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Reports Part of series: Education and democracy & History of education: BERA Brian Simon Fund research reports

Rehearsals for democracy

Student life in Central and Eastern Europe, 1919–1923

According to Brian Simon, the British student movement became explicitly concerned with political issues during the 1930s, when it was faced with the rise of fascism. In this context, Simon pointed to the relationship between student activism and the defence of democracy. Undoubtedly, the ideological polarisation and high political stakes of that time invested the political debates among university students with particular urgency. Yet a broader European perspective indicates the crucial nature of developments in the preceding decade: across many countries, the reshaping of national and international politics after 1918 profoundly affected student life and its potential role in fostering – or hampering – the development of a democratic culture.

This research project focused on Central and Eastern Europe, whose interwar history exemplifies this ambivalence. Funded by the Brian Simon fellowship grant and on the topic ‘history of education’, the project pursued three overarching objectives:

  1. To explore the relationship between higher education and the making (or unmaking) of democratic societies.
  2. To advance understanding of student activism at a major historical juncture (the aftermath of the First World War) and in a region (Central and Eastern Europe) whose political and social fabric was subject to drastic transformations after 1918.
  3. To contribute to a broader examination of European student life from 1919 to 1929.

Report summary 

Supported by a Brian Simon grant from BERA, our project investigates the social and political dimensions of student life in the aftermath of the First World War. In doing so, it explores the possibilities for, and obstacles to, forging a democratic culture within university settings. This report focuses on a case study of interwar Poland. The history of the Second Polish Republic exemplifies the transformation of the international order after 1918, yet it also illustrates the challenges that resulted from these changes. In particular, the report highlights the intense antagonisms that shaped Polish student activism in the early 1920s. Our initial work demonstrates the potential for further research along comparative and transnational lines.


Profile picture of Daniel Laqua
Daniel Laqua, Dr

Associate Professor of European History at University of Northumbria

Daniel Laqua is Associate Professor of European History at Northumbria University. He has published widely on the history of international movements and organisations, as reflected in articles for periodicals such as The Historical Journal and...

Profile picture of Georgina Brewis
Georgina Brewis

Professor of Social History at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society

Georgina Brewis is Professor of Social History at IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society. She is a historian of higher education, voluntary action and humanitarianism in Britain and the wider world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her current...