Population in Numbers: Demographic Developments in Europe from the Early Modern Period to the Post-War Period
Our description of the historical development of populations in Europe must be preceded by some preliminary considerations. Firstly, it must be determined which regions and associated populations belong to "Europe". Differing borders can be drawn depending on the historical period, the political situation and the cultural interpretation. The concept of a "European population" must thus be used with great care. However, perhaps the biggest obstacle to a genuinely European perspective on "population" is that population figures have only been compiled systematically for a relatively short period and at the national level. This "methodological nationalism" influences demography and historical population research by viewing the nation-state as a kind of "container" whose contents – the population – can supposedly be clearly differentiated from the contents of other "containers" or categories.1 Since population is not a static, immobile object and the nation-state as an organizational form is not a timeless entity but a product of history, the criteria and methods employed when considering population development have to be taken into account: Firstly, is it primarily the total population numbers that are of interest or are we interested in the relative population density or changes in population distribution? Secondly, should the historical or the present-day political entities be used as the basis of investigation? Thirdly, it should be taken into account that the existing figures are often based on estimates. It is therefore only possible to point out some general demographic trends in European history and to identify some turning points.
If one considers the period between 1450 and the post-war period of the 20th century, at first glance the rapid population growth stands out. While in 1450 there were approximately 55 million people living in the territory of the present-day EU, in 1960 there were more than ten times as many, or about 604 million.2 However, growth was by no means linear. For example, due to the first great wave of plague, the population level in 1450 was considerably lower than it had been in 1300, when approximately 73 million people had lived in Europe. Neither were all regions affected to the same extent by these population trends.3 In individual regions, the population figures remained relatively static for centuries – for example in the region around , where the population remained almost the same between the 14th and the 18th centuries.4
The rise in population which can be observed in the early modern period was accompanied by numerous social, economic and political changes: "lands were resettled and intensively exploited; movement to the east began again; Europe for the first time exported population as America became an outlet; and the urban framework was fortified."5
The Thirty Years' War, a new plague epidemic and the resulting crisis in the food supply brought an end to this phase of demographic growth. It took a long time to compensate for these falls in population, and uneven trends caused a lasting shift in proportional population levels in some European regions. The agrarian revolution, the beginning of industrialization and advancements in the area of hygiene and medicine all contributed to strong population growth in the 19th century. While in the period between 1400 and 1700 the population had not even doubled, it increased sixfold between 1700 and 2000.6 In the context of rapid industrialization and urbanization, internal migration caused the population density within individual nations and regions to change dramatically within a short space of time. During the same period, overseas emigration grew rapidly and became a mass phenomenon.7
During this period of renewed population growth, the first censuses took place in the 17th and in particular in the 18th century. The "first modern census" is considered to be the one conducted in 1665 in French 8 Prior to that, small scale censuses had been conducted on the European continent. is famous in this regard, as for tax purposes its inhabitants were recorded in the so-called Catasto as early as 1427.9 In the aftermath of the Reformation, there were also efforts to register the confessional affiliations of the inhabitants of a region, for example, the "Untertanen-Verzeichnis nach dem Glauben" (Register of Subjects by Religion) conducted in 1651 in the .10 From the 18th century onward, censuses began to be conducted in many parts of Europe, for example in the from 1795,11 in – which at that time still belonged to – from 186512 and in from 1901,13 to name just a few examples.14 The first statistical office was founded in 1749 in Sweden, with similar authorities being founded in almost all European countries in the subsequent one hundred years.15 This placed the statistical recording of the population on a permanent institutional footing.– though only the European settlers were counted.
Considering Population: Historical Perspectives
There are fundamentally two possibilities for determining population numbers: a collective census at a defined point in time or the registration of every individual at a certain point in his/her life.16 This already points to the two tools that play a central role in our knowledge of "population". Firstly, there is the aforementioned census.17 Secondly, there is the register of baptisms and deaths, which were maintained by church parishes for their respective territories and the principle of which survives in the recording of vital statistics by states. Both means of recording influence the way in which the "population as object" is constructed academically.
This object began to be studied systematically in Europe during the Enlightenment.18 The state-directed economic system known as cameralism had the aim of recording information regarding the infrastructure and demographic situation of the state as precisely as possible in order to use this information to raise the economic performance of the state. In the context of the settlement policies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the term "population" implied active policies to increase the population in uninhabited and under-populated areas. This populationism presupposed a certain degree of quantitative knowledge or at least concrete assumptions regarding the number of people living in an area. However, the range of the estimations of population numbers appears surprisingly large to the present-day reader. For example, at the beginning of the 18th century, the French philosopher Montesquieu (1689–1755) wrote in his Lettres Persanes that the total number of people on the earth had fallen to a fiftieth of what it had been at the time of Gaius Iulius Caesar (100 BC–44).19 In , the debate about the overall development of global demographics resulted in a long-running argument between David Hume (1711–1776) and Robert Wallace (1697–1771). While Hume argued that the global population was increasing, Wallace was convinced that it had decreased significantly since classical antiquity.20
However, the disconnection between demographic objectives and the available statistical data which existed well into the 18th century21 does not mean that the discourse on population must be viewed exclusively in the context of the history of ideas. On the contrary, particularly in the second half of the 18th century, this discourse gave rise to concrete political measures, such as rigid marriage law, which in the early modern estate-based society also always reflected the social differentiation of population policy interests.22 However, recent research has rejected a purely structural explanation for trends in these population discourses as an historical oversimplification. The early concepts of deliberate population policy were not just directed at central demographic events such as famines, epidemics or the Thirty Years' War. Population policy measures were also influenced by the social interconnections between the participating actors, as well as the political contexts and institutional dependencies. It thus played a considerable role whether an early thinker on demography was employed by his territorial ruler, such as Johann Heinrich Justi (ca. 1717–1771), or by the church, such as Johann Peter Süßmilch (1707–1767).23 These contexts determined not only the means by which their works were disseminated but also affected their access to relevant data material and how that material was subsequently interpreted. If one considers the concept of population of the 17th and 18th centuries, it becomes clear that "population" was an academic construct, by means of which the demographic shifts on the European continent were negotiated. Before industrialization, discourses of underpopulation and overpopulation alternated with one another, though they referred to specific spaces or social classes in very nuanced ways.
The British economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) is considered one of the most influential voices in public and political discourses on "population". Contrary to the Enlightenment idea of man’s capacity to perfect himself, Malthus argued in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that land and food were finite and that unrestricted population growth would unavoidably lead to conflicts over resources. In spite of strong criticism which was voiced even during his lifetime, a mode of thought established itself in large parts of Europe which focused on the connection between population growth and raw materials, on which the idea of an impending "overpopulation" was based.24 The perception that one’s own nation-state or even the whole of Europe would be too small for a continuously growing population added weight to calls for territorial expansion, which were voiced in several European countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was increased academic and in particular historical interest in the composition and development of the population in many European countries.25 In the period between the world wars, the Ukrainian brothers Eugene Kulischer (1881–1956) and Aleksandr Kulischer (1890–1942) studied the connection between military and ethnic conflicts and (forced) migration. Their research was heavily influenced by the experiences of the numerous civil wars and ethnic conflicts which occurred throughout Europe during that period.26 The fact that the brothers were themselves subsequently persecuted because of their Jewish ancestry (Aleksandr died in a concentration camp, Eugene fled to the United States of America) gives their research an increased historical significance.27 Another characteristic feature of the interwar period were the efforts of many European governments to strengthen their own populations, which had been weakened by war and the economic crisis, by means of pro-natalist measures, in order to maintain the position of their own nation.28 For demographers, this political interest in population statistics meant that their expertise gained public relevance and they were listened to as experts.29
The fact that there was a noticeable increase in the formation of theories regarding population developments and rates of reproduction in the interwar period was also due to the emergence of new systems of recording30 and technological changes in information processing.31 Geopolitical interest in population issues arising from the disintegration of multi-ethnic empires and the redrawing of borders by the Versailles Treaty also played a role. For example, German and Polish demographers attempted to prove that people living in the border regions between and had German or Polish roots and that the regions therefore rightfully "belonged" to the one nation or the other.32 With the emergence of fascist movements and parties in many central European countries, knowledge regarding the ethnic composition of the population received a new, and often threatening significance.33 This tendency was promoted by the radicalization of eugenics.34 Eugenic concepts had already been in circulation in many European countries and in very diverse political circles from the late 19th century. However, in the context of fascism, eugenics gained a new role as a supporting tool for the state. The "German nation", as imagined by the National Socialists, was to be "racially pure" and free from ideologically undesirable deviations. Demographic information regarding the composition of the German population thus became very important. The National Socialist policies of segregation and extermination, particularly in , represented the brutal climax of the (self-)functionalization of population research.35
In the aftermath of the Second World War, völkisch and nationalistically driven research on population history lost a good deal of its legitimacy.36 On the other hand, the impression left by the mass displacements and population migrations during the Second World War,37 but also the reordering of Europe and the changing economic conditions gave increased relevance to migration-historical population studies.38 Due in particular to the influence of empirical social research, new research approaches emerged in many western European countries in the 1950s and 1960s.39 Another contributing factor was the fact that social welfare structures were created and expanded throughout Europe (though under different political circumstances in the East and the West), which increasingly relied on demographic analyses and prognoses.40
In German historiography, historical demography became important as a systematic area of research in the 1950s and 1960s.41 In other countries, these research traditions are of longer standing. In , for example, a historiography with a stronger focus on demographic issues emerged with the Annales School, and continues to exist this day.42 In Great Britain, E. A. Wrigley (1931–) and Peter Laslett (1915–2001) developed important approaches. The foundation of the Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques in and the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure also demonstrate the institutionalization of demographic research. At East German universities, which in some cases had a tradition of population research stretching back before the partition of Germany, innovative works on demographic history emerged in the 1970s and 1980s.43
In the 1970s and 1980s, increasing interest in Alltagsgeschichte and microhistorical research, and the emergence of historical anthropology gave a new impetus to research on population history.44 In the 1990s and 2000s, demographic-historical research in western Europe gained new attention not least due to the debates regarding the "shrinking population", the changing demographics and related questions regarding the future development of social welfare systems.45
Generally speaking, the number of overview works on population history and historical demography which have been published in recent years suggests that the scepticism with regard to quantitative approaches which had existed for so long in historical studies has decreased.46 More recent studies concentrate on public debates regarding population developments and usually adopt a cultural-historical perspective or a history of knowledge perspective.
Population as a Construct
As the brief overview above shows, "population" was never a fixed object that could be measured objectively. It was always a construct of societal, political, and academic ideals, assumptions and approaches. In the following, this constructed character will be investigated on three levels: firstly, regarding the instruments for measuring population; secondly, regarding the process of identification of space and population; and, thirdly, the question will be examined, whether and in what way a specifically European concept of population is conceivable.
Instruments for Recording Population
In general, demography differentiates between two modes of information recording. Firstly, data can be recorded by means of a census on a specific day. These snapshot figures are particularly useful for diachronous comparisons. Secondly, population data can be recorded as Bewegungsdaten (movement data), that is, by means of the vital-statistical registration of important life events such as birth and death, but also baptism, marriage and the birth of offspring, etc.
From the perspective of the present day, we immediately perceive this form of registration as a function of state authority, and think of it as being closely connected with questions of nationality and citizenship.47 Without a doubt, state administration and its expanding remit became increasingly important for the registration of the individual over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.48 This is particularly true with regard to migration.49 However, the further we look back into the early modern period, the weaker the connection between registration and state authority becomes. The recording of vital statistics and residence information for the population was often performed by church parishes, or by territorial lords or the owners of landed estates at the local or regional level. Thus the picture of "population" that emerged was punctiform and focused on just a few aspects. These figures and in particular the methodological difficulties involved in their reconstruction remain an important factor in the historical view of population up to the present. For large parts of the early modern period, church records, tax lists, municipal records and homage rolls are the only materials which can be used to laboriously extrapolate the actual quantity of inhabitants of an area.50
When and where individuals were registered says a lot about the claims and the actual reality of power. The concept of population can and must be understood here in the Foucauldian sense as being also an instrument of power.51 The fact that, for example, in Great Britain the area of vital statistics has been much more important than in many other European countries reflects a different kind of authority on the part of the state in relation to its citizens.52
The ability to measure the quantity of individuals in a specific territory by counting them is constitutive of our understanding of the exercise of sovereign state power. Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) views the census – like cartography and the museum – as a characteristic of state power in a colonial state. He considers the uniform and in particular the discrete identification of individuals to be decisive in this regard. However, the fundamental innovation in this principle of state power was – according to Anderson – less the formulation of categories of biological and social difference, which had a long tradition in Europe, than the discrete categorization of each individual. Regardless of how much freedom a democratic state offers an individual, it is unique identification which is fundamentally at stake, according to Anderson. To put it another way, the population can only be counted in homogeneous categories. In this logic, it is unthinkable that an individual could be recorded as a resident of two different places, a member of two genders, or a member of different ethnic groups. In this way, the complexity of real life situations is reduced in favour of discreteness.53
The historiographical narrative assumes that the administrative organs of the pre-modern era had a functional approach to the measuring of population; it is often assumed that early censuses were conducted for the purpose of recording tax obligations and military service obligations.54 While early cameralist pioneers of statistics, such as Johann Peter Süßmilch, viewed the big numbers as an expression of national power,55 the connection between the counted population and the process of nation building should be viewed with caution. The institutions of military service and tax obligations developed as part of the modern European nation-state, which only asserted itself during the course of the 19th century. The quantification of national strength cannot be viewed as the main impetus for counting the population precisely because general military service did not exist in many European countries until well into the 19th century.56 Research on the early modern period also shows that the size of the army was primarily an expression of fiscal policy performance rather than population size.57 The direct correlation between population size and army size is more a feature of the 20th century than of the period of the emergence of "national populations" in the early 19th century.58 There must therefore presumably be a much more complex connection between the concept of population and the concept of modern statehood, in which the various institutions of the modern European polity promote the development of one another in a mutual way. The idea of comprehensively recording populations which are obliged to perform military duty and to pay taxes can also be viewed as a consequence rather than a cause of the census. The emergence of demographic research was fundamentally closely connected with the development of statistical capabilities, which themselves can be viewed as a driving force as well as an expression of modern processes of state formation.59 The Eighth International Statistical Congress in in 1872 established standards for the professional operation of population censuses. The participants in the congress formulated a list of questions which should be contained in every census (first name and surname, gender, age, family membership, marital status, profession or occupation, religion, language, literacy, ancestry, place of birth and citizenship, place of residence and type of stay on the day of the census, illnesses). The participants in the St. Petersburg congress also recommended that nation-states should conduct censuses in intervals of ten years.60 In many cases, these defined structures provided the impetus for further state interventions which built on them. This also calls into question traditional chronologies and temporal sequences. In the Soviet Union, the recording of the population continued as before after 1917; the interventions of the new regime simply adapted gradually.61 Thus, historical research must take into account not just the effect of the counting and categorizing of the population,62 but also their function in the spectrum of political actions.
Processes of Identification of Space and Population
In order to investigate the concept of "population" historically, it is important to pay attention to the various recording methods and their historical dimensions. They demonstrate not only the constructed nature of the knowledge object "population", but also give insights into the production process of this object. Libby Schweber (1958–) has pointed out that no uniform concept of "demography" existed for a long period in the 19th century.63 Instead, the concept was negotiated and argued over by very diverse groups, many of which did not come from a university or academic context.
The concept of population can be applied to entities other than the nation. While equating population with nation seems natural to us in the present day, the history of academic interest in population questions also contains alternatives and fractures, which allow us to identify how population came to be equated with national space. Three of these points will now be briefly discussed:
Population and Region
The academic penetration of the concept of population in Europe is closely intertwined with the institutionalization of population statistics and the movement for the foundation of statistical offices.64 This history is not exclusively national history – even though during the course of the 20th century national statistical offices became the most important sites and structural elements in the jumble of statistical values.65 The foundation of statistical institutions was initially heavily influenced by the Napoleonic reforms in the various countries of Europe.66 Ian Hacking (1936–) has shown that many statisticians at the beginning of the 19th century were primarily interested in creating local and regional knowledge structures. For example, in the middle of the 19th century, the director of the Royal Prussian Statistical Bureau, Ernst Engel (1821–1896), formulated the goal that every city and region should have an office of this kind, and that population would thus be defined as a local entity.67
In 68 By formulating the category of "Italian", by comparing different regions which were assumed to be part of a future Italian nation, but also by the exchange of staff, networks and epistemic structures emerged. However, enthusiasm for demographic figures declined significantly after the foundation of the Italian nation, as the international comparability of data that would now be officially recorded showed that in many areas – for example, schooling and literacy – the "national" population was relatively "backward".69 The divergence between the industrialized and the impoverished was particularly highlighted by the statistics., these regional institutions promoted the nation avant la lettre decades before the unification of the Italian kingdom.
In European history, there are various examples which demonstrate the tensions between regional and national definitions of population. Depending on the historical-political context, the two perspectives could be mutually supporting or be in competition with one another. At the same time, population statistics offered urban middle class elites in particular new scope for identification, as it was the statistical categories which often provided the semantic framework in which progressiveness and modernity could be expressed. These specific circumstances also offered conflict potential, as these categories could also radically strengthen the formation of regional identities. For example, attempts from the 1920s to record and research the use of the Basque language by means of a dedicated institute served as a support for the nationalist and independence movement in the 70.
However, representatives of minorities were not always as effective at promoting their interests using statistical records. European history contains numerous examples of ethnic, confessional, and other minorities being "overlooked" or aggressively excluded in the statistics. For example, in the earliest Swedish population statistics from the 17th century, the Sami, the nomadic population of Sweden, do not appear as a separate group, but were counted as "Lapps". This was connected with the state's interest in Christianizing the region. In the mid-18th century, the Sami were listed as a separate demographic group because the Swedish state now hoped to obtain additional tax revenues from the Sami population and for cameralist reasons wanted to make the total population as large as possible. However, the interests of the Swedish government cannot be interpreted exclusively from an economic perspective. In the statistical table, the Sami were listed alongside "prisoners" and "the poor" – an indication that they were not viewed as being equal inhabitants of the territory. At the beginning of the 19th century, the Sami were equated in terms of status with "Jews" and "gypsies".71 Here ethnicity influenced the qualitative perspective on one's own population by means of a "colonial" logic, and thus also influenced the construction of what "population" meant at different times.72
Ethnic categories were used in the perception and depiction of "population" in particular during the era of colonialism. The colonial dimension of demographic thought is both a key topic and a special case. Benedict Anderson views censuses in the European colonies and their principle of categorizing individuals in a discriminatory way as the origin of the establishment of collective national identities.73 Colonial knowledge practices also influenced knowledge systems in the European countries and the definition of otherness.74
Apart from this postcolonial perspective on an instance of colonial power, historical research has found it difficult right up to the present to adequately integrate the colonies into the history of European concepts of population.75 One of the main reasons for this is that "colonial" population questions were not usually discussed in the same institutional structures as those of the European countries of origin. For example, in the German Empire, colonial population figures were not recorded by the statistical offices, but in accordance with the respective administrative practice in the colonies. Thus, the German Imperial Colonial Office, the colonial companies and the military all recorded statistics. Additionally, until after the First World War population figures for the colonies were very fragmentary if they existed at all, and they usually only referred to groups of settlers from Europe.76 However, precisely this lack of knowledge about circumstances on the ground and weak institutionalization could result in the colonial administrations working together. Thus, for example, doctors regularly used morbidity and mortality figures from other countries if no such figures were available for the colonies of their own country.
The colonial perspective on the population overseas was as Partha Chatterjee (1947–) states defined by the "the rule of colonial difference". Possibilities for development were recognized per se, but they were projected into the distant future. Parallel to that, emphasis was placed on existing differences, which were repeatedly reproduced as an influential dispositif of colonial power specifically through anthropological and demographic discourses.77 Though colonial populations were not the object of demographic research and statistics gathering as they are understood today, they were not entirely omitted. When Alfred Leber (1881–1954) and Ludwig Külz (1875–1938) embarked on a "Medicinisch-Demographische Expedition" to German in 1913/1914 to research and fight the causes of above average mortality, this ambiguity of difference and proximity to a European population discourse became apparent. Not long before this, the shipping magnate Eduard Woermann had launched a competition involving the following task:
Which practical measures can help to achieve an increase in the frequency of births and the reduction of child mortality of the native population – our colonies’ economically most valuable asset – in our colonies.78
These endeavours were aimed at making the advancements of a modern public health service accessible to colonial populations. However, such approaches also reinforced the perception of a fundamental difference between a European and a colonial population. For example, the expert in tropical medicine and colonial doctor Külz had a few years previously introduced a strict separation of "black" and "white" populations in the German colony of 79 These discriminatory practices had a lasting effect and were often adopted by local elites during the process of decolonization.80in the name of providing better healthcare.
Efforts towards decolonization and the internationalization of colonial discourse also exerted influence in the interwar period on the concept of population. Some European demographers studied demographic changes in the colonies – also in the context of newly created international organisations – and in so doing developed an important new field of activity.81
For as long as the history of thinking "in large numbers" has been written,82 the historical literature has struggled with the coexistence of apparent contradictions: the apparent significance of the national and the deep-rooted transnationality of the statistical schools. Thus, Ian Hacking described in his research on the 19th century the fundamental methodological differences between the French and Prussian statistical traditions, though he also concluded that the statisticians of many European countries shared a common perspective on the future: "An international vision of statistics as a higher calling, the pure science of the numerical facts about the citizen."83 Thus the conceptualization of "population" can be analysed in its dependence on the practices of the actors involved, as well as on the linguistic processes of communication and translation. These interconnections between statistical schools were by no means limited to a diffuse space of shared discourses. Rather, they were based on processes of institutionalization at the international level, which were often very concrete. Particularly in view of the comparatively weak integration of the discipline into academic structures in most European countries, these transnational interconnections were of vital importance to many academics.84
Demographic disciplines attained widely varying statuses in the academic and political discourse in the individual European countries over the course of the 19th century.85 The history of the International Statistical Congresses and subsequently the International Congresses of Hygiene and Demography played a decisive role in this regard. At the congresses, it was possible to compensate for the lack of academic recognition in one's own country and to exchange experiences of methodological issues,86 even if this did not necessarily lead to uniform concepts of demography.87
During the course of the 20th century, the transnational dimension became increasingly important for concepts of population. The transnational level reached a particular climax and simultaneously its strongest politicization with the concept of the "global population" in the 1960s and 1970s. In debates about environmental destruction, the unsustainable use of resources and rapid population growth, which were in some cases neo-Malthusian in tone (i.e. characterized by a fear of runaway population growth), this concept became a metaphor for political action directed towards "sustainability". It can also be understood as the result of an internationalization in the context of new supranational organizations.88 The concept of a global population was always connected with interventionist concepts of regulation. However, research in recent years has made an essential contribution to the clarification of discussions of the "global population" as the result of political and academic processes of negotiation that are driven by networks of people who are clearly identifiable in terms of their social background.89 The fact that these networks can be considered transnational, i.e. trans-border, thus by no means implies that a concept such as that of a "global population" is to be understood as international or even global.
Interwoven Chronologies: European "Population" between Historical Analysis and Normative Definition
While in recent years the topic of "population" has once again been high on the political agenda in many European countries, this does not mean that demographic developments or even approaches to population policies in Europe are heading in a uniform direction. In this regard, Europe should by no means be understood as a target concept for converging developments.90
To summarize the above, population as an object of investigation cannot be understood in isolation from knowledge about population. Daily experiences and social crises shape the perception of "demographic change" and the evaluation of the "migration society" and thus contribute in an essential way to the conceptualization of knowledge about population. To put it another way, the categories used by demography to record population, and the discourses and experiences of the producers of these knowledge categories influence one another.
This is made particularly apparent by the theory of the demographic transition, which was developed from the late 1920s and completed in the late 1940s. Roughly speaking, this theory describes a uniform pattern followed by societies on the way to "modernity", involving a phase of high birthrate with low life expectancy, leading to a phase of falling mortality while the birthrate remains high, ending in a phase of low birthrate with a high life expectancy. This model contains a "transitional" phase of high "overpopulation" in the phase of social and economic "modernization". The history of this concept is closely interwoven with the modernization theory91 and it relates individual reproductive actions to the socio-economic development of the society as a whole.
Based on the assumption of a supposedly European pattern, the transition theory was used from the 1950s to describe and explain the "backwardness" of other parts of the world. It is not possible here to discuss the various criticisms which have been levelled against this concept in the intervening period. It should be pointed out, however, that the concept and the associated modernization theory has not only had a profound influence on political programmes, but also on humanities and social sciences heuristics. Up to the present, social history in particular finds it difficult to completely historicize the concept population92 because it is an integral part of the equipment used for the historical description of European societies. Here, it is possible to identify the parallel existence of a descriptive and a normative level, which always interlock when social sciences and humanities research relies on figures and data or when this research employs concepts of "modernity" which are also implicitly based on the concept of population development.93 Neither can a history of knowledge perspective on the concepts completely avoid this contradiction.
The simultaneity of analytical and normative dimensions which is inherent in the concept of population also defines the particular relationship between "population" and "European history". Statistics and in particular population statistics are constitutive of a modern understanding of the state. "Population" thus not only relates to the category of nation in an essential way, it also gives rise to the category of nation. This remains the case up to the present. There is neither a genuinely European demographic development nor is there a converging European social model that could serve as a basis for common population policy agendas. However, if one uses "Europe" as an open, ambiguous concept which emerges in the process of competing knowledge orders,94 the history of population and population knowledge can contribute to the expansion of this concept. In this sense, population offers the opportunity to also integrate countervailing movements and resistance into the narrative of Europeanization95 and to productively incorporate the dimensions of experience and expectation. The lack of social convergence thus does not automatically imply discursive divergence. In particular, shared fears of depopulation, of collapsing social welfare systems, and of the consequences of rising immigration offer overarching analytical perspectives, in which an intensive transnational dimension can be identified at least for the formulation of societal crisis scenarios. Thinking about population thus very much has a very specific European dimension, in which historical connections become visible particularly where developments do not run parallel to one another.
In European history, population is not an obvious or self-explanatory concept. If we use "population" as a key concept of the social sciences for describing modern societies, it all too easily obscures the fact that the concept has a history, throughout which various meanings and expectations, norms and positions have been connected with the understanding of "population". The concept’s historical character can only be grasped in the tension between social dynamics and the knowledge-historical dimension. Consequently, we must be clear about the fact that the concept of what "population" means and the necessities and possibilities that result from it is not fixed or static, but varies depending on the historical situation.
This article has primarily discussed the "production contexts" which determine the meaning of the population concept today. Over the course of the last five hundred year, it has become clear that demographic concepts cannot be understood simply as a reaction to demographic shifts. Academic communities that engaged with population questions had freedom of action and interpretation, but how they proceeded was also determined by access to resources and statistics. Consequently, demographic concepts must be viewed in their relationship of mutual dependence with the respective research infrastructure. In this regard, demography and population knowledge by no means constitute exceptions in the history of knowledge. However, the fact that the figures used usually cannot be recorded by an individual researcher, a laboratory or even a whole research institute but most often result from the actions of state authorities (individual registration, census) places the science in a particular relationship with political contexts and discourses. In several respects, a mutual conditionality can be observed here, which has had a profound effect on demographic heuristics.
However, this specific relationship does not mean that the concept of population was inextricably linked with the concept of the nation-state. There were a large number of models of interpretation at the regional and transnational level which were in competition with the dominant understanding of population. Colonial experiences contributed to the renegotiation of the categorization of the individual, but also opened up overlaps with other types of knowledge, for example medical knowledge. This affected the experiential background of the discourse on demographic knowledge and opened up other interpretative possibilities besides the nation. This is how the strong reciprocal relationship between the concept and European history must be understood. While it is not possible to identify the European concept of population, without the reciprocal interconnections between academic concepts it would be impossible to understand the present-day ambiguity of "population".