Minority and Majority as Asymmetrical Concepts: The Perils of Democratic Equality and Fantasies of National Purity

Nov 13, 2023  | 5 - 6:30pm (PT)

Lecture at UC Berkeley (201 Philosophy Hall) | Speaker: Till van Rahden (Université de Montréal); Moderator: Philipp Lenhard (UC Berkeley)

Sponsor(s): Institute of European StudiesCenter for German and European StudiesUC Berkeley Department of HistoryGerman Historical Institute Washington | Pacific Office BerkeleyUC Berkeley Department of GermanDAADCenter for Jewish Studies


The conceptual couple of majority/minority is viewed as a harmless way of identifying an arithmetic relationship. The idea of a dichotomy between majority and (Jewish) minority as a short hand to describe relations between ethnic or religious groups, however, is recent. In fact, as it did not exist before 1919 when in the wake of World War I the idea of democracy and the idea of the homogeneous nation-state triumphed simultaneously. Prior to 1919, languages of difference invoked embedded concepts that referred to specific constellations and configurations, such as colony or community, churches, nations, races, or tribes. The opposition of majority and minority introduced a level of abstraction into struggles over recognition. “Minority” rights for Jews and others became a miracle cure in such conflicts and seemed to offer a universal formula promising an efficacious remedy.

Till van Rahden is a Professor of German and European Studies at the Université de Montréal where he held a Canada Research Chair from 2006 to 2016. In addition, he is also a Research Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften in Bad Homburg. He earned an M.A. in American History at Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in History (summa cum laude) at the University of Bielefeld. He specializes in European history since the Enlightenment and is interested in the tension between the elusive promise of democratic equality and the recurrent presence of diversity and moral conflicts. He has held visiting appointments at the University of Chicago, McGill University, the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Charles University in Prague, the universities in Graz, Innsbruck, and Haifa, and fellowships at research institutes in Berlin, Cologne, Freiburg, Mainz, and the “Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen,” Vienna.

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