Norbert Elias on Transition to Parliamentary Rule

A little over a year ago, Wolfgang Ischinger, German Ambassador to the United States had this to say about the attempt to install a parliamentary system in Iraq: "As older [i.e. European] societies, we tend to think of ourselves as more experienced in the way societies evolve, and we tend to be skeptical of Americans who seem to think that if you believe hard enough, and you muster enough resources, you can change the world…[D]on’t think transformative change will work according to mechanistic rules. This is very complicated. Changing the way people think often has to do with religious and cultural issues–we tend to think of them as long-term, and Americans think, Let’s solve the problem in the next four years!"

I thought of this as I read the following two paragraphs, from an essay the great German sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about terrorism in Germany in the 1970s. Elias, whose specialty was the study of how social norms develop and change, had the following to say about the Weimar Republic:

The transition from the still-halfway-absolutist regime of the Kaiser and King to the parliamentary regime of the Weimar Republic came very suddenly. For large parts of the public, it came totally unexpectedly, and was joined with extremely unpleasant associations — the loss of a war. Basically, many Germans had contempt for a form of government which was based on struggles, negotiations and compromises between parties. They hated the "talking-shop" of Parliament where — so it seemed — delegates did nothing more than debate and deal. Freedom or no freedom, people longed for the comparatively simpler form of government in which all important political decisions were made by the strong man at the top. People could leave it to the man at the top to worry about the welfare of Germany. It was enough to concentrate on your own private life. From the very beginnings of the Weimar era many men and women actually did yearn for the man at the top — whether prince or dictator — who made decisions and gave orders. They yearned for him like a drug. They were addicted to him, and the withdrawal came very rapidly.

The unique characteristics of the adjustment to a parliamentary regime are easy to miss when, as often happens, one looks through an ideological lens at the advantages this form of government organization has in comparison to dictatorships. Very few people are actually aware that the weaning societies away from an order of things in which a symbolic ruler-figure bears responsibility for his subjects to a situation which requires the individual to exercise a limited form of responsibilty is a process of very long duration, which requires as crisis-free circumstances as possible, which lasts for at least three generations. European history provides many examples of the difficulty of such a re-orientation. One of the few countries in which the structure of parliament and the structure of the individual personality are relatively adapted to one another is England. And in the history of England one can well perceive the long process during which the adjustment took place. It occurred, in fact, extremely slowly, since the time when the son of a puritan dictator was required to give the reins of power to a newly-installed king who himself had been required to cede considerable powers.

[Norbert Elias, Studien Ueber die Deutschen, pp. 380-381; my translation].

3 thoughts on “Norbert Elias on Transition to Parliamentary Rule

  1. “And in the history of England one can well perceive the long process during which the adjustment took place. It occurred, in fact, extremely slowly, since the time when the son of a puritan dictator was required to give the reins of power to a newly-installed king who himself had been required to cede considerable powers.”

    Slowly? Not quite an accurate analysis I think – either in assessing English history or in German history if you think about it.

    It would be more accurate to say that two major events in each country happened quite swiftly in individual terms but that the two events were separated by decades from each other in the case of both countries. In the case of England the two major events leading to democracy were The Long Parliament/Rump Pariament of 1640 to 1653 and The Glorious Revolution of 1688, when James II was deposed in favor of his daughter and her consort William of Orange.

    The timeline of the Long Pariament is somewhat misleading in that most of the decisive constitutional action was undertaken in the period of about 13 months between February 1641 and March 1642. After that the English Civil War was being fought, which resulted in Oliver Cromwell’s rise to head of the New Model army and later to Lord Protector.

    About the Glorious revolution of 1688 Wikipedia says: “The Glorious Revolution is considered by some as being one of the most important events in the long evolution of powers possessed by Parliament and by the Crown in England. With the passage of the Bill of Rights, it stamped out any final possibility of a Catholic monarchy, and ended moves towards monarchical absolutism in the British Isles by circumscribing the monarch’s powers. The King’s powers were greatly restricted; he could no longer suspend laws, levy taxes, or maintain a standing army during peacetime without Parliament’s permission. Since 1689, England, and later the United Kingdom, has been governed under a system of constitutional monarchy, which has been uninterrupted. Since then, Parliament has gained more and more power, and the Crown has progressively lost it.”

    I am less certain about German history but two obvious major events were when the Weimar Republic was established and later when the first WWII government was elected. I imagine Bismark had a major role in the constitutional development of Germany as well but can’t comment with authority on what this meant.

    I think the constitutional history of France and the US also follow this pattern. Major periods of big change seperated by long periods of slow change.

    The trouble with applying a gradualist analogy to countries like Iraq or North Korea is that it assumes that a mechanism for gradual change exists. No such mechanism existed in Iraq. Gradual change will certainly happen now but it was not going to happen under Saddam Hussein or either of his sons.

    In condemning the US harshly for the 2nd Iraq War one of the fallacies the critics indulge in is to completely ignore the impact of the kind of civil war which would have been required for Iraqis to throw off the dictatorship of the Hussein family and also the constant death toll of Saddam Hussein’s rule and the succession struggle after his death.

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  2. From the very beginnings of the Weimar era many men and women actually did yearn for the man at the top — whether prince or dictator — who made decisions and gave orders. They yearned for him like a drug. They were addicted to him, and the withdrawal came very rapidly.

    This rings a bell with me. We’re seeing echos of this in Russia with it’s strain of Stalin nostalgia. In Germany the archetype of the ‘strong man’ is of course Otto von Bismark. There is no saying what Germany might have developed into had Bismark been succeeded by another statesman near his stature.

    An enlightened despot system tends to fail with the successon because the successor is rarely a match for the original. The great man succeeds in papering over the contradictions in the system – for a time.

    The great strength of pluralistic systems are their abililty to change. Steel is not as strong as cast iron but it is far more flexible and therefore survives historical earthquakes much better. This is one reason why the system ‘The Iron Chancellor’ established didn’t survive and the US democracy did.

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  3. The more times I read this esay the more holes I find in it’s basic assumptions. Here is another hole:

    Very few people are actually aware that the weaning societies away from an order of things in which a symbolic ruler-figure bears responsibility for his subjects to a situation which requires the individual to exercise a limited form of responsibilty is a process of very long duration, which requires as crisis-free circumstances as possible, which lasts for at least three generations. European history provides many examples of the difficulty of such a re-orientation.

    European history. But the history of democracy includes far more than European history. There is the North American model which includes the US itself, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas. There is the Japanese model, the South Korean model, the Australian model, and the Indian model. Perhaps we are now in the throes of establishing a new model, the Iraqi model.

    Let’s look at Europe: There are functioning democracies in the US, Ireland, France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Norway. What do they share in historical common? Not one helluva lot. The only decent examples of the gradual change theory are the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. Ireland piggybacked on the UK and Norway on Sweden. France? Would anyone describe the French Revolution as gradual – in any sense? Italy fits none of the paradigms very well. Austrian democracy appeared suddenly after the collapse of the Hapsburgs, collapsed temporarily because of outside forces, then reappeared after WWII. Spain and Portugal went very swiftly from authoritarian regimes into full-blown democracies although Spain had earlier wrenching experiences with democracy pre Franco.

    The essay strongly implies that the European experience is the most valid one to apply to Iraq. Who sez?!!! I’m certainly willing to accept the idea that the US experience doesn’t parallel conditions in Iraq very well. But the assumption that the European model (such as it is) models it any better than the US model does is risible.

    I think an argument can be made the the South Korean transition comes closest to the Iraq situation than anything else. It;s not that close but the closest I think. That perhaps implies an adjustment period of 30 years or so. Difficult? Yes. Uneven? Certainly. A real dog’s breakfast at times.

    But there was a parallel authoritian state right to the north all that time. Is there any question at all that South Korea was better off than North Korea for the entire period? Excepting the brief period when the North Korean military had conquered most of South Korea – hell, No!

    So I have to ask what the Elias thesis is. Something like Democracy is difficult and on balance not worth the pain? Sorry Norm – I can’t buy that one.

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