I was grateful and honoured to be jointly awarded the GHIL’s 2021 Ph.D. prize with Jonathan Triffitt this November. As with all such honours, picking the recipients was no doubt a subjective decision. Therefore, I am all the more grateful to the Institute for choosing my thesis ‘Negotiating Violence: Public Discourses about Political Violence in Interwar Britain and Germany’, as it is a piece of historical research in which I chose to acknowledge head-on how it was informed and influenced by present-day concerns along the way.
As its title suggests, the thesis examines political violence and how it was spoken about in public forums (parliament and the press) in interwar Britain and Germany. In doing so, it focuses particularly on reconstructing how certain acts of political violence were either justified or condemned in public language, and what this language tells us about the identities and self-images constructed through it in both countries. The project started out, however, as something quite different.
When I first conceived of my research idea in around 2014/2015, I was inspired by the centenary of the First World War, and was mainly interested in finding out how this experience of unprecedented mass violence influenced postwar societies’ attitudes towards political violence. Over the intervening years, the thesis’s focus shifted, and it ended up very different from what I had once thought it would be. That’s not uncommon for Ph.D. theses, of course. But these shifts were not primarily brought about by, for example, the sources I consulted or the academic literature I read, which generally lead researchers down unexpected paths or prompt them to change their ideas. Instead, it appeared that the world around me was shifting and changing in ways that were significant to the very themes I was working on in my thesis.
Over the past five or six years, political violence and political discourse, and the relationship between the two, have once again become topics of central importance in our societies. While I worked on my thesis, the world witnessed an electoral shift towards more right-wing nationalist parties, a rise in populist politics, and a resurgence of political violence in democratic nations throughout the ‘West’, including Britain and Germany. The long list of Islamist and Islamophobic attacks, of antisemitic, racist, and homophobic hate crimes and shootings; the elections of right-wing and nationalist leaders across the world, whether Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or indeed Donald Trump in the US; and political assassinations, such as those of Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016 and CDU politician Walter Lübcke in June 2019 by right-wing radicals, had a clear effect on my project’s progress and influenced my research questions and the writing of my thesis.1 Just a few months ago, another sitting MP, David Amess, was attacked and killed during a constituency surgery.
I believe that we have clearly seen a deterioration in political discourse, a sharpening division of society, and an increased threat of political violence. Witnessing this deterioration was shocking to me and I could not leave it unacknowledged in my thesis. Therefore, my renewed interest in the present day, in the role and significance of language as a tool for legitimizing violence, shifted the focus of my thesis away from the general goal of revisiting the immediate post-1918 period one hundred years on, and towards a more urgent investigation of the ways in which language, especially that produced in public forums, was used to discuss, explain, excuse, or condemn political violence at this crucial time between the two world wars.
In my thesis, I took a comparative approach to two countries which are not often compared when it comes to political violence, especially in the interwar period. While the presence and role of political violence in Weimar Germany is well known and well researched, Britain has more often been regarded as an exception, spared the violent history of the ‘Continent’ by virtue of being a uniquely ‘peaceable kingdom’.2 I took issue with this notion in my thesis. Crucially, by including violence taking place beyond the geographic boundaries of the island of Great Britain and by broadening the horizon of analysis to include peripheral and colonial spaces, the thesis showed that the British experience of political violence in the interwar period was far more complex. Public discourse in the domestic sphere reflected this, as journalists and MPs in various ways either justified or condemned certain acts of violence, drawing sharp distinctions between the image of a civilized ‘us’ and an aberrant ‘other’ that was alternately in need of, or incapable of, such civilization. In German public discourse, in the aftermath of the First World War and under the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the representatives and supporters of the young republic had to strive to construct an image of the country as a restored member of the family of ‘civilized’ nations and an adherent of the shared values of justice, law, and order. However, given the extreme and violent political divisions in Weimar Germany, this was never a straightforward process. My analyses explore the rhetorical strategies, images, and arguments used by all sides to further their agendas, highlighting which ones persisted and proved successful, and which ones fell on deaf ears. Thus, by examining the public negotiations over the boundaries of legitimate or illegitimate political violence in both countries during this period, my thesis offers an explanation of why and how violence became an accepted, even attractive, option for conducting politics in Germany, while in Britain, notwithstanding the violent reality of British colonial rule overseas, it grew less defensible in public discourse and consciousness.
In the end, the thesis evolved from a project that looked back, as it were, at the ‘shadow’ of the war, into one that examined past periods of division and political violence with an eye to what lessons could perhaps be applied to the present. With right-wing leaders today openly declaring that their goal is to ‘push the boundaries of what can be said’,3 and journalists and commentators lamenting the increasing amounts of ‘hate speech’ online and fearing a further deterioration and toxification of political discourse,4 it is clear that we are still grappling with the question of how democratic societies can speak about, stand up to, and react appropriately to acts of political violence which threaten their principles and identities. To be sure, there are no quick and easy lessons to draw from this kind of historical research, but I venture to hope that at the very least it can serve as a reminder to pay attention and to mind our words. I wish to thank the German Historical Institute London for recognizing this hope and acknowledging it with their Ph.D. prize.
- A by no means exhaustive list of deadly attacks, hate crimes, and domestic terrorism over the past seven years might include: the Islamist attacks on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015; the Islamist attacks in Paris in November of the same year; the mass shooting at a gay club in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016; the Islamist attack on the Berlin Christmas market in December 2016; the Islamist attack on Westminster Bridge, London, in March 2017; the antisemitic shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in October 2018; the right-wing extremist attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019; the shooting targeting the Latinx community in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019; the attempted attack on a synagogue and subsequent shooting at a Turkish restaurant in Halle (Saale), Saxony-Anhalt, on Yom Kippur in October 2019; and the Islamophobic shooting at two shisha bars in Hanau, Hesse, in February 2020.
- A description taken from Jon Lawrence, ‘Forging a Peaceable Kingdom: War, Violence, and Fear of Brutalization in Post-First World War Britain’, Journal of Modern History, 75/3 (2003), 557–89.
- Alexander Gauland, then leader of Germany’s right-wing Alternative für Deutschland party, cited in Astrid Séville, ‘Vom Sagbaren zum Machbaren? Rechtspopulistische Sprache und Gewalt‘, Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 49–50 (2019), accessed 04/01/2022. All translations from German my own.
- For example: Julya Rabinowich, ‘Hass im Netz’, Zeit, 11 Apr. 2019; Andrea Gerk, ‘Durs Grünbein über die Verrohung der Sprache: “Das ist sprachliche Aufrüstung, die zu Gewalt führen wird”’ [interview], Deutschlandfunk Kultur, 5 June 2018; Archie Bland, ‘How did the Language of Politics Get so Toxic?’, Guardian, 31 July 2016, all accessed 04/01/2022.