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Taming the European Leviathan: The Legacy of Post-War Medicine and the Common Good

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Research question and aim of the research group

What is Europe? The question is hard to answer. The location and nature of the European Leviathan is more in question today than ever before. Whether in the form of authoritarian governments or populist agitation, what role, size, and scope the state should have in the 21st century remains the subject of agitated debate. What can the humanities contribute to this? The answer is brief but promising: a history of Europe.

This can provide an answer to what actually holds our European community together: If for Thomas Hobbes once only the nation-state was able to tame the wild nature of man ("poor, nasty, brutish, and short"), today it is the common concern for the health of the individual and the well-being of the social fabric.

Our research project aims to develop a history of commonalities on both sides of the so-called Iron Curtain: A political as well as social understanding of health as a common good, which was articulated in many fields between 1950 and 1990 - from public health insurance, statutory occupational health and safety, and concern for the old and the weak, to the establishment of a separate Ministry of Health, vaccination campaigns, and public funding of medical research. In short, medicine provides an analytical frame of reference for developing an integrated history of Europe beyond the usual clichés and dichotomies of the period. For on the one hand, the life sciences' claim to universal truth offers a privileged perspective beyond the usual oppositions of ideology, economics, and politics. On the other hand, however, the field of medicine is socially, politically, economically, technologically and culturally determined like hardly any other area of our modern life.

We do not want to examine the two halves of post-war Europe separately, but to understand Europe as a unity. Neither economics nor politics, neither ideology nor everyday life, but the integration of these different perspectives allows us to trace the development of the common good equally in state socialism and in the capitalist West.

Four teams - in Berlin (Volker Hess) and Hamburg (Ulf Schmidt), in Budapest and Vienna (Judit Sándor), respectively, and Sofia (Anelia Kassabova) - are investigating the institutional, conceptual, and legitimating frameworks of this European common good in a 6-year collaborative project.


Berlin Team

The focus of the Berlin team is on the reconstruction of clinical research on both sides of the Iron Curtain. This is because clinical research under state socialism, despite a different form of interaction between science, politics and industry, by and large kept pace with developments in the capitalist West. Special attention is therefore paid to the re-modeling of classical explanatory models about innovation and expertise in selected examples (drug research, transplantation medicine).

LEVIATHAN: Taming the European Leviathan: The Legacy of Post-War Medicine and the Common Ground

Funding: ERC-Synergy Grant LEVIATHAN (Action number 854503)

Committed funding amount: 9.994.934 EUR

Duration: 10/2020 - 9/2026

Corresponding Principal Investigator: Volker Hess


Univ.-Prof. Dr. Volker Hess

Head of Institute for the History of Medicine and Ethics in Medicine