Conflict, Empires, and Political Trust

Lambert: The past is not dead….

By Pauline Grosjean, Professor, School of Economics, UNSW. Originally published at VoxEU.

Conflict durably shapes how individuals view the state and interact with each other. This column uses data from more than 35,000 individuals in 35 countries to show how conflict victimisation in WWII left a negative imprint on levels of political trust throughout Europe and Central Asia that has persisted over generations. The author also finds a lasting impact of pre-WWI empires on political trust and democratic capital that varies even across regions that have since been integrated into the same country. The findings have implications for Ukraine, a country that experienced both a divided history and some of the highest victimisation rates in WWII.

The consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will outlast the conflict itself. Conflict has enduring consequences on economic, social, and political outcomes. The effects on individuals and families are similarly persistent, and remain over generations (Blattman and Miguel 2010, Bauer et al. 2014, Grosjean 2014, Couttenier et al. 2019).

In a chapter of the VoxEU eBook on The Economics of the Second World War published in 2019, I discussed the long shadow of victimisation in WWII on political trust and social preferences. I focused on the political and social norms that are most critical for long-run economic growth and political stability. For example, trust in formal institutions is a key determinant of economic growth (Acemoglu 2005, Acemoglu et al. 2011, Besley and Persson 2009, 2010), market development (Greif 2012), economic liberalisation (Grosjean and Senik 2011), and post-conflict political recovery (Bigombe et al. 2000). Trust in others and social cohesion are also crucial factors in growth (Knack and Keefer 1997, Guiso et al. 2010), the functioning of markets (Fafchamps 2006) and institutional quality (Tabellini 2008, 2010).

A representative sample of respondents across 35 countries surveyed in 2010, 65 years after the end of the war, shows that a family history of wartime victimisation has systematically eroded political trust and the perceived legitimacy of institutions (Grosjean 2014, Grosjean 2019). Trust in government institutions is strongly and negatively associated with a family history of wartime victimisation. The effect is similar on perceived fairness of the courts. These effects hold regardless of the war’s outcome for the country, are persistent across generations – effects are still found among the grandchildren of those directly affected by the conflict – and are large in magnitude. Today, people whose families were victimised in the war are less trusting of the central state and of the courts by 0.07 and 0.08 standard deviations, compared with others with similar socioeconomic characteristics in the same locality. For trust in the central state, this is nearly five times the effect of being unemployed; for trust in the courts, it is ten times.

Greater exposure to violence has also made people more likely to engage in political and social groups and in collective action by, for example, demonstrating, striking, or signing petitions. Again, the fate of the nation at the war’s end has no strong influence and the effect is multigenerational.

What does such involvement in collective action and in social and political groups capture? The sociological literature is divided. Putnam (1995) sees it as promoting social cohesion. Bourdieu (1985) saw the opposite: social capital can be exploited in group rivalry, leading to social exclusion and political violence (see also Portes 1998). Recently the “dark side” of social capital has been unveiled by Satyanath et al. (2013): the density of civic associations in interwar Germany helped advance the Nazi Party to power. Similarly, victims of the 1990s Tajik civil war participate more in groups when they have less trust in other people and the state (Cassar et al. 2013a, b).

In the case of those whose families were victimised in WWII, the evidence suggests that collective action spurred by this victimisation may be similarly dark in nature. In families that were victimised, people who participate in groups today are those that place less trust in others as well as in politics (Grosjean 2014: 447-448).

Overall, this research highlights the negative and enduring effects of victimisation on political trust and on social cohesion, crucial determinants of long-run stability and society.

Different Histories of Wartime Victimisation

My previous analyses purposefully abstracted away from possible macro-level effects of conflict on the quality of political institutions and on social capital. Relying on the Life in Transition Survey (LITS), a nationally representative survey carried out in 2010 in more than 30 countries of former Communist Europe and Central Asia, as well as a handful of Western countries, I compared reported institutional trust and social capital proxies by individuals from the same town, some of whom reported victimisation in their family and others not. The victimisation question asked whether the respondent, their parents or their grandparents were physically injured or killed during WWII. By focusing on people in the same town, a fortiori in the same country, I was able to compare the attitudes of individuals who faced the same institutions and to minimise the influence of other factors, such as cultural norms, that could confound the relationship of interest.

Yet, there is also great variability in the extent of victimisation during WWII across Europe, and such cross-country variation may be instructive. The former USSR suffered the greatest loss in human life, with 7.5 million reported battle deaths (Sarkees and Wayman 2010) and total deaths (civilian and military) in the 26-27 million range (Ellman and Maksudov 1994). Looking at family victimisation reported in 2010, three successor states to the USSR stand out: Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (Panel B of Figure 1). 64% of surveyed respondents in Belarus report having had a family member killed or injured as a result of WWII, 61% in Russia and 60% in Ukraine.

Figure 1 History of family victimisation in WWII

Notes: The figure plots the share of respondents at country level who answer yes to the following question: “Were you, your parents or any of your grandparents physically injured or killed during the Second World War?” At the country level, the frequency of self-reported victimisation is highly correlated with independent measures of war-related fatalities, even adjusting for the evolution of potential exposure across generations (Grosjean 2014: 436).
Source: Life in Transition Survey, 2010.

Alongside this high victimisation, Ukraine is also among the countries that scored lowest on political trust in 2010 compared with the rest of the sample (normalised measure2 of political trust: -0.39, sample average outside Ukraine: 0.018, P-value difference in means <0.001, with only Romania and Uzbekistan scoring lower in the sample) and highest on our measures of membership in groups (normalised measure: -0.21, sample average outside Ukraine: -0.01, P-value difference in means <0.001). Ukraine was also among the countries where support for democracy, or democratic capital, was lowest, as illustrated in Figure 2. On average, respondents in Ukraine agreed less than the sample average with the statement that “a democracy is the best political system” (normalised measure: -0.30, sample average outside Ukraine: 0,01, P-value difference in means <0.001).

Admittedly, the situation in Ukraine in 2010 was very different from what it was ten years later. Notwithstanding the aspirations that the 2014 Maidan Revolution embodied and the progress achieved since then, Ukraine was still, in the 2016 wave of the Life in Transition Survey, among the countries with the lowest trust in central institutions (normalised measure: -0.63, sample average outside Ukraine: 0.02, P-value difference in means <0.001) and the lowest average support for democracy (normalised measure: -0.22, sample average outside Ukraine: 0.01, P-value difference in means <0.001).

Figure 2 Cross-country relationship between democratic capital and family history of victimisation in WWII

Notes: This figure plots the residuals of a cross-country regression of support for a democratic system (share of respondents who agree with the following statement: a Democracy is the best political system) against the residuals of a regression of family exposure to WWII (horizontal axes), controlling for individual characteristics (age, age squared, gender, education, working status, household size, religion, mother tongue). Standard errors are adjusted for clustering at the country level.

Ukraine: At the Confluence of Enduring Historical Legacies

The literature has also documented the enduring influence of pre-WWI empires of Central and Eastern Europe on political and social trust (Grosjean 2011a), economic institutions and development (Grosjean 2011b), corruption (Becker et al. 2016), and attitudes towards democracy (Grosfeld and Zhuravskaya 2015).

Many present-day countries of Central and Eastern Europe had at one time been divided between several empires, with many borders of present-day countries the result of sometimes arbitrary military advances and peace treaties. Poland, for example, had been divided among three empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia – for over a century until 1918 (Grosfeld and Zhuravskaya 2015) and its borders redrawn after WWII (Becker et al. 2020). Modern-day Ukraine had been divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary, while parts of Ukraine had also been under Ottoman rule until the end of the 18th century.

Becker et al. (2016) document positive effects of Habsburg rule on political trust in the sample of countries that were divided between the Habsburg and another empire (Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro). Grosfeld and Zhuravskaya (2015) highlight an enduring higher preference for democracy in parts of Poland that were under Austrian rule compared to those under Russian rule, although they find no difference between parts that were ruled by Russia versus Prussia. Looking more specifically at Ukraine seems to point to similar results. Political trust and democratic capital, measured in 2010, were 0.26 and 0.21 standard deviations lower in the formerly Russian parts compared to parts ruled by Austria-Hungary. This is the case even after controlling for potential differences in religious affiliation, mother tongue, income, or education.


Ukraine at the dawn of the 21st century stood at the confluence of enduring legacies of a divided and violent past. It had been divided between several empires at the eve of WWI and experienced among the highest levels of victimisation in the 20th century in Europe and the former USSR (Snyder 2011). Some authors have warned of conflict traps (Collier 2003), in which the negative consequences of one conflict provide the seeds for further devastation. This column illustrates the potential for such a trap by showing the negative and enduring effects of victimisation on political trust, social cohesion, and democratic capital. But Ukraine is also the victim of another trap: former empires not only influence political preferences, but also directly cause political instability and conflict when rulers politicise the dream of recreating them. Border regions of former empires are risky places. And given the history of imperial border changes in Europe, few places are immune to this risk.

Author’s note: I thank Alice Calder and Federico Masera for insightful comments.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    Lambert Strether: I am reading two slightly different versions of the same article. The second version does have a different headnote. I can’t tell how you wanted to organize this posting.


  2. Paradan

    “Notwithstanding the aspirations that the 2014 Maidan Revolution embodied and the progress achieved since then..”

    I’m sorry, but what progress? Unless you were an oligarch, everything kept getting worse. Maybe if we consider becoming NATO-trained cannon fodder a jobs program for young men, but that business cycle is a real bitch. Instead of getting laid-off, you get laid out.

  3. David

    I confess I can’t see what the author is trying to prove. Numbers of people killed in wars is only one way of measuring “victimisation”, if that’s really the word to use here, and there are many other reasons, including political repression in peacetime and satisfaction, or not, with the capability of the government, why people might have a lot or a little trust in their government. Rumania, for example, suffered relatively little in WW2, but every Rumanian I’ve ever spoken to has contempt for their government after thirty years of Ceausescu and thirty more of incompetence and corruption. And we’re not talking about a “preference” for democracy here: in general terms, people don’t have opinions on such things. What they have is a view about how well, or not, the political system is working in their country.

    1. Mikel

      I got the impression the author used the word “victimisation” as a way to say their grievances from the effects of war are not only about someone getting killed.

      For example, what was a country’s food situation like due a war and how did any rationing affect families?

    2. ISL

      I see Italians are reported to have great trust in their government. Clearly the author never met an Italian in his life who was not a politician or political scientist. Makes me suspicious of the underlying data and thus any conclusion derived from it.

    3. Andrew Watts

      They’re trying to reinforce the perception that there is an enduring “Habsburg effect” on institutional trust and governance in Eastern and Central Europe. That’s the barely spoken assumption we’re all supposed to take at face value. The focus is on Ukraine undoubtedly due to recent events.

      I assume that some wealthy scion of that dynasty, who is also an ardent supporter of the EU, is producing this dreck in an intellectual sweatshop. It’s not the first time I’ve come across the fawning praise for the Habsburgs lately between this article and that recent biography of Maria Theresa.

      1. eg

        Apologists for empire are everywhere. I was interested to find them at the root of neoliberalism as depicted in Quinn Slobodian’s “Globalists”

    4. Greg

      I think what they’re successfully proving is that there are an abundance of potentially correlating variables in the social sciences, and finding spurious correlations is still relatively easy to spin a politicised story around.

      Storks and babies for the Ukrainian war context.

      1. Amfortas the hippie

        Maidan and Democracy, and such, spoken of as if the correlation is obvious and true.
        no mention of the Imperial shenanigans(“color revolution”) or CIA/NAID/etc jack that was strewn about, nor the small arms and training for those Nazi’s we’re not supposed to remember.
        leapt out at me, at least…but my trust in institutions is currently at a nadir.

  4. voislav

    I also notice that all of the countries with poor democratic capital happen to be former communist countries. So really there are two types of countries in this sample: Western European, which were generally democratic post-WWII and suffered less in WWII due to the nature of fighting and ideology; and Eastern European, which were generally communist and suffered more in WWII.

    It’s a very poor sample because factors other than WWII victimization contribute to democratic capital far more. So it bears repeating that correlation does not equal causation. I would be interested to see a wider sampling of countries, for example Greece, Portugal and Spain all had military dictatorships post WWII. Also a sample of non-European countries, these also had varied involvement in WWII from very heavy in Southeastern Asia, to very light in Brazil or African countries. Also these countries also have a greater diversity in the ruling ideology, rather than democratic/former-communist divide in Europe.

    1. Kouros

      I do think that most people in “liberal democracies” have either internalized the dark side of party politics and elections (nobody really talks how “democratic” ballot counting is – the first thing the English and French Revolutionaries bickered about was who is allowed to vote and how that vote is to be counted and then used). The dark side, never spoken about (in BC there was a nice documentary about the power of the whip) is nicely summarized by Simone Weil in her essay: On the Abolition of All Political Parties

      1. David

        Yes, it’s rare to meet someone who’s read that work, with its barefaced argument that political parties aren’t in fact necessary because if only people were logical and sensible they’d agree on everything. Of course, it’s implicit that everyone would agree with her.

  5. vic

    er….. what ……. “Today, people whose families were victimised in the war are less trusting of the central state and of the courts by 0.07 and 0.08 standard deviations,”

    1. anon y'mouse

      i am a numbers dummy, but this thing seems like setting out to prove what you’ve already theorized to be true.

      i wonder what the questionnaire looked like. isn’t it odd how no one ever goes and digs out THAT element of these kinds of studies?

  6. flora

    an aside: Madeline Albright’s family history comes to mind. Victoria Nuland’s family history is also an interesting case. Her father’s father escaped the Ukr/RU pogroms in the early 1900’s and came to the US. Gonzolo Lira has a ~2 hr. long history about Nuland’s grandfather and father. Skip ahead to the 18-minute mark to start. (He rambles quite a bit.)—YDDIQ

    Hard not to see Albright and Nuland and so many others still trying to fight WWII or even earlier battles, (though most of us think WWII and the cold war ended decades ago.)

    1. Kouros

      The Pale settlement is what her ilk resents…

      The Russian Czar tried to protect his uneducated and illiterate peasantry by restricting movement of certain populations….

      This for instance was not done in Romania, who, in second half of 1800 was forced to accept massive Jewish immigration from Habsburg Galicia. In 1907, the last and one of the most gruesome Peasant revolt in modern Europe burst out and ended with over 11,000 peasants killed in Romania, the starting point being a village that was managed by a Jewish firm on behalf of the absentee landlords. the village was called Flaminzi (The Hungry Ones)….

      1. vegasmike

        I’m in my 70s and most Jewish people of my generation had very little interest in their Eastern European roots. I still don’t know where my maternal grandparents were born. I only learned the town my paternal grandparents were born, because some of my cousin researched our family origins about 20 years ago. I have a couple of friends whose father emigrated to the U.S. in the 20s and they don’t. know where they were born. Bernie Sanders father emigrated to the US from Poland in the 20s. Like many people of our generation he probably is that interested in the subject.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Neat trick by the absentee landlords . . . . to get a Jewish firm to do the managing so that the absentee landlords themselves would not be personally revolted against or even thought about.

    2. Geoffrey Dewan

      I suppose somewhere in that howling cesspool of history are the roots of the ability of someone to calmly say the deaths of half a million children is a price that’s “worth it”.

  7. David in Santa Cruz

    Does anyone else find it significant that Russian respondents are even further out in the regression than “Ukrainians” are — both in terms of their experience of victimization and of their distrust of cooperative political institutions?

    Others mention that our policy toward Russia and “Ukraine” is conducted by a group that includes Antony Blinken and Victoria Nuland (influenced by her husband Robert Kagan) who not only trace their ancestry to “Ukraine” but also to the horribly victimized Jews of the Pale of Settlement. Could this explain the total disconnect between U.S. policy and the clear statements by President Putin and Secretary Lavrov about Russian intentions and their understanding of history?

    Because I have yet to hear a coherent explanation of why “Ukraine” can’t be a neutral country or why foreign troops and missiles must be stationed in the former Warsaw Pact and SSR’s. Putin is certainly an autocrat, but “Ukraine” was far more dangerous, corrupt, and hostile to social-democracy in the 21st century than Russia was.

  8. RobertC

    Professor Pauline Grosjean concludes with

    But Ukraine is also the victim of another trap: former empires not only influence political preferences, but also directly cause political instability and conflict when rulers politicise the dream of recreating them. Border regions of former empires are risky places. And given the history of imperial border changes in Europe, few places are immune to this risk.

    Except today Ukraine is not the passive victim of former empires.

    Today Ukraine is the actively self-inflicted victim allowing itself to be used at the launching point of NATO’s intrusion into Russia.

    Since 1997 the US-led NATO had many warnings, and not just from Russia, about expanding. All of which were ignored. Ukraine knew this history.

    Ukraine allowed the US-created Orange Revolution in 2004.

    Ukraine allowed the violent, US-managed 2014 Revolution of Dignity (Maidan Revolution) and overthrow of the democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych shortly before new elections.

    Ukraine allowed the creation of NATO bases on its territory.

    Ukraine allowed integration of its military training and operations with NATO.

    The list goes on…

    I thank Professor Grosjean for her analysis but conjoining past empires with today’s unilateral hegemonist doesn’t fit.

  9. Kevin Walsh

    I’m not sure what it means to talk about democratic capital in Belarus or Azerbaijan…

    I found this thread by Branko Milanovic and it has some perhaps more relevant statistics, like unemployment rates and increases in inequality:

    It also has this quote “The number of people in poverty in Russia (measured by using the same poverty line of 4 international dollars) went from 2.2 million people in 1987-88 to 66 million in 1993-95; from negligible to more than 40% of the population”.

    Re: formerly Hapsburg Ukraine, it’s perhaps not too surprising if they have more faith in the system when it wasn’t their candidate who was overthrown in the Orange Revolution.

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