For many historians, diaries, letters and other first person accounts offer the most reliable conduit into the past. But such accounts vary greatly in style and purpose, not mention author and experience. In this course we use first hand sources to look behind the facades of among the most dramatic but also troubling events to confront humankind in recent centuries: namely the experiments with fascism, racial war, and Marxian socialism, "tried out" upon millions of human beings in twentieth century Europe, from Germany through Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Through diaries and autobiographies we explore fundamental questions of identity, solidarity, commitment, and belief that seem unavailable within the strictures of conventional institutional history.
Historians have developed crude categories like resistance, accommodation, collaboration to describe the responses human beings developed to would-be totalitarian rule. In fact, these and other dimensions of experience overlapped in single lives. Through perspectives of sensitive observers –poets, but also an architect, worker, school teacher, and several journalists – this course seeks to deepen students' appreciation of the nuances of every day existence in a region renowned for its complexity, but also to awaken an appreciation for first hand accounts as historical sources. What do we in fact learn from such accounts that is otherwise unimaginable? What might memory tell about an event that was invisible to direct observation?
John Connelly is a Professor in the Department of History.