First-Year Studies in History and Literature: The Two World Wars of the 20th Century


This course will examine World War I and World War II, two vast and savage armed conflicts that shaped the 20th century. We shall spend a year studying these two wars and some of the literature that they produced for two reasons: These wars were among the decisive shaping forces of our civilization; and war is intrinsically, if horrifically, fascinating, calling forth some of the best, as well as much of the worst, in human beings. World War I, generally understood as the ghastly collision of the Industrial Revolution with a nationalist state system, ended with the destruction of three empires. It produced new and starkly violent regimes, preeminently Communist Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy; and it produced an immensely influential antiwar literary response, which has shaped politics down to our own day. World War II destroyed two of these polities and gave a long lease on life to the third of them. It inaugurated the Cold War that dominated world politics for most of the latter half of the 20th century. It doomed the European imperialism that had formally subjected almost the whole of the non-European world over the preceding centuries. And it produced the modern United States as the world’s first hyperpower. These wars, which made our political and cultural world and shattered its predecessor, are thus profoundly worth our understanding. The course will begin by describing the world destroyed by World War I and then assess the causes, courses, literature, and consequences of both world wars. We shall examine the experience of war for individuals, states, economies, and societies. These wars transformed everything they touched, and they touched everything. We shall look at them through the various optics of political history, literature, film, economic history, military history, cultural history, and social history.