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History Professor's Book on Imperial German Politics Published

What might 19th-century imperial Germany have in common with today’s American democracy and the global war on terror?

In Assassins and Conspirators: Anarchism, Socialism, and Political Culture in Imperial Germany (Northern University Press, 2014), Elun T. Gabriel, St. Lawrence University associate professor of history, explores the emergence of a continental European social democratic political party that struggled to separate itself from the emerging anarchist movement, which endorsed achieving socialist goals through terrorism. The book explores how people think about what is politically legitimate or not, and the role of liberal democratic norms, especially about free and open debate, in the life of a nation.

“I have been working on this project, which addresses in part how a society responded to terrorism and the fear of terrorism, since before 9/11” Gabriel said. “Although my work is definitely not about today, and the German Empire was not like the U.S. or Europe today, there are certain similarities that can be seen in how societies confront political violence and dangers understood to threaten the future of society and culture. It reminds me of the adage often attributed to Mark Twain: ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’”

During the contested 2000 U.S. presidential election, Gabriel was reading Margaret Lavinia Anderson’s Practicing Democracy: Elections and Political Culture in Imperial German. He was struck by her book’s discussion of the development of electoral practices in Germany in the era from 1871 to 1918. Germans’ expectations about what constituted legitimate, free and fair elections changed over those four and a half decades, as certain electoral practices came to be seen as legitimate and others as unacceptable to a democracy. The public contention during the 2000 election over alleged election intimidation, hanging chads, butterfly ballots, and the unequal representation inherent in the Electoral College system revealed an unexpected rupture in the American social consensus about what makes an election fair.

“Both Anderson’s study and the disputed U.S. election process illustrate that the parameters of political legitimacy are malleable and fragile cultural artifacts,” he said. “If the experience of the 2000 U.S. presidential election suggests that nations with long democratic traditions can find their political cultural consensus more fragile than expected, the case of the German Empire shows how the cultivation and embrace of liberal democratic norms can pose challenges to political systems in which the democratic institutions have little formal power.”

Gabriel’s research in the book centers on how the bounds of political legitimacy were established and challenged in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular concerning the appropriate means to address political violence. “It has been illuminating while working on this book to see some issues confronted by late 19th-century Germans appearing in public debate today, in particular about what causes terrorism and how best to deal with it,” Gabriel said. “Questions about whether a democratic society can withstand free and open debate or whether these need to be limited in the case of those seen to abusing them, have also cropped up again.”