top of page
  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Interwar transnational authoritarianism and the case of “social solidarity”

Liisi Veski


On 12 March 1934, the head of state of Estonia, Konstantin Päts, together with Johan Laidoner, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces, carried out a coup d’état. The coup was most directly targeted against his fiercest political rivals at the time, the radical right Estonian Veterans’ League, and was executed in the context of the upcoming elections: the Veterans were a new populist political movement, who were rapidly increasing in popularity.[i]


Päts and his supporters, however, claimed that the veterans themselves had been plotting a coup to overthrow the legitimate government (there are no sources indicating that the latter was true). Päts argued that the government had thus saved the democratic order.[ii] However, the “era of silence” as the following years became to be known, significantly diverged from the liberal parliamentary system of the 1920s and the early 1930s: the parliament was soon put to a “silent state” (not officially dissolved, but not functioning either), political parties were abolished, and civil rights restricted.[iii]

Konstantin Päts giving a speech in 1938 [Source: The National Archives of Estonia, EAA.2111.1.10486.7]


Päts explained in his speech to the parliament a few days after the coup that a dangerous illness was spreading among the people and that the population therefore had to be given some time to “rest” from political affairs.[iv] It was important for the political establishment to demonstrate that the new political system would overcome the flaws of liberal parliamentary democracy, which was seen as leading to constant instability and crises. The state needed to be reformed – the following years therefore came to be described by the political establishment as those of the great “reform of the state”.[v] For instance, a constitutional reform was in order, as was explained early on by Päts and some of his ministers.[vi]


Travelling ideas: authoritarian learning and centre-periphery dynamics

In building the new political system, and its legal and ideological foundation, the government was learning from other, not too dissimilar examples abroad as many conservative authoritarian regimes in Europe were facing similar challenges of overcoming various crises – real or perceived.[vii] Contemporary political scientists call this phenomenon “authoritarian learning”. Stephen G. F. Hall and Thomas Ambrosio define it as “a process in which authoritarian regimes adopt survival strategies based upon the prior successes and failures of other governments.”[viii] Hall and Ambrosio focus on contemporary examples, however, this framework can also be easily applied to authoritarian regimes in the first half of the 20th century. Historians explore similar dynamics within the prism of transnational history that focuses on circulations, transfers, and interactions across state borders. As suggested by Karsten Brüggemann, implementing the perspective of transnational history could help us move towards understanding the complex political and intellectual dynamics within the Central and East European (CEE) region.[ix]


Stefan Nygård and Johan Strang have studied transnational exchange of ideas from the point of view of Nordic intellectuals and within the framework of centre-periphery dynamics. On the one hand, they emphasise inherent hierarchies and asymmetries in such transnational interactions, and that the intellectuals (or political actors) who functioned in these “small country” or “periphery” settings were fully aware of the asymmetries. On the other hand, they claim, we also need to understand that these actors were far from passive recipients of ideas. Conversely, they had a vital role in transnational intellectual exchanges by choosing certain models and neglecting others, as well as by adapting and altering those models and ideas to suit particular local problems.[x]


There is another dimension that could be added to Nygård and Strang’s discussion: one man’s periphery can be another one’s core. Often interwar CEE nation-building dynamics have been studied from a narrow national perspective, or if there is a wider international reflection, it focuses on the influence of Western Europe upon Eastern Europe. More research is needed on transnational intellectual interactions within CEE: for instance, how various authoritarian leaders in the 1930s CEE region learned from other governments facing similar dilemmas, how they copied the elements of various models off each other, and by doing this, changed the initial models that inspired them.


This is where another theoretical-methodological approach, conceptual history, can be useful. Conceptual historians study concepts, their emergence, transfer, change, and use in particular social and political contexts.[xi] One way of approaching the question of transnational interactions between various interwar authoritarian systems is by looking at the key concepts of their ideologies and the political language more broadly. Jan Ifversen explains key concepts as “those you need in order to access a particular field. Without the key you will either not understand or misunderstand what goes on.”[xii] Studying concepts that were instrumentalized by interwar authoritarian regimes, such as that of Päts, can therefore help us understand these systems better. But concepts tend to travel across state borders and discourses.[xiii] Therefore, studying key concepts promoted and instrumentalized by political elites of these systems can also help us fathom transnational dynamics in the region more broadly: how these regimes perceived other similar ones and how the leaders of these regimes learned from one another.


Social solidarity: Estonian-Polish intellectual entanglements across CEE

In order to legitimate the regime as still democratic but in a new “reformed” way, the political establishment adopted a number of new concepts. A case that illustrates transnational dynamics particularly well is the concept of “social solidarity”. In 1930s Estonian political language, the concept was commonly denoted by the term ühiseluline solidariteet (sometimes also sotsiaalne solidariteet). It emerged quite suddenly in 1935 and after a few years, it had become a catchphrase actively used within government-friendly circles.


Why did it emerge at that particular moment? The concept of social solidarity (solidarité sociale in French) had been coined by sociologist Emile Durkheim as early as in the late 19th century. Several of his colleagues in French academe helped to develop the theory further. By and large, at the heart of French solidarists’ theories was the negation of both the all-powerful centralising state as well as of anarchic individualism.[xiv] As an alternative, another important theorist of solidarism, legal scholar Leon Duguit promoted the liberal-socialist idea of associationism that signified the social state, where free individuals would be organised into associations. Duguit believed that this would eventually reduce the power of the state and at the same time lead to greater social cohesion.[xv]


Estonian intellectuals started to take interest in theories of solidarism at the beginning of the 20th century.[xvi] It was nevertheless much later, only in the mid-1930s, that “social solidarity” emerged and started to develop into a key concept. Why was this moment so crucial? In April 1935, the Polish Sejm ratified a new constitution that cemented an authoritarian, presidentialist order.[xvii] This happened at a time when the Estonian authoritarian political elite was striving to reform the political and legal system. In late April 1935, the Polish legal scholar and state official, Michał Potulicki together with two other Polish legal experts visited Estonia to introduce the new constitution and its ideological foundation.[xviii] The visit was introduced in media as a return visit to deepen friendships between the two countries: in February 1934, an Estonian delegation had visited Poland, which was, in turn, preceded by an earlier visit to Estonia by a Polish delegation. Apparently, Polish-Estonian cultural organisations in both countries played an important part in initiating and arranging these visits, but the events were approved at the highest political level and attended by leading politicians. Sometimes the roles were blended. For instance, the 1934 visit of the Estonian delegation to Poland was led by the chairman of the Estonian parliament, Karl Einbund (Kaarel Eenpalu from 1935), who was also the head of the Estonian-Polish Society in Tallinn.[xix]

Michał Potulicki and other members of the Polish delegation in Tartu in April 1935 [Source: The National Archives of Estonia, EAA.2111.1.10300.2]

Karl Einbund (Kaarel Eenpalu) in Warsaw in February 1934 [Source: Polish National Digital Archives, 3/1/0/17/2932]


It seems that the visit in 1935 had a very particular aim: to introduce the new Polish constitution. In addition to the events in Tallinn and Tartu, various texts were published in Estonian about the new Polish constitution;[xx] one of them was published by the press office of the Polish embassy in Tallinn.[xxi]


According to the Polish legal experts behind the April Constitution, the new constitution created a “social state” that served as a middle-ground between totalitarianism and liberalism.[xxii] The core doctrine of this new state and the new constitution was social solidarity. The main architect of the new constitution, Waclaw Makowski, highlighted Leon Duguit’s influence on his thinking.[xxiii] Yet, Polish constitution of 1935 was clearly a constitution that gave preference to a strong state and the common good above individual welfare.[xxiv] Compared to the original social-liberal version of solidarism, this was a very different, state-centred interpretation of solidarism that was suitable for a conservative authoritarian state.


Waclaw Makowski as the Deputy Marshal of the Polish Senat in 1936 [Source: Polish National Digital Archives, 3/1/0/3/497]


Polish interwar interpretation of solidarism thus provided the model that Päts had been looking for in building and justifying his own system. This is the context within which we see the social solidarity rhetoric emerging in state-led propaganda. Estonian politicians began to integrate the concept into their texts where they justified the government’s reforms. For instance, in one of his programmatic speeches held in October 1938, prime minister Kaarel Eenpalu labelled himself and his colleagues as “apostles of unity and social solidarity”.[xxv] In April 1938, a number of supplementary laws were ratified as decrees of Konstantin Päts. Officially, these laws were meant to regulate the use of civil rights. Yet, their real purpose was to restrict these rights. We can find a reference to social solidarity from these same acts – for instance, one of the acts prohibited the printing of materials that were deemed to be harmful to social solidarity.[xxvi] Social solidarity had thus become a backbone of the ideology of the new regime.


The conceptual history of “social solidarity” helps us to understand how authoritarian leaders of CEE borrowed theories of Western sociology and altered them to suit their particular political and ideological agendas. But this particular case also confirms that centre-periphery dynamics are more complicated than the East trying to copy the West: it gives us an example of how multi-dimensional intellectual interactions within CEE developed. This is of course just one of many similar stories that deserve to be explored to understand transnational dimensions of interwar authoritarianism.


Liisi Veski is Research Fellow in History of Political Thought at Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu. Her research concerns nationalism and authoritarianism in 1930s CEE and the political thought of co-operation and corporatism in Estonia in the first half of the 20th century. Her article, "Towards stronger national unity: statist ideas in Estonian nationalism during the “Era of Silence” (1934–1940)", was recently published in the Journal of Baltic Studies.

[i] See more in Andres Kasekamp, The Radical Right in Interwar Estonia (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000). [ii] Ibid, 122. [iii] See, for instance, Andres Kasekamp, A History of the Baltic States (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 110–111. [iv] Konstantin Päts, ‘Kaitseseisukorra põhjendamine Riigikogus’ in Maarja Keskpaik (ed.) Eesti ajaloolised kõned (Tallinn: Skymarket, [1934] 2013), 119–126. [v] For example, Friido Toomus, Konstantin Päts ja riigireformi aastad (Tartu, Tallinn: Loodus, 1938). [vi] Peeter Kenkmann, ‘1937. aasta põhiseadus – autoritaarse režiimi “reformimise” katse’, Tuna 1, 70–89 (2013). [vii] See Jan-Werner Müller, Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 108–112; António Costa Pinto and Federico Finchelstein (eds.), Authoritarianism and Corporatism in Europe and Latin America Crossing Borders (London: Routledge, 2019); António Costa Pinto (ed.), Corporatism and Fascism: The Corporatist Wave in Europe (London, New York: Routledge, 2017). [viii] Stephen G. F. Hall and Thomas Ambrosio, ‘Authoritarian learning: a conceptual overview’, East European Politics, 33:2, 143–161 (2017), 144. [ix] Karsten Brüggemann, ‘Transnational History and the History of a Nation: The Case of Estonia’, Acta Historica Tallinnensia, 27:1, 3–38 (2021). [x] Stefan Nygård and Johan Strang, ‘Facing Asymmetry: Nordic Intellectuals and Center-Periphery Dynamics in European Cultural Space’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 77:1, 75–97 (2016), 95–97. [xi] See more, for instance, Jan Ifversen, ‘Key Concepts and How to Study Them’, Contributions to the History of Concepts 6:1, 65–88 (2011); Jan-Werner Müller, ‘On Conceptual History’, in Darrin M. McMahon and Samuel Moyn (eds.), Rethinking Modern European Intellectual History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 74–93. [xii] Ifversen, 87. [xiii] See Birgit Neumann and Ansgar Nünning (eds.), Travelling Concepts as a Model for the Study of Culture (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyte, 2012). [xiv] Jack Hayward, ‘The Official Social Philosophy of the French Third Republic: Léon Bourgeois and Solidarism’ International Review of Social History, 6:1, 19–48 (1961); H. S. Jones, The French State in Question: Public law and political argument in the Third Republic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 155–159. [xv] Jack Hayward, ‘Solidarist Syndicalism: Durkheim and Duguit: Part II’, Sociological Review, 8:2, 185–202 (1960), 185, 195–197. [xvi] Ken Kalling, ‘Darwin Haeckeli varjus. Evolutsiooniõpetuse retseptsioonist Eestis’, Ajalooline Ajakiri, 3/4 (141/142), 287–308 (2012). [xvii] Constitution of the Republic of Poland (Warsaw: Polish Commission for International Law Cooperation, 1935). [xviii] For instance, Kaja, 26.04.1935; Postimees, 28.04.1935. [xix] For instance Päevaleht, 17.02.1934; Postimees, 27.04.1935. [xx] For instance, Vaba Maa 28 March 1935, 2 April 1935; Michał Potulicki, ‘Poola põhiseadus 23. aprillist 1935’, Õigus, 4, 163–171 (1935). [xxi] Poola uus riigikord (Tallinn: Poola saatkonna pressi-büroo väljaanne, 1935). [xxii] Waclaw Makowski, ‘Les idées directrices de la nouvelle Constitution de la République de Pologne’, in Constitution de la Republique de Pologne du 23 Avril 1935 (Warsaw: Commission Polonaise de Cooperation Juridique Internationale, 1935), 3–20; Potulicki, 163–171. [xxiii] Waclaw Makowski, Państwo społeczne (Warsaw: 1936), 53–54. [xxiv] Constitution of the Republic of Poland. [xxv] Päevaleht, 11.10.1938, 5–6. [xxvi] Rahvusarhiiv, ERA.31.3.2832, PAGES 4–5.

249 views0 comments
bottom of page