Cultures of Crises II  Globalising the Concept of Crisis in the 20th Century

Within the Leibniz Association an interdisciplinary research network scrutinizes “Crises in a Globalizing World”. For 2018, its working group on “Concepts and Theories of Crises” is organizing a workshop series that explores the global proliferation of the description of societies, political institutions and economies as being “in crisis.” In January, a first workshop bringing together experts from the social sciences asked how crises legitimize Legitimize both the persistence of certain forms of political rule and their change. At the second workshop, which will take place at the Center for Contemporary History, Potsdam, we aim to shed light on the global conceptual history of crisis as well as the discourses and knowledge systems that surround the diagnoses of crises in different parts of the world in the nineteenth and, in particular, twentieth centuries.

Linguistically, the English crisis, the German Krise, and the French crise stem from the Greek term krisis. According to the German historian Reinhart Koselleck, the ancient krisis contained the meaning of both objective crisis and subjective critique. As a technical term in medicine, crisis signifies the crucial moment of an illness that decides the patient’s fate. Thus, the concept of crisis combines diagnostic and prognostic elements. It reduces the complexity of a historical situation, describing it as a moment of decision by relating it to two alternative and mutually exclusive future states. These futures are existentially different, one marked as desirable and the other as harmful. The greater the difference, the deeper the crisis, and the more urgent the demand to become active in order avoid the negative and to realize the positive option. Today, many dictionaries, like the third edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, retain this original meaning, defining crisis as the turning point of an illness or a decisive moment in politics while acknowledging that crisis can also refer to an unstable state of affairs in general. In the latter sense, over the course of the twentieth century, it has also become customary to use crisis in a colloquial way as a synonym for “malaise,” “deterioration” or “decline.”

As Koselleck has argued, in its traditional sense, the concept of crisis played a crucial role in the emergence of a new and quintessentially modern understanding of time and history in the so-called “Sattelzeit” in Europe around 1800. At our workshop we want to explore if and how this concept of crisis, which was closely connected to a specifically European modernity, proliferated in other parts of the world. Was the concept of crisis translated into other languages and cultures in the course of European expansion and imperialism? Did indigenous languages have descriptions for situations and constellations within societies that are comparable to the European notion of crisis? How did these descriptions differ from the concept of crisis and did they change in processes of translation and interpretation that came about through asymmetrical cultural exchange? We will invite experts to talk about the notions of crisis in Africa, the Middle East and Arab World, East Asia, and the Americas.


Rüdiger Graf (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung)
Riem Spielhaus (Herder Institut)