Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Comparative Political Sciences and Political Systems of Eastern Europe

CONSTRESS - Constitutionalism under Stress



Since January 2022, the second cycle of the strategic partnership project "CONSTRESS - Constitutionalism under Stress: Comparative Perspectives" has been running as part of the profile partnership between Humboldt University and Princeton University. Launched in 2016, CONSTRESS is an interdisciplinary project bringing together political scientists, political philosophers, sociologists and lawyers. It consists of co-taught seminars and workshops open to master's and doctoral students from a variety of disciplines at both universities.

On the HU side, the Integrative Research Institute Law & Society (LSI) and the Comparative Politics and the Political Systems of Eastern Europe are involved in the project.


Research Focus


Since the global boom of democratic constitution-making and constitutional reform in the 1990s, abroad legal and political debate centered around the crucial importance of constitutional law as a means of protecting transnational fundamental rights and promoting democracy. In recent years, however, the flip side of this "new constitutionalism" has also become visible: If the political context changes in an unfavorable (i.e. iliberal or populist) direction, constitutions, it seems, can in fact be used as tools to re-establish and strengthen authoritarianism. Besides, constitutions may com under stress where different levels of constitutional politics (national, sub- and supra-national) overlap and sometimes contradict each other. These dangers have been visible both in Europe and the Americas, crying out for a careful comparative approach. Whereas constitutions largely fall into the area of expertise of legal scholars, they are increasingly also part of political and social science research. CONSTRESS proposes a combination of normative, legal and social scientific research to develop a more nuanced understanding of constitutionalism's contemporary crises.





Silvia von Steinsdorff, Professor of Comparative Politics at Humboldt-Universität

Anna-Bettina Kaiser, Professor of Public Law at Humboldt-Universität

Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Political Theory at Princeton University



Kaja Anna Kaźmierska, research associate at Institut für Sozialwissenschaften

Friederike Augustin, research associate at Institut für Sozialwissenschaften


Previous Seminars and Workshops


In planning - June 2024: Seminar and workshop on "Free Speech, Academic Freedom, Freedom of Assembly", Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

October 2023: Workshops on "Transitions to Democracy Revisited" and "Academic Freedom: Normative, Legal, and Empirical Perspectives", Princeton University

September/October 2023: Joint Seminar on "Constitutionalism and Democracy: Transatlantic Normative and Empirical Perspectives", Princeton University

June 2023: Joint Seminar on „The Rule of Law Under Threat: Transatlantic Legal and Normative Perspectives”, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

October 2022: Workshop on "Political Parties and Other Associations”, Princeton University

September/October 2022: Joint Seminar on "Digital Democracy: Historical, Legal, and Normative Transatlantic Perspectives"

July 2022: Workshop on “Executives and Emergencies: Normative, Legal, and Empirical Transatlantic Perspective”, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

June 2021: Joint Seminar "Executives and Emergencies: Normative, Legal, and Empirical Transatlantic Perspective", Online

June 2020: "Democratic and Constitutional Resilience", Online

June 2019: "Free Speech in Troubled Times", Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

March 2019: "The Other ‘Transitology’: Pathways into and out of Authoritarianism in the Twenty-First Century – Empirical and Normative Perspectives", Princeton University

July 2018: "Constitutionalism, Dissent, and Resistance", Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Student contributions to previous events (exemplary):



"A Princeton-Humboldt Project Unites U.S. and German Students to Examine the Crisis of Democracy"

Click here for the report on the Princeton PhD students' visit to Berlin in summer 2023.


10 Years of the HU-Princeton partnership: Democracy, adademic freedom and "Theory Thursday"


Picture of Humboldt Student October 9, 2023 1.jpeg


In the fall of 2023, a group of Humboldt students flew across the Atlantic - to a small university town with a big name: Princeton. This was preceded by a visit to Berlin by their US colleagues in June. The framework for this exchange is the CONSTRESS project, which stands for "Constitutionalism Under Stress". The three heads of the project, Silvia von Steinsdorff (Professor of Comparative Politics at Humboldt University), Anna-Bettina Kaiser (Professor of Public Law at Humboldt University) and Jan-Werner Müller (Professor of Political Theory at Princeton University), represent a spectrum of very different disciplines and positions. The same applied to the students. The exchange brought together students from the social sciences, law, and political theory. It was precisely this interdisciplinary and transatlantic range of professional backgrounds that was enriching and offered challenges that encouraged students to examine and carefully formulate their own views. It would never have been possible to indulge in an illusion of naïve patent remedies, as all participants were encouraged to take into account the complexity and ambivalence of constitutions, democracy, their challenges and further development.

In Princeton, in addition to participating in a seminar on "Constitutionalism and Democracy" with PhD students of political theory, we were also invited to participate in non-student events (i.e. good appetizers!). The two-day conference "Transitions to Democracy Revisited" addressed the question of how a renewed transition to democracy can be realized and stabilized in states that have taken the path of autocratic regimes. In addition to long-standing discussions about majoritarian and non-majoritarian institutions and which should be trusted more in the establishment and stabilization of a democracy, the conference did not shy away from questioning more fundamental issues: Does the term "democratic backsliding" adequately describe the phenomenon? Is it negligent to always use democracy and liberalism unquestioningly in the same context or even as synonyms? Which concepts and institutions can turn the status quo and guide democratization?

Regardless of the different academic cultures, what the participating academics had in common was to involve us students in the discussion of their research as a matter of course. All of them were committed to not abstracting political developments hypothetically, but to grasp them in their specific relevance and to show current despair in an unembellished way and where it can be overcome through persistent exchange between academics and practitioners. For example, we had the opportunity to discuss Samuel Moyn's reform proposal for the US Supreme Court, in which he calls for a radical democratization of the institution.

We were also able to discuss with Martin Loughlin his critique of "constitutionalism" as a modern ideology, as opposed to (desirable) constitutional democracy, and as set out in his book "Against Constitutionalism". He questioned the liberal academic canon and was outraged by the eternal circular deliberations of his colleagues.

The workshop "Academic Freedom: Normative, Legal, and Empirical Perspectives" took place as part of the ten-year cooperation between Humboldt University and Princeton University. In addition to the renowned guests from academia, a candidate for the Polish opposition party "Koalicja Obywatelska" (Civic Coalition) Adam Bodnar was also invited to the workshop - directly from the field, so to speak. He was able to give us his assessment of the (then still) upcoming elections in Poland. As a lawyer and human rights activist, he combined fascinating perspectives from political practice, civil society and law. After the workshop, the President of the HU, Julia von Blumenthal, and the President of Princeton University, Christopher Ludwig Eisgruber, exchanged views on academic freedom and the cooperation between the two universities and set course for ten more years of fruitful cooperation.

The events were therefore characterized by great interdisciplinarity - historians, legal scholars and political scientists, but also politicians, exchanged views on the issues that concern us all. Within the rather isolated campus bubble, a variety of perspectives was thus possible, each of which struck a chord with the current problem constellations.

The "Theory Thursday", on the other hand, transcended the purely academic nature of the exchange, as the "Ivy Inn" also allowed non-theoretical topics to be addressed over $2 beers (Narragansett!). We visitors also left the purely abstract level of democratic theory and constitutionalism during a visit to Philadelphia, where we walked in the footsteps of the authors of the Declaration of Independence in the Independence Hall. Particularly impressive was the interactive concept of the tour guide, who was able to elicit the in-chorus response "representation!" from the US tour participants at the touch of a button by shouting "No taxation without -". (Of course, we also visited New York, but without any educational mission).

The end of the trip was overshadowed by the horror of the Hamas attack on Israel, which suddenly pushed the previously lively debates on Israeli constitutional reform into the background.

This short report would not be complete without a huge and heartfelt thank you to Silvia von Steinsdorff, Jan-Werner Müller and Anna-Bettina Kaiser - for making this exchange possible, and last but not least to Kaja Kaźmierska and Friederike Augustin, who were an indescribable help with the bureaucratic jungle of the visa application and much more. They managed to combine a low-threshold approach to participation and organization of the exchange with a high level of expertise and valuable insights. This has left us students with lasting impressions that have encouraged us in our individual approaches or shown us development paths for future work. With the diverse and demanding tasks of a university, there is rarely an opportunity for such an intensive form of teaching. That is precisely why this exchange was undoubtedly of great value to everyone involved.





HU members finally back in Princeton since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic

In September and October 2022, a group of Humboldt University (HU) social science and law students and research fellows travelled to Princeton University (PU) in Princeton, New Jersey, where they joined the seminar led by Prof. Silvia von Steinsdorff (HU Berlin, ISW), Prof. Anna-Bettina Kaiser (HU Berlin, Faculty of Law) and Prof. Jan-Werner Müller (PU, Department of Politics) on “Digital Democracy” and a workshop on “Political Parties and Other Associations”. The events were organised within the framework of the strategic HU-PU cooperation and the flagship project on Constitutionalism under Stress (“CONSTRESS”), already taking place since 2016.

Crossing the borders between the German and US-American debate, as well as between social, political and legal research provided the participants with valuable new perspectives. Many participants mentioned learning about the different views on digital democracy in general, and the differences concerning the free speech debate and hate speech regulation between the European Union and the US particular as the most interesting. The participants agreed the seminar was helpful to get an impression of the US-perspective on the topics, specifically on internet-regulation, and it was particularly compelling to observe how the US-American and German perspectives evolved in the course of the seminar: The US students taking a more open attitude towards regulations, the German students at times struggling to legitimise German legal doctrines not only vis-a-vis the other students, but also in their own understanding.

Some participants even claimed there was an US-specific discourse whose rules one could only learn during such a direct exposure to the US political science, as the stay at Princeton offered. Pluralism was measured, for example, by the question of whether it was possible for an individual to listen to all sides of a discussion. “All” sides implicitly meant two sides, Pro and Contra, Republican and Democratic.

The group also learnt about different notions of privacy, freedom, and earmarked use. They critically evaluated assumptions and claims about the polarisation of societies as a result of social media usage. The consensus after the seminar was that socio-political reality seems more complex than phrases like "echo chamber" and "filter bubbles" would suggest.

During the seminar, the participants presented their own research and projects they were working on, connected to the notion of digital democracy. The had the opportunity to discuss their project with the other participants in a transatlantic setting. During the workshop, students presented their work and research findings along side the leading academics in the field, providing an opportunity for an in-depth discussion in an informal setting. Academic from both sides of the Atlantic joined the workshop, therefore both the European and American views on the evolving role of political parties and the specific challenges were represented.

Besides many new insights into digitalisation, democracy, parties, associations, and the role of social media in deliberative democracy, the group also had the opportunity to dive into the life at an US-American Ivy League university. At Princeton, an entire infrastructure is designed to meet the needs of undergraduate students. The group stayed very close to the campus, in the Theological Seminary nearby, which allowed them to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of an US-American (private) university, to see and feel for themselves how it must feel to be a US student, visiting extra lectures and seminars at the campus, reading the “Daily Princetonian” and eating at the luxurious Princeton dining halls. The group was able to use the Princeton University libraries, with their rich literature collection and so spacious that no student has ever worried about getting a seat.





Online seminar on "Executives and Emergencies": A look at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond

Here is one of the podcasts produced by two of our students, Marie-Lou Laprise and Tessa Porter, as part of the joint online seminar "Executives and Emergencies: Normative, Legal, and Empirical Transatlantic Perspective". The podcast explores how exceptional constitutional law is used to address the consequences of natural disasters and climate change.


Theme music: "Werq" by Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0 License(