New Perspectives on the History of Corruption and Why They Are Important

history_corruption_imageRecently, the German historian Jens Ivo Engels published Die Geschichte der Korruption. Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis ins 20.Jahrhundert (The history of corruption. From the early modern period to the 20th century). Engels is professor in early modern and modern history at Darmstadt University and has been writing about corruption for several years now. He supervised several PhD projects and organized conferences on the history of corruption with academics from France, Britain and the Netherlands. Therefore, the book can be considered both an account of Engels’s latest research as well as an overview of what has been written about the history of corruption by other historians so far. For all those interested in corruption scandals, in the different uses of the term corruption and in the historical developments that have been responsible for changing understandings of corruption in Western Europe, the book of Jens Ivo Engels offers a great introduction.

The new branch of literature on the history of corruption has broader implications as well. For a long time a specific understanding of corruption in the early modern era (1500-1800) has prevailed which has affected our understanding of corruption in the modern era (1800-now). In academic work, for example in the work of Jacob van Klaveren, it has been argued that early modern societies were very corrupt because there was no separation between public and private interest. Patronage, clientelism, nepotism and the use of public office for private and family benefit was commonly accepted. Only after 1800 – when a clear and formal separation of both spheres was established – was it possible to curb these forms of corruption with specific laws. Others, such as James Scott, therefore claimed that it was impossible to locate corruption in early modern society precisely because of the absence of a public-private distinction. Following a comparable line of argumentation, a third group of academics has argued that there is no relation between modern and older definitions of corruption. In classical/early modern society corruption was regarded as a form of moral wrongdoing or used to describe system failure, whereas in modern society it is about incidental and individual abuse of law. However, new historical research has made clear that these views are at least incomplete.

First, although from a contemporary perspective it may be difficult to locate the public and private in early modern society, this does not mean that there was no idea of misuse of public and administrative offices by individuals, families or political factions. In 17th and 18th century Dutch Republic, local governors were now and then accused of corruption and of harming the common good for favouring their own family or faction too much when providing them abundantly with offices or money collected to maintain city services (like poor relief, dikes, or public safety). Second, this means that there was an understanding of corruption, anti-corruption and good governance in the early modern era and one which can be researched. In other words clientelism, nepotism and patronage were bounded not in a modern sense by written anti-corruption laws, administrative standards or codes of good conduct (although they existed) but by tradition, privilege and face-to-face agreements between members of the elite and between the elite and the citizenry.

Third, in depth historical research has made clear that corruption scandals in the 19th and 20th centuries are not only about individual civil servants or politicians misusing their offices for private gain. Yes, often an infringement of a certain separation between public and private interest was at stake but accusations of corruption were used much more broadly. For example classical explanation – in which corruption is an example of personal immorality and the embodiment of a perverted society – can be found in debates about electoral fraud or misbehaviour of party politicians in the 19th century as well as in contemporary debates about failed public infrastructure projects or greedy managers in the private sector.

Hence, this and other work on the history of corruption, should affect our understanding of corruption and anti-corruption. ANTICORRP researchers (a European Commission funded FP7-project on anti-corruption) try to further improve the understanding of cross spatial and temporal differences. When corruption is not only about individual law-breaking, it is necessary to discuss and establish new understandings of good governance and anti-corruption.

Dr. Ronald Kroeze is an assistant-professor in history at VU University Amsterdam and ANTICORRP-postdoctoral researcher at University of Amsterdam

Literature and further reading:

  • Engels, J.I., Die Geschichte der Korruption. Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis ins 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt 2014). S. Fischer.
  • Engels, J.I., ‘Corruption as a political issue in modern society’. Wagenaar P., J. Kennedy and M. Rutgers (eds.) The Genesis of Public Value Systems, special issue on corruption of Public Voices, X, (Newark 2008). SPAA. Pp. 68-86
  • Engels, J.I., A. Fahrmeir and A. Nützenadel (eds.), Geld, Geschenke, Politik. Beiheft 48, Historische Zeitschrift, 2009, München.
  • Kerkhoff, A.D.N., Hidden Morals, Explicit Scandals. Public Values and Political Corruption in the Netherlands (1748 – 1813). PhD Dissertation. Leiden 2013: Leiden University.
  • Kroeze, R., T. Kerkhoff and S. Corni (eds.), Corruption and the Rise of Modern Politics. Special issue, Journal of Modern European History (JMEH) 11, 2013, München. C.H. Beck
  • Kroeze, D.B.R., Een kwestie van politieke moraliteit. Goed bestuur en politieke corruptieschandalen in Nederland, 1848-1940 (Hilversum 2013).
  • Monier, F., Dard, O., Engels, J.E. (eds.), Patronage et corruption politiques dans l’Europe contemporaine (Paris 2014).
  • Wagenaar P., J. Kennedy and M. Rutgers (eds.) The Genesis of Public Value Systems, special issue on corruption ofPublic Voices, X, (Newark 2008). SPAA.