To Build a Concept for European History

Willibald Steinmetz, Michael Freeden, and Javier Fernández-Sebastián, Conceptual History in the European Space (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2017), 320 pp.


National University of Cordoba and National University of Quilmes

This book’s declared intention is to be an appraisal of the state of theory and research in the field of European conceptual history, and the collection brings up several very significant debates that are sometimes obscured by the exponential growth of work on particular concepts around the globe. Conceptual History in the European Space intends to introduce a new endeavor proposed by the History of Concepts Group consisting of a series of forthcoming books devoted to the development of a European conceptual history.

With that project in mind, the introduction is concerned with two such debates, which not only give a sense of common goal to every individual contribution and to the long-term project but are also structural to the field of conceptual history. The first concerns the definition of the scope of the book. As a practice, conceptual history usually takes certain arbitrary unities, such as a nation, a country, a language community, or even a period of time, as a natural boundary to delimit, a priori, a supposedly homogeneous circuit of meaning(s) that it can then analyze through various methods. The need to produce a stable point that could articulate the ever-expanding whirlwind of historization was first pointed out by Reinhart Koselleck himself, when he established a series of nonhistorical concepts (i.e., space of experience and horizon of expectation) that were designed to contain the unavoidable defragmentation of historicized reality. Such a device is also present in the now severely questioned concept of Sattlezeit that introduces a temporal marking to signal the more or less simultaneous but definitive transformation of a cluster of concepts in all of the German-speaking space. This mechanism is at work when the editors of this book trace the conceptual unity of Europe back to its common Judeo-Christian or Greek-Roman origin. They struggle to distinguish a strictly European conceptual tradition that would justify the selection of the spatial delimitation given to the concepts, but their aim to produce a concept of Europe, articulated on the basis of this common origin and that would provide unity to the general reflection they propose, extends to every chapter of this work.

The other debate that permeates the introduction is that of conceptual change: how, when, and why it happens and, more specifically, when can we say that a concept is no longer European. Again, the overall goal is clear: the definition of a European conceptual space built as a discreet object of knowledge. Consistently, the authors explain conceptual change through a multiplicity of mechanisms, including English becoming a new lingua franca, as Latin once was. I would like to point out, however, that despite the rich discussion about conceptual change proposed by the authors, two of the more conspicuous mechanisms of language diffusion in the European context, those of conquest and colonialism are not considered. Such absence works as an index of the difficulty to establish delimitations such as that of a European conceptual space, for their inclusion would challenge the notion of a continental space defined by its common linguistic origin. European expansion meant not only that other regions of the world could also be considered to share that Judeo-Christian or Greek-Roman matrix, but also that the languages of conquered regions engendered significant transformations in the matrix itself. Such transformations could hardly be accounted for simply by pinpointing the insertion or the absence of certain “foreign” concepts in a given segment of the original structure of European languages, as could be interpreted for instance by the case of “truth and reconciliation commissions” (24). Even though the authors recognize this problem for the definition of a European-bound history of concepts, and despite the distinction they trace between semasiological and onomasiological approaches—with a preference for the latter—the problem remains ultimately unresolved.

This being said, not only the introduction but also the book as a whole stands as a fair attempt to build on the idea of an entity called Europe, be it as a reality or as a political project. Every chapter adds a piece to a linguistically constructed continent, in its twofold sense of mass of land and container (of multiple meanings, traditions, cultures, and times). Chapter 1 describes a singular historical development unraveled at different speeds, unifying the European space through a spatialization of the synchronicity of the nonsynchronous, which can explain disparities between contemporaneous groups or discourses. Chapter 2 intends to set the temporal framework and to provide general guidelines for the practice of the conceptual history of such a space. Chapter 5 relates the project of a European conceptual history to the attempt to widen or narrow the scale of analysis and enable the conditions for the procedure of comparison, justly advising against a “methodological Europeanness” that could result from the attempt to overcome “methodological nationalism.” Jörn Leonhard’s argument goes in the same direction, offering a word of caution against several risks of lightly applying comparisons between individual national histories. Diana Mishkova and Balázs Trencsényi’s thorough analysis explicitly bridges the gap between the European political project and the European history project through a regional approach that relies on spatial categories as much as on the more traditional temporal ones. Victor Neumann goes back to the modernity debate, proposing the notion of Europe as a synthesis identity for multiple meanings marked by the experience of modernity, while Henrik Stenius draws attention to the conceptualizer’s position in a center/periphery divided intellectual public space, even within the supposedly homogeneous European continent.

So what was presented in the introduction as a selection of concepts that belong to a preceding entity (Europe) reveals itself as a construction of such entity through the selection of concepts that the authors believe describe the multifaceted European space. In other cases, arguments in this book discuss historical accounts that already consider a given homogeneous European space. As Javier Fernandez-Sebastián puts it in his concluding words, “‘Europeanness’ might be described as a constellation of concepts that historically have characterized European civilization” (281). In other words, more than challenging the notion of a European identity or performing an objective representation of a supposedly preexisting, objective reality, each chapter contributes to the linguistic creation or to the reaffirmation of a linguistically created European unity, even if such unity is constructed through the categorization and organization of its radical differences.

We can distinguish another set of chapters that deal with the current state of the theory of conceptual history and the specific obstacles and problems that need to be addressed in order to improve the results it can provide. Kari Palonen, for instance, makes the case for contextualization as a primary method for conceptual history. Michael Freeden discusses the scope of the notion of intentionality to explain meaning and change in the use of concepts, and reflects on how the procedures and precepts of political theory and philosophy could aid or collide with conceptual history. He reconsiders the idea of intentional agency in the context of political debate and redefines ideology as a cluster of connected concepts, much in the manner of the idea of intertextuality, and therefore supports contextualization. László Kontler’s contribution is a thematization of translation as a problem of conceptual history, which opens the way to reconsidering of the intertwining of conceptual and cultural history.

Resuming the debate on the theoretical foundations of conceptual history, as this book proposes, may be the result of the challenges that always surround the application of any given standard paradigm to a new field or object. In this vein, what we see in the trajectories sketched in this book and its prognoses for the future of the history of concepts seems to be a steady shift from Koselleck’s original idea of the history of concepts as a form or as an approach to social history, although an approach that took linguistic change as its Archimedean point, to a history of concepts that is ever closer to the history of the transformations within language, and progressively develops a more comprehensive analytic of the mechanisms that rule changes within language. Cultural change, from this perspective, is something that happens, or at least something can be grasped within the scope of language, by applying ever more sophisticated methods to differentiate and classify mechanisms of linguistic change.

This focus on method no longer necessarily entails, as it once did, the constant requestioning of the theoretical presuppositions of the analysis of how concepts are constructed, signified, and represented; how they come to awareness both in its native origin and for the researcher who traces them; or how they relate to social and cultural processes. Instead, what has come to be paramount in the practice of conceptual history is to be able to work with the available set of methods, to apply them correctly and objectively without producing value judgments in the process, and to avoid its risks and pitfalls, with the ultimate goal of discovering the objective mechanisms of conceptual change—in general. This will follow the scientific precept of objectivity that is indeed a goal most conceptual historians have kept as a guiding principle. The introduction, for instance, discusses the relationship between political philosophy and conceptual history, finding its most “striking” difference in the fact that, unlike political philosophy, conceptual history analyses concepts “irrespectively of their moral attractiveness or political efficacy” (30). One might even describe conceptual history as the attempt to produce scientific criteria capable of containing the changing, unclassifiable, and often over-mystified linguistic research. Whether such an approach can be accomplished is debatable. However, when a new object, or project, challenges the field’s established presuppositions, as it is the case here, it becomes necessary to reorder the theory that supports the methodological choices made by its practitioners, discarding some premises that have become obsolete or unfeasible, and summoning new allies and new goals. Accordingly, the agenda set forward by Fernandez-Sebastián in the concluding chapter of the book points to a slight shift on the format of conceptual history projects toward the research of conceptual networks, instead of the more traditional focus on individual concepts (as was the case in the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe) and this may lead to a new theoretical debate and perhaps to a redefinition of the scientific endeavor altogether. It seems, judging by the arguments, strategies, and agenda presented in this book, that we will see a most welcome new wave of theoretical debate within and about conceptual history, which will continue to bring invaluable debates and previously unthematized phenomena into our attention.

Ideals against Practice A History of Parliamentary Politics in Europe

Pasi Ihalainen, Cornelia Ilie, and Kari Palonen, Parliament and Parliamentarism: A Comparative History of a European Concept (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2016), xi = 327 pp.


Sarah Lawrence College

Parliament and Parliamentarism the brainchild of the editors Pasi Ihalainen, Cornelia Ilie, and Kari Palonen, is an ambitious project: “the first work that aims to create a comparative conceptual history of European parliamentarism” (5). To achieve this goal, the editors went beyond the usual format of preparing an edited volume. Over the course of a year and a half, they met with their assembled team of contributors in three workshops to plan and discuss their project. In order to limit the potentially vast scope of such an undertaking, the editors came up with four ideal concepts of parliamentarism: representation, deliberation, sovereignty, and responsibility. Since the editors were aware that these terms were historically debated (and in their tradition as conceptual historians), the chapters follow the history of these concepts for specific countries in a non-teleological fashion (21).

Another structural intervention is the division of the book’s eighteen chapters into three parts, reflecting the involvement of not only conceptual but also institutional historians and political theorists. The first part traces a “conceptual history of parliaments,” the second focuses on “the discourse and rhetoric of modern parliaments,” and the third on “parliament and parliamentarism in political theory.” Each part is anchored by an introductory chapter written by one of the editors. These chapters relate the different traditions (part 1 is mostly written by institutional historians, for example) to the history of concepts. These introductory chapters are particularly helpful to relate the three different methodological approaches to parliamentarism to the history of concepts. They also provide an overview over developments across Europe, while the individual chapters mostly focus on single countries. In a slightly surprising move, however, Ilie does not use the four concepts of the introduction but instead asks anew what “the relevant historical concepts associated with the evolution of various parliamentary institutions in Europe” are (142–143). This more open-ended approach, however, might be the more promising for a volume of this format than the ideal type structure proposed.

That the ideal-type approach does not work quite as well as the editors might have hoped is primarily the result of one of the most interesting features of the volume: its ambition to assemble a truly European collection of essays and to bring different disciplines into conversation using the language of the history of concepts. To avoid positing these ideal types as normative end goals—a danger the editors are well aware of and warn against—every chapter would have needed more space to carefully construct the history of these ideal types, compare their various interpretations, present them as multifarious as they were over time, and follow their evolution as an openended process. This task overwhelms most chapters, which is emphatically not the contributors’ fault. It is simply impossible to give justice to the evolution of these four concepts over the space of 260 years in Britain in barely thirteen pages, 150 years of German parliamentary history in less than eighteen pages, or almost two centuries of Polish and Romanian history in eighteen pages, for example. Even where the authors engage with the concepts, and not every chapter does, often this engagement remains cursory and as a result more often akin to a normative history in which the individual parliamentary traditions achieve or fail to achieve full parliamentarism. Even the German Sonderweg makes a reappearance, only this time it is Austria instead of Prussia that fails to “catch up” (67). And considering that the editors set up parliamentary developments in Europe as a conflict between parliamentary and presidential (as well as plebiscitary) concepts of democracy (11), it is somewhat surprising that the two chapters on French parliamentary history have very little to say about the conversion from the parliamentary system of the Fourth Republic to the semi-presidential one of the Fifth.

The conceptual approach pays off, however, in the chapters that are more narrowly conceived and choose one of the four concepts as their focus of investigation. Markku Peltonen’s analysis of how rhetoric and debating culture brought James I’s policies into the orbit of parliamentary discussion in a way that had not been true under Elizabeth is a case in point. Similarly, the comparatively small scope of David Ragazzoni and Nadia Urbinati’s chapter on Italy between 1860 and 1920 on the question of representation allows the authors to go beyond the brief survey of parliamentary history that other chapters, by sheer necessity, offer. Another chapter in which the conceptual approach reaps benefits—even if here the normative tendency toward equating a parliament that exhibits all four concepts in ideal form with fully developed democracy shines through—is Teija Tiilikainen and Claudia Wiesner’s analysis of the European Union parliament. Sidestepping the usual question of supra- or international regime and instead tackling the alleged democratic deficit, the four concepts do yield some insights into the democratic status of the EU parliament, highlighting its semi-presidential system but also the extensive powers of control of the parliament since the Treaty of Lisbon. Here too, however, the brevity of the chapter means that it is closer to an institutional history than the promised conceptual history that would historicize the four concepts by following the debates surrounding them.

Even if not all individual chapters live up to the goals of the editors, the breadth of the volume is impressive indeed, and the chapters by themselves are valuable introductions into the parliamentary histories of the individual countries/or regions discussed. In the three parts of the book—conceptual history, discourse and rhetoric, and political theory—one finds not only the usual suspects of parliamentary history. France and Britain (including one chapter on prerevolutionary England) do make an appearance twice each, and Germany as the typical cautionary example even makes it into every single part. But Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Poland, Romania, and Russia, as well as Spain and Italy, also get their time. The volume—in line with its claim—is thus truly European.

To what extent parliaments are a primarily European feature that only traveled to the wider world through colonialism and imperialism as the editors claim (11) remains a bit more of an open question. In light of the often quite patchy parliamentary history that the individual chapters document, not least by the conceptual standards established by the editors, the importance and influence of parliamentarism in Europe itself throughout the two hundred years covered in Parliaments and Parliamentarism does not seem quite as clear cut—as Pasi Ihalainen admits in his introduction to part 1 while nonetheless describing it as a history of a “trend” toward parliamentarism (21). As for the extra-European world—and the reviewer is aware that he is now reversing himself and advocating for even more breadth—it may have been worthwhile to cut one of the chapters on Germany, which, despite or because of their breadth, also have some overlap. The space saved could have gone instead toward an extra-European example as a point of comparison. As the editors argue that only the British colonies really adopted parliamentary systems as opposed to French presidential ones, Canada could have been an interesting case study; Japan, as a country that was not colonized but instead adapted a mixture of the German and British systems; or Turkey, a country sometimes included in and sometimes excluded from European contexts and that moved between parliamentary and presidential systems throughout the twentieth century, could all have been equally interesting and potentially revealed points of comparison.

The cautiously optimistic outlook of the epilogue might seem outdated in a post-Brexit world in which parliaments are seemingly under constant attack for being elitist and out of touch with the “real people” and their “will.” The further parliamentarization of the EU does not seem to be en vogue as a response to the EU’s alleged democratic deficits, and even on the national level, the tension between parliamentarism and democracy remains, which the volume does not always address. Yet, the introduction also reminds the reader that “parliamentarism should perhaps be seen as a long-term discursive process of disputes and crisis that moves in time and space rather than a sort of goal that could be achieved at some specific moment in history” (6). This reminder might offer some solace today. And the volume overall gives an idea of the interconnections and the developments of these processes across Europe.

The Variety and Complexity of Republican Thinking

Martin Papenheim, Raymonde Monnier, Handbuch politisch-sozialer Grundbegriffe in Frankreich 1680—1820, Heft 21: Politique / République, Républicanisme, Républicain [Handbook of politico-social foundations in France 1680-1820, vol. 21: Politics / Republic, republican, republicanism], ed. Rolf Reichardt, Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink, and Jörn Leonard (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 265 pp.


RWTH Aachen University

The handbook of political and social basic terms represents an ambitious project that is conceived to comprise thirty volumes of a history of important political and social terms in France, utilized in the short timeframe between 1680 and 1820. Twenty terms have already been analyzed, among them terrorism, philosophy, civilization, utopia and women. Now, volume 21 is presented, containing one part in German on the French notion of politique and a second, written in French, dealing with république, républicanisme and républicain. What could be the message and the academic purpose of such an analysis that is, at the same time, extremely widespread in exposing those fundamental terms and remarkably narrow in filling numerous pages with endless examples for the use of the term, verified by many quotations in the respective writings at that time?

An answer can only be given by delving into the particular elaborations. Regarding the German analysis of the French politique the author Martin Papenheim observes an extremely broad usage during the seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries. Politique consistently remains a comprehensive term, widely signifying the common concerns in the public sphere. It refers to the royal regnum as well as to the later secular state. A broad range of influences from the history of political ideas can be detected. The reception stretches from Tacitus over Machiavelli up to the contemporaries Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, or Mirabeau. Politique is frequently used as a neutral term that describes the interactions in the public sphere, separated from any moral connotations. However, politique often refers, recurring to Machiavelli, to a skillful handling of the public affairs, implicating cleverness, factitiousness, and selfishness. Politique sometimes attains a very disrespectful meaning, associated with pretension and audacity. For the moment, it does not carry any reference to democracy or participation.

Then, in the prerevolutionary phase, politique sometimes merges with vertu and attains the meaning of a devotedness to republican values, like a commitment to the common concerns, the promotion of citizens’ involvement in political affairs, patriotism, and even political heroism. Virtuous political attitudes oppose any paternalistic and despotic aspirations. The law of nature ascends to the legitimizing authority for subversive dynamics and efforts in the name of “enlightenment.” Here, some vague democratic connotations emerge. Interestingly, at that time, the first usage of the notion le politique can be verified, signifying a general moral commitment to the common concerns. Amazingly, during the revolutionary turmoil, politique does not ascend to a central category but rather lives on in both of its opponent meanings: selfish striving for power, and virtuous care for the common good. Other terms capture the public stage, like égalité, liberté and fraternité. As soon as the revolutionary emphasis recedes, politique turns into a neutral denotation for a stable order of public affairs, remaining far from any democratic aspirations. In the early nineteenth century, politique occurs mostly as a simple descriptive term.

The second contribution to the handbook, dealing with républicanisme and its related terms, tries to elaborate on a central message of all respective term uses. First and foremost, républicanisme signifies the criticism of and the opposition to the absolutist monarchical order. Republicanism is antiroyalist, anti-aristocratic, and anti-clerical. Again, many references to intellectual inspirations are cited, among them the works of Montesquieu, the Marquis d’Argenson, Mably, Rousseau, Mirabeau, and Robespierre. Monnier’s analysis is so deeply concerned with detail that it even lists the frequency of the quotations of république in the respective texts and in the works of other contemporaries. It remains unclear which statement is supposed to be hidden behind such scrupulous reckoning. Amazingly, républicanisme is often tied to liberty—a conjunction that in the later development of republican thought turns into an antinomy. Namely, liberalism counts as striving for individual independence and as preserving the freedom from collective constraints, whereas republicanism is considered the accentuation of mutualism, reciprocity, and of common bonds. However, republican liberty, by that time, simply means freedom from despotic absolutism, resistance against royal authority, and the advocacy for pluralist government instead of centralized power of the court. The dedication to truth and reason is regarded as the driving force of republican thinking, and such attitudes produce a liberation from heteronomy. They generate peoples’ sovereignty— an important, subversive concept at that time. Also, republicanism includes the preservation of human rights and constitutionalism. Derived from natural law, people make claims for autonomy, for legal protection, and for the right of political intervention. Legitimate political entities respect the rights of their citizens and give proof of their republican dignity by creating a stable, reliable, constitutional framework.

Against the background of these characteristics of republican thinking, républicanisme climbs up to one of the leading battle calls during the revolutionary period. It serves as the badge for the resolute elimination of all aristocratic remainders. Republicanism includes democratic efforts: human rights, citizens’ legitimate functions, their inclusion in politics, and the creation of states that are ruled by law. Democracy is regarded as the government of the people: it is based on the assumption that everybody is equal and that everybody has an equal claim for inclusion into the common political framework—which then earns its designation as a true republic. However, during revolutionary events, the status of political representation remains controversial. Sometimes, republicanism is regarded as the direct government of the people, based on small, autonomous political units; sometimes it is declared as a messianic cosmopolitan ideal that creates representative states and elected governments, united by the belief in democratic legitimacy and connected among each other by federal principles. Divergent concepts and understandings of republicanism emerge: ultrarépublicains, semi-républicains or républicains de circonstances. However, the more the revolutionary impetus turns into ideological obsessions and political quarrels, the more the republican ideals become restricted upon modest imaginations of political change. Finally, only France is supposed to constitute a cohesive republic, strong enough to defend itself against the growing political and military pressure from restorative counterforces abroad. Républicains remain only those people who behave as confident patriots with regard to the French political system that arose from the ruins of the absolutist regime. Republicanism is restricted on the loyalty toward the République Française.

After having struggled through the exuberant material gathered in this handbook, the reader is left dazzled by the voluminous presentation of sometimes similar, sometimes different understandings of the respective terms. The handbook seems to be exclusively made for historians of a certain time who look for the variety of references that exist among the numerous writings dealing with the concepts at issue. The book offers a comprehensive trove for the special search of illustrative quotations. Among this abundance of references, only very vague lines of a common usage and of consistent connotations are brought to light. In the end, the impression of highly distinctive understandings prevails over the detection of any contemporary and conceptual accordance. Only the turning point of the French Revolution appears as a remarkable breakpoint: prerevolutionary understandings decisively vary from revolutionary and postrevolutionary concepts. Many general aspects of a thorough exploration of politique and républicanisme inevitably remain unconsidered: the incorporation of their usage into certain contemporary ideological positions and camps; the embeddedness of their understanding into more general social, political, and cultural models; the extent of rupture or of continuity with regard to the traditions of political and republican concepts; or the later significance and the transformations of the terms and of their definitions in the nineteenth century. Overall, the possible importance of the chosen period for modern understandings of these terms cannot be systematically clarified. Does the respective time period represent a milestone for the development of plausible and pioneering understandings of the political or of republicanism? Does the French Revolution create innovative dynamics for the reception of the respective terms that obtain an enduring influence? In which way does the contemporary term’s use address fundamental problems of the term’s understanding, which must be carefully revealed for the assessment of current developments or aberrations? The opened trove presented in this book misses some elements of structure, evaluation, and classification of the respective terms. Only then can the historical and analytical significance of this special time period and this particular regional context be clarified. Only then does the respective term used in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries take shape as an important period that represents landmarks for the general development, for the dynamics, and for the trends of the conceptualization of politics and republicanism.

Processual Ideology Vernacular Socialist Discourse in Central and Eastern Europe after Stalin

Pavel Kolár, Raymonde Monnier, Der Poststalinismus: Ideologie und Utopie einer Epoche [Poststalinism: Ideology and utopia of an epoch] (Cologne: Böhlau, 2018), 370 pp.


Leibniz Institute of European History

In his new book, Poststalinism Pavel Kolář inquires into the history of socialism as a processual ideology. Much of the existing literature on state socialism centers on the establishment of socialist dictatorships around 1948, the years of Stalinism, and late socialism from the 1970s until the collapse of these regimes in 1989. The period between 1956 and 1968 remains a gap in our understanding of state socialism and the dynamic transformation of authoritarian rule in Central and Eastern Europe. With his study, Kolář follows earlier research, such as that of Michal Kopeček,1 discussing how socialism departed from the radical belief in a different kind of society and the role political language played in this process.

Kolář conceptualizes this time as Poststalinism that is, following Stalin’s death and the condemnation of his personal cult in 1953 and 1956. It is widely received that this period of de-Stalinization poses a moment of transition between fanatic ideology and utter opportunism in the history of state socialism. The author, in contrast, argues for Poststalinism as a period of thorough revision of Stalinist epistemology, that is, historical and economic determinism and class conflict, and the establishment of a processual utopia within the collective of communist parties.

The author analyzes socialist ideology from a transnational and bottom-up perspective. He studies debates within the communist parties of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and inquires into the dynamics of post-Stalinist beliefs. This analysis elegantly presents a shared history of these three countries and occasionally integrates the Soviet Union, both as the bloc’s political hegemon and the discursive space of central ideological debates. In addition, the author also reflects on further scholarship, for instance, on Romania, or on the Italian Communist Party, and provides a stimulating asymmetrical comparison. While earlier research focused on the debates of party officials and theoreticians, Kolář is also interested in the debates of the parties’ rank and file. He carefully analyzes the minutes of local party meetings shedding new light on the instructions in Marxism for ordinary party members. With this, he stresses the agency of communist activists throughout the respective countries and calls for understanding socialism as a Sinnwelt a symbolic universe following Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s social constructivism and Martin Sabrow’s application to Central and Eastern European state socialism.2

After Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union three years later, socialist identity was blurred and in crisis. Khrushchev had presented his critique of Stalin and Stalinism as a narration of facts, but this shattered many socialists’ ideological beliefs. Under Stalin, facts had demanded conformity from socialists, that is, loyalty to the ideology regardless of the facts. With Khrushchev, however, facts described historical truth and eventually moved beyond ideology. Kolář maintains that this shift and the following debates about the history of Stalinism lead to experiences of contingency. While official doctrine dubbed this as “ideological inconsistency,” lowranking party members, who considered their ideological training incomplete and felt overburdened with ideological revision, framed this moment as galimatias or utter chaos.

This “historical turn” in inner-party debates also affected official historiography and its clear-cut logics of progress. Against the background of Stalin’s and other party leaders’ personal cult, post-Stalinist historiography underlined the leading role of the party. Not great men but rather the respective communist parties shaped history, and many official accounts of party history in fact faced thorough revision after 1956. Here, Kolář demonstrates how local officials struggled with the language of post-Stalinist discourse, for instance, creative (schöpferisch, twórczy or tvůrcí) development. For such semantic insights, it is most helpful that Kolář provides key concepts in Polish or Czech as well.

Such confrontation of official and vernacular socialist discourse sheds new light on the many inherent contradictions that came with post-Stalinist revision. Dictatorship for instance, posed an integral concept to Marxism as the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and described a necessary step toward communism. However, the wide critique of Stalinist violence and oppression overshadowed the legitimacy of revolutionary violence. In addition, ordinary socialists struggled to distinguish between the inevitable character of progress and the necessary human contribution to it. Kolář provides several such examples and reveals how the revision of doctrines posed a threat to socialist Sinnwelten. In fact, party members during post-Stalinism wished to believe in socialism but often struggled with the complexity and contradictions of ideology.

In this situation, socialist discourse addressed crucial challenges—the role of the nation for class struggle, foes of the party, and the “golden age of communism”—and reformulated official positions. While in classical Marxism the nation posed a negligible form of political community, it significantly gained more relevance after 1956 with national ways of socialism, most prominently in Poland. In this process, party, class, and nation turned into inseparable formations, which also reshaped the official historiography on the socialist and communist movements. For instance, the Communist Party of Poland (KPP) that Stalin had dissolved in 1938 was coined an “anti-national power” after 1945. Soon after the war, the KPP was partially integrated into the official narrative of the Polish United Workers’ Party. After 1956, discussing the KPP’s history came under pressure both from the Soviet party and from ordinary members who could openly criticize Stalin’s decision. In consequence, a new presentation of the KPP in central propaganda classes stated a rich “national and revolutionary tradition” and only minor mistakes.

Socialist ideology, even after Stalin’s death, was based on imaginary foes. In addition to the self, that is, the party, the ambivalent other, that is, the nation, foes constituted the third category that was necessary to construct socialist identity. Here, post-Stalinist discourse differentiated the Manichaean worldview of Stalinism and employed notions of enmity rather than universal hostility. This culminated in a network of narratives when, for instance, several distinct imaginations such as Zionism, Jewish nationalism, revisionism and anti-intellectual aversions amalgamated in anti-Semitic campaigns such as in Poland in 1968. In contrast to the existing literature, Kolár argues that here the question of a Stalinist legacy of anti-Semitism is less relevant than the obvious difficulties of official discourse to mobilize collective identity via the imagination of a shared foe.

Post-Stalinism developed a specific understanding of temporality that combined cyclicity with linearity. Kolář discusses this dynamic condition in his last chapter, on the imagined golden age of communism. Early critique of Stalinism referred to a return, renewal, or renaissance, and, similarly, a reform project such as the Prague Spring came across as a “process of rebirth” (obrodný proces) but failed to overcome the linearity of determinism and progress. Moreover, post-Stalinist discourse bemoaned the lost revolutionary mobilization and thus merged nostalgia with anticipation. In this chapter, Kolář also glances at later developments and studies the formalization of ideological languages since the 1970s as an augury of political, economic, and societal stagnation.

In an epilogue, Kolář reflects on ideology as the core of post-Stalinism and marks off his approach against both totalitarianism and the revisionist school of social history that understood state socialism as a double life of public lie and private authenticity. Instead, he maintains that truth and lie merged in a double meaning of concepts under post-Stalinism after 1956 and late socialism after 1968. This interwoven quality of socialist language comes most clearly to the fore when it enabled, for instance, ordinary people to express beliefs that they would consider incorrect or inadequate if expressed in a different language. This means that the process of normalizing or formalizing the language of socialism did not narrow down the expression of belief, political argument, or interest but instead widened such possibilities. With his claim of an omnipresent and performative consensus in post-Stalinist and late socialist Central and Eastern Europe, Kolář contributes to the conceptual history of the twentieth century and beyond the region of his study.3 While these findings are most convincing for the timeframe of 1956 to approximately 1963, Kolář’s outlook beyond 1968 and into socialist stagnation awaits further empirical studies.

It is beyond question that Kolář provides an inspiring account of Central and Eastern Europe during post-Stalinism and sets new standards for the study of ideology in practice. His analysis of vernacular Sinnwelten convincingly overcomes the normative limitations of both totalitarianism and revisionism and stresses the agency of individual and low-ranking party members. In terms of narration and scholarly clarity, Poststalinism is a pleasure to read, and one can only hope that an English translation will soon be available for an international audience.


Michal Kopeček, Hledání ztraceného smyslu revoluce: Zrod a počátky marxistického revizionismu ve střední Evropě 1953-1960 [Quest for the revolution’s lost meaning: Origins of Marxist revisionism in central Europe] (Prague: Argo 2009).


Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1966); Martin Sabrow, “Sozialismus als Sinnwelt: Diktatorische Herrschaft in kulturhistorischer Perspektive” [Socialism as a world of meaning: Dictatorial rule in cultural-historical perspective], in Potsdamer Bulletin für Zeithistorische Studien 40–41 (2007), 9–23.


Christian Geulen, “Plädoyer für eine Geschichte der Grundbegriffe des 20. Jahrhunderts” [Plea for a history of the basic concepts of the 20th century], in Zeithistorische Forschungen / Studies in Contemporary History 7, no. 1 (2010): 79–97,

Republican Thought in Turkey Centuries of Tradition?

Banu Turnaoğlu, The Formation of Turkish Republicanism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), 320 pp.

It is always exhilarating to find a work that not only tackles an understudied topic in one’s field but also overturns our understanding of that topic’s true depth and nature. I was therefore excited to hear about Banu Turnaoğlu’s The Formation of Turkish Republicanism which claims to offer a “complete history” of republican thought in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey—and not only that, but to show it as a native tradition that matured in the empire over hundreds of years, outside European currents of thought. This alone would be an achievement in the field, which still wants sophisticated intellectual study. I also very much welcomed a book devoted to a major strand of political thought in its relation to a non-European polity, particularly one by a scholar trained in political theory. Turnaoğlu states her desire (9–10) to historicize the topic and to stress context, authorial intent, and the contingent meanings of terms and categories in her analysis—all laudable methodological concerns too often lacking in scholarship on the Ottoman world. The promise of the book, then, is not in content alone but also in stated approach. Combined with glowing advance praise and plaudits as a must-read, the work sets a high bar for itself as well as accordingly high expectations for readers. Unfortunately, however, it fails to meet either. In what follows, I outline the book’s claims and then discuss some of these problems, moving from those of a higher to those of a lower order.

Turnaoğlu’s core claim is as follows: that, popular belief aside, Turkish republicanism did not begin with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938) and the 1923 foundation of the Turkish Republic but instead had a long lineage in Ottoman times, even to the empire’s fourteenth-century origins. Kemalism was only one strand of republican thought that grew out of earlier native debates and, in time, marginalized its less radical rivals. In other words, Turnaoğlu argues that while Kemalism became the dominant form of republican thought in Turkey, it was far from the only available choice. Kemalism was neither sui generis nor inevitable.

Now, I am not sure this is an ideal premise and will discuss the issue below. It suffices here to say that Turnaoğlu leads us through some three hundred pages of often engaging intellectual history to justify the argument. She divides the book into nine chapters. Chapter 1 surveys “classical” Ottoman political thought—which she says “carried elements of republican government since its foundation” (14)—and the empire’s eighteenth-century “shift toward the West” (30). Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the French Revolution’s Ottoman reception and the start of whole-scale political transformation under sultans Selim III (r. 1789–1807) and Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839). In chapter 3, on the mid-nineteenth-century Tanzimat reform period, Turnaoglu identifies three strands of republican thought among the so-called Young Ottomans, the empire’s first organized opposition group: “liberal,” “Islamic,” and “radical.” These strands represent the main categories of republicanism for the rest of the book. Turnaoğlu proceeds to tease them out in chapters 4 and 5 under the Young Turks up to and after the 1908 Revolution (emphasizing the liberal strand, influenced by French positivism), in chapters 6 and 7 during the Balkan Wars and World War I (where she sees a decisive shift among Young Turk leadership to Prussian-style militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism), and to the empire’s collapse. Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the Turkish War of Independence; debate over the abolition of the sultanate and between liberal, Islamic, and radical visions of the new republic; and the final victory of radical republicanism under Mustafa Kemal. Turnaoğlu ends with the consolidation of this victory—and Kemalism—in the Republic’s early years.

What Turnaoğlu offer readers, then, is an account of republicanism but also a reinterpretation of Ottoman and Turkish political thought as a whole. In Turnaoğlu’s reading, republicanism appears to be a dominant thread of debate from the late-eighteenth century onward, and perhaps earlier, and among thinkers across the political spectrum. This is especially clear in her treatment of the nineteenth century, where she recasts what scholars usually deem “constitutional monarchism” and “Islamism” as forms of republican thought, that is, “liberal republicanism” and “Islamic republicanism.” She therefore fits under the “republican” mantle figures as diverse as the Young Ottomans Namik Kemal (1840–1888) and Ali Suavi (1838–1878), the positivist Ahmed Riza (1858–1930), the Pan-Turkist Yusuf Akçura (1876–1935), and the Young Turk triumvir and war criminal Enver Paşa (1881–1922).

Many readers will no doubt find these interpretations fresh and intriguing. They are just so. Unfortunately, the book runs a gamut of issues that threaten to undercut its claims. To begin, it sets up what I believe is a straw man argument. Despite what Turnaoğlu says (see, e.g., page 3), few if any specialists today would claim that Turkish republican thought began with Atatürk or that the Turkish Republic represents a dramatic rupture with the political and intellectual trends of the late Ottoman Empire. Quite the contrary, scholars like Erik Zürcher, M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, and others have more or less demolished this notion over the past thirty years.1 We know that there was continuity; the pressing task is instead one of fleshing out.

The book’s treatment of republicanism as a term and concept is another issue. Turnaoğlu seeks to identify a native tradition of republican thought in the Ottoman Empire and Turkey and, as such, one might reasonably expect to know how she defines this tradition: what are its general or specific characteristics? The reader looks vainly for an answer of any kind. “Republicanism” proves so loose and ill-defined a term in the work that it can seemingly apply to anything. It is somewhat counterintuitive, for instance, to see as “republican thinkers” those who considered and explicitly rejected the republic as a form of government. In the Anglo-American tradition, at least, “republican monarchist” is an oxymoron. Yet, Turnaoğlu regards Namık Kemal as just that—a “liberal republican” and not a constitutional monarchist—despite the fact that he rejected a republic in favor of constitutional monarchy in his writings (see 65–73). Ali Suavi follows a similar pattern. He found all existing models of republic unsuitable for the empire, we learn, advocating instead for a parliamentary monarchy guided by Islamic principles. Turnaoğlu calls him an “Islamic republican” (73) who sought “an Islamic representative republican democratic monarchy” (79). But why exactly should we see these men as republicans? And if we do, how would the elements of their thought cohere within a concept of republicanism? Turnaoğlu does not explain.

This conceptual incoherence runs throughout the work. There may be good reasons to reconsider Turnaoğlu’s featured thinkers as part of a republican tradition, to be sure, and I am open to hearing the argument. Yet it is neither self-evident nor an argument that she makes. The reader is left without a working definition of republicanism, to say nothing of conceptually distinct but overlapping terms like “democracy” and “constitutionalism,” or a way to distinguish between variants of republicanism. It is exceedingly hard to judge the author’s most original claim—the existence of a centuries-old Ottoman and Turkish republican tradition—without defining such terms.

The book also shows major gaps in its grasp of existing scholarship. This issue is more profound in early chapters, which is unfortunate, for it was here, I think, that Turnaoğlu had a chance to connect premodern Ottoman political thought to later debates in new and perhaps significant ways. In the past ten years, Ottoman historians have debated the notion of limited rule in the premodern empire, with some arguing for a sort of “constitutionalism” or even “proto-democraticization” that restrained the monarch.2 These arguments have been controversial. Turnaoğlu, though citing a proponent,3 does not engage or even acknowledge that the ideas are contested. Engaging this body of scholarship, perhaps along with long-standing debates in Islamic law over arbitrary royal power, would have done much to improve the book. Turnaoğlu also seems unaware of other work that is directly relevant to her themes. For example, Marinos Sariyannis has shown that early modern Ottomans were more aware of European republics than Turnaoğlu credits (see 19), and discusses an anecdote in which a Janissary leader considered replacing the empire with a sort of “popular assembly” during a 1703 rebellion.4 Turnaoğlu omits this story, despite using the source text and despite its obvious potential relevance. There are many other examples. Recent work on Ottoman intellectual history shows in particular a high level of vigor, creativity, and continuity in “classical” political ideas well into the nineteenth century. Turnaoğlu’s claim that the empire’s thinkers turned toward Europe due to a “failure” of this older tradition (30) is thus questionable.

The book’s disregard for detail is a problem of a lower, but still serious, order. Sadly, it is riddled with errors. To note a representative few: akin and akinci are translated as “flow/those who flow” (15), “raid/raider” makes more sense; the Kabusnâme of Keykavus b. İskender, Siyasetnâme of Nizam al-Mulk, and Nasihat al-mulûk of al-Ghazali were written hundreds of years before the empire and are by no means “Ottoman nasihatnâme works” (25); serbessiyet for serbestiyet (34, 37, 39), the repeated misspelling of this key term for “liberty” is mystifying; müsavaat for müsâvât a key term for “equality,” misspelled three times on page 37; erbab-ι meşveret is mistranslated as “consultative assembly of the people” (42) (it means “men of the consultative assembly” or simply “councilors”); Turnaoğlu repeatedly cites the work of Douglas Howard under the name “Howard Reed” (50 and passim).

Related to these errors is a distressingly lax approach to sources. Turnaoglu at times offers readers terms in modern Turkish as if they were in the Ottoman original—and as if the one necessarily means the same thing as the other. She quotes one nineteenth-century chronicler as denouncing the “equality (eşitlik) of rich and poor” (38). This word eşitlik is a neologism and not in the cited source, which reads “tesâvî-yi bây u gedâ.”5 The same thing occurs when Turnaoğlu parses phrases like “the right to execute the laws” (kanun yapma yetkisi) “power” (yetki) “composition of three powers” (iktidar kaynağι) (43), where the original source is French, and “decentralization” (adem-i merkeziyetçilik) (44). None of these phrases is contemporary with the cited sources. The specialist is left to wonder if Turnaoğlu has given us her own translations or is relying on uncited sources in modern Turkish. There are also cases of miscitation, as when she cites Bernard Lewis’s article “Hurriyya” from the Encyclopaedia of Islam (38n27, misspelling the name). If one checks, it seems she is actually drawing on an article by Fatih Yegil.

Lest I be accused of quibbling over typos, I wish to stress that the author is not fully responsible for such errors. These should have been caught and corrected during publication. The fact that they were not—and the fact that the manuscript still went to press—is troubling and reflects poorly on Princeton University Press, which seems to have conducted no thorough vetting or copyediting of the manuscript.

The errors, nevertheless, along with conceptual fuzziness, point to deeper problems with the work’s scholarship as well as to how crucial language is for the study of intellectual history. The precise words matter, as do their usage, context, range of meaning, and evolution over time, while Turnaoğlu’s errors of fact, spelling, and translation make it hard to credit her claims. This is why I find the book’s execution so very perplexing, like a shrug of unconcern after its initial eulogies for historicism, context, and contingency. It is perplexing that a historian of political thought, with seemingly good intentions, would treat sources in so light and at times ahistorical a manner. It is perplexing that a book on republicanism would never offer its readers a definition of the concept or ignore whole swathes of scholarship in the field. Lastly, it is perplexing that both author and publisher would rush such a book so prematurely into print. This result, as one reviewer has already suggested, appears to point to a deep disconnect between Ottoman studies and other fields of intellectual history: we are simply not communicating with each other.6 It is all perplexing, but it is also a pity, for in other circumstances I would very much have liked to praise Turnaoğlu’s book as an incisive and important new contribution to the field. Instead, I cannot recommend it.


Erik-Jan Zürcher’s revisionist Turkey: A Modern History (London: I. B. Tauris, 2017) is now in its fourth edition and one of the most widely used textbooks in English for Turkish history. M. Şükrü Hanioğlu’s Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013) is another recent example of this trend.


See Baki Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Hüseyin Yilmaz makes a similar argument in “Osmanli Devleti’nde Batililagma Öncesi Megrutiyetçi Gelişmeler [Constitutionalism in the Ottoman Empire before Westernization],” Divan 13 (2008): 1–30.


Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire, 17.


Marinos Sariyannis, “Ottoman Ideas on Monarchy before the Tanzimat: Toward a Conceptual History of Ottoman Political Notions,” Turcica (2016): 33–72. Turnaoğlu does not consult Sariyannis’s groundbreaking survey, Ottoman Political Thought up to the Tanzimat: A Concise History (Rethymno: Institute for Mediterranean Studies, 2015).


Ahmed Âsιm, Târih-i Âsιm [The history of Âsım] 2 vols. (Istanbul, n.d.), 1:62.


Alp Eren Topal, review of Banu Turnaoğlu, The Formation of Turkish Republicanism, H-Ideas, H-Net Reviews, June 2018,

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