Volunteering in Local Communities between Late Socialism and Liberal Capitalism: The History of Volunteer Fire Departments in Germany and East Central Europe, 1980-2000


German Research Foundation, DFG
Austrian Science Fund, FWF

Project duration


Project leaders

Univ.Prof. Dr. Philipp Ther (Institute for East European History, University of Vienna)
Prof. Dr. Thomas Lindenberger (Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung (ZZF) Potsdam)


Dr. Ana Kladnik (ZZF Potsdam)
Steffi Unger, M.A. (ZZF Potsdam)
Mojmir Stransky, M.A. (University of Vienna)

Project Abstract

The project is an international collaboration within the D-A-CH programme between Prof. Dr. Thomas Lindenberger, Center for Contemporary History (ZZF) Potsdam, Germany, and Prof. Dr. Philipp Ther, University of Vienna, Austria, financed by the DFG, Germany, as the Lead Agency, and the FWF, Austria. Researchers in the project are Dr. Ana Kladnik (Postdoc, ZZF Potsdam), Steffi Unger, M.A. (PhD student, ZZF Potsdam) and Mojmir Stranský, M.A. (PhD student, University of Vienna).

Organized voluntary engagement for the common good of the local community was and is a constant feature in modern societies since the 19th century, and across very diverse political regimes. Using the venerable institution of Voluntary Fire Departments (VFD), this comparative project in contemporary history aims at exploring the practice, and relevance of volunteering during late state socialism and the transformation to democracy and market economies in small medium sized cities and their surrounding rural areas (district towns) in Germany and East Central Europe. The following questions are addressed:

1) What was the role of VFD under late socialism? 2) How did VFD with all their traditions and continuities of voluntary service interact with the political ruptures and societal transformations around 1989/1991)?

How did voluntary firefighters perceive themselves and how were they perceived by other local actors in these processes? Did VFD as nuclei of local sociability contribute to maintain and stabilise the cohesion and identity of communities, including social markers of difference such as gender, ethnicity, and class, in a time of radical change, and how were they in turn affected by these changes themselves? 4) How did VFD organisations get involved in inter-communal, including international, cooperation on the grass root level before, during and after the changes of 1989-91? The historical comparison and the areas of investigation are defined by two commonalities: (1) VFD were established and existed almost uninterruptedly as part of municipal self-governance since the 2nd half of the 19th century, as it was typical for Germany and the Habsburg Empire. (2) They came under communist rule after 1944/45 and experienced its erosion and final breakdown during the late 1980s and early 1990s, followed by – however highly diverse – processes of transformation towards liberal capitalism. Local case studies in (East) Germany, Czech Republic, Slovenia and Vojvodina (Serbia) will provide empirical data and be set within the larger institutional and political contexts on the national level. Research will be based on archival records and include the extensive use of oral history interviews.