postcards) and the role of writing in map materials, where an attempt will be made to close a previous research gap in historical discourse analysis: the inclusion of text-image relationships within the framework of the whole project.

Dissertation project:

The public discussion of the eastern borders in the early Weimar Republic

Agnes Laba M.A. (2010-2015)

For the German Reich, the end of World War I meant a weakening of the economy, (foreign) policy and the military, and territorial losses. Against the background of a war based on expansive territorial policies, the changed borders and associated territorial losses weighed particularly heavily on the German consciousness. All the political, economic and social consequences of the defeat seemed to concentrate on them. For this reason, the Versailles rules on borders became a focus for German non-acceptance of military defeat, and the call for its amendment was considered common sense by the German population. The German borders became a dominant theme for the German public. In a full-blown border discourse, an almost unmanageable flood of publications, academic treatises, novels, tales and other records were published that delegitimated the borders produced under the Versailles Treaty and devised and justified alternative, putatively correct demarcations in their stead.

The public debate on the German eastern borders (with Czechoslovakia, Poland and Lithuania) of the early Weimar Republic is the object of this dissertation project, which is being pursued within the scope of the collaborative project “Democratic history of the 20th century as a history of caesuras: The example of the early Weimar Republic”. Research on German history of the interwar years has so far focused on borders either from the classic perspective of the history of foreign policy, with regard to interstate border conflicts or in association with German ideas on space (in geographical and political scholarship) during this period. The aim of this dissertation project is to illuminate the German subject of borders in the Interwar Years from a discourse-analytical perspective and to associate it with social developments through the systematic recording and analysis of the public discussion on the eastern borders. Borders are not only part of the international system; they also have a fundamental significance for national societies (such as in the processes of forming a national identity). In the example of one of the central themes of this time, the analysis of the border discourse on the Weimar eastern borders accordingly raises questions regarding the finding of common ground and discursive participation within the democratic scope of the early Weimar Republic: In which way could the non-acceptance of the Versailles border rulings develop within the German public to become a type of common sense? Which strategies for the delegitimisation of the Versailles borders competed with each other, which were successful and contributed to the reaching of a consensus? Who were the participants in public discussions, and where can they be found? What statuses did individual public discussions on the three German eastern borders (with Czechoslovakia, Poland and Lithuania) have with each other; what were their differences and similarities?

To approach an answer to these questions, both the arenas of discourse and the carrier media of the eastern-border discourse will have to be examined. Here, public discussions on the three German eastern borders will be juxtaposed, compared and contrasted. Not only will the political-journalistic debate be presented and analysed using methods of discourse analysis; debates in parliaments and state parliaments, party manifestos, publications from relevant associations and academic contributions, for instance from the area of geopolitics, are also of central importance. It is assumed that the central argumentations and delegitimisation strategies of the border discourse were developed from the sphere of geopolitics and political geography, leading disciplines offering policy advice during the interwar years. Against this background, the question will be asked as to which way these arguments from academic discourse entered into the discourse on borders. Particular attention is given to the analysis of image-based sources, for instance in political journalism, caricatures and propaganda postcards, and primarily in map materials. The image-based contributions to the border discourse can be seen as a type of visual concretisation of the subject of the borders under discussion, and thus as supporting the line of argument. In view of the central role of geopolitics within the border discourse, it is assumed that the representation on maps of the eastern border problem played a particular role within the establishment of a consensus on non-acceptance within the population. Through the inclusion of image-based material in the corpus of sources, an attempt will be made to deal with a previous deficit in historical discourse analysis: the inclusion of text-image relationships.

The analysis of the eastern-border discourse of the early 1920s using methods of discourse analysis should show how the non-acceptance of the Versailles border rulings was able to develop into a universally-valid truth in the public consciousness through the use of specific arguments. This process is significant in that it can be brought into direct association with the readiness for war of the majority of the population in 1939.

Die Grenze im Blick. Der Ostgrenzendiskurs der Weimarer Republik
Agnes Laba: Die Grenze im Blick. Der Ostgrenzendiskurs der Weimarer Republik, Studien zur Ostmitteleuropaforschung 45, Marburg 2019.