Welfare State and Violence. Comparative Perspectives on Western and Eastern Europe since the 1950s

Conference, 23-25 January 2020, Konstanz, Germany

This conference explores the role of state violence in European ‘peaceful times’ from the mid-1950s to the turn of the century, seeking to take issue with the optimistic accounts according to which violence was gradually disappearing during this period.

Our overall goal is to develop a comparative perspective on the transformation of state power across the Iron Curtain through the lens of violence. We will challenge the fact that three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain a great deal of history writing continues to use the bipolar Cold War perspective (East and West, Democracy and Dictatorship etc.). Our contention is that the differences in the ways that state domination was justified should not hinder comparison, as even dictatorships require a legal framework and some degree of legitimacy.

The conference seeks to trace and bring to the surface modes of domination that have often remained outside the success story of the peaceful second half of the 20th century, but in fact continue to have a crucial impact on contemporary Europe. We will attempt to weave the scattered research on past European violence into a more coherent picture that has the potential to substantially affect the debates on the memory of the 20th century.

We start from the mid-1950s because it was then that states could finally reclaim their monopoly over physical violence as the post-war chaos was largely overcome. It is the decisive turning point for the legitimising role of violence, when both capitalist and socialist states began to increasingly define themselves against the negative yardstick of the violent past that encompassed fascism, war, genocide and Stalinism. It was also in the mid-1950s that the welfare state in the West took off, while in the East the de-Stalinisation brought a turn from coercion to more concern with welfare and consumption.

We understand state violence both as conduct and the control of violence by the state. Our concept of violence places physical force at the centre, yet takes into account narratives that lend physical acts social meaning. This approach helps us historicise established divisions such as between political and non-political, collective and individual, legitimate and illegitimate violence and so forth.

Our leading hypothesis is that state violence, beginning with the mid-1950s, did not vanish but changed its character and visibility. Direct repressive forms of domination gradually gave way to softer means, which were based on expert knowledge and the cooperation of citizens. The conference explores the transformation of violence within a larger process of ‘governmentalisation’, i.e. the expert-controlled effort to sculpt the behaviour of groups and individuals, as well as ‘biopolitics’, i.e. the administrative imperative to optimise health, welfare and life. We ask to what extent the ‘biologisation of politics’, in which life itself was receiving more sanctity, actually perpetuated the use of violence as the production of a ‘healthy majority’ was achieved by repression against ‘abnormal’ groups. Rather than assuming that violence disappeared, we are interested in its recasting and redistribution.

It is a particular aim of the conference to investigate how this complex process towards the coexistence of both forms of power (corporeal and indirect) developed in two ideologically different regimes – liberal capitalism and state socialism – searching for patterns of correspondence between both systems. In doing so, we work towards a critical revision of western normative notions like (allegedly non-violent) ‘public sphere’ or ‘civil society’.


Thursday 23 January (Room R0511)

16.00-17.30 - Introduction
Opening lecture:
Richard Bessel (York)
Peaceful Times'? The Welfare State and Violence in Postwar Europe.

17.45-19.00 - Welfare and Warfare
Rosa Gilbert (Florence)
Welfare as Warfare in Northern Ireland in the 1970s
Paul Lenormand (Paris)
Welfare, Violence and the Military in Czechoslovakia and France (1950s-1960s)

Friday 24 January (Room H0304)

11.30-13.15 - Medical care, coercion, exclusion
Sonja Dolinsek (Erfurt)
“The right to physical integrity is restricted”: Violence and coercion in the prevention of venereal diseases in the German Federal Republic
Kateřina Kolářová (Prague)
The politics of AIDS in late socialism and post-socialism.
Monika Baar (Leiden)
State Violence towards Disabled People: Comparative Perspectives on the Post-war European Welfare State

13.15- 14.45 - Lunch

14.45-16.00 - Asociality, Abnormality
Catherine Davies (Zurich)
Criminal Violence, Crime Statistics, and “Guest Worker Criminality” in the GDR and FRG
Alexa Geisthövel (Berlin)
Dividing "Asocial Behavior". Psychiatric Assessment for Criminal trials in Berlin, 1960-1980.

16.30-17.45 - Social Care and Coercion
Joëlle Droux (Geneva)
Metamorphoses of coercion: the case of child welfare policies in postwar Switzerland (1950’s-1970’s)
Michal Pullmann (Prague)
Promise of Non-Violence and Social Welfare in Late Communist Czechoslovakia

Saturday 25 January (Room H0304)

10.00-12.00 - Welfare and Punishment
Linh Nguyen Vu (Berlin)
Intimate Violence: The Precarious Lives of Women in the Gołdap Internment Camp under Martial Law in Poland
Marcel Streng (Cologne)
Healthcare and Violence in West German Prisons: The Case of Hungerstriking and Force-Feeding in the 1970s and 1980s
Pavel Kolář (Konstanz)
Death Penalty – A Welfare Provision?

12.30-13.15 - Conclusion
Thomas Lindenberger (Dresden)
Concluding remarks