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Resolution of the Association of German Historians (VHD, Verband der Historiker und Historikerinnen Deutschlands) on Current Threats to Democracy


passed at the association members’ meeting in Münster, 27 September 2018

In Germany as in numerous other countries, excessive attacks on democratic institutions are currently threatening the foundations of the political order. As historians, we feel it is our duty to warn against these threats. Dispute is essential in a pluralistic society, but it must follow certain rules if it is not going to undermine democracy itself.

Historiography as a scholarly discipline has the task of analyzing historical developments in order to contribute to a better understanding of contemporary issues and to explore the complexity of their causes. Given that politics seems to be increasingly driven by the volatility of public opinion polls and ever faster-paced media dynamics, we would like to stress that only thinking in longer-range time periods can guarantee the future of our political system in the long run.

We therefore consider the following basic attitudes for democratic interaction in politics and society essential:

For historically sensitive speech, against discriminatory terms

Political discussion in a democracy involves pointed language that clearly expresses one’s own position but does not deny other people fundamental respect. Today’s derogatory descriptions of politicians as “enemies of the people” or the media as producers of “fake news” employ the same kind of anti-democratic language that was used in the interwar period. We also have many historical examples of the dangerous effects of using disparaging terms to exclude perceived “others” on the basis of their religion, their ethnic background, their gender or their sexual orientation.  

For parliamentary democracy and a pluralistic culture of debate, against populism

In pluralistic democracies, public policy is the result of open debates in which a variety of political opinions and social interests are expressed. A unified will of the people that can be discerned by  those regarding themselves as “called”  is, in contrast, a fiction, used by people in political debates primarily for the purpose of making themselves invulnerable. In the Weimar Republic, the idea of “the people’s will” smoothed the way to power for a movement whose “Führer” saw himself as the incarnation of that will.

For unified European action, against nationalist unilateralism

Given the many violently waged intra-European conflicts of the past, European unification based on a commitment to pluralistic democracy and inalienable human rights is one of the most significant accomplishments of the 20th century. While the legitimacy of individual national interests is undisputed, unilateral nationalist actions threaten this historical achievement. Exclusively national problem-solving strategies cannot meet the political, humanitarian, ecological and economic challenges of the globalized present. Also, in light of colonial violence committed by Europeans in other parts of the world, it is crucial to acknowledge our shared responsibility for the consequences of our policies in regions outside of Europe.

For humanity and the rule of law, against the slander of migrants

Migration is a historical constant. Despite all the problems it entails, on the whole it has benefited societies – including Germany’s. It is therefore important to work toward proactive, pragmatic policies concerning migration and integration that respect both human and international rights. It is essential that the constitutionally guaranteed right to political asylum and the duty to provide help in humanitarian crisis situations be applied in a way that falls to Germany not only because of its economic power but also for historical reasons.

For critical engagement with the past, against the political misuse of history

The Federal Republic of Germany today is a stable democracy. One of the reasons why is that the German people, after considerable resistance at first, now for the most part deal with the history of National Socialism in a self-critical and reflective way. Our own discipline, too, was slow to embrace this process. In any case, a responsible approach to the past has as its prerequisite the findings of historiography, a field that must also be willing to be self-critical and that in principle is independent of political influence. Its information is based on research into historical sources and is open to critical discussion. Only in this way will it be possible to remain mindful of the historical bases of our democracy and defend them against “alternative facts.”