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Can political emotions destroy democracy?

Ian P. Beacock is a PhD candidate in Stanford’s Department of History. A historian of modern European political culture, his research and teaching focus on modern Germany, intellectual history, queer history, and the history of democracy. He has written about European history and the humanities for a variety of publications including The AtlanticThe New Republic, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

His dissertation, “Heartbroken: Democratic Emotions, Political Subjectivity, & the Unravelling of the Weimar Republic, 1918–1933,” investigates how German politicians, intellectuals, and activists wrestled with the place of emotions in democratic life. Beacock’s project offers a fresh vantage point on the vitality of German democracy as well as its ultimate collapse.

Q. What is the focus of your current research? 

I’m broadly interested in the relationship between democracy and emotions, from hope and love to resentment and fear. Do political feelings undermine democratic life by corroding our capacity for public reasoning? Or are they somehow necessary in order for us to live together as free and equal citizens? These seem like urgent questions for us to answer as we enter an age of populist anger and frustration with democratic institutions.  

My current research investigates how the men and women of Germany’s infamous democratic experiment, the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), wrestled with these questions. After the First World War, as their new democracy was threatened by economic crisis and waves of political violence, a wide variety of activists, intellectuals, and elected officials debated whether emotions and democracy could ever be compatible. Some believed that calm rationality had to triumph, while others, from bureaucrats to artists to political strategists, were convinced that they needed to cultivate democratic feelings to keep the country together. My dissertation—the first major study of political emotions in Weimar Germany—brings these passionate and imaginative ways of doing democratic politics out of the shadows. But there’s also a more unsettling tale: Over the course of the 1920s, supporters of the Republic gradually embraced sober political rationality, relinquishing the powerful force of political feelings to the antidemocratic extremes. In this way, my current project sheds new light on how Weimar democracy worked and sketches a new historical narrative about why it ultimately failed in 1933, ushering in the Nazi regime.

Q. What drew you to your topic?

One version of this story is to say that I was floored by a painting. It was summertime, I was in Berlin for a language course, and one afternoon as I wandered through the Neue Nationalgalerie I found myself face-to-face with Ernst-Ludwig Kirchner’s Potsdamer Platz (1914). It’s a pretty arresting picture that captures so much of the nervous energy and electricity of German-speaking Europe in the first few decades of the 20th century. I stood in front of it for what must have been half an hour. When I returned to Stanford, I wanted to learn everything I could about Kirchner’s world. Soon I was hooked on the Weimar Republic, a time when anything seemed possible, when an explosion of artistic creativity was joined by exciting and dangerous new political ideas. What must it have been like to live and work in such a divided society, when the stakes were so astronomically high? It was when I was back in Berlin, digging through the archives, that I found the citizens of Weimar explicitly and imaginatively grappling with the problem of democratic emotions. Why did they think this was such an important dilemma, when there were so many other crises and challenges? How did they go about solving it? I couldn’t resist trying to find out.

Q. How do you conduct your research? What materials do you examine? 

Historians are scavengers. As we try to reconstruct a moment in time or sort out why something happened, we gather as much material as possible so that we can better understand a complex and unfamiliar world that’s been lost to us. For the most part, this means documents and objects that have been preserved in libraries and archives; the ones that are most useful to me are found in Germany as well as here in the United States. I’ve also found the work of political theorists like Michael Walzer, Martha Nussbaum, and Wendy Brown to be extremely helpful in framing questions about how emotions, democracy, and our sense of self all relate to each other.

I’m most of all interested in politics—what men and women thought about what they were doing and how they put those ideas into practice—so I analyze a diverse range of sources, from secret election strategy memos, to parliamentary debates, laws and regulations, to campaign pamphlets and magazines. Visual sources like satirical cartoons and political propaganda posters are really valuable, too. And then anything else that helps me understand the world of Weimar Germany: poetry, novels, diary entries, private letters, and more.

Q. What would people be surprised to learn about your research?

From the op-ed pages of the New York Times to the hit new crime procedural Babylon Berlin, the Weimar Republic is among the most infamous examples of how democracy dies. What I show with my project, though, is that it was never doomed to fail. For all of its challenges, it was probably the world’s most progressive democracy after the First World War, supported by a diverse array of creative and passionate champions. It felt to most people that democracy would continue into the future. I think this makes its demise all the more frightening.

But what has startled me the most with this project has been the creeping realization that political emotions aren’t necessarily bad for democracy. In fact, we might need them if our democratic institutions are to survive. It’s hard to watch the news and not see emotions as destabilizing forces; if there’s one thing that joins Brexit, the rise of Germany’s radical right, and the last U.S. Presidential election, it’s a combination of fear, frustration, and anger. But my research suggests that fact checking isn’t really the answer. We’re moved by our hearts as much as by rational argument. And so we need to think more about what democratic feelings might look like, how emotions can strengthen our bonds as free and equal citizens instead of unraveling them. This isn’t usually the lesson we take from Weimar Germany, but I think it’s an important one.

Q. Why is it valuable to study your topic? 

After decades of optimistic global expansion, democratic institutions and practices are being challenged and dismantled in countries such as Russia, Turkey, Poland, the Philippines, and even the United States. It’s happening more subtly in Canada and western Europe in the form of frustration and disillusionment. History doesn’t really offer simple lessons, but it can help us to think differently about the present. Studying democratic emotions in Weimar Germany invites us to reconsider how we see one another as citizens, reminds us that our dreams and desires deeply matter, and that excluding emotions from our public life is something that we do at our peril.