Europe’s Detectives – In Search of a Constitution


An extensive FernUni book project tracks down the history of the European constitution, among other things to allow a better understanding of political developments.

Covers of the two most recent handbooks Photo: FernUniversität
The two most recent publications, Volume 3 of the series on the 19th century and Volume 5 of the series on the 20th century, were published in 2019 and 2020.

It is well known that Europe does not have a common constitution – or does it? When the Treaty of Rome finally failed in 2006, plans for a constitution for the European Union collapsed with it. What followed was a reform of the previous treaties through the Lisbon Treaty, although not in the form of a constitution. However, for historian Dr. Werner Daum of the FernUniversität in Hagen, the question arises whether Europe is not already constructed on common European constitutional principles – and has been since at least 1789, long before the idea of the EU as an institutional framework was ever expressed.

The time around 1800 was the era after the French Revolution, when many regions on the European continent were occupied with forming new alliances and founding states. They created commonwealths and put initial constitutional principles down on paper. On questions of how a state should be assembled, who creates laws, and what rights an individual has, they often copied off their neighbors – intentionally and unintentionally. “Numerous waves of constitutionalization rolled over parts of Europe throughout the 19th century, which necessarily carried political ideas and constitutional fragments along with them,” explained Daum. “A good example for this is Napoleon’s campaigns of conquest. In a way, during his wars he was always carrying the current version of the French constitution in his luggage.”

“It’s Definitely a Life’s Work”

However, the exact ways that the fundamental structures of the states of Germany, Italy, Romania, and Portugal – from which today’s Europe draws its constitutional commonalities – formed from such processes of transfer had for a long time not been adequately addressed by the research. Until 2006, that is, when the first volume of a comprehensive handbook and editing project was published, coordinated and co-edited by Werner Daum. The project is so extensive that today – 15 years later – it has just now reached the halfway point.

Dr. Werner Daum Private photograph

Among the editors of the series, we joke that if we’re not around to see the final volume finished, please put it in our graves.

Dr. Werner Daum

“It’s definitely a life’s work,” the historian described the role of the project in his own biography, especially because he can only work on the project part-time. “Among the editors of the series, we joke that if we’re not around to see the final volume finished, please put it in our graves. But projects like this have a very long duration, sometimes even three or more decades.” The other editors are historian Prof. Dr. Peter Brandt, who researched and taught at the FernUniversität in Hagen until his retirement in 2014, Prof. Dr. Arthur Schlegelmilch, executive director of the Institute for History and Biography in Hagen, and Dr. Martin Kirsch, who worked at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin among other institutions.

Nine Volumes in Two Series

According to Werner Daum, whose main job is directing the FernUni’s regional center in Karlsruhe, it was primarily these three colleagues who kept the European Constitutional History 1789 to 2013 project alive in the long term and drove it forward. In specific terms, the project consists of two series of handbooks. The first series will comprise four volumes and provides a systematic comparative portrayal of constitutional statehood throughout Europe from the late 18th century to World War I. The second series extends the analysis in five volumes up to the process of European integration since 1989.

More About the Project

You can find more information about the conception and progress of the project on the project website as well as in a talk later this year in the Gespräche am Tor (German) lecture series in Karlsruhe, which has presented research findings from the FernUniversität to interested members of the local public since 2014.

Each of the published volumes is approximately 1,500 pages long. Each series uses the same organizational structure for each country, based on which the authors describe the constitutionally relevant aspects of its political and social life. The country contributions cover the whole of geographic Europe, including Russia and the Ottoman Empire/present-day Turkey. More than 30 researchers per volume used detective work to track down information about the relevant constitutional history and collect the results. This, as Werner Daum knows, is not always simple, since “not all constitutionally-relevant sources are easily accessible in archives, libraries, or even digitally, besides the challenge presented by those countries that may never have had a full written constitution.”

The Source Collection – Its Own Search Engine

As a result, the authors often break new ground in their search for the fundamental structures of a state’s institutional framework. To make things easier for the researchers that follow them, the first series on the 19th century includes an abundant collection of sources on a CD. “It’s its own sort of Google, if you will, which lets you search within the texts for specific terms. Printed on paper, it would be the equivalent of more than 10,000 pages of texts relating to constitutional history per volume. This collection, in combination with the handbooks, now for the first time provides a foundation for comparative research across all European countries. Something like this did not exist until now.”

  • The handbook and editing project is implemented by the Dimitris Tsatsos Institute for European Constitutional Sciences (DTIEV) at the FernUniversität in Hagen. The Dimitris Tsatsos Institute, located in the FernUniversität’s Faculty of Law, is an interdisciplinary institution of scholars in the fields of law and history. Since 2006, the project has been funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s Archive of Social Democracy. The first volume of the 20th century series is additionally funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. All volumes are published by Dietz Verlag in Bonn.

The work is especially interesting for scholars in the fields of history, political science, and law, for whom it provides a helpful resource for gaining a comprehensive view of the emergence and further development of the European constitutional state. However, Werner Daum also recommends the volumes to “today’s European policymakers, in order to increase awareness of the diversity of constitutional history which makes up our continent on the one hand, and of the commonalities of the European constitutional idea, which are undoubtedly present, on the other.” In any case it cannot hurt for those with political responsibility at the EU level especially, but also in national policy, to use a historical perspective to better understand current events in constitutional policy.

Previous Publications

LeAnn Kearney | 10.05.2024