Sovereign debt in the twentieth century

A scientific network involving the economic historian Junior Professor Julia Rischbieter from the University of Konstanz examines the significance and effects of sovereign debt by investigating the actions of individual agents

In November 2017, the former mayor of Pforzheim and her then treasurer were sentenced to imprisonment for embezzlement. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, they had tried to minimise the town's interest burden and to balance the town’s budget through a series of risky financial transactions. They were not the only ones: During that time, hundreds of communities throughout Germany tried their hand at “casino capitalism” to rehabilitate their finances. In Pforzheim, this resulted in more than 50 million euros of new debt.

Why were chief executives allowed to take such risky decisions? It is cases of fiscal failure such as these that Junior Professor Julia Rischbieter examines as part of the new scientific network “Schulden machen. Praxeologie der Staatsverschuldung im langen 20. Jahrhundert” (Doing debt. Praxeology of sovereign debt in the long twentieth century). Together with the historian Dr Stefanie Middendorf from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Julia Rischbieter secured funding for the project from the German Research Foundation (DFG). The new network includes twelve working groups from Germany, France, the UK and Switzerland.

Which forms did sovereign debt take in the past, and what were the effects of public debt management at various points in time? The research carried out by the network brings this question to bear on the actions of individual agents. Their research is not based on economic models or statistical time series, but on decisions made by real individuals in real situations. For one of the network’s projects, the above-mentioned treasurers will be asked about the circumstances that led to their decision to engage in risky gambling. “The social consequences of sovereign debt are above all determined by the action conditions of incurring debt”, says Julia Rischbieter.

The network’s research into the social and political causes of sovereign debt development in modernity will take into account a variety of viewpoints and approaches. Julia Rischbieter contributes her research on the international regulation of sovereign debt crises. Stefanie Middendorf’s speciality is budget and debt policy in twentieth-century Germany. Other network projects investigate the international context of Swiss fiscal policy, the relationship of banks and regulators as a result of the regulation of the financial markets in the twentieth century, or the cultural history of tax ethics.

The interdisciplinary network, which will receive 50,000 euros from the DFG for a total of six conferences over a period of three years, works at the interface between history, economics and the social sciences. It seeks to analyse the phenomenon of debt in all its complexity and contrariness by closely investigating the social conditions of sovereign debt in the twentieth century. The overall objective is to explain the processual character of and changing responses to public debt and to document, for instance, how the basic principles of the international debt economy - especially in the form of financial obligations - have changed over the course of time.

A German-language reader for students including contributions from all network partners will be published towards the end of the project. The reader will also make the network’s research available to a broader audience within the historical sciences and provide useful material to university teachers and students.


  • Project “Schulden machen. Praxeologie der Staatsverschuldung im langen 20. Jahrhundert” (Doing debt. Praxeology of sovereign debt in the long twentieth century)
  • The scientific network is funded with 50,000 euros by the German Research Foundation (DFG)
  • Applicants: Dr Stefanie Middendorf, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, and Junior Professor Julia Rischbieter, University of Konstanz
  • Twelve research groups from Germany, France, the UK and Switzerland working at the interface between history, economics and the social sciences
  • Funding period: Spring 2018 until spring 2021