Everyday Dictatorship

About the project

Dictatorial figure-heads like Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Metaxas, and Papadopoulos loom large in national academic and public discourse and in the wider European consciousness, but what remains largely unexplored – especially in comparative perspective – are the subjective lived experiences of those governed by these regimes.

We take our inspiration particularly from alltagsgeschichte – the history of everyday life – and microhistory. Our aim is to reveal the complex and varied ways in which ordinary Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Greeks interacted with dictators’ ideologies and practices.

We treat the ‘everyday’ not as an easily defined (or definable) ‘thing’ that can be held still and placed under a microscope for analysis, but rather as a heuristic device (Arthurs, Ebner, and Ferris 2017:6) that enables us to explore:

Subjectivity and agency

The subjective, variable, and mutable individual experiences of large-scale trends and macro policies, as well as the parameters of possible responses to dictatorship, and what these can reveal about both the capacity and the limits of individual agency in dictatorial settings.

‘Messiness’ and multiplicity

The complications and contradictions of the lived experience of dictatorship, and the interplay of rationality and irrationality, pragmatism and creativity, and evasion and complicity that guided individual choices and individuals’ negotiated relationships with dictatorial regimes.

Everyday spaces

How people encountered dictatorship on a day-to-day basis both through regularly inhabited spaces (the home, the workplace) and those traversed and experienced ephemerally (the street, the market, the bar). How these spaces shaped individuals’ subjective, corporeal, and sensory experiences of dictatorship, and how in turn individuals shaped these spaces through their own actions and agency.

This approach will allow us to see how dictatorial regimes moved in and out of people’s lives, and to suggest that individuals living under – or through – dictatorships did not always feel the impact of the regime at all times and in all aspects of their lives. Put differently, it will show how people could be both perpetrators and victims, supporters and detractors, participants and evaders.

What are our key analytical tools?

We will draw on key analytical tools from alltagsgeschichte – the history of everyday life – and microhistory, including:

  • The assembly of ‘collages of miniatures’ (from alltagsgeschichte). The collection of multiple, micro-scale, individual stories or episodes that, when viewed together, point to patterns of behaviour or beliefs as well as to deviations from such patterns, thereby allowing us to identify normative as well as non-normative forms of behaviour, practices, and beliefs.
  • The ‘exceptional-normal’ (from microhistory). Individual experiences and cases can never be taken as representative of broader societies as a whole, but they can help us to better understand what is extra-ordinary (i.e. exceptional) as well as what is ordinary (i.e. normal) in an individual’s past life, and thus can allow us to establish the parameters of what was both normative and non-normative in a past time and place.
  • ‘Tactics’ (from Michel de Certeau). The flexible, opportunistic modes of behaviour engaged in by individuals in their day-to-day lives, operating in spaces outside the design, governance, and control of the individual.
  • From Alf Lüdtke, the concepts of individual ‘patchworks’ of support for certain state-imposed policies (and not for others); the prevalence of ‘complaisance’, that is wait-and-see tolerance or indifference; and ‘eigensinn’, or self-willed behaviour.

These techniques enable us as researchers to bridge the ‘micro-macro gap’ between, on the one hand, individual, small-scale experiences and practices, and, on the other, macro policies, structures, and institutions.

What is the research context?

Alltagsgeschicte – the history of everyday life – was pioneered in the 1990s by historians of Nazi Germany (e.g. Lüdtke 1995; Peukert 1989) and the USSR (Fitzpatrick 1999). By the turn of the twenty-first century, this scholarship was entering its ‘second chapter’ (Steege et al. 2008), developing a greater acknowledgement of the need to marry social and political historical approaches with insights from cultural history, and a greater awareness of the spatial dynamics of everyday life in the past (e.g. Bergerson 2004; Healy 2004; Steege 2007). More recently, historians of Fascist Italy – including one of us – have begun to apply the analytical tools of alltagsgeschicte to their field (e.g. Arthurs, Ebner, and Ferris 2017; Ferris 2012), building on earlier efforts by Italian oral historians to explore the everyday cultural experience of Italians living under Mussolini’s regime (e.g. Passerini 1987). There have also been some recent efforts to explore the localised lived experience of dictatorship in Spain (Anderson 2010; Anderson and Blanco 2015; Burgos 2016), Portugal (Sapega 2008), and Greece (Kornetis 2013; Papadogiannis 2015), but these studies have remained largely localised and somewhat isolated within their respective national historiographies.

Comparative works on European dictatorship exist, but have tended to be directed towards comparing the paradigmatic totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR (e.g. Geyer and Fitzpatrick 2009), or more rarely comparing Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (e.g. Bessel 1996; Kallis 2000). Within the wider context of the transcultural turn, there has been an important drive to examine ‘transnational fascism’ (i.e. ideological and practical entanglements) in Italy and Spain (e.g. Albanese and del Hierro 2016), but there has been no comparative assessment of the social history of dictatorship spanning the countries bordering the northern Mediterranean. This in spite of a recent, broader revival of interest in critically interrogating Braudel’s (1949) idea of ‘the Mediterranean’, which has led scholars to debate the extent to which these countries can be usefully conceived as places and people with a long (though not timeless) entangled history that has encompassed shared as well as divergent cultural practices; conflict and antagonism as well as peaceful contact and exchange; and fragmentation as well as unity (Borutta and Gekas 2012).

Our project advances these historiographical developments by being the first to extend a comparative analysis of the experience of dictatorship to Southern West-Central Europe. This departure from the conventional pairings of Germany-USSR or Germany-Italy (or even Spain-Portugal/Italy-Spain) allows us to interrogate whether the findings relating to subjective experience and agency in exclusively so-called ‘totalitarian’ or ‘fascist’ contexts (Germany, USSR, Italy) hold across regimes accorded divergent and multiple labels (fascist/fascistic, para-fascist, totalitarian, authoritarian, conservative-authoritarian, dictatorial). At the same time, our comparative analysis allows us to interrogate whether ‘Mediterranean’ communities deployed common or similar tactics and responses to the everyday impositions of dictatorship (e.g. due to potential commonalities in terms of family structures and practices, diet, temporal rhythms, and spatial dimensions; or shared socio-cultural institutions that offered common tactics for negotiating daily life). Additionally, our project will extend the insights of alltagsgeschicte to the study of countries – particularly Spain, Portugal, and Greece – where the field is still comparatively in its infancy.


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