Conference report: Interdisciplinary online conference „Civil Democracy Protection“

Authors: Margarethe Finger und Elias Kreuzinger

Protection of democracy through civil society and civil society organizations (CSOs) is still a widely neglected territory in scholarly debate. The international and interdisciplinary online conference “Civil Democracy Protection” held on November 12th – 13th 2020 aimed to track the history and effectiveness of civil democracy protection actors in various countries and societies. The overarching question of the conference therefore was : What significance do civil actors have for the establishment and consolidation of democratic constitutional states, especially in relation to the protection of democracy by state institutions?



Conference Program

November 12th, 2020, Panel I: 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. (CET)

Introduction (Uwe Backes, Thomas Lindenberger)

• Reichsbanner (Sebastian Elsbach)
• USA (Ami Pedahzur)
• International Committee on the University Emergency (Nikolai Wehrs)

November 12th, 2020, Panel II: 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (CET)

• Belgium (Dirk Rochtus)
• Netherlands (Sebastiaan van Leunen)
• Great Britain (Isabelle-Christine Panreck)

November 13th, 2020, Panel III: 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. (CET)

• France (Jean-Yves Camus)
• Germany (Tom Mannewitz)
• Austria (Manès Weisskircher)

November 13th, 2020, Panel IV: 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. (CET)

• Transnational cooperation between anti-extremist organizations in Central Europe (Miroslav Mareš)
• Civil democracy protection and the development of democratic constitutional states (Uwe Backes)
• Current challenges of civil democracy protection (Michael Nattke)

Closing remarks (Uwe Backes, Thomas Lindenberger)



Panel I

After a brief introduction by HAIT Director Thomas Lindenberger, stressing the current context of democracy protection against extremism in its various shapes and forms, the first panel was kicked off by historian SEBASTIAN ELSBACH (Friedrich-Schiller University Jena). He presented his insights on the history and role of the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold in the Weimar Republic. Despite its paramilitary and therefore quite “non-civil” public appearance the Reichsbanner campaigned for the Weimar Coalition and tried to defend the Republic against communist, monarchist, and right-wing forces. With 1.5 million members and about 7,000 local branches the Reichsbanner enjoyed large popular support. The goal of this organization was to give sense to the defeat in the First World War: The need to protect and preserve the Republic. The mass casualties should not have been in vain. Political affiliations depended on the members social background. While Social democrats constituted the majority of the members, there were also Liberals, and members of the Centre Party represented in the organization. The relationship with government officials in the Reich and in Prussia was strained, though. Conservative officials perceived the Reichsbanner as a “red” revolutionary force. While the organization itself vouched for the protection of democracy and civil society, the state officials‘ goal was to solely  protect the state and democratic system as such.

Following this presentation AMI PEDAHZUR (University of Texas) gave his insights on civil society in the United States. As an observer on the sidelines of US politics himself, he drew comparisons to Israel and Germany. In his opinion, the United States of the 1960s can be considered undemocratic compared to Germany or Israel. In the contemporary context, he raised the issue of “illiberal democracies” and “uncivil” society. While it seems to be easy to focus on Germany in the 1930s as an example of how a political party undermined democracy, today one should be aware of “uncivil” society groups consolidating around values they perceive as democratic. In the case of the United States, both left- and right-wing groups understand their actions as efforts to protect the constitution. Ami Pedhazur also stressed the dynamics of threats to democracy today. While political parties may no longer pose the biggest danger, (un)civil society groups and foreign actors do.

The first panel was concluded by historian NIKOLAI WEHRS (Konstanz University) and his presentation on the International Committee on the University Emergency (ICUE) (founded in 1970) and its German branch Bund Freiheit der Wissenschaft. The ICUE comprised university professors alliances in 30 different countries (among them most prominently West Germany and the United States). It originated in the student protests of the 1960s. In fact they were the direct counter-protest of university teachers. Whereas the first one is widely regarded as an international movement, the latter has still not been examined in the same way. Nikolai Wehrs outlined the psychological effect the student revolts triggered with professors like Guy Stern, Thomas Nipperdey or Richard Löwenthal. Before the protests, these professors had long been regarded as liberal reformers. In the late 1970s this perception had changed: Now these intellectuals were regarded as conservatives or liberal conservatives. Wehrs therefore argued that the students‘ movement led to an unexpected revitalization of conservatism. In his conclusion he emphasized the role of anti-communism and Cold War liberalism as well as Freedom House’s organizational support for understanding the academic counter-protest against the 1968-protests.


Panel II

The second Panel approached civil democracy protection by looking at different countries. DIRK ROCHTUS (University of Leuven) presented his expertise on the contemporary Flemish civil society in Belgium. According to him, the traditional Pillarization of Flemish society gradually disappeared. From the 1980s onwards, two new movements surfaced: the Greens and Flemish nationalists. The latter manifested themselves in the moderate Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (New Flemish Alliance, N-VA) and the right-wing populist Vlaams Blok (Flemish Interest, VB, later Vlaams Belang). When Belgium experienced left-wing terrorism in the 1980s, democracy protection was taken on by the state. In the 1990s however, civil society became more active, when on November 21, 1991 VB gained 10 percent of the Flemish votes in the national elections (this equals 6.6% for Belgium in total and 497.917  counted votes). This success constituted a two-fold threat: One for democracy and one for the Belgium state, as VB also pursues a secessionist agenda. Reactions of Flemish civil society include a controversial erection of a cordon sanitaire around the VB. Dirk Rochtus presented some hands-on examples of CSOs like the Liga voor Mensenrechte (Ligue for Human Rights) or the Minderhedenforum (Minority forum). He concluded that in the relationship between civil society and the Flemish government a gap still persists and the political role of civil society has shrunk. The question preoccupying Belgian and Flemish society remains: Have the 1930s returned?

SEBASTIAAN VAN LEUNEN (University of Groningen) shed light on Dutch CSOs in a comparative analysis by presenting two CSOs from the 1930s and two from post-1945. Resembling the Belgium case, Dutch civil society  was strongly pillarized into protestant, catholic and socialist pillars in the 1930s. When a secular middle class escaped this pillarization, the Dutch Nationaal Socialistische Beweging (National-Socialist Movement, NSB) gained 8 percent of the popular vote in 1935. After this electoral success the NSB experienced a rapid decline and got increasingly negative public image. According to Sebastiaan van Leunen, this was partly due to the effect of Eenheid door Democrat (Unity through Democracy, EdU). The EdU agitated against what they depicted as “non-Dutch” foreign movements embodying fascism and communism. A second organization fighting against national socialism was the Comité van Waakzaamheid van anti-nationalsocialistische Intellectuelen (Committee of Vigilance of Anti-national socialist Intellectuals). The Committees main goal of defending cultural and spiritual liberty was pursued through the publication of brochures.  The seventh issue by Menno ter Braak entitled Het Nationaalsocialisme als Rancuneleer (National socialism: Doctrine of Rancor) is the most prominent one. In contrast to the EdU the Committee did not agitate against Communism. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Committees internal debates on their stance on Communism led to their dissolution. After the war, Dutch society experienced a new nationalist movement manifesting in the Nederlandse Volks-Unie (Dutch Peoples-Union, NVU). The Anne Frank Foundation – established in 1957 to save the Anne Frank House from demolition – began promoting the values held up in Anne Frank’s diary. With the rise of right-wing extremism, in the 1970s the Foundation took a firmer stance in public debate against discrimination and neo-Nazis. This active role changed in the following decade when the organization took an observer’s role. Since then, the Foundation has published an annual monitor on racism and extremism. The fourth CSO presented by van Leunen was KAFKA (Kollektief Anti Fascistisch/Kapitalistisch Archief, Anti Fascist Collective/Capitalist Archive). Describing itself as an antifascist research group, KAFKA has been accused of belonging to the extremist left. Nevertheless, they still provide reliable data and research on right-wing extremism. But the question remains: How to deal with defenders of democracy who take no clear stance on extremism?

With her presentation on Great Britain ISABELLE-CHRISTINE PANRECK (HAIT Dresden) shifted gears once more. She focused on British civil society in the context of governmental counterterrorism. Outlining the traditional understanding of the relationship between state and civil society in Britain, Isabelle-Christine Panreck accentuates a widespread skepticism of citizens towards the state in the 19th and 20th century.  Back then, a concept of what constituted a “good British subject” did not exist. She described the discrepancy between the self-image of a strong and old liberal democracy and the contemporary depiction of a “broken society” by then-Prime Minister David Cameron. Panreck argued, that since 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings a paradigm shift occurred within British society. The first signs of this shift could be recognised in the 1990s, when New Labour introduced a new school subject trying to foster identification with democracy. After 9/11 the focus primarily wason outside-threats (Northern Ireland and Islamism). This changed with the 7/7 bombings, since they where “home-grown”. The search for an answer to the question what it means to be British ensued. At this point government officials sought to fight terrorism through combating extremism with a strong civil society. Isabelle-Christine Panreck, stressed this change in terminology by presenting a word count of Parliamentary debates. In 2010 a conservative liberal government introduced the “Prevent” strategy. With the consolidation of the “Big Society” introduced by David Cameron a separation of the fight against terrorism and the promotion of democracy. Followed by “Big Society” was “Level Up” under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The remaining pillar of “Big Society” is the National Citizen Service (NCS). This 6-weeks program aims at young people in order to initiate a democratic spirit and make them active citizens. While state-funded, the management of the service lies with different CSOs. Critique of the NCS focuses mainly on its limited effect and the neglect of multiculturalism within British civil society.

Panel III

JEAN-YVES CAMUS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques) presented a short history of french civil society movements vouching for democratic values and human rights. Camus examined how the first mostly leftist CSOs emerged after the Second World War and the dominance of the extreme right until that point. Examples given were Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme (LICRA) fighting antisemitism which exists until today, Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitié entre les peuples (MRAP) or Ras l’front which formed in 1990 as a reaction to fight ideas of the far right National Front, mobilized thousands of people for demonstrations but disappeared when Jean-Marie Le Pen lost the elections against his opponent Jacques Chirac in 2002. For Camus, his pessimistic observation on the ineffectiveness of civil society and CSOs when it comes to weakening the national front french CSOs has several reasons. First, the CSOs are internally highly discordant. Second, they fail to mobilize people because they believe that the state and large parts of French society are racist especially against muslims, in its very essence. And in reciprocal suspicion, the French state takes it for granted that CSOs do not have a say in policy making.

An overview of the landscape of nine German political foundations with a focus on their commitment to protection of democratic values was given by TOM MANNEWITZ (TU Chemnitz). To investigate the foundations democracy protection policy Mannewitz considered self images of the foundations regarding their democracy protection, concepts they apply and their priorities in theory and practice. His evaluation was based on their legally binding documents, basically their statutes, mission statements, public websites, events and publications. He clustered these foundations in three groups and contrasted for example if they refer to the promotion of several democratic values or the democracy as a whole, their focus on different kinds of extremism in practice and their relationship to the Verfassungsschutz. When the center-right party political foundations Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung are equally focusing on all types of extremism, the other foundations namely Friedrich-Ebert, Heinrich-Böll, Amadeu Antonio and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung have their main focus clearly on right wing extremism. Since this is the case, he noticed an overrepresentation of right wing extremism in the landscape of political foundations. His explanatory approaches to this tendency are due to the current relevance of right wing motivated actions, political identity of the according foundations and the NS legacy shaping special sensibility for right wing extremism.


The role of civil society protecting democracy in the context of a far-right Lager being well embedded in Austrian society was sharpened by MANÈS WEISSKIRCHER (TU Dresden). Weisskircher noted that compared to Germany, protests in Austria had been small and mass protests only occurred as a response to immediate (potential) political threats. As an event with symbolic importance he stressed the international network event for the far right in Austria and beyond: The Wiener Korporations-Ball (since 2012: Wiener Akademikerball). Since 2008 there has been a campaign with regular protests in front of the imperial palace (Hofburg), where the ball takes place. Although those protests managed to mobilize many people their goal of abolishing the event was never achieved in light of the well established far right actors in Austria.

Panel IV

MIROSLAV MAREŠ (Masaryk University) presented the underestimated issue of transnational cooperation between anti-extremist organizations in Central Europe in research as well as in international relations. He distinguished different focuses concerning his research, for example governmental or transnational coorporations or national branches of NGOs. While cooperation against antisemitism was still weak in the 1990s, this changed rapidly in the 2000s and 2010s. He emphasized Germany’s major role in these cooperations and the traditionally financial challenges that cooperations face. Besides several examples Mareš presented a case study: A project named Together against Extremism: Strategy against extremism at municipal level in 2013 provided by the NGO Eruditio Publica in cooperation with the Kulturbüro Sachsen, funded by the czech-german future fond and Sebastian Cobler Stiftung and executing several workshops. In the end of his presentation Mareš raised the question of how to measure the impact of those cooperations and their activities.

UWE BACKES (HAIT Dresden) pointed out the importance of civil protest and commitment potential for democratization and the need for an active mobilized society as a precondition for protecting democracy from authoritarian take-overs. Particularly in transition of autocratic to democratic structures and in periods of crisis towards deconsolidation of democracy significant tasks are attributed to civil society actors to work for the establishment of democratic structures. Also during periods of autocratic regimes being deconsolidated long lasting street protests which mobilizes big parts of the population may be a crucial driving force for the processes of democratization. Backes examined that in the case of established democracy -in the best case- organized citizens establish powerful threat and sanction potential which makes it more difficult for anti-system actors to realize projects which might blow up the system. Generally civil commitment contributes to the building of social capital which counts as one of the important assets of legitimacy, efficiency and stability of democratic governance. Backes distinguishes three ways of relations between CSOs and the state. This is absorbing, cooperating or confronting each other. If civil society actors continue to exist despite the institutionalized system of political parties, they have close and cooperative relations with them. If such relations are long lasting, often CSOs will gradually become an element of the state because citizens feel less need to maintain autonomous civil society organizations. Where CSOs persist with a high degree of organizational continuity, they often represent interests which are linked to protecting needs of minorities whose rights are not sufficiently represented by existing political parties and in institutionalized anti-discimination rules and practices. Therefore ideally civil society organization and state support each other in a win-win situation.

The most practical presentation was held by MICHAEL NATTKE (Kulturbüro Sachsen). The goal of Kulturbüro Sachsen is the strengthening of civil society. Explaining the history of some civil society programs he examined the shift from youth work fighting right wing extremism like the national program of actions against aggression and violence (Aktionsprogramm gegen Aggression und Gewalt) towards strengthening democratic civil society at a local level. This approach was implemented by the national programm civitas emerging from the uprising of the decent people (Aufstand der Anständigen) invoked by the federal chancellor Gerhard Schröder after an arson attack on the Synagogue of Düsseldorf in 2000. Civitas explicitly focused on empowering civil society for dealing with confrontation with right wing extremism. Later, in 2007, the approach changed again towards crisis intervention as an approach for fighting right wing extremism. In contrast to civitas these national programs like competent for democracy (Kompetent für Demokratie) were not anymore focused on eastern germany only but on all federal states. Since 2014 there is also the program Live Democracy! (Demokratie Leben!) with an unlimited duration and funded by the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. Based on his observations and daily work Nattke established five theses concerning multiple current challenges for democratic civil society. This is for example the permanent tension between state control and non-state independence. Also the funding is a challenge since funding periods last usually one or very few years maximum. Therefore long term perspectives are rare. The challenge of extreme right movements for civil society engagement was illustrated by Nattke with a personal experience example. Since their office is receiving hundreds of hate mails and letters from right wing characters, also Kulturbüro Sachsen is suffering under this growing pressure.

Closing Remarks

Thomas Lindenberger pointed out that all presenters and participants contributed to explore the widely under researched role of civil society for democracy protection. Besides looking at multiple countries and including perspectives based on different academic backgrounds, the strength of the conference, according to Lindenberger were the practical and graspable examples. By this the conference managed to transgress conventional boundaries. Following this fruitful discussion a volume with contributions from each presenter is due to be published in the future.


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