(HIST 202) This course offers a broad survey of modern European history, from the end of the Thirty Years' War to the aftermath of World War II. Along with the consideration of major events and figures such as the French Revolution and Napoleon, attention will be paid to the experience of ordinary people in times of upheaval and transition. The period will thus be viewed neither in terms of historical inevitability nor as a procession of great men, but rather through the lens of the complex interrelations between demographic change, political revolution, and cultural development. Textbook accounts will be accompanied by the study of exemplary works of art, literature, and cinema.
This course was recorded in Fall 2008.
01 - Introduction
The course will concern European history from 1648 to 1945. The assigned readings include both standard historical texts and works of fiction, as well as films. Although the period in question encompasses many monumental events and "great men," attention will also be paid to the development of themes over the long term and the experiences of people and groups often excluded from official histories. Among the principle questions to be addressed are the consolidation of state power, the formation of identities, linguistic and national affiliations, and the effects of economic change.
02 - Absolutism and the State
The rise of absolutism in Europe must be understood in the context of insecurity attending the religious wars of the first half of the seventeenth century, and the Thirty Years' War in particular. Faced with the unprecedented brutality and devastation of these conflicts, European nobles and landowners were increasingly willing to surrender their independence to the authority of a single, all-powerful monarch in return for guaranteed protection. Among the consequences of this consolidation of state power were the formation of large standing armies and bureaucratic systems, the curtailment of municipal privileges, and the birth of international law.
03 - Dutch and British Exceptionalism
Several reasons can be found to explain why Great Britain and the Netherlands did not follow the other major European powers of the seventeenth century in adopting absolutist rule. Chief among these were the presence of a relatively large middle class, with a vested interest in preserving independence from centralized authority, and national traditions of resistance dating from the English Civil War and the Dutch war for independence from Spain, respectively. In both countries anti-absolutism formed part of a sense of national identity, and was linked to popular anti-Catholicism. The officially Protestant Dutch, in particular, had a culture of decentralized mercantile activity far removed from the militarism and excess associated with the courts of Louis XIV and Frederick the Great.
04 - Peter the Great
Peter the Great's historical significance stems not only from his military ambitions and the great expansion of the Russian Empire under his supervision, but also from his efforts to introduce secular, Western customs and ideas into Russian culture. Despite his notorious personal brutality, Peter's enthusiasm for science and modern intellectual concerns made an indelible mark both on Russia's relationship to the West and on its internal politics. The struggle under Peter's reign between Westernizers and Slavophiles, or those who resist foreign influences, can be seen at work in Russia up to the present day.
05 - The Enlightenment and the Public Sphere
While the major philosophical projects of the Enlightenment are associated with the names of individual thinkers such as Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Voltaire, the cultural transformation in France in the years leading up to the Revolution should also be understood in the context of the public sphere and popular press. Alongside such luminaries as those associated with Diderot's Encyclopédie were a host of lesser pamphleteers and libellists eager for fame and some degree of fortune. If the writings of this latter group were typically vulgar and bereft of literary merit, they nonetheless contributed to the "desacralization" of monarchy in the eyes of the growing literate public. Lawyers' briefs, scandal sheets and pornographic novels all played a role in robbing the monarchy of its claim to sacred authority at the same time as they helped advance the critique of despotism that would serve as a major impetus for the Revolution.
06 - Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution
Robespierre's ascetic personal life and severe philosophy of political engagement are attributed by some to his difficult childhood. As a revolutionary, one of his most significant insights was that the Revolution was threatened not only by France's military adversaries abroad, but also by domestic counter-revolutionaries. Under this latter heading were gathered two major groups, urban mercantilists and rural peasants. Relative strength of religious commitment is the major factor in explaining why some regions of France rose up in defense of the monarchy while others supported the Revolution.