Body History of Democracy - Protection of the Body, Materiality, and Biopolitics in the Nation-State

Start of project: September 2016

Is democracy an idea, a public discussion, or even a fiction? Certainly.

Presumably, democracy is also closely related to the human body, because key elements of modern democracy—freedom, equality, and opportunities for participation—are not feasible if human bodies are not protected. Peter Blickle has shown how sheer indignation in the face of physical humiliation has taken hold of people again and again and in the process contributed significantly to the construction of human rights—an essential component of the democratic promise of equality.

The key question addressed in this work is therefore: to what extent is the development of democratic practices and norms linked to changes in body regimes? From a contemporary perspective one might ask whether the problem of inhuman body regimes is not in fact more significant for democracy than the much-discussed issue of inequality. The theoretical-methodological framework combines the history of laborers and industrial history, assumptions from modernization theory, but also ideas on biopolitics, materiality, and gender research.

The nation-state

Around 1800, a new body regime developed that— according to the assumption on which this study is based—was associated with the formation of nation-states. The state needed human bodies as subjects, workers, taxpayers, and soldiers—and was therefore primarily interested in male bodies. Serfdom and corporal punishment were successively abolished in this period. Reformers in this era were spurred by enlightenment ideals of equality and recognized how useful the idea of the equal citizen was for an efficient state. Discourses on equality and equality practices consequentially did not take those people into account whose bodies were still subject to domination by others, such as women and slaves. But biopolitics was not a unilateral, top-down act of domination. In return for demanding the total physical commitment of men through military service, the nation-state offered civic equality, legal certainty (without which physical safety was not possible), and participatory rights. Even the beginnings of the social state were part of this thinking.

The research project will examine how the national body regime functioned as a means of both safeguarding the body and pressing it into service, how this contributed to inclusion and exclusion, and how citizens cooperated with it or opposed it.


Near the end of the eighteenth century, attitudes about the dignity of the body changed. As Lynn Hunt has pointed out, compassion with the pain of others, shame, and physical distinction facilitated the postulate of universal human dignity. Industrialization offered opportunities for putting human dignity into practice, as growing prosperity improved access to clothing, housing, a bed of one’s own, and clean water, for example. Around 1900, real wages also rose for the first time for the lower classes, so that more and more people could pay for these things. However, industrial production at the same time frequently forced bodies into degrading and dangerous work. The bodies that sold themselves on the wage labor market illustrate the ambivalent nature of these developments.

Women’s bodies came under public scrutiny at the end of the nineteenth century. Pregnancy and prostitution were discussed as vehemently as the reformed clothing styles designed to free women’s bodies from "unnatural" constraints. As part of an international reform movement that emerged around 1900, citizens opposed the glorification of violence, were inspired by reforms in hygiene, and called for a ban on alcohol. They adopted labor protection laws and defined women’s rights, and modern educators spoke out against the corporal punishment of children. New architectural ideas showed concern for the health of inhabitants. However, these developments also included the global rise of racism in the early twentieth century: concerns about the "racial purity" of the body.

The project will explore the question of the new body regime—the body’s protection, on the one hand, and its subjugation, on the other—by investigating rural regions. During the nineteenth century, these areas reflect the extent to which developments became relevant for the majority of the population. Developments in the former Prussian region of Brandenburg, the state of New Jersey in the United States, and a region that can be described as being on the margins of southern Europe, namely, Corsica in France, will be explored.