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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 January 2005


The concept of political legitimacy has hitherto tended to occupy a rather modest place in the historiography of twentieth-century Europe. In contrast to the attention paid by historians of pre-modern and non-European societies to issues of political culture and, more especially, to the ways in which the exercise of power by all rulers, be they sacred or secular, putative or actual, has to be located in a complex matrix of conventional beliefs, rituals and practices, historians of contemporary Europe have tended to regard issues of political legitimacy as of secondary importance compared with other more tangible factors. Political power in Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been perceived by historians as being the product of an amalgam of ideological projects, forms of state (internal and external) aggrandisement and nationalist struggles for emancipation. Modernity – so it seems to be assumed – transformed the exercise of power, creating both new needs and justifications for active government and massively increased resources to bring these to reality, as well as flattening much of the pre-existing undergrowth of ancien régime convention and pre-industrial tradition. Government became incommensurably stronger, but also simultaneously starker. In the new world that emerged between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries, the powerful forces of ideological or national messianism and the democratic (or assumed) mandate of the people lifted state power to new heights. Consequently, governmental authority flowed remorselessly downwards through the new structures of civilian and military bureaucracy and legal authority, reducing social organisations, local communities and above all the individual citizen to the role of disciplined, though not necessarily powerless, subjects. Legitimacy, in so far as it surfaces in such accounts, is regarded as having been largely constructed by rulers themselves and subsequently conveyed by the modern institutions of social control – notably mass education, conscription and state propaganda – to the population. Thus, French peasants were made into Frenchmen, Russian workers into agents of Bolshevik power and German bureaucrats into functionaries of the Nazi state.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2004

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For assistance with different issues of historical interpretation, we are indebted to the generous help of Lesley Abrams, Peter Ghosh, Josie McLellan, David Priestland and John Watts. We are also particularly indebted to our colleagues Mary Vincent and Mark Pittaway for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this Introduction.