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“We are going to be working through this trauma for decades to come”

Campus.leben series: “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts” / Part 2: Interview with historian Paul Nolte from Freie Universität’s Friedrich Meinecke Institute

Mar 31, 2020

A deep historic rupture: In part two of our series on the coronavirus pandemic, Dennis Yücel spoke with Paul Nolte, a professor of modern and contemporary history. 

A deep historic rupture: In part two of our series on the coronavirus pandemic, Dennis Yücel spoke with Paul Nolte, a professor of modern and contemporary history. 

Image Credit: shutterstock.com/khaleddesigner

What changes has the corona pandemic brought about? How has it influenced the lives of individuals? What impacts is it having on society, politics, the economy, research, and culture? A new series published in campus.leben, Freie Universität’s online magazine, asks scholars and scientists at our university to share their views on the current situation based on their professional backgrounds. In part two, Dennis Yücel speaks with Paul Nolte, a professor of modern and contemporary history about avoiding handshakes, the possible end of neoliberalism, and the dangers of emergency situations. 

Professor Nolte, the expression “a crisis of historic proportions” is being used frequently to describe the coronavirus pandemic. How do you, as a professor of history, see the current situation?

Actually, if you look back, people do tend to have a good sense of when a situation is going to be historically significant. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 are good examples. People at the times knew immediately that they were witnessing “history in the making.” The same is true now. The coronavirus pandemic is already showing signs of marking a deep historic rupture: It isn’t just a brief interruption that will sooner or later be over and we can then return to how things were originally. Some things will return to normal, but many aspects of life will have changed and won’t change back: the economy, politics, but also social habits, as well as work and leisure cultures. 

Professor of Modern and Contemporary History Paul Nolte works at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute, Freie Universität Berlin.

Professor of Modern and Contemporary History Paul Nolte works at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute, Freie Universität Berlin.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

Do you have some examples in mind?

They cut across the board. Brick and mortar retail shops will forever be changed. They continue to lose to the competition from online businesses. The way we move and travel is changing. The wide-open horizons of life will tend to shrink to a certain extent -- which is, of course, good for the climate. People will continue to be afraid of shaking hands and hugging for quite some time, while other greeting rituals will become accepted.

But my biggest worry is that a crisis as dramatic as this one is for daily life will not be without traumatic consequences -- for individuals, but also for our collective memory. We are going to be working through this trauma, through this memory for decades to come.

What sort of implications does a crisis like this have for social order?

We might think of a crisis as a kind of railroad switch to “change tracks”: Social developments will be redirected to a different track, like a train. One typical effect is a strong reinforcement of trends that were already in place in our society. Take, for example, working remotely from home. People have been debating the issue for some time – but now it is suddenly not just talk anymore but a reality for millions. 

In terms of economic policy, the last few decades have been marked by critical views toward growing privatization, for example, in the health care sector. Do you think the crisis could accelerate change in this respect as well and mark the end of “neoliberal” economic policies?

Yes, it could. If we understand a “neoliberal” society as one in which government activity and state regulation are driven back in favor of free market initiative in more and more areas – then the coronavirus crisis could indeed mean the end of neoliberalism.

What might that look like?

We are already witnessing large-scale government support of the economy, not just here in Germany. State involvement and even the nationalization of companies are not so far-fetched all of a sudden – ideas that were associated with a completely different political context until now.

Government activity is expanding and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But perhaps we will also see newfound solidarity with people who are socially vulnerable. We might also witness an openness to empathy and a willingness to support each other. And these developments could persist beyond the acute period of crisis: helping your neighbor, caring for the homeless, solidarity with the shopkeeper on the corner. It might also be a departure from neoliberalism in other respects as far as it pertains to personal hedonism or an individualistic self-serving society. However, this renewed sense of involvement is no longer associated with socialist underpinnings, but has more to do with a new solidarity among the democratic center. We are experiencing pragmatism in lieu of partisan political conflicts. 

Will this “solidarity among the democratic center” be able to put a stop to populist parties like the AfD in Germany?

Indeed, the coronavirus crisis is not a time for populists to shine, and there is every indication that it will stay that way. The fact that that populists are speechless right now reveals the weakness of their simple recipes. Liberal democracies, on the other hand, are showing their strength and ability to lead at the moment. Perhaps this is indeed the sign of populism’s decline, as we came to known it over the past decade.

Nevertheless, in Central and Eastern Europe the opposite is also taking place. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to use the crisis as a chance to legitimize taking power away from Hungary’s parliament. In Russia, we have to keep a close eye on whether President Vladimir Putin, in the wake of the pandemic, pushes through a constitutional reform that will secure his rule for life. And in our case, the downside of weakening extremism, the downside of a consolidating a democratic center could be extreme conformity, also in civil society: Everyone is rushing to commend and support the government measures. That can’t be good in the long run. 

Could constitutional governments like Germany’s also be damaged by these emergency ordinances?

A crisis of this proportion, like we are witnessing now, is always a time for the executive branch of government to shine. There may well be a temptation to respond with authoritarian measures. Even well-established liberal democracies like the Federal Republic of Germany must be careful that measures that are intended as temporary exceptions do not become the standard rule and remain permanent. We are already de facto in a state of emergency. We feel threatened, the government is promising us safety – and thus gains power over us. It is just like what Thomas Hobbes described in the middle of the seventeenth century with his “Leviathan.”

In fact, that is the big danger here, which is becoming clearer day by day as things develop at this breakneck speed: The damages caused by these measures against the virus could be greater than the ones caused directly by the virus. There is no simple way out of this dilemma. 

Dennis Yücel conducted the interview.

The original German version of this article was published on March 27, 2020, in campus.leben, the online magazine of Freie Universität Berlin.

Further Information

Read all the interviews in the campus.leben series “Coronavirus – Ask the Experts”: