Populism and the Rise of Empires

Table ronde, Histoire, Roma





Table ronde, Histoire


“Populism“ is a concept with little specificity both conceptually and historically. It is often used as a generic term that lumps together all sorts of anti-elitist movements, from socialism to fascism to “trumpism”. Accordingly, the causes of populism are regularly seen in societal, cultural and economic changes affecting the lower ranks of society. As convincing as this may be in some cases, it generally ignores the part played by elites themselves in populist politics. Caspar Hirschi will argue that fundamental rifts between members of the political elite are crucial preconditions of populist politics, and he will highlight the example of the Ancient Roman Republic, understood as the historical “birthplace” of populism, to exemplify his point.

Conventional wisdom has depicted the rise of populism in the Euro-Countries as a rebellion against liberalism and liberal elites. However, more recently some historians and observers have proposed a revision of this view arguing that similar movements are better understood as nationalist uprisings challenging the Euro as the monetary manifestation of an informal German empire. In this view, the new nationalisms in the Euro-Zone appear as the fulfilment of a drive to national self-determination with deep historical roots. Florian Schui will examine these arguments about a revival of imperial ambition and nationalist defiance from a historical perspective.

Ulrich Schmid will tackle the notorious examples of populism in Poland and Hungary. In both cases, populist strategies are not so much informed by strict ideological agendas but rather by a sense of lost empires. In the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth was the biggest power in Eastern Europe, in the early Middle Ages the Hungarian Kingdom reached its maximal extension. These historical traditions are remembered very vividly in Poland and Hungary. In the early 20th century, Italian Fascism became a role model for the revival of the lost empire. In the early 21th century, Poland and Hungary stress their national identity and oppose further European integration.

Caspar Hirschi is professor of History at the University of St. Gallen. He was a student at Fribourg and Tübingen, a research fellow at Cambridge and an Ambizione fellow at ETH Zürich. His research focuses on the history of scientific institutions and the republic of letters in eighteenth-century France, on the interrelation of expert advice and public criticism in past and present and on nationalism before modernity. His recent publications include a book on The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany (Cambridge 2012), an article on The Status of Authors in the Literary Market: a Comparison of Eighteenth-Century England and France (Das 18. Jahrhundert 2/2012) and an essay on The Organization of Innovation: The History of an Obsession (Angewandte Chemie, International Edition 52/2013).

Florian Schui is professor of Economic and Political History at the University of St. Gallen. Previously he has worked at the University of Cambridge and at Royal Holloway, University London. He has published widely on the history of public finances and taxation and on the economic and political history of the Age of Enlightenment. His last book ‚Austerity: The Great Failure‘ was published by Yale University Press. He is currently working on the economic and cultural history of the 1970s.

Ulrich Schmid is professor of Russian Culture and Society at the University of St. Gallen. He held academic positions at the universities of Basel, Bern and Bochum. His research focus is on nationalism and the public sphere in Eastern Europe. Recent Publications: De profundis. The failures of the Russian Revolution (2017), Technologies of the Soul. The Production of Truth in Contemporary Russian Culture (2015), UA – Ukraine between East and West (2015), Sword, Cross and Eagle. The Aesthetics of the Nationalist Discourse in Interwar Poland (2013).


Wednesday 13 June

H18:00-18:10 Welcome address: Adrian Braëndli (Head of Science, Research, and Innovation, Istituto Svizzero)

H18:10-20:00 Panel Discussion
Rome, Empire and Modernity
with Prof. Dr. Caspar Hirschi, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Schmid, Prof. Dr. Florian Schui