Has democracy already died?

The historian Peter Blickle, who taught in Bern for many years, made a name for himself with a new perspective on early modern history. Now he has died at the age of 78.

In recent years the imposing work with which Peter Blickle interpreted the emergence of European modernism has become quieter. Power and domination, unrest and the constitution: that is what «postmodernism» has little concerned with. That the German historian, who taught modern history in Saarbrücken and then from 1980 to 2004 in Bern, replaced “feudalism” with “communalism”, that he replaced the princes with revolting peasants, that he recognized the potential for freedom in the Reformation - this original view of the past seemed to have lost its urgency with the "end of history".

Now, in the face of the authoritarian international, Blickle's time would come again, now his analyzes are gaining new topicality: How do you make politics, how do you create democracy? Blickle clearly demonstrated this for the period from 1300 to 1800 and opened up new perspectives. Perhaps he wanted to give Germany a democratic tradition with his research, which revolved around the farmers and ordinary citizens who organized themselves in their communities, an alternative to the disastrous traverse from the peasant enemy Luther to the dictator Hitler. And in 1991, when the Swiss Confederation wanted to celebrate its 700th birthday, but the intellectuals went on strike, Blickle made his adopted country aware of its extraordinary proto-democratic roots. But the corresponding book, formulated with gripping style like all of his writings, fell between chair and bench: the progressives, who didn't want to hear about Swiss history, found it too affirmative, the conservatives too little patriotic. The silence disappointed him, who loved the dispute and the resonance.

Peter Blickle's rise began in 1975 when he published "The Revolution of 1525" on the 450th anniversary of the German Peasants' War, the popular uprising brutally suppressed by the nobility - a throwback. The author extended the French Revolution and the Enlightenment back to 16th century Germany. The peasants and citizens who became radicalized - the "common man" as the sources say - at that time presented and implemented an initial formulation of human and freedom rights.

One could smell the zeitgeist of 1968 in his dramatic image of an emancipatory collective practice. This was done by quite a few of his students, who gathered around him in awe - and which, if they shared his affinity for constitutional history, he encouraged as much as he could. A “Blickle School” with international appeal was established in Bern. What united them was their interest in the political "old Europe", in the time before 1789, which was not discredited as backward and absolutist. But Peter Blickle, who had trained his thinking on Max Weber, Karl Marx and the legal historian Otto von Gierke, was not a leftist, more a left-wing liberal with a social conscience and a culturally conservative flair - and without ideological blinkers.

Peter Blickle embodied the dialectic of patriarchal authority. To the students, the tall man with the gray beard and gold-rimmed glasses looked like the epitome of the professor - learned, demanding, unexpectedly warm-hearted. Anyone who spoke at the doctoral colloquium to which he invited them to his stately home in the Bümpliz workers' quarter in Bern thought beforehand. Blickle took the intellectual attempts at walking seriously, he supported them, and his interest in the revolting people aroused the desire for contradiction. - On February 20, the historian died in Saarbrücken at the age of 78.