Authoritarianism and Democracy: Austria, Germany and Europe, 1918-2018

Sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf wrote in 1997 that “a century of authoritarianism is by no means the least likely prognosis for the 21st century”. Due to economic globalization and digitalization, changes in the realms of life and work are vast and far-reaching, with profound consequences for democracy. This development, however, is not new—a look at globalization from the end of World War I to post-1945 Europe reveals comparable crises. Bridging literary, historical, economic and technological perspectives, this two-day conference examines the successes, and failures, of democracies, and analyzes a possible return of anti-democratic trends, both in present-day Europe and internationally.

Morning sessions

Globalization, digitalization and democracy

Session moderator: Alberto Tassoni (PhD Candidate in Philosophy, UC Berkeley)

9-9:25 Harald Katzmair (FASresearch, Vienna): “Polarization by Design: The Retrogression of Representative Democracy in the Age of Like and Dislike”

The talk will outline the key design principles of new media (similarity principle, variable reward principle, black and white principle, small world principle) and show how BOT-based algorithms from Silicon Valley help to transform the social morphology in such a way that anti-democratic “populist” forces are able to gain ground all over the world.

9:25-9:50 Axel Polleres (Vienna University of Economics & Business / Distinguished Visiting Austrian Chair, Stanford University): “Digital Transformation of Democracy? Challenges and Opportunities”

In this talk, we will discuss the challenges and opportunities of various digital initiatives and their potential to affect democracy. More concretely, we will discuss the status of Open Government Data, eID, and Online privacy in Austria and in an international context.


Session moderator: Jon Aaron Cho-Polizzi (PhD Candidate in German, UC Berkeley)

10:30-10:55 Lukas Repa (European Commission / EU Fellow, Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley): “Can Populism Finish the European Project?”

The globally unique partnership of the European Union, built on the idea of solidarity and equal rights, has led to decades of stability and peace in a continent once raged by nationalism and wars. However, more recently this success story and the idea of an ever-closer union between nation states in Europe has increasingly come under fire by resurgent populism and protectionism. Can Europe maintain its course or will it have to give in to demands of populists to truncate free movement of persons, to halt immigration, and to protect Europe’s industry against global trade? What is the European Commission’s view on these developments…and does it matter?

10:55-11:20 Oliver Rathkolb (Chair, Department of Contemporary History, Universität Wien): “New Studies on Authoritarianism in the 21st Century”

Based on empirical studies and public opinion polls in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, as well as further research, this talk reconstructs the present level of undemocratic attitudes in the center of Europe and the push and pull factors in political strategies of politicians trying to overthrow political parties and turn them into movements.

Afternoon Sessions

Comparative perspectives

Session moderator: Alberto Sanchez Sanchez (PhD Student in Architecture, UC Berkeley)

2-2:25 Edith Sheffer (Senior Fellow, Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley/Assistant Professor of History, Stanford University): “Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna”

This talk provides the first comprehensive history of the links between autism and Nazism, uncovering how a diagnosis common today emerged from the atrocities of the Third Reich.

2:25-2:50 John Connelly (Department of History, UC Berkeley/Director, Institute for Slavic, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies): “Austrofascism in Comparative Perspective”

Specialists on East and Central Europe have difficulty figuring out what to do with the Dollfuss/Schuschnigg regime, which seems not to fit the criteria of a strict fascist regime. Still, most are hesitant to disavow its “fascist” tendencies entirely. In one leading recent study, a leading sociologist calls Austria of the 1930s the most fascist place in Europe. Accurate or not, that statement signals the promise that the corporate state has to help push forward our understanding of fascism in its time: why does Austrofascism not seem to be quite fascist, and why are we unable to dispense with the word “fascist” to describe it?

2:50-3:15 Jason Wittenberg (Department of Political Science, UC Berkeley): “Authoritarianism in Hungary”

This talk will discuss Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy and its more recent retreat from liberal democracy, placing these events in their proper historical context.


Session moderator: William Callison (PhD Candidate in Political Science, UC Berkeley)

4-4:25 Isabel Richter (Department of History, UC Berkeley): “Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism in the 1960s”

This talk focuses on Reich’s interpretation of fascism and authoritarian structures as symptoms of sexual repression, and how Reich became a reference for the transnational vision of a “sexual revolution” in the 1960s.

4:25-4:50 David Large (Fromm Institute, University of San Francisco / Senior Fellow, Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley): “Paths from the Past: The Legacy of National Socialism in Postwar Germany and Austria”

This paper examines the separate “paths from the past” taken by the Federal Republic of Germany and the Austrian Second Republic, arguing that early postwar divergences in this domain had crucial implications for the future of the two states.