Instructor: Dr. Erica Fraser

1914 German satirical map of Europe

Satyrische Europa Karte Weltkrieg 1914, E. Zimmermann (Zoom view available at the Yale University Library site <> )

This 1914 German satirical map of Europe, with cartoonish figures squeezed into place to represent the various countries, not only offers us a bit of a laugh. It also demonstrates a key European worldview in 1914: that Europe was ruled by men, that nationalisms constantly bumped up against one another; that powerful countries could kick and step on smaller ones; that the Russians and the Turks were a threat to Europe from the fringes of the continent and would never fully belong; and that “Europe” itself, as a place on a map, encapsulated an endless struggle for dominance among its parts. How has this worldview persisted, or changed, throughout the century?

The 20th century has been called the “century of catastrophe,” because of the almost unimaginable devastation of the two world wars and the development (and use) of nuclear weapons for the first time in history. In Europe, it was also a century of paradoxes: the rise of dangerous nationalisms in the first half of the century… but also the previously unthinkable cooperation of the European Union in the second half. Astonishing technological developments in medicine, progress in life expectancy, and opportunities for education and social mobility… but also war, genocide, and the purposeful destruction of human life on a massive scale. Inventions in radio, television, computing, and mass communication… but also some of the most secretive and disinformation-prone regimes in history.

How should we make sense of these paradoxes? What is the “story” of 20th century Europe? How does it all fit together? (Or, do we need to make it fit together?) Are these examples random, or are they part of a bigger historical story of causes and effects, or actions and consequences, by people in Europe making choices about their lives (and the lives of other people)?

Europe today is at a crossroads – the perfect time for us to look back at the 20th century to discuss the history of some of Europe’s most pressing contemporary questions, including Brexit and continuing issues of nationalism; migration and ideas about who does or does not “belong” in Europe; concerns about a resurgence of fascism on the continent; and the ongoing division between “East” and “West” (for example, see the persistent jokes about the East European heritage of Melania Trump, or Western fears of Russia that permeated the 20th century and continue today). All of these issues have a deeper history that we will explore.

This course will examine European history from about 1900 to 2000, focusing at various times on Britain, France, Germany, Russia/Soviet Union, Italy, and Spain, as well as transnational themes that cross those boundaries. Anchored by the broad themes of Change, Continuity, and Experience, we will explore the century as a whole and look for the common threads that tie it together.

Change: At what points did the 20th century veer sharply away from what had come before? For example, we will look at the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 that brought about the world’s first communist state, among other topics.

Continuity: At what points did the 20th century continue, perhaps surprisingly so, in upholding the status quo in society and politics? For example: the persistence of women’s subordinate roles in many societies in the 1920s, 1930s, and beyond, despite the fact that both world wars disrupted gender ideas.

Experience: How did ordinary people experience life? For example: soldiers at the fronts of the world wars; British women activists agitating for the vote; Jews throughout Europe experiencing the horrors of Nazi death camps; French university students protesting their government; Turkish migrants in Germany working without access to citizenship; people from European colonies demanding a voice in the capitals; East European dissidents standing up to Soviet tanks; and more. How do these people’s lives show a diversity of experience in Europe, and what do they have in common?

Class Format

This is a 1.0 credit full-year class that will consist of one 2-hour interactive lecture with the professor per week, and one 50-minute discussion session with a T.A. in a smaller unit. Both of these sessions require students to be present and active in the class and to come prepared with notes on and ideas about the assigned reading.


Each week, students will read a section from a textbook as well as a collection of primary source documents (ie: voices from the period of history we are studying). We will spend time discussing how one should read and analyze primary sources. Voices from the past sometimes lie to us, after all, or try to mislead us, or record the wrong event, or make the author look like a hero, or diminish the voices of women or minority groups, or remain silent on a major event that the author didn’t like… or, is it just our own contemporary goggles making these historical documents look that way to us? In short, we will learn to take a critical eye to these sources and in doing so, learn much about their authors and the societies those authors lived in – and about ourselves and our biases as historians. These documents are also a great deal of fun to read and analyze, as we try to piece together “what happened” (and “why does it matter?”) from these historical fragments.

In the Winter semester, we will also spend time with two specific kinds of historical sources: a graphic novel (Art Spiegelman’s Maus, below) by the American-born son of Holocaust survivors detailing his parents’ experiences in art form, and a memoir by a woman who was 13 when the Berlin Wall came down (Hensel’s After the Wall, below). We will discuss these unique voices in history, the benefits and pitfalls of relying on sources like this, and the ways in which history can be interpreted, understood, and told in a variety of mediums and to diverse audiences.


Paxton, Robert O. & Julie Hessler, Europe in the Twentieth Century, 5th edition. Nelson/Cengage, 2012 (ISBN: 978-0495913191)

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History. Pantheon, 1986 (ISBN: 978-0394747231)

Hensel, Jana. After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next. Public Affairs/Perseus Books, 2008 (ISBN: 978-1586485597)


The exact grading criteria will be available on the course outline at the beginning of the semester. Assignments will consist of essays based on close readings of the primary sources we read in class, two short-answer exams each semester, and reading reflections that you will post to the Discussion Board on cuLearn. Attendance in all classes is required, especially the discussion sections with T.A.s, and student participation in discussions will also form part of your grade.

Questions about this class? Feel free to email me at