3/11/2016 Caitlin M. Brust

Revolution, Dictatorship and Death: Europe in the Twentieth Century

This magazine article is part of Winter 2016 / Issue 84
  • After her HIS 222 class, the discussion spills into Professor Mitchell’s nearby office. Image Credit: Matthew Lester

The year was 1989. Communism was collapsing. Millions of people were tasting political freedom for the first time in their lives. But in spite of rapid change throughout Eastern and Central Europe, East Germany—a bastion of orthodoxy—resisted reform. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in East Berlin for the 40th-anniversary celebration of the East German state, he reportedly issued a warning to its leader Erich Honecker: “Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben!” History punishes those who come late.

That’s why the student who arrives at 10:03 a.m. for "Revolution, Dictatorship and Death: Europe in the Twentieth Century" must recite those words to his 29 peers, so as not to let history repeat itself next class.

Maria Mitchell, professor of history, values every minute of learning—especially when the students have prepared for a contentious debate. Divided into two teams, they must examine and defend conflicting arguments about the causes of World War I. Team One is charged with the stance: “European leaders could do little by 1914 to avert war. Economic, social and political forces made war inevitable.” In opposition, Team Two must defend the view: “Policymakers made specific decisions that led directly to war. War could have been averted had leaders acted differently.”

Mitchell reminds the class that even after the recent centenary of the Great War, this debate remains unresolved among prominent scholars today. By engaging in this ongoing discourse, the students are accepting a rich intellectual challenge—and thinking like critical historians. Equipped with primary and secondary sources, each team caucuses quietly in anticipation of opening statements.

Team One begins. The rhetoric of nationalism in many European countries was so strong that children were raised with romantic notions of war. Rising tensions over economic, political, and military dominance couldn’t be quelled. Those combined forces pointed only and inevitably toward a volatile, international war.

Team Two follows. National leaders were paranoid, forging alliances and preparing their own countries for conflict. They made policy decisions because of perceived enemies abroad—and their policies fed the widespread glorification of war.

Back and forth, students cite the complexities of society in early 20th-century Europe leading up to 1914. Militarism and nationalism affected systems of education, opportunities for political activism, and gendered expectations of young men and women. The idea of war and the competitive strains between nations were indisputable. But while Team Two argues that a series of decisions and alliances cultivated a restlessness for war, Team One relies on the political theory of Social Darwinism. They argue that because each nation believes it must continuously expand to survive, it will, by necessity, fight any states preventing that goal’s achievement. And such a force affects the will of any society and its leaders—without being stopped.

The teams arrive at an essential question: Did the people have agency? When men and women received years of education defined by militaristic ideals and an admiration for bravery and sacrifice, could they have imagined Europe without the Great War?

The students examine the social and political agency of European youth one century ago, but the critiques matter for every generation: In what ways does society influence the young, and in what ways do the young influence society? Mitchell wants this transcendent question to resonate with her students, as they think about how their worldviews have been shaped by their own education, family, media, technology, government policies and countless other societal influences.

This, Mitchell believes, is the value of studying human history. She can teach her students to sharpen their minds for debate, to read and write critically, and to think deeply about the consequences of decisions. But engagement with the actions, habits, and beliefs of humanity over time teaches us a great deal about ourselves, too.

The class runs out of time before resolving the idea of agency, but Mitchell knows that arriving at the question is its own accomplishment.

HIS222: Revolution, Dictatorship and Death: Europe in the Twentieth Century

Maria Mitchell, Professor of History

Spring 2016 Semester
Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10:00-10:50 a.m.; Stager 112

Selected Readings

  • “All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque
  • “Survival in Auschwitz,” by Primo Levi


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